New Game Weekend: Mysterium

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I have a lingering boyhood fondness for the board game Clue, a classic murder mystery game that has gone through countless versions since it was introduced in the 1940s. In 1985, the game jumped from the tabletop onto movie screens with the hilarious cult classic movie Clue and what I recall as a wildly fun Clue VCR Mystery Game which presented an early attempt at interactive video play. The murder mystery concept among a captive group of suspects and investigators is just a fun story to play through, making the basic plot line of Clue in all its forms timeless. Like many classic games though, Clue leaves a bit to be desired in terms of long-term playability once players creep out of their childhood and teen years.

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The original Polish game of Tajemnicze Domostwo

That said, I still love a good murder mystery game, so I was glad to be introduced to Mysterium last year by a fellow member of Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. Mysterium was originally released in a Polish edition by Portal Games in 2013 as Tajemnicze Domostwo, or the “Mysterious Homestead,” and the game has gone through a number of international language versions since. I first played the Italian Il Sesto Senso, or “The Sixth Sense,” in early 2015 and was anxious for a readily available and revamped English version to be released later in the year by Asmodee.

MysteriumContentsContents of the English version of Mysterium by Asmodee

Unlike Clue, Mysterium is a collaborative game for 2-7 players. In the game, a new owner of a mansion has hired a group of mediums to work with a friendly ghost in the house to solve an old murder mystery in a seven-hour overnight séance. One player works as the ghost along with the other players as mediums to uncover the suspect, location and weapon used in the murder. The ghost knows how to solve the mystery but may only communicate with the mediums in each hour (turn) through abstract dream or ‘vision’ cards, attempting to point each clairvoyant toward the solution. After each hour, the ghost reveals to each clairvoyant if they have found their suspect, location and weapon. Those that have solved a piece of the mystery move onward and those who have not remain to try again in the next round. If all mediums uncover their individual three-part combination before the seventh hour arrives, a final round of dream clues are delivered to all the players to vote for the final solution. If the majority select the correct final suspect, location and weapon, everyone wins. If the group doesn’t choose the correct combination, everyone loses.

imageMedium players await their vision cards in Mysterium

Mysterium is truly collaborative, with a ton of discussion and debate among the medium players as the ghost delivers vision dream cards to them in each round. Mediums can also vote to agree or disagree with other player choices, with each successful vote earning the medium additional chances to view vision cards in the final round of the mystery. Over many recent games my three-generation group of family members found the more players the better in winning Mysterium.

imageMediums discuss their visions and try to solve the mystery in Mysterium

The recent English version of the game I picked up ahead of the holidays contains a lot of revised artwork and playing pieces (including a nice screen for the ghost and nifty clock turn counter) compared to the more spare European versions of the game. The design is beautiful and the abstract vision, suspect, location and weapon cards are a feast for the eyes. To mix things up a bit, we played a few games using cards from Dixit (also from Asmodee) as vision cards since the abstract illustrations fit nicely with the game. Playing the game on a table laid with a red cloth and some electrified candles also added to the séance setting for the game, and I could imagine it being a great theme game for a party or around Halloween.

Three generations of my family playing Mysterium

With a game of Mysterium lasting about an hour, it makes for a great game among a group of inquisitive friends and family. Like many collaborative games, the cards and pieces on the table are just tools, and the real game happens in the minds and conversations among the players. If you played Clue as a kid and unraveling a mystery is still your thing, Mysterium is really a dream game.

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Games Take A Vacation

I’m currently midway through my family’s annual summer vacation week on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and as always, games are on my mind. Renting a vacation house often gives an odd insiderish view to other people’s lives. The weird assortment of kitchen gadgets (who needs three waffle makers?), the hodgepodge of furniture, the collection of beachy knickknacks and bookshelves of worn bestsellers all seem to exist in various forms in the homes we’ve rented over the years. I always wonder how much this conglomeration of stuff reveals about the unseen owners who cash our rental checks each year and how much it tells me about my fellow vacationers.

Piles of games also usually inhabit vacation rental homes. Cottage owners probably provide a few games to start. Over the years families may pick up a game at a local gift shop and then leave it at the house for the next renter. For rainy days away from the beach or late nights after the sand has been rinsed off sunburned bodies, games hold a pretty consistent presence in the vacation home experience. I would hazard to guess that families who hardly ever find themselves playing board or card games together at home do so as part of their sacred vacation ritual.

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Games found in vacation rentals usually fall into a few broad categories. First, there are standard playing cards. Adults and kids alike can find many games for cards, from a calm game of Go Fish with a toddler to a game of Poker on the screened porch for the grown-ups after the children are tucked into bed. The house this summer has no less than ten decks of cards, including two unopened packs and a sailboat-decorated double set like the ones my grandmother and aunts used to use to play Bridge. Cribbage boards are also pretty commonly found along with cards, although I personally know few people who know how to play the game these days. Poking around in drawers and shelves this year revealed five cribbage boards, including two folding portable ones and a folksy handmade version with holes drilled into a slab of age-darkened wood cut into the shape of a whale (pic below). Tucked in a desk drawer I also found a set of five standard six-sided dice still sealed in their dusty package. Like so many items in a vacation home, I wondered at the story behind these dice. Why were they purchased? Why have they been left abandoned for so many years without use?

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The second class of vacation games fall into what I call “American Classics.” These are family-friendly board games like Life, Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Checkers and Clue. To these I’d also add word games like Boggle and Scrabble, the dice game Yahtzee and Dominoes, all  of which were with us in this year’s house. Nostalgia and tradition resonate with these games, each offering a familiarity to vacationers year after year. These classics also give the flexibility for  games to be played among family members of all ages and the chance to introduce a new generation to an old favorite.

This year we also found a copy of Mastermind at the house, a classic board game outlier I’d never encountered in a rental cottage before. I hadn’t played in probably 30 years but was glad to find my eight-year-old son was an old hand at the game from playing a school. While not very challenging for me at this point, I was more than happy to pass an hour with this classic deductive code-solving game as part of a rainy day of indoor activity.

Finally, there’s the modern adult party games like Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Scattergories, Balderdash and Outburst which grew out of the boom in adult board games in the 80s and 90s.  These games are light on rules and big on group participation, making them the perfect thing to fill rowdy late nights for adults well into their gin and tonics or local summer brews. A copy of 1967’s trivia game Facts In Five was in the pile at the house this year, perhaps the result of a local yard sale find in the past.

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Along with packing the car with luggage, beach gear and bikes, we usually stow some games for our annual week away. This year, we hauled along several games from home, including Small World, Civilization (pic above), Settlers of Catan and the horse racing game Winner’s Circle. My kids and wife have developed a liking toward well-designed strategy games and can even be found delivering sneers and eye-rolls at the mere mention of a game like Monopoly. A simple deck of cards or a heap of Parker Brothers classics just don’t make the grade when there are grand civilization-building strategies to be played, even while on vacation.

Like many vacation home renters, I often fantasize about owning my own funky little cottage on the Cape. Part of this fantasy is how I’d decorate it with only the most thoughtful and interesting collection of furniture, useful yet surprising books and top-of-the-line kitchenware. Added to this list would be a set of well-curated games, short on too many classics and filled out with the best Eurogames there are to offer. Maybe a couple basic Dungeons & Dragons books and a bag of polyhedral dice sitting on a shelf would inspire some vacation role-playing. I’d be sure to throw in the occasional retro game for irony, but my hope would be be that my renters would be pleasantly surprised by having their minds expanded while on vacation.

But then, I wake up from my real estate dream and realize most people probably don’t want a challenge on vacation. A deck of cards or a familiar board game is what most folks will ever want on those few precious days away from home each year. For me though, gaming never takes a holiday.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Survive!

surviveboxBy the early 1980s, I had a shelf full of games from Parker Brothers. Like millions of other kids, I was brought up on Parker Brothers classics like Monopoly, Clue, Risk and Sorry! Most of these games were already a couple generations old by the time I first played them, and, despite their updates, they were showing their age a bit. But then in 1982 Parker Brothers introduced Survive! which has gone on to be a new modern classic for gamers of all ages.

The story of the game involved each player trying to get their tribespeople off an island which is quickly sinking into the sea. At the beginning of the game, the hex land tiles – beach, forest and mountains – were shuffled and then placed randomly on the board to create the island. Then, in turn, each player placed their ten tribespeople tokens with up to three per hex except for beach spaces which held only one. Each player piece had a number value etched into the bottom, and saving the higher-valued tribespeople was key to scoring and winning the game. Cardboard lifeboats were then placed floating at the edges of the island and a sea monster figure went in the lagoon at the center of the island.

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Each turn, players moved their tribespeople and then removed a tile, beginning with beach hexes and then forests and mountains. Player’s pieces which fell into the water drowned, but you could also move your a piece to a water space as a swimming would-be survivor. Boats carried up to three survivors at once and could carry tokens from multiple tribes at once. Removed tiles had special events on the back and might indicate the appearance of a whale, dolphin or shark in that hex. Finally, a die was rolled to move a sea creature dipicted on the special die.

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Strategy for the game involved getting as many of your tribespeople to the coral islands at the corners of the board before a mountain hex piece was turned over to reveal a volcanic eruption killing all survivors not safely away. Moving a whale to a space with a boat capsized the boat, tossing any passengers into the water. A dophin could carry one tribesperson swiftly through the water. Sharks ate swimming survivors and the sea monster destroyed a boat and all its passengers. Other tiles revelaed different special actions, including whirlpools which destroyed anything in that and immediately adjoining spaces. The combination of all the possible outcomes and actions of the other players made for a mix of competitive and collaborative play, always balancing what was best for your tribespeople against what the other player’s actions were.

At the time, there were a number of things that set Survive! apart from most other conventional board games. The board featured hex-shaped spaces like many of the fantasy and RPG games I was playing then. The board was also different each time you played, adding a randomness factor not found in most board games featuring a traditional static set up every time you played. The game components were a bit less abstract and more like the “meeples” now a common part of just about any Eurogame.

A European version of the game appeared a few years after the original with a few variations. In 2010, Survive: Escape from Atlantis! was released by Stronghold Games with an updated game using elements of both versions in one. Since then, Strongehold Games has also released a number of expansions including a 5-6 player variant and others containing extra sea creatures. The game remains widely available, and the 30th anniversary base game released in 2012 can now be picked up for $40 with expansions running for $10 (all cheaper online).

More than three decades on, Survive: Escape From Atlantis! has entered the modern canon of board games. Whether your tribe includes kids or a group of friends looking to pick-up a quick new game, heading back to the island of Survive! is well worth the ride.

Collector’s Note: While Survive: Escape From Atlantis is now widely available, original copies of the 1982 first edition of Survive! can be found on eBay for $25-50. Individual game components are also available for a few bucks apiece, just in case any of yours were swallowed-up by a sea monster over the years.