By Andrew Joyce
This review is a summary of an audio review by Get on Board. Click here for the full audio review (from episode #18) ›
It is time. As one of the premiere paranormal investigators in the world, you have been summoned to the scene of a crime. A victim lies dead, and only your talents can divine the truth of what really happened that night. You and your buddies will team up to communicate with the ghost of the victim, find out what really happened, and ensure justice is upheld on this night. The only problem is, you only have one night to uncover the truth.
In Mysterium, you and your friends play a team of investigators trying to pick out possible murder stories from a field of suspects, locations, and possible weapons. One player plays as the ghost, who communicates with strange visions to provide hints about what really happened. Each investigator will interpret the ghost’s hints to assemble their own ‘thread’ of the story, combining a person, a place, and a weapon to put together one possible outcome of the story.
Finally, the ghost will choose which of these possible stories is the true story, and give one final set of hints to the investigators. Based on these hints, and these alone, the investigators must vote for which set of person, place, and weapon is what really happened. If most investigators choose the correct story, everyone wins!
Ask someone on the street what they think of when you say “Murder mystery.” I didn’t test this, but my guess is you’d get a lot of people mentioning Clue and its famous “X with the Y in the Z” mechanic of figuring out the whodunit. And here’s the beautiful thing: Mysterium is almost as easy to understand, with a game system that’s a whole lot more interesting. Players are still trying to figure out whodunit, but they’re working together. And instead of a simple deduction game, players need to interpret bizarre clues handed out by the ghost – who can’t speak at all.
Already we’re crackling with tension, and the game has barely begun!
Here’s the core of the game: it’s these cards. Much like Dixit, another Get on Board favorite, the cards are the beating heart of Mysterium. As the ghost, you will constantly deal with the tension of matching your inadequate hand to the cards you’re trying to steer your players towards – and remember, you’re trying to steer up to 6 players all to their unique card, while pulling from a hand with only 7 cards. It’s tough – it gets tough.
As a player, you’ve got the reverse puzzle. So the ghost gave you a card with a train on it. Is he trying to point you to a character who looks well-travelled? Is the color a reference to that guy’s green suit? Are the train tracks supposed to look like the poker in that card, or the sword in that card – augh! All of a sudden you have gut feelings, contradictory gut feelings, and your teammates who maybe see something different than you, all thanks to a ghost who can’t say anything to you.
With only seven rounds to progress through three stages, the tension ratchets up each time you miss your clue. We’ve often found players in a spot where they have three rounds left, and need to nail all three stages in order for all of us to make it to round two. The time limit makes things even more difficult: in the course of a few minutes, you need to guess your own card, potentially help others guess their cards, and place voting tokens on other people’s guesses so that you can advance on the clairvoyance track.
This is a game we heartily enjoy, and most definitely recommend, but it isn’t perfect. You might still be tripped up on “clairvoyance track” from the last paragraph…”Andrew,” you say, “You haven’t said anything about a clairvoyance track yet.” You’re right, because clairvoyance is one of the problems I have with the game.
See, during a round you can vote on someone else’s guess, whether you think that guess is wrong or right. If you guess correctly, you get to move up a spot on the clairvoyance track. Your position on the clairvoyance track will determine if you get to see 1, 2, or 3 cards of the final hint. This system could have been better thought out. It’s annoying to remember to vote on people’s cards during the timed guessing, and you have a limited supply of tokens which only refresh once. I would have liked to see this resolved more elegantly – it’s consistently the one part of the game that people have trouble understanding.
This compounds when players get to the final round – my second problem with Mysterium. The first half of the game feels disconnected from the second half. It’s entirely possible to just barely miss out on making it to the second half – and that’s it, you’re done. Or, the whole team absolutely nails the first half, and then whiffs on the final guess. That’s it, you’re done.
All of my interest in the game is in the first half – during the final hint, you either know it or you don’t (usually down to how much clairvoyance you’ve collected). The end result is a strict, binary “You won” or “You didn’t win,” which feels disappointing after such a fun, extended guessing game in the first half. Maybe it’s just me, but the end of Mysterium often feels distinctly anti-climactic: whether we win or we lose.
Finally, there’s one more tragedy in this game that’s not really the fault of the game. A lot of the fun in the game depends on the ghost. A bad ghost player can mess up the balance of the game, making things really difficult or neglecting players who need extra help. I’ve been put in sticky social situations when someone volunteers to be the ghost who I know probably won’t do very well at it. As such, I prefer to nominate my wife or claim the role myself before explaining the game. Playing Mysterium with a ghost who doesn’t really understand the game’s mechanics is a letdown.
None of these tragics ultimately detract from our recommendation of Mysterium. This is a game that accommodates large groups, plays cooperatively, and is super easy for just about anyone to learn. It’s a reliable part of my collection, and I’m happy to have a cooperative counterpart to the strange cards and clue-giving found in Dixit. Get on Board absolutely recommends that you check out Mysterium.