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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Giving Thanks With Gaming

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A week from now, Americans will be sitting down at Thanksgiving and joining with friends and family around tables in shared gratitude. Actually, Thanksgiving put this way sounds like what I do every week with dice, cards and game pieces instead of turkey and side dishes.

The time after Thanksgiving dinner was traditionally a time for games at my grandparents house when I was a kid. After the dishes were cleared, some of my uncles would sack out on the couch in front of a football game on TV but I always lingered at the table where the real games were happening. My grandmother, great aunts, aunts and mom would hold court at one end of the room-length table with a few rounds of Bridge and family gossip. At the far end, some other aunts and uncles hauled out a well worn Scrabble board and played a steady game of vocabulary one-upmanship. Some of my cousins would spread around on the hallway floor for games of War, Parcheesi and Hi Ho! Cherry-O. As the eldest of my many cousins, I always sat at the big table for dinner and there I mostly remained watching the adults play their games.

This year I’m particularly grateful to be hosting my brother and his family for our holiday shared meal. My brother is my oldest gaming partner dating back to the 70s and 80s when we first discovered oddly-shaped dice and little metal miniatures to paint. We are both fortunate to have wonderfully understanding wives who who have partnered with us in raising a second generation of tabletop gamers, and all of us will be present in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving this year.

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After dinner games

Our tastes in games range wider than the traditional board and card games favored by the older generations in my family. Even so, getting four adults and five kids (boys and girls ranging in ages 10 to 16) all engaged in the same game today remains a challenge. Our interests and commitments vary, but here are few which have worked for our family’s diverse audience over holidays past.

  • Dixit makes for a light but engaging game right after dinner with the various family members pairing off into story-telling and story-deciphering teams. This is a great multi-generational game to play since the kids can just as easily out-baffle the adults by using the key game component they always carry — their imaginations.
  • Guillotine switches the tone and ratchets up the humor for the Francophiles and budding historians with a twisted sense of humor. Nothing says family time at our dinner table like the beheading of aristocratic one-percenters during the French Revolution, all played with goofy cards. It might be a bit too off-color for some families, but all our kids dig this one.
  • For the classically-romantic, multiple hands of Love Letter makes for a royal crowd pleaser as cards are quickly played in a quest to win the heart of the fair princess. Lest that sound overly mushy, there’s a ton of game wrapped up in just a few cards which easily play anywhere. The Batman version will also make a first appearance this year, switching up courtiers with DC Comics heroes and super villains.
  • One Night: Ultimate Werewolf seems to fit the natural progression from dinner into evening. My extended family can be a bit on the boisterous side, so squaring off as villagers versus a werewolf threat in tense 10-minute games. I’ve heard from a lot of people who love playing this one with family around the holidays, since it inevitably brings out the liars and agendas in the crowd.
  • As the evening rolls on well past dessert, a couple pots of coffee and a few drinks, some of the kids and adults will inevitably drift away from the table. For those of us who remain, a rowdy round of our favorite Letters From Whitechapel makes for a grand late night hunt for Jack The Ripper. Set on the dark streets of Victorian London prowled by cops, prostitutes and a famed serial killer, a group of players team up to hunt for Jack as he secretly makes his way home. If the theme doesn’t seem to fit the holiday spirit for you, think of it as a way for you and your family and friends to work together in one of the better cat-and-mouse games I’ve ever played.

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Black Friday games

The Friday after Thanksgiving is a day off for many, and hoards of Americans are up early, out the door and racking-up credit card debt with overly-publicized Black Friday shopping. Since I do everything I can to avoid the masses over the holiday weekend, the Friday after our family feast presents a rare full day to be filled with gaming. This year it’s also my visiting brother’s birthday, and celebrating the day is a great opportunity to pull a few a few of the larger board games off my shelf. I usually max out at about 2-3 players in these games, so having up to five players around the table will be a treat.

  • Civilization: The Boardgame is one of the granddaddys of civilization-building games. The game built on the innovations of the original Civilization games with a progressive “tech-tree” mechanic where technologies build within a historical timeline over thousands of years. Players march toward victory through different paths of warfare, culture and technology, allowing each player to work to their strengths and interact with human history along the way. With the Fame and Fortune and Wisdom and Warfare expansions, more possibilities and a fifth player are added into a game which stretches across the eons and a few hours of play.
  • Slaughtering the undead through an apocalyptic wasteland again doesn’t sound very holiday-like, Zombicide is a great collaborative game of survivors versus mobs of zombies. Like my formative dungeon-crawling adventures with Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, Zombicide follows a party as they collect weapons and other survival items, level up in ability and accomplish missions. The game quickly goes from bad to worse over a couple hours, and working together as a group is the only way of surviving.
  • One of my favorite multi-hour games is Arkham Horror, based on the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. This is a big, beautiful game set in a sleepy New England Town inexplicably invaded by netherworld beasts. Adventurers team up, acquire weapons and magical items and seek to destroy the beasts who threaten the world with dominating insanity and destruction. Events, monsters and player characters all come with a deep narrative that unfolds throughout the game, taking this game off the board into a terrifically eerie role-playing experience.
  • While not a long time commitment, the card-driven Marvel Superheroes Legendary is best played in a big group of superhero players teaming up to foil the evil plans of an arch nemesis. Another collaborative game, Legendary really “feels” like a comic book to me with various hero characters growing in power and skills which play off the other characters on their team, whether it be the X-Men, Avengers or Fantastic Four. My brother and I have been huge Marvel Comics fans for decades, so getting into a game which has characters leaping from the page to the table is still as much of a thrill for us in our late 40s as it is for our kids.

Every family has their holiday traditions, and each generation builds on these and creates their own new traditions. Games remain a constant thread for my extended family through the holiday run