Staff Pick: Mysterium

Posted by Charlie Graham on

On the night of December 13th, 1894, a man-servant was found dead under highly suspicious circumstances after a costume party in the Warwick mansion. Around a hundred guests attended the party, leaving a long, indistinct list of suspects. Despite a lengthy police investigation, no one was tried for the crime and it was ruled accidental. The Warwick family eventually abandoned the mansion, selling it to the wealthy MacDowell clan. The mansion sat empty for years until Conrad MacDowell, psychic scion of the clan, returned home from the war. Setting his sights on restoring the family holdings, he noticed something amiss as soon as he stepped through the doorway. Summoning his fellow psychics for a seance on Halloween night, Conrad began the process of laying this lingering spirit to rest....

Mysterium, a reworking of the critically acclaimed Polish title Tajemnicze Domostwo (2013), is a cooperative murder mystery game for 2-7 players. One player takes on the role of the ghost of the murdered man while the rest form the group of investigating clairvoyants. As the ghost, you attempt to communicate the details of the murder to the rest of the players; however, the ghost, weakened by years of wandering the spirit world, cannot speak - he can only provide flashes of "visions" to the investigators. Wordlessly, the ghost must guide each psychic through their own line of inquiry in order to remember the details of his murder. Adding to the pressure is the fact that time is short: the spirit realm and the physical realm are only connected for 7 hours on Samhain. If the investigators cannot solve the mystery in the 7 hour limit, the link will be severed, leaving the ghost to haunt the mansion for another year. If they succeed, the dead man will finally find eternal peace.

Now, you may have noticed that I spent the preceding paragraph describing the game in terms of the theme. If you've read my other reviews, you'll notice I'm a bit of a theme freak. I love a heavy theme, I love when theme connects to gameplay in a meaningful way, and I love being able to explain gameplay in thematic terms. Mysterium knocks all three out of the park. This is a game that probably wouldn't exist without the theme - without the ghost and the visions, this would be a strange exercise in wordless suggestion, closer to Concept than Sherlock Holmes. The game would be irreparably damaged by its exclusion.

A few of the location cards

Gameplay in Mysterium proceeds in steps over the course of 7 turns, marked out by a cool stand-up clock piece with a working hand. To start, multiple suspect cards are laid out on the table. The ghost player receives an identical set of suspects and randomly assigns one to each investigator. The same process is repeated for the location and murder weapon cards. Eventually, the ghost player will have a full set for each investigator: a suspect, a location, and a murder weapon. These are placed in a neat DM screen-esque divider. From here, the ghost player draws a hand of seven cards from the "vision" deck, which will become his main way of communicating with the psychics. Unfortunately, like visions are wont to be, the artwork on the cards is vague and impressionistic. It's up to the ghost player to find a card that will effectively guide an investigator to his or her suspect. One card I received was a vision of arrow-struck pillows falling down a ladder - I had to decide if that related to the den or the bedroom of the mansion. Both involve pillows, but the den has hunting equipment, which could relate to the arrows. The ghost has a tough job; as the cards are packed with wild imagery and red herrings. Once a vision card is given to each investigator, they have 2 minutes to pick a suspect.

An example of the vision cards

During this time, investigators are allowed to play "clairvoyancy" tokens on another player's guess. There are two different tokens - correct or incorrect. If you think another player has picked the correct suspect, you can indicate so. If you're right, you move along a progress track, which can give you a powerful endgame bonus. This mechanic is a nice touch. It seems like an afterthought, but it introduces an element of player interaction to the game. Although it is a cooperative multiplayer game, the early phases are more-or-less a two player game - you and the ghost are playing together, with little outside interaction. The clarivoyancy tokens give the players a way to communicate and help each other out by putting themselves into the other player's investigation. It's also a clever way of adding a "points" element to a cooperative game. At the end, one player will inevitably be furthest along the clairvoyance track, giving someone bragging rights for that game.

Player folios and clarivoyancy tokens

After each investigator makes a guess for their suspect, the ghost is allowed to indicate if that player was correct or not. If they are, the player moves on to the next card in their set. If not, they stay on their suspect for another turn. This asymmetrical turn progression is another cool concept that works wonderfully here. Some players may move through their set of cards quickly, while some will take the whole game to find their last clue. Since the rules require that all psychics complete their set before moving on to the end phase, the clarivoyancy tokens become a method of helping the slower players along.

Once all the investigators have found their set, the game moves on to the final phase. The psychics lay out their sets on the table and number them 1-6 (depending on the number of players). The ghost then randomly selects a set as the "real" one. Now, this phase is where the clarivoyancy track comes into play. The ghost will select three vision cards that correspond to the suspect, location, and object in the correct set. Players that have not moved far enough on the track will only see one or two of the clues - only those who have scored 7 or more can see all three. Votes are cast in secret without discussion, but there must be a majority vote on the correct set to win the game. This is the most tense part of the game, and the most brutal. It's possible to breeze through the early rounds and lose at this stage. The ghost player must pick well, as a red herring at this stage can throw the game.

Mysterium is a fine game that can replace Clue or 221B Baker Street as the dominant mystery game on your shelf. It is highly replayable, with more than 20 of each type of psychic card (suspects, objects, and locations) and 84 vision cards for the ghost. The core mystery is necessarily random, so no two games will end up with the same murderer, location, and method. As I mentioned before, the theme is fantastic, and the application of theme is great. The artwork is gorgeous, especially the strange Dali-esque surrealist artwork for the vision cards. At 42 minutes, the game is long enough to satisfy your murder mystery needs, but not so long that it starts to drag. I really couldn't recommend Mysterium enough. It's a brilliant, fun, and spooky exercise in deduction - and it was released just in time for Halloween. If the October nights get dark and cold, just grab some candles, turn down the lights, and get Mysterium on the table. There are mysteries to solve and spirits to lay to rest, and you've only got the seven hours to do it. Sounds easy, right?



- Charlie, Meeple Prognosticator 


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