Dulled Knives

The majority of my board-gaming diet consists of cards. Beyond being a good source of fiber, card games are right in my sweet spot: quick, tactical, clever affairs with enough luck to thrill and enough strategic potential to satisfy. I play tons of ‘em and rare is the card game that leaves me baffled, but Detective Rummy has. This isn’t because I don’t understand it – I’d sure hope I did after playing it so many times. Rather, I’m confused because I don’t understand how or why we ended up with the game we got. Mystery Rummy has been lying dormant for some time. According to BGG we haven’t seen a new game in the venerable series since 2009! This is a travesty worthy of correction and the design team on this is accomplished. So what is Detective Rummy, and why am I so disappointed with it?

I didn’t take any photos during our sessions due to iffy lighting, so please enjoy this stock photo of the overcomplicated player board.

I will start with the good – the game looks fantastic. Sure the cover just straight up uses the Knives Out font, but it’s still an evocative piece of art and every component in the game looks lovely. The commitment to simultaneously evoking the era of pulp detectives while also portraying a diverse cast is wonderful to see, and I found myself considering every playable character despite them barely being functionally different just because I was so taken with the game’s style. There’s also some excellent dual-coding in the evidence cards, utilizing color and symbol to make sorting your hand quick and easy. I had no issues parsing Detective Rummy on the table; it was the game itself that worked against me.

Comparing Detective Rummy to its Mystery Rummy predecessors does it no favors. This is hardly a rummy game, for one. You do play sets, but the size of them doesn’t matter unless you’re trying to empty your hand for a bonus or one of the randomly dealt side-quest-y assignments. You only get 6 turns per hand, so you don’t have any of the typical rummy tension of being uncertain as to who at the table will end it or when. Instead you’re just tasked with making the most of your mostly random hand 6 times, then scoring. This somewhat resembles Mystery Rummy, but the reused deck and varied combinations of suspects ends up feeling worse than any of the original series’ dedicated deck/suspect combinations with the arguable exception of the Jack the Ripper case, which is just a worse version of the original standalone Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper due to this new system’s weaknesses.

The stock images make me sad because all of these characters deserve to be in a better game, especially Adrian and Emma.

Rummy games are often fairly fluid affairs – draw, play, discard, that’s about it. Not this one. There isn’t a single moment during gameplay in which sand isn’t thrown into the game’s gears, and it makes each play more frustrating than fun. Game Changer event cards litter every location and suspect at the start of each hand, frequently interrupting gameplay for the first few turns with additional upkeep steps. Items cycle between ready and unready, reducing their usability to the point where they often contribute very little. New skills earned via playing melds can be randomly “wounded” by dice rolls each round, leaving some players untouched and others unable to do anything of consequence for an entire turn of a 6 turn game. Some or all of the suspects can randomly lawyer up, adding additional prerequisites to being able to play tokens onto them at all. And perhaps most frustrating, fingerprint cards fill the deck to such an extent that your starting hand may be borderline unplayable from the word go even after you perform the mini-mulligan suggested by the rules. This forces players to take weak turns to attempt to turn their hand into something workable, setting them far behind folks who were simply dealt better. Of course it isn’t unreasonable for a card game to have significant luck, but again – this game is a whole 6 turns long. Luck should ideally be mitigated by sheer number of instances, typically evening out over the course of an entire game. Detective Rummy thinks otherwise, throwing players directly under the stagecoach if their hand starts weak with little to no chance for recovery.

There is a campaign mode, as is the case with so many new releases, and like many of those it fails to justify its inclusion. Detective Rummy’s campaign in particular feels like a vestigial limb from when it was originally intended to be a legacy game. Exactly two things carry over from case to case: your running score, and any bad blood with reused suspects. The latter purely serves to penalize players who pulled those event cards for no reason – there are no narrative functions. Worthy of note is that cases 1 and 7 are arguably the worst in the box and also exclusive to the campaign, meaning it starts on a bad note and goes out with a dull thud. Without any kind of plot throughline or route changes based on player decisions, the campaign mode is just a worse way to play a game that already struggles to justify playing multiple hands in a row.

So many cases, so little good.

Therein lies the greatest problem with this game. In a genre chock full of moreish titles that come off the shelf with ease and reward replays, Detective Rummy feels equal parts bloated and awkward. Its added complexities only serve to make it linger longer than it warrants, meaning it doesn’t serve particularly well as a quick filler during a game night, compounded by the fact that this is a card game that comes in a massive Ticket to Ride-sized box making taking it anywhere for a card game night a pain. At home it’s the farthest thing from a go-to card game for us, not satisfying after a single hand nor an entire campaign’s worth of hands. When you hit the annoyance trifecta of long setup and teardown, awkward-at-best implementation of its mechanisms, and a massive dollop of random chance on top, it’s not hard to see why this is going to end up a black sheep when compared to its predecessors.

This begs the question – if it doesn’t make you feel like a detective, and it plays nothing like rummy, what even is Detective Rummy? In trying to be and do so many things while failing to achieve almost all of them it ends up not only weak as a game, but also lacking any real identity beyond its flaws. I truly do not know what series of unfortunate circumstances led this game system to this point. What I do know for sure is that it makes no damn sense, and I am not compelled to play it anymore.