“Whodunnit” board games exist in worlds beyond the stodgy European living rooms we see in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and Clue. The one I’m hooked on is very, very, anime.
I’ve stopped pitching Tragedy Looper, released in the U.S. in 2014, to my friends as an “anime time travel mystery game.” That’s what it is, but that jumble of nouns fails to advertise the strategy game’s deep commitment to brain-breaking logic puzzles. It’s about going back in time to prevent a tragedy from happening, but to do so, players have to figure out who plays what role in the apparently inevitable disaster to come. Perhaps the shrine maiden is a serial killer who murders anyone left alone with her overnight. Or, the schoolgirl class representative is the “key person” players must protect—but she’s planning to commit suicide in six days. Players have a limited number of time loops to discern who’s who and thwart disaster. There’s about a dozen tragic scenarios that can go down, but a lot of players have made their own and put them online, too.
Here’s what really makes Tragedy Looper not just an anime-skinned deduction game: Instead of battling lame old time, players are up against another human who masterminds the tragedy. All of their cards read “dance in my palm,” which is endlessly funny to repeat whenever you succeed at something. To make the tragedies to down, the mastermind can increase the characters’ paranoia and intrigue (tragedy-proneness) or move them around the Hospital, Shrine, City or School locations by placing face-down cards on them. Deception and misdirection can throw players off the killers’ trail or, if the mastermind is good enough, lead the players to kill off someone innocent. It’s a dark game.
The logic puzzles can get pretty brain-twisting, in part, because the mastermind’s strategy must be fluid to accommodate what players do and don’t pick up on. Yesterday, my group had to prevent the shrine maiden and the class representative from dying to win. Neither character could be alone with the serial killer. Also, the class rep was planning to commit suicide. We had to mitigate each girl’s paranoia and intrigue while playing keep-away with the serial killer—but we could only play three action cards each turn. That meant we had to make a lot of risky guesses on what the mastermind was planning and maximize on our limited resources.
At least twice, I found myself plotting to, say, leave the nurse alone with the serial killer so we could discern whether the nurse was also a killer. It’s not a good look, I’m aware. But, hey, I could cycle back through time again and it’s like it never happened, and the next time, I’d hopefully have enough information to get it right.