Oh, The Games People Played Then

Some Classic Private Eye & Detective Board Games

Every night and everyday, now... Of course, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so here's a short list of diversions from the past for those of you who like to play.

A roll of the dice, a spin of the spinner, a carefully selected clue card, the elimination of a suspect... the game's afoot! And you've just got to dig the great oversized graphics that television tie-in boardgamers offer!

  • Sherlock Holmes: The Game
    (1904, Parker Brothers)
    3-8 players
    Ages 10 and up

Perhaps not a private eye in the sense that we now understand the term, but you've got to give props to the Great Detective. And this early detective card game ought to get a little respect as well, which actually sounds like a hoot. In advertisements of the time, it was billed as "the latest craze" and promised "excitement, laughter, life and FUN." Not bad for fifty cents...
The object was to capture as many cards featuring burglers, robbers, thieves and other Victorian miscreants as possible in order to obtain the valuable "Sherlock Holmes" cards, which in turn would allow you to steal another player's hand, and there are a few other ways to totally shake up the play. This has to be one of the first mass-produced games to acknowledge the growing popularity of mystery and detective fiction that I've come across.

  • Mr. Ree the Fireside Detective Game
    (1937-66, Selchow & Richter,)
    Ages 10 and up.

The grandaddy of all detective board games, predating the more famous Clue/Cluedo by eleven years or so. Players would assume a character in Aunt Cora's red brick house, and then roams around the house and grounds (the gameboard), moving his or her hollow cardboard cylinder, choosing and concealing weapons, and trying to figure out which other player ("suspect") held the tiny metal weapon (knife, hatchet, revolver or vial of poison) in their cylinder. The game had a good long run, evolving over the years, the number of clue cards ranging from 90 to 104, dropping characters occasionally (Miss Lee was eliminated sometime in the sixties) and some versions boasted plaster character heads. Some of the earliest versions sported an interesting gameboard illustrated by noted designer William Longyear. The game promised "all the thrills and excitement of a true detective mystery. More than that, the game gives you an opportunity to play an exciting part in the creation of the plot, and the thrill of actually playing Detective; an eagerly sought opportunity to solve a baffling crime committed right under your very nose. And, amazing as it may seem, the plot is never the same."

  • Cluedo/Clue
    (1948, John Waddington)

It's not really a private eye game, and never has been, but you've just gotta give props to the world's best-selling mystery board game. Everybody knows this one, either as Clue or Cluedo, depending on which side of the pond you're on, but "Colonel Mustard did it with the candlestick in the library" should ring a bell. Budding detectives have made this and similar accusations since 1949 when the John Waddington Company of Britain first introduced the game, which had been developed by solicitor's clerk Anthony Pratt a few years earlier.
Players roll the die and move around the game board (depicting the various rooms of a mansion) as one of the game's six characters, collecting clues from which to deduce which suspect in which room using which weapon murdered the game's perpetual victim, the hapless Dr. Black in the U.K. version and Mr. Boddy in North American version.
Numerous editions of the game, books, and even a film (with three alternate endings) have been released as part of the franchise. In 1998, for example, to celebrate the game's fiftieth anniversary, Parker Brothers released a deluxe limited edition, in fancy embossed tin box, with wood and brass weapons. More recently, it's become something of a licensing juggernaut with travel editions, computer-based editions, children's editions and assorted other spin-offs, as well as countless specially licensed versions of the game featuring everyone from Harry Potter to The Simpson. But the play remains essentially the same, more in the traditional amateur sleuth than hard-boiled mystery vein. True believers will just drink a lot of bourbon while playing, crack wise and expect everyone else to cheat. And maybe hit on Miss Scarlet.

  • The Great Charlie Chan Detective Mystery Game
    (1937, Milton Bradley)

Again, not really a private detective game, but hey, it's Charlie. This was your opportunity to unleash your inner Chan, collecting evidence and analyzing clues, until you have the nefarious villain "enmeshed in the evidence chain from which there is no escape." The game came with a game board, instruction booklet, crime cards, evidence cards, go cards, 4 pawns, 200 markers (50 in each of 4 colors), and 1 six-sided die. So poular was Chan that Milton Bradley also releaseda Charlie Chan Card Game two years later.

