I’ve already discussed my love of Dixit. My family adore Dixit (except for my eldest who is going through his ‘I’m too cool for all of this’ stage of life). From some very circumspect first steps, everyone soon got on board with the pictures and storytelling – and of course the bunny meeples. But I appreciate that abstract games are not for everyone and some people want a bit of meat behind their gaming – a motivation as it were. I guess we should be thankful that Libellud decided to give us Mysterium.
Mysterium, designed by Oleksander Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko, who re-implemented their original design, Tajemnicze Domostwo, by bringing their game of murder, ghosts and psychics to a wider audience in 2015. The game features the haunting of a manor house in the 1920s and the gathering of the world’s finest mediums in an attempt to solve an old mystery within. A restless spirit has been detected within and the only way to put the ghost to rest is to solve its untimely murder. But the spirit’s recollection of events is hazy at best and can only remember snatches of people, places and objects. The mediums must over the course of a single night, help the ghost sort through its shattered memories, piece them back together again and hopefully solve the historic murder.
The game takes the interpretive nature of Dixit; the suspect-location-weapon element from Cluedo (or Clue as some of you may know it from outside the British Isles) and adds in an asymmetrical co-operative element to make Mysterium a unique proposition. One player must be the ghost and the others each take a psychic character card (which has little impact upon the game experience aside from having a nice portrait and a different colour associated with it). The mystery is then assembled from a collection of cards.
Dependant on the number of players and difficulty you wish to play at, a number of random suspect, locations and item cards are dealt out in front of the psychics. Then from behind their screen (which old school Dungeon Masters will get a kick from) the ghost player takes a corresponding set of cards and randomly assigns one to each player in the game (there are convenient pockets on the back of the screen for such a purpose). As a result, each player now has a different suspect, place and item assigned to them against their knowledge. The ghost now has seven turns to try to get each player to identify their cards.
This is done through a series of dream cards which is where the connection to Dixit lies. Each dream card is a surrealist image designed to never truly point at one particular card, but can evoke associations. The ghost player draws 7 cards at the start of the game. Then the ghost provided 1 to 3 of these cards to each player, trying to point them towards the suspect they have been paired with – drawing back up to 7 after this. Once all the dream cards have been given out for a round, an egg timer is turned and psychic players are able to openly discuss their dream cards with the others, trying to guess who their intended target is. The ghost is not allowed to speak during this process and must remain stoically quiet throughout, particularly difficult if one of the players is managing to persuade another away from the correct choice …
If when the timer runs out the player has correctly guessed their required suspect, they discard their dream cards; take the suspect card into their possession and move onto the next stage of guessing the location. If they are incorrect, they must have another attempt next round, with the ghost player providing them with additional dream cards to try and get a better guess.
As said earlier, they psychics have seven turns to ensure they have correctly identified their suspect, location and item (representing seven hours of the séance). If all the players don’t identify their cards within time, then the séance fails and the ghost is forced into further torment – at least until the next time the psychics can have a go. However, if they have all been successful , then there is a final round played.
Each player lays out their respective group of cards, so they have a collection of a suspect, location and item – this represents the psychics having ordered the spirit’s memories sufficiently that it can now remember who were their killer and the means of their untimely demise. The ghost player plays three final dream cards – one corresponding to each of the suspect, location and weapon cards. The players then vote by means of a secret ballot as to which set they believe the ghost player is trying to get them to guess. The votes are tallied up and hopefully the players have guessed the correct cards – the spirit is finally put to rest!
If only it were that simple …
Throughout the game, the players are also voting on their other players guesses – indicating if they think they are right or wrong. They are given 6 tokens at the start of the game (3 correct and 3 wrong), which they can use once on other players guesses (although they are refreshed upon the fourth hour). Each correct token use moves the player up a track which determines when solving the final mystery, how many cards they are allowed to see when they vote. The track is also boosted by how quickly players solve their individual clues. Take a long time and be poor with your hunches and you will only get to see one card. Prove a shrewd judge and sail through your own cards, you get to have a look at all three.
Visually Mysterium is a triumph – just look at that box art, it’s stunning. What most impressed me was the consistency of the art. The gloomy, gothic design carries over from the exterior and inhabits every component within – but without become overpowering. The broken clock that counts down the hours of the séance. The location cards are crammed full of atmosphere. The dream cards, I would arge, are actually better than the cards from Dixit. I would pay particular praise to the suspect cards – each is a character study that achieves so much without any writing or description upon them – everything is a treat for the eyes.
I wish I could say the same about the rulebook …
The rulebook is not great – not because it is a jumbled mess, but because it is so word heavy. It feels as though because there is a complete absence of language on the cards, they decided to use as many of them as possible in the rules. You could probably half as much text and the game would make more sense to your average player – it is not a massively hard system to understand, so why feel like you need a encyclopaedic level detail of how to play?
Once you get past that and into the game, it just flows beautifully. It game is much more social than Dixit, encouraging conversation and discussion over its various interpretations and no-one should dominate by demanding where people cast their votes. You may think you friend is stupid for choosing the governess, when it is clearly the blacksmith – but the other way you can express your displeasure is by putting down your wrong token next to their vote. And then looking very daft when the ghost tells you of course it is the governess.
Okay – the ghost player doesn’t get to join in this social element – but as I have probably been that player more than a psychic, let me tell you that it is extremely rewarding and a bit of a brain teaser at times. You never get that card you perfectly want, so trying to think very laterally is a skill. The room may have picture of a boat in it and you have a dream card that may imply the ocean to you. But what about its other interpretations? Might someone pick upon on the colour blue and tie this to a different room. Or another object you never picked out and make that the source of their obsession. The role can be both a source of great delight and great frustration, but never in a way that made me grow tired of the role.
Unfortunately, I find revealing the final mystery to be a bit of an anti-climax. The arbitrary nature of solving the final riddle just doesn’t grab me as much as the journey of getting there. I am pleased that the majority of the game is more involved than this, but I can’t help but feel slightly let down at the end – and I know I am not the only person to have experienced this.
I must also remark on the number of players for this game. Whilst it says 2-7 this is a lie. Mysterium should never be played with fewer than 4 players. The game rules do provide for how the game should be played with less than 4 players, but this is a diminished experience, as you are forced to play the game as a hollowed out version missing some of the rules of the full game. Two players also loses that social experience that I described earlier. I’m afraid that the 2 and 3 player rules for Mysterium feel tacked on in an attempt to get more copies out of the door.
I have saved Mysterium’s greatest strength for the end – the atmosphere it creates. There are very few games that positively funnel every component and experience towards a common feeling. There is even a soundtrack that can be downloaded and played alongside the game. I have to give this game massive props of how fully committed it is towards its theme – from seeing the original pictures of Tajemnicze Domostwo you can tell how much the designers have worked and refined the game to this current point.
I have heard Mysterium being referred to as “Dixit+” which just seems a little unfair to me. Mysterium does give those players, to whom abstract gaming is an anathema, a reason to enjoy a similar experience. But I think both explore different sides of a similar coin and certainly both are in regular gaming rotation in my house.
So prepare for psychic investigation and summon up your mind powers. This murder will not solve itself …