Sleuth vs. Code 777

Sleuth and Code 777 are two classic deduction games from some of the greatest designers of the past. Let me start by spoiling the review and saying that both of these game are fantastic, and they still hold up very well today.

Sleuth (Sid Sackson, 1971) is a card game where players are trying to figure out one card that has been pulled from the deck by asking each other questions about cards in their hand. Code 777 (Alex Randolph and Robert Abbott, 1985) is a game where players are trying to identify 3 numbers in front of them that everyone except them can see, by reading into clues given by others. Both games play a lot like logic puzzles, where you are deducing and eliminating possible answers based on partial information.

For this review, I will be comparing and contrasting the games, as well as discussing their individual strengths and weaknesses.

To begin, both games are fairly short, usually 30-45 minutes. Sleuth is listed as a 3-7 player game, which baffles me. The game is absolutely perfect with 4 players, and I really wouldn’t want to play with any other number. You could maybe talk me into a 5-player game, but that would be my absolute maximum. Any more than 5 and my brain might explode. Code 777 is a 3-5 player game, but it, too, is definitely best with 4. 3 or 5 is fine, but 4 is the sweet spot.

As with most deduction games, both games require copious amounts of note-taking, and this is a place where both games suffer: the paper pads included in the games are awful. Just awful. Sleuth’s is awful because it’s not nearly big enough for how much you need to write. I’ve played the Face2Face Games and the Eagle-Gryphon editions, and both notepads are useless. We always print out full 8.5×11 sheets from the Geek to use. Code 777’s notepad (specifically, I’m referring to the one from the Stronghold 25th Anniversary edition, which is the one I have), is too small, doesn’t have the questions listed on the pages (which is a big problem), and is not color coordinated (another big problem). Ugh. Anyway, once you throw away the stupid notepads, both games really shine.

At the beginning of Sleuth, you remove one card from a deck of 36. Each card is unique, with three characteristics: color (R/Y/G/B), number (1/2/3), and gemstone type (Diamond/Pearl/Opal). Once this card has been removed, you deal out the remaining cards to players, putting any remainders in the middle for all to see. Right off the bat, this means you have a number of cards you can eliminate as potential answers, because if they’re in your hand, clearly they are not the card that was removed at the start. Players keep track of notes, suspicions, and deductions on a 36-square grid, corresponding to the deck.

Once these cards have been dealt out, players receive four cards from a separate deck, which dictate which questions they can ask other players about their hands. Each card will have either one or two characteristics they can ask about. For example, I may have a card that allows me to ask another player how many yellow cards they have (one characteristic), and another card that allows me to ask how many blue diamonds they have (two characteristics). On a player’s turn, she selects one of her four question cards to ask an opponent. For example, she might ask me “How many pearl pairs do you have?” I must then look at my hand and answer aloud, thereby giving everyone some information.

Here’s where the game gets interesting. If you ask a player a one-characteristic question, they must answer aloud for all to hear, so you simply get the number of that type of card in their hand. However, if you ask them a two-characteristic question, they must answer aloud, and show you (and you only) all the corresponding cards. This means that all players get to know how many of X card are in their hand, but you actually get the advantage of seeing specifically which ones they are.

Right off the bat, this sounds like the two-characteristic cards are overpowered. That’s what I thought, too, for the first few times I played. What you’ll realize, though, is that as the game goes on, the single-characteristic question cards become more and more useful. Suppose I have deduced the location of 8 out of the 9 red cards, and I’m trying to figure out where that last one is. I have figured out that Player A has at least two 2 red cards in their hand, but there are still a few cards of theirs I don’t know. On my turn, I ask Player A how many red cards they have, and they say “3”. Boom, there is the last red card. Even though they don’t have to show to me the cards since the question was only one characteristic, I know what they all are now.

Play continues like this until one player guesses the correct answer. If a player guesses incorrectly, they are out of the game.

Code 777 is very similar, but it sort of works the opposite way; on a player’s turn, they are giving information rather than receiving it. At the start, each player receives 3 numbered tiles, turned such that everyone except them can see what they are. There are 28 total tiles, numbered 1-7, broken down into a pyramid (i.e. one 1, two 2’s, three 3’s, etc.). Each tile is colored with one of 7 colors, broken down equally, so that there are four tiles of each color. The goal is to correctly guess your numbers correctly three times.

On a player’s turn, they flip the top card of the question deck and answer the question aloud, based on what they can see on their opponent’s tile racks. For example, on my turn, my question might be “On how many racks is the sum of the tiles 18 or more?” I then look at each of my opponents’ tile racks and answer aloud. If I say that I see one rack with sum 18+, one of my opponents is going to look around at everyone else’s tiles and realize that they don’t see any racks with that sum. That means it is their rack with an 18+ sum. Each question is different, and they may refer to colors, numbers, sums, etc. For example:

“Do you see more Yellow 7’s or more Blue 7’s?”

“On how many racks are the tiles all even or all odd?”