  • S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance Detective Game
    (1937, Parker Brothers)

This game, based on popular 1920s and 30s fictional private detective Philo Vance, has each player trying to solve a murder by collecting clues (from cards) which matches one of the ten suspects. What makes this one rather unique is that after a player accuses one of the suspects, the suspect is then arrested and brought to court, where additional evidence may be presented. If the player presents his case well, he wins. there were a few interesting aspects to the game -- unlike Mr. Ree or clue, there is no specific suspect selected and hidden at the start of the game any of the ten suspects could be the guilty one, and it's up to the detective to build a convincing case. And landing on aother players' space could seriously set them back, so there's some serious strategy needed as well. This was a big game at the time, or at least Parker Brothers had high hopes for it. There it was, the height of the depression, and they were releasing a game with a hundredclue cards, suspects and confirmation cards, and there was even a deluxe set that included two pewter pieces of the eternally snooty Vance.

  • The Hardy Boys Treasure Game
    (1957, Parker Brothers)
    Ages 6 and up
    The Hardy Boys Game
    (1969, Milton Bradley)
    Ages 5 and up
    The Hardy Boys Mystery Game: The Secret of Thunder Mountain
    (1978, Parker Brothers)
    Ages 8 and up
    The Nancy Drew Mystery Game
    (1957, Parker Brothers)
    Ages 10 and up

Board games based on children's detective characters are no-brainers. The Hardy Boys games are particularly interesting, having been based on the Walt Disney TV show, the Satruday morning cartoon and the seventies TV show. Surprisingly, in the same time span, there was only one Nancy Drew board game, although that may have changed since.

  • Perry Mason Game of the Missing Suspect
    (1959, Transogram )
    Ages 8 and up

With Raymond Burr chewing up the small screen as Perry Mason , Erle Stanley Gardner's superstar shyster, it didn't take long for game manufacturers to take notice, and Transogram rushed to production with a re-formatted version of their own Dragnet game, kicking off a slew of games based on TV private eyes and other crime fighters. In this one, players would start with one of eight different cases to solve, and be presented with four clues. They would then roll the dice and move around the board, seeking more clues -- or "stealing" clues from other players -- until someone delivers a suspect to the courthouse. Despite the trapping, there's not much detection needed -- math is a bigger asset. Each clue has a numerical value, and when your clues add up to the desired numerical value of your "suspect," you win.

  • Philip Marlowe Game
    (1960, Transogram)

Based on the ABC-TV show staring Phillip Carey, based on you-know-who by what's-his-name. The aim is to be the first to solve the crime in order to win. Game has both dice and spinner, but no office bottle.

  • The Peter Gunn Detective Game
    (1960, Lowell)
    Ages 7-14

Another TV tie-in. in this one, based on Peter Gunn, one of the coolest TV eyes ever, each player takes a piece and start in the center of the board in this twisted version of Go Fish. Cards depicting a face-down corpse (Mr. Aay, Mr. Bee, Mr. Cee or Mr. Dee) and a face-down weapon (hammer, gun, knife or poison) are placed on the board, and each player must find the weapon and corpse card that match those he or she's been given.

  • Quick Draw McGraw Private Eye Game
    (1960, Milton Bradley)
    2-4 players, Ages 5 to 12

Yep, the West's only gun-toting horse takes a break from public law enforcement to go private and work a few cases with the help of his Hanna-Barbera buddies. The game includes a playing board, 48 playing cards, four playing piece characters ( Blabber, Snooper, Baba Looey & Doggie Daddy) and a spinner. Players move around the board, drawing cards from the deck (or stealing them from other players) to help Quick Draw crack the case. The first player to collect all eight puzzle cards detailing their assigned mystery wins.

  • 77 Sunset Strip "Private Eye" Game of Mystery & Suspense
    (1960, Lowell)
    2-4 players

Based on 77 Sunset Strip, the popular and trendsetting Warner Bros. series, this one called itself a "Private Eye Game of Mystery and Suspense" and featured the show's three stars, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Edward Byrnes, and Roger Smith, prominently on the box art. A hipper spin on Clue, players served as detectives, and the object was to solve the murder of a man in a motel as designated on the game board. IThe game came with four plastic detective pieces, one die, one clue pad, one note pad, a set of fifteen clue figures, and a set of twenty-seven time, weapon and motive cards. Clues in the shape of small die-cut figures were scattered face down throughout the various rooms of the motel.

