Why I like Cluedo

There are only two things I’m conservative about. One is the Oxford comma, which, to my mind, is a matter of logic. The other is Cluedo.

For the unfamiliar, Cluedo is a board game best described as Happy Families with murder.  All players shuffle suspect, weapon, and room cards, and you have to work out which cards are missing from the pack – i.e. the solution to the murder you’re investigating. It’s a simple format which has proved popular.

Anthony E. Pratt first proposed the game in 1944. The original title, “Agatha Christie – The Game,” was changed to “Murder!” and finally “Cluedo” (a pun on Ludo). Pratt’s proposed cast of sixteen, then twelve, then ten characters ultimately became six – or seven if we count the body.

Proper  Colonel Mustard. None of this sexy secret agent malarky. Even if he did inspire Sean Connery in Murder on the Orient Express (that's pure speculation).
Proper Colonel Mustard.

Colonel Mustard

Miss Scarlet

Professor Plum

Mrs (or Nurse) White

The Reverend Green

Mrs Peacock

These are recognisable character “types,” each with a striking familiar colour. The fact that we can recognise a stock element of detective fiction from a colour on a playing card is quite remarkable – it shows that these are valuable stereotypes. They clearly conjure up something.

I like Cluedo for the same reason I like Agatha Christie. We can be sure of the stock characters, the stock settings, the stock methods – but never of their combination. We know the stereotypes but not what the stereotypes are doing. As a deck of cards is shuffled, so too is everything we think we know. Because what Cluedo tells us is that you can never pigeonhole something in a way that tells you everything.

Christie does the same thing, of course. She never just babbled out sellable formulae; she presented familiar types and tropes in new, incongruous, ultimately surprising ways. In one title, the sexy young woman might be a murderer, in the next she might be a victim, in the next she might hold the key evidence against her father. We just can’t know.

As it happens, Christie was tickled pink when Cluedo came out. A couple of years ago, John Curran made a brilliant find in Christie’s notebooks (although I disagree with his interpretation). Christie used Cluedo characters as a template for planning a book of her own:

She saw Professor Plum in the library […] Miss Scarlet – young woman of dubious morals – engaged to son? or secretly to Plum

and so on (in Curran: 118). I don’t think, as John does, that she was actually planning to write a book about Cluedo – rather that she liked the

A very Conneryish Mustard of the 1980s.
A very Conneryish Mustard of the 1980s.

stereotypes…. And just as well – she didn’t know that they were based on her own!

This question of the familiar generating unknowability has, I think, been at the heart of Cluedo’s success. To the extent that the excellent film Clue (a follow up to the even more excellent but perhaps too geeky Murder by Death) featured three alternative endings, with different cinemas playing different endings at the time of its release. Seriously, check Clue out: it’s the origin of some great lines that have passed into the everyday: “Life after death is as improbable as sex after marriage” … “Communism was just a red herring” … you get the idea.

Similarly, a now forgotten daytime panel show of the 1990s, Cluedo featured the same cast of actors each week playing out a new scenario. They all played the same types of characters, with the conventional names, but each week their relationships and settings would be different. One week, Miss Scarlet would be Mrs Peacock’s stepdaughter, another week she would be a visiting actress, another week she’d be a sex worker, and so on. (The format was as you’d expect: celebrity contestants had to name the criminal, weapon, and room by questioning all the suspects in the studio. Highlights for me include June Whitfield playing Mrs White as an alcoholic and PD James getting completely bamboozled. Check it out on YouTube.)

So what does this have to do with my conservatism? Obviously like any other successful game Cluedo has undergone various innovations and multiple novelty sets have been produced – Simpsons Cluedo, Sherlock Cluedo, Harry Potter Cluedo, bla bla bla.* This is fine. Not to my taste but I understand why it appeals to people – bringing the game to you by relating it to familiar and beloved tropes. The Simpsons does this all the time – it tells famous stories using its own characters and this does an important thing. It helps us draw connections between “types” and “registers.” What I don’t like it the versions of “original” Cluedo that have been produced in the last decade or so.

Not just because I don’t like change. I love change and my favourite ever set of Cluedo is a strangely gothic one produced by Parker in Japanese in the 1990s. What I object to is recent gamemakers’ inclusion of newspaper stories, building a narrative around the game – it makes it too specific and takes away that punch of variety. The other objection I have is that all the characters have been sexed up and blanded down.


Ok so the Rev/Col/mistress stereotypes are no longer current. But they haven’t been replaced with contemporary stereotypes. Now all the characters are sexy young secret agents. Oh, they have distinct characters. The playing cards tell us explicitly about their past and why they might have wanted to kill Agent Black. But this seems to me to so gloriously miss the point – and the humour – of Cluedo that it almost makes the game unplayable. I refuse to believe that anyone introduced to the game through a recent set could possibly get hooked. It’s just a story, now.

NOTE: I would like to theorise this, and it seems that I must be missing some obvious theory. Pointers much appreciated!


List of References

Bernthal, James. “Crime on the Cards.” Unpublished research assignment: University of Exeter  (2010). Available on request.

Curran, John. Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making: More Stories and Secrets From Her Archive. London: HarperCollins, 2011.

Granada/ITV. “Cluedo” (1990-1993). Television Series.

Lynn, Jonathan (dir.). Clue. Columbia: 1985. Movie.

Moore, Robert (dir.). Murder by Death. Columbia: 1978. Movie.



*There is even a Buckinham Palace version of Cluedo (100% unofficial) in which Miss Scarlet has the face of Prince Edward. I said nothing. There is also an Agatha Christie themed rip-off called And Then There Were None, which I’ve been dying to get my hands on all my life. So if you have a set lying around… you know.

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