Talk to anyone about deduction games and they’ll generally mention one game in the first minute of you bringing it up: Cluedo (or Clue if you’re over there in the US). Undoubtedly the grandaddy of the genre, it’s very similar to Monopoly in that despite everyone knowing about it, not many people could sit you down and explain the rules correctly. All I remember from the last time I played was that it went on for far too long, no-one really knew what was happening and the whole experience fell flat – and that was with a group of decently-skilled gamers. I feel that the genre is much better represented by Days of Wonder’s much underrated release from 2010, Mystery Express, but not many other games manage to equal that – until now…
27th Passenger: A Hunt On Rails, an upcoming release from Purple Games, manages to capture all the fun of a deduction game but adds in a few more elements that make it feel a lot more relevant and modern. Where many other games will see you trying to work out a mystery by eliminating clues, 27th Passenger flips things around by involving everyone sat around the table – you may be hunting down a killer, but you’re also being hunted. The story starts in New York’s busy Manhattan with a group of skilled assassins boarding a train. By the time it pulls into its final destination of Staten Island, only one will remain standing. Ladies and gents, we are finally looking at something I’ve dreamt of for some time – Highlander, the card game. There can be only one and you have inside you blood of kings!
Elimination is the aim of the game – wipe out the other killers on board before they get you. At the start of play, everyone is given a Role Card that represents one of the twenty-seven passengers on board the train alongside a sheet that details all of the characters. Each character has three defining elements that your opponents will be trying to work out as the journey goes on – the sound of your voice, your manner of dress and your scent (seriously, how your character smells is important – stay with us though, it’s worth it). Each of these have three options; the voices, for instance, are either Shrill, Soft or Deep, so each character will have their own unique combination and if you’ve done the maths, you’ll see that’s why there’s twenty-seven people starting this journey. Each round people will get off the train, bringing the amount of passengers down and slowly knocking out potential suspects. Of course, the further the train goes, the fewer people on board and the more likely it’ll be that the finger – or in this case, the barrel of a gun – gets pointed at you.
A single Event card is turned face up at the beginning of every round, skewing the rules a little to keep things fresh – you may not be allowed to wear disguises, for example, or look through the Passenger deck. On top of that you’re given a couple of Skill cards before you begin the game that offer unique abilities – discard them at the right time and you could well give yourself something of an advantage. Players also receive a randomly dealt Initiative card (which decides order of play) and a set of the same Action Cards, one of which will be chosen each round and played out in a specific order.
First of all, Investigation cards are revealed; these allow a player to question someone else on one aspect of their appearance. To do this in the most secretive way possible, a selection of cards are available for each characteristic and one is (truthfully!) handed back to the questioner. For example, I may ask someone how they’re dressed then be handed the ‘Eccentric’ card – I then get to secretly mark this detail on my crib sheet, put the card back (shuffling the deck so no-one can work out what I was handed later) and play moves on. One thing to consider though – Investigations can be blocked through the use of Disguise Cards that can be picked up throughout the game or a Deception Action, so be ready to use your Tail After or Pursuit cards! These are one-off versions of the Investigations that must be discarded after use, but they’re incredibly useful to steamroll details out of someone who thinks they’ve been clever by playing a card they thought would protect them.
Next up is the Assassinate card, but choosing this is a very big deal especially early on in the game. Playing this card lets a player state a Character who, if they’re being controlled by ANY player, is immediately killed and thrown out of the game. This is particularly entertaining if you’ve meticulously scribbled down all the details, accuse someone of being a certain Character and it turns out to be the player two people down from them… Regardless, if that Character is sat at the table, they are killed and must reveal themselves. Of course, you could be incorrect and have murdered a hapless innocent, in which case YOU have revealed yourself as a filthy killer! You are seized and flung from the train into the East River, never to be seen again. Like I said, choosing this card is quite the deal. Select it wisely!
Third on the list is Scheming. This is a great way of getting a lot of information in one go as not only do you get to look at the passengers who alighted at the previous station, you also get to check out the top card of the deck (representing the people who are still on board) and either leave it on top or tuck it back on the bottom, meaning that you’ve essentially spooked them into staying until the end of the ride and are keeping the potential options as to who the killers are that little bit wider. Fourth and final is the previously mentioned Deception, which you must choose to reveal if someone decides to investigate you, allowing you to get away with not giving up any details… for now. If no-one chooses to check you out, you can instead take a couple of Disguises (keeping just one) so it’s far from a wasted action.
Though requiring a lot of thought and attention, play zips along like nobody’s business. There’s a little bookkeeping at the start of each round as the train gets closer to its destination and more passengers get off, but 27th Passenger plays more like a party game than anything else. The sense of tension is high in the air, and though early rounds are filled with cautious play, lots of sage nodding and the occasional “hmmmm, I thought that was the case” followed by much secretive scribbling, the game often turns into a bloodbath after the first assassin is discovered. There’s been this glorious tipping point in every game I’ve played where, once that first kill was made (either through clever questioning or the stupidity of one of the assassins revealing themselves by offing an innocent), the other player deaths come thick and fast. As the game is played out over a limited number of rounds, the player elimination aspect doesn’t really matter that much as it often won’t be too long before the game ends and you can get back in for another go.
I really liked many elements of 27th Passenger, but one of the most entertaining was the final round – you see, there must be a winner, a single superior killer that stands tall, walking into the Staten Island sunset with their head held high, knowing that they’re the best in the business. Or the only one in the business, at least, what with the competition sat in pools of their own blood back in the carriage. Should the train get to the final station, all players MUST choose Assassination with the potential kills played out using the Initiative cards that decide order of play throughout the game. Sure, it may be deemed unfair by some if they have all the information they need to make a kill but essentially have to wait in line while someone else makes their own decision, but let’s go back to Cosmic Encounter designer Peter Olotka’s excellent quote: “Fair isn’t fun”. This is a party game, a surprisingly tricky but ultimately entertaining soufflé of a thing, and if you’re going to get pissed at someone because they get to go before you… well, perhaps 27th Passenger isn’t for you. Or any game, in fact.
Being a prototype, I can’t really comment on the quality of production but the art is all complete and is fine throughout – not incredible or world-changing, but functional and it does its job. Using only symbols can be a tricky thing to pull off in a game so the designers have decided to use a system that combines them with simple written instructions too, just so you know when you should be using them during which parts of the round. This can take a little while to get used to – early plays of the game with various people I know had a fair bit of ‘when can I use this card’ cropping up – but once players have a grasp on how things function the game speeds along at a decent rate with accusations and trash talk flying around the table. Yes, an analytical mind will invariably do well with 27th Passenger but a chatty player who prefers to throw themselves into the spirit of the thing will have a lot more fun. That’s not to say A Hunt On Rails isn’t a challenge – just that focusing just on the numbers is only a small part of the experience.
27th Passenger, A Hunt On Rails will be running on Kickstarter later in the year. For more information on Purple Games, please check out their site and keep an eye on their Facebook for upcoming news on the game. Seriously, you’ll want a copy of this one!