So, anyone in the crowd ever heard of Blake and Mortimer? While it’s true that many of us over here had a bit of a love affair with Herge’s Tintin books as kids, I’d never heard of Blake and Mortimer until relatively recently despite them having a similar kind of gung-ho adventure vibe and even appearing in the Tintin comics. Knowing what I do now, I’m frankly baffled as to why they weren’t bigger – checking out the Wikipedia entry on the comic, its mix of time travel, sci-fi and ludicrous spy antics (thanks to Blake working for MI5 and Mortimer being a scientist) would have appealed to me hugely as a child. Now I’m working through the English translations of the many available books, and it’s all down to a little game called Witness…
Released last year by Ystari and designed by Dominique Bodin, Witness was a glorious surprise. After getting roped into a game of it at this year’s Tabletop Day I had little idea of what to expect, but twenty minutes later – it’s a quick little bugger – I had fallen in love with this simple, social co-operative puzzler. Strictly for four players, it’s best described as a hardcore variant of Chinese Whispers with an exam at the end. Set yourselves down at the table, empty the box of the many books within and let’s start the action: it’s time for us to solve some crimes!
The players each assume a role (Blake and Mortimer, or their colleagues Nasir and LaBrousse) shown by a little punchboard standee placed before them but frankly these aren’t important – it’ll be easier for the sake of this write-up to refer to them as 1, 2, 3 and 4. The game comes with a book filled with numbered adventures, ranging from straightforward and simple to brain-destroyingly wretched, but they always start the same way: with one of the players reading from the main text. A paragraph or two will set the scene, giving the group a little collective information but then everyone must refer to their own character’s book (from the same numbered page!) to get more details that are specific to themselves. Now the curiousness begins – as does the whispering.
There are, in fact, four rounds of whispering. For the first, player 1 will quietly say what they know to player 2, while 3 will give their information to 4. The players who are receiving the information must say NOTHING at all – no verbal cues can happen whatsoever as the focus is entirely on remembering what you have been told, and no notes can be taken… yet. Once the speaking players are both satisfied that the listeners have taken in all the information, everyone resumes their seats and round two takes place. Things are now turned on their head – players 2 and 4 are now the informants, quietly passing not just their own information but also what they’ve just learned on to player’s 3 and 1 respectively. Again, once the givers are OK with the receivers’ understanding, you sit down again.
Speakers and listeners alternate again for rounds three and four, until eventually everyone should hopefully have the information from all four characters’ books for this adventure. Players then have the opportunity to scribble down a few notes, generally what they believe to be the salient points that will help solve the crime, which could include sketches, words, timetables… all manner of things could help when it comes to the final part of each game of Witness – the questioning!
Another book is used here, generally giving a little more flavour text before we get to the meat of things – three questions are asked that all players must write down their answers to on their note sheets and the more correct responses (found in a final booklet), the better the players are judged to have done. For example, getting a collective score of ten correct answers or more is pretty decent – less than that and it should be generally accepted that you need to work on your memory, your ability to share information, or a little bit of both.
I realise that this is a spectacularly vague review but seriously, writing about any of the adventures or puzzles in Witness could potentially give away information that’ll screw up your enjoyment of the game – and you WILL enjoy this game. I’ve said many times that the reason I love to play games is because of their social aspect, and there’s little more social than whispering sweetly into the ear of a fellow gamer sat at your table. Witness is such a simple affair when you look at it objectively – all you’re doing is either sharing a little more information or listening and trying to remember as much as possible each round – but when you’re in the thick of it and desperately trying to recall a name, a time, a picture in your mind, then discovering that all the stuff you’ve remembered is absolutely useless when it comes to answering the questions the game throws as you, you quickly come to realise just how bloody good this is.
The game could have been built around any franchise with a detective story background but as you play more and more (especially with the same group of players) you’ll get much more of a feel for the Blake and Mortimer characters. You won’t need to have had any prior experience with the stories – I certainly didn’t prior to my first plays – but a good mix of logic solving and trivia knowledge will certainly see you do well in Witness. My only negative point is rather obvious – there’s absolutely no replayability here at all, and once a group has attempted an adventure it’s very much done and dusted even if you didn’t get everything right, but all it will take is the release of another set of books from Ystari and I’d be straight in there again, happily cursing my lack of short-term memory and laughing at the ludicrous evolution of our whispers as we fail to successfully solve another case.
Witness is available in stores now and will set you back approximately £20-25. Go get it, for it is pretty excellent, and even more accessible than Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective.