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Murder for Kids

A defense of Clue.

A knight in a saddle with a shield and lance next to a classic box of Clue
Photo illustration by Slate

Read Slate’s complete list of the 40 Best Family Games.

I had no idea Clue was a universally understood “bad game” until I was offered a chance to defend it. What’s to defend? As a true crime writer and lifelong lover of mysteries, I have only great memories of playing this game. I think.

Sure, Clue characters have super stupid names. Let’s be real, someone was definitely eating a pastrami sandwich during the brainstorm that resulted in Colonel Mustard. And Mr. Boddy? C’mon, guys.

And sure, Clue may have given me unrealistic expectations about the rooms my grown-up house would have. I’m still pissed I don’t have a conservatory. OK, I don’t actually know what that is, but it sounds like an awesome place to strangle someone, right?

Here’s what I do know: As a kid, I read lots of Nancy Drew books, so the accouterments of Clue were awesome, especially that little detective notepad and case-file envelope. Sometimes I’d take them out of the box and stalk around the house, a titian-haired teen detective solving mysteries like “The Case of the Locked Bathroom Door” and “What’s This Thing in Mom’s Bedside Drawer?”

I was the youngest of three very competitive game-playing kids in a very competitive game-playing family. And since Clue required no particular set of skills beside rolling dice, wielding a tiny pencil, and claiming the best color token (Miss Scarlet, duh), it put me on an even playing field with my sisters. If you had older siblings, you know this is a big deal.

I also harbored a bit of a murder obsession as a kid. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, murder wasn’t the topic of podcast-obsessed dinner table conversation it is today, but something parents whispered about as they sipped Riunite on ice and benignly neglected their eavesdropping children. There’s nothing more fascinating to kids than the things adults work hardest to keep secret. And while it’s likely my parents were simply trying to shield us from the grim realities of the world, they weren’t afraid to put Clue, which literally makes a game of murder, under the family Christmas tree.

And that’s exactly why I loved it. While Clue promised wholesome family fun, it delivered the same thrilling sense of naughtiness I felt sneaking into my sister’s room and thumbing through her copy of Helter Skelter. It’s pretty perverse to realize the game put all those tiny plastic instruments of death into my chubby 8-year-old hands—the revolver, the knife, and the rope tied into a noose. And did the game’s creators also want me to re-imagine my grandma’s candlesticks as handy tools for bludgeoning? Who knows, but I couldn’t help myself. That was the fun of it.

A couple of Christmases ago, I bought my family a collector’s edition of Clue, the kind that comes in a fancy wooden box and has a stylized Art Deco board. It looks really beautiful on our bookshelf, but we’ve played it exactly once. Why? You already know. Clue is a bad game. It requires no particular set of skills beside rolling dice, wielding a tiny pencil, and claiming the best color token.

But that one time we played it, I could close my eyes and imagine we were sitting together in our conservatory. And for just a moment, before my kids complained about it basically being a board game version of Bingo, Clue was everything a game should be. At least I got to be Miss Scarlet.

Clue

Types: Board, Logic
Players: 2–6
Time: 30–40 min.
Variations? Y
Expansions? N
Fun without kids? N