  • The Shotgun Slade Game
    (1960, Milton Bradley)
    2-4 players
    Ages seven and up

The idea of this game, based on the hybrid Western/private eye show Shotgun Slade, was that the players were members of Slade's posse, charged with rounding up four outlaws hiding out in a frontier town and bring them in, presumably for the bounty (there was play money involved). The first player to get all four of his outlaws (marbles) around the board and into his four jail holes by exact count (the board came with built in spinners) would win.

  • Surfside Six
    (1961, Lowell)

Of course, and everywhere that 77 Sunset Strip went, its clones were sure to follow. A year after Lowell released the 77 Sunset Strip game, this clever twist on Clue came out, based on the Sunset spin-off Surfside Six. The twist here was that you get to pin the murder on another player to win, by planting evidence. The game board sported six houses, one of which contains a stiff, as well as three pieces of evidence: a hat, a gun, and a fingerprint.

  • Hawaiian Eye
    (1963, Lowell)

This "Thrilling Game of Intrigue & Suspense" was of course a spin-off from the 1959-1963 television show of the same name, produced by Warner Bros., who had already given us 77 Sunset Strip and Surfside Six. The appeal to this one of the kitchy Hawaiian motif, of course, but serious gamers will appreciate that noted American game designer Sid Sackson (1920-2002) had a hand in creating it.

  • Honey West The Girl Private-Eye Board Game
    (1965, Ideal)

Amost impossible to find now,. this 1965 board game was based upon the ABC TV show that aired in the mid-1960s and starred Anne Francis as Honey West, the "girl" private eye. The game cover features Anne Francis on the cover. Hmmm... why wasn't 77 Sunset Strip billed as the "The Boy Private Eye Game"?

  • Charlies Angels Game
    (1977, Milton Bradley)
    Ages 8 and up

I guess the decidedly more adult private eye dramas of the late sixties and early seventies never quite lent themselves to board games as their predecessors did since I've found no traces of The Rockford Files Game or Mannix Parcheesi. And so to the rescue come Charlie's Angels. And much like the show, which featured the teamwork of Kelly, Sabrina, and Kris, this 1977 game urged players to work together in order to capture the target villain, scoring points once the villain has been surrounded and is unable to move. it was, of course, part of the tsunami of merhandaise aimed at little girls that included dolls, puzzles, grooming accessories and more that followed the Angels through all their incantations from television to film and back to the tube.

  • Castle: The Detective Card Game,. Buy this game
    (2013, Cryptozoic Entertainment)
    2-5 players
    Ages 15-up

Release your inner Beckett! Or Castle. Or one of your favourite characters from the show. The object is to catch the bad guy, of course, drawing cards until the list of suspects is narrowed down to one and the murderer is revealed. You can play a short game (one episode) or a longer version (a season!).
Okay, okay. ABC's Castle is NOT a private eye show, but it's encouraging, after all these years, to finally see a kids' game based on any crime/detective TV show again. And yes, I know that Castle is not exactly a kids' show, which may be why it's listed as for ages fifteen and up. But then neither was Peter Gunn. Maybe this one'll be a big hit and we'll soon see Burn Notice: The Miami Mystery Game or, even better, something based on Republic of Doyle. Although the latter might be a drinking game...

  • Miss Fisher Cluedo

After suffering the indignity of everything from The Simpsons to The Lehr-McNeil Report versions of the venerable mystery board game, the licencing greedheads finally got it right -- an actual mystery-related tie-in! Unfortunately, it only seems to be available in Australia, and even then it seems like it was a very limited edition. Maybe Phryne should investigate.


Treasures from the Past

Some Cool P.I. Model Car Kits

Some Early P.I. Videogames

Puzzles and Other P.I. Games

Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Further suggestion welcome. Thanks to Adam Bormann for his help with this page.

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