“How many colors do you see?”

When a player believes she knows her numbers, she can guess them. When a player makes a guess, they are told whether they are correct (1 point) or incorrect, and they get a new tile rack. The first player to get 3 points wins.

Sleuth and Code 777 have a lot in common. Both games require a strong sense of deductive reasoning. They both take a few games before players will really “get” the game. Don’t get me wrong, both games are incredibly simple and easy to learn, but to have a true grasp on the strategy can take a few plays. For example, the first few times I played Sleuth, I was taking note of every piece of information I heard. “Amanda has two blue diamonds.” “John has 4 yellows.” “Erin has one opal solitaire.” What I hadn’t yet realized was that I could deduce more based on what players didn’t have.

For example, suppose I ask my opponent how many blue pearls they have, and they tell me they have one (and they have to show me what it is). They show me a blue pearl pair. I can check that off my sheet since I saw it, but I can also deduce that that player does not have the other two blue pearl cards, because if they did, they would have had to show them to me.

This is the kind of strategy that develops more you play. At first, you might not see all the intricacies these games have to offer. To be honest, in both cases, part of the fun is figuring out your own system. What style of notation works for you? BGG has numerous downloadable sheets for Code 777, with different formats and layouts. When you play, I’d recommend trying several different sheets. For example, my wife likes the sheet with every single question laid out on it, but I prefer a much more free-form style of note-taking. Whatever works for you is right, and it’s fun to figure out your preferred play style.

In both games, mistakes are deadly. I always warn new players that logic leaps are quite risky; if you mark off the wrong thing, your entire game can fall apart. This can be frustrating for newbies, so always recommend that players play these games a few times before they make a judgment call.

Comparing the relative difficulty of these two games is tough, but I’ll try. In Sleuth, every question is answered the same way, with a number. One person asks how many of something another player has, and that player gives an answer. Pretty simple. Code 777’s questions come in all flavors. It’s hard to describe exactly why Code 777 is harder if you haven’t played it, but I’ll attempt to illustrate by giving you an example of how my thought process works in each game:

In Sleuth, my thought process might go:

“Let’s see, Amanda said she has two opals. I know that at least one of them is blue, because I saw it when I asked about her opal pairs. She also said that she has three red cards, and I know two of them. I wonder if the other one is a red opal? Or could it be another blue opal? She said she has two solitaries, and I know what they both are, so I know it’s not the blue opal solitaire, but maybe it could be the blue opal cluster?”

In Code 777, my thought process might go:

“Ok, I know one of my numbers is a 7. John said he saw only one rack with a sum of 18 or higher, and I can see that that rack belongs to Erin, not me. So I know my other two numbers can’t total more than 10. I have seen all the four of the 4’s already this round, so I know I don’t have one. I see one of the 2’s on John’s rack, so I could have the other one. Oh wait, Amanda just said that one of the racks is all even or all odd. John and Erin both have evens and odds, so it must be my tile rack she’s referring to. So I guess I don’t have a 2. Come to think of it, that also means I don’t have any 6’s!”
And so on and so on.

Sleuth is a brain burner, Code 777 is a brain exploder (to me, at least). Without a doubt, between the two, Code 777 is the harder game. If you’re new to deduction games, I would definitely advise that you start with Sleuth. Even though it has a bit of a learning curve, it generally seems more accessible.

Since this review is getting long, I’ll wrap it up. Let me start by reiterating that both of these games are great. Like, really great. If you can get them both, I would highly recommend it. However, if you can only get one, I have to recommend Sleuth. It is truly one of my all-time favorites. To me, Sleuth is the textbook definition of elegance in a game. It just feels… pure. It’s so rewarding when you have that moment of clarity, when you realize, “John has the green pearl pair, which means that he can’t have the yellow pearl pair. And if he doesn’t have it, then that means it must be in Amanda’s hand, which also means that she has the red diamond solitaire. And if she has that, then Erin must have the red diamond cluster.” Bam, bam, bam. One after another, you just check them off, all because of that one tiny piece of information you needed.

Code 777 is definitely a step up. It’s more mentally demanding. While there may be those same moments of clarity, they never seem as exciting for some reason. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just never feel the same stroke of genius I feel in Sleuth. In Code 777, when you’re getting a clue from someone else, you have to remember that they can’t see their own tiles. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that because you can see them, and you might end up making a mistake because you included their tiles in your analysis of the clue. It’s also pretty frustrating if you guess your numbers incorrectly, because not only are you back at square one, but you get a new set of tiles, meaning your opponents get even more information to work with. In Sleuth, by the time someone is ready to guess, the game is usually almost over, so even if they guess wrong, they shouldn’t be out for too long. In Code 777, if you guess even one set of numbers wrong, you can get so far behind that you’re playing catch-up the whole game, with little hope of winning.

All that being said, though, these games are both fantastic, and definitely good additions to any collection. Thank you for reading, and I hope this was helpful!

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