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Mysterium. Empty Mysterium.

Post  steveygee Tue 10 Feb 2015, 10:41

Mysterium, or ‘Tajemnicze Domostwo’’ in Polish, which is pronounced by Polish people, not ignorant English speakers with no concept of how the language works, is a game about righting a miscarriage of justice.

A house, on the outskirts of paris, was the scene of a terrible murder some years previously. A person was tried, convicted and executed for the crime. But the accused was innocent. They now haunt the house as a ghost, doomed to wander around a creepy mansion until the true murderer is brought to justice. And now a group of investigators has arrived, intrigued by the case and convinced the wrong person was convicted. This is the ghosts chance and it must help the investigators as much as possible, by communicating the truth through a series of cryptic dreams. They must solve the crime by the end of the week! For some reason!

Fortunately for a ghost only capable of communicating through dreams, these are the laziest detectives you’ve ever seen. They do no actual investigation work. Instead they have a sleep and then spend the rest of the day discussing like, what the dreams really mean, man. Once they reach a conclusion they select a weapon, location or person from the options available to them and rely on the ghost to tell them if they’ve got it right.  Once each detective has identified the people with the means, motive and opportunity to commit the crime, the ghost sends them a group dream to try and identify the true culprit.

Mechanically, this is achieved through a series of Dixit style ‘Dream’ cards, each showing a strange, surreal image. They are, in my opinion, even more attractive pieces of art than in Dixit. The whole game has a brooding, creepy style that really fits the theme nicely. There are a couple of superfluous bits, but the whole thing is so pretty I was happy to have the Investigator player cards out on the table just to look at.

The dream cards can be interpreted in a number of ways but, reversing the situation of a player in Dixit where you choose the card that will most obfuscate the situation to your advantage, in Mysterium you seek clarity. Unfortunately it soon becomes clear that a picture of a moustachioed chimney sweep flying a penny farthing above a mediterranean city, provides different types of clarity to different people.

The investigators start speculating. Perhaps the colour of the sky behind him relates to the colour of the suit the suspect is wearing? Or maybe the brushes represent the tools of a Barber’s trade? Could the houses in the city represent the house in that picture in the background of the school teachers card? As the ghost you can only stew silently, desperate to scream IT’S HIS MOUSTACHE LOOK AT HIS MOUSTACHE IT’S THE SAME AS THE RACING DRIVER’S DON’T GO FOR THE CHEF THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE WHY WOULD YOU GO FOR THE CHEF...they went for the chef.

The fact that the ghost is not allowed to talk is the best thing about this game. Unlike in Hanabi where a little creative cheating is sometimes the grease that oils that games wheels, the ability of the ghost to maintain a perfectly blank expression in the face of, frankly ridiculous interpretations of really very obvious and straight-forward clues, is paramount. This is a game where one player has, literally, all the information and any hints beyond the limits set by the game could bring the whole thing crashing down. A meta game quickly develops whereby the sneakier players at the table (you all know who you are) start trying to get the ghost to give things away.

Asking: ‘what would everyone think about me choosing the ninja star?’ whilst staring pointedly at the ghost is a typical tactic. Although, to be fair, this can sometimes be the only way into the ghosts head. How does that picture of a rat with a top hat and cane mean the school teacher? Apparently, it’s because there’s a small thing on the market stall next to him that might be an abacus. Oookay...

If being the ghost is a game of frustration and hilarity in equal measure, for the investigators it’s more a case of utter confusion with brief moments of clarity. You all sit around discussing the dreams, getting nowhere, until someone suggests something that seems slightly less ridiculous than every other guess so far. So you select the playroom, hoping to at least eliminate it from your enquiries, before discovering it’s the correct choice. And then, at the end of the game, the ghost will tell you he had an entirely different reason for picking that particular card, that no one even got close to guessing but that does make a twisted kind of sense, if you’re a sociopathic fruit loop.        

On the other hand, you get those moments where you see exactly what the ghost is trying to tell you almost straight away. It’s so clear! The duck here, the bubble in the bottom of this one, the tap on this bit are all, clearly, pointing to the bathroom as the key location. It’s at this point that the rest of the investigators look at you like you’re mad and spend the rest of the turn trying to convince you that what’s actually important is that statue above the duck, that small bit of brickwork behind the bubble and the grimreaper turning the tap, which all clearly represent the crypt. And their arguments are convincing. Perhaps so convincing that, above the silent screaming of the ghost, you change your mind and go for the crypt.
Mysterium is a game about getting into each others heads. As the ghost, you try and find something in the hand of useless cards you hold that will spark someones brain in the right direction. As the Investigators, you try and second guess the ghosts thinking. Has he picked that because he knows I’d think this? Or does he think there’s something really obvious on it that I’m just not seeing?  Or is it just that it’s mostly green and so is this weapon card?

Most games try and mitigate analyse paralysis but Mysterium positively revels in creating it, in creating the conditions in which indecision and confusion can grow and flower. Rather than being a co-op that relies on a randomly shuffled deck of cards, or a pre-determined system of enemy movement to defeat the players, Mysterium uses the players against each other, making perfect use of peoples tendancies to interpret the same information in very different ways. As you play multiple games with the same group, you’ll find you get better and better, as group-think takes over and you begin to think in eerily similar ways.

And this might be a problem for replayability. If you have one group that you play with regularly, you may find that you play this out fairly quickly. It also has a similar  problem as Dixit, in that as players get to know the cards, certain images become shorthand for certain suspects, just as certain clues in Dixit come to mean certain cards. I wouldn’t be surprised if packs of dream cards for this become as plentiful as Dixit expansions in fairly short order. To keep things fresh, you’ll need to introduce the game to new people, who don’t understand how each other think. In fact, I kind of feel that the best way to play Mysterium would be with 5 complete strangers.

However, this is a very minor problem with a fascinating, unique game and one I hope to be playing for some time yet.

Beautiful artwork, simple and unique rules, short play time, ‘just one more game’ syndrome. Comes with plenty of cards and offers huge variety in terms of suspect/location/weapon combos.

The games brilliance at promoting group thinking may also be it’s big flaw, as once players understand each others thought processes, you might have played it out. Also might turn into one of those money sucking expansion games. Time will tell.

A really fun game, which takes heavily from games such as Dixit and Clue(do) but still manages to feel unique. Beautiful artwork, simple rules and a short play time give it a gateway appeal, while the reliance on reading and understand other people make it a challenge for gamers. Whilst shelf life might be shortened by playing it repeatedly with the same group, it should always feel fresh when played with new players. Mysterium has been a fantastic start to my gaming year!
Green Cowboy Meeple
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Post  paulyg Tue 10 Feb 2015, 22:46

Great review! Certainly interested to give this one a try...
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Post  Evilevan Thu 05 Mar 2015, 18:18

Yes - this is review is excellent! - Great game! (That's my review.) Very Happy
Yellow Warsun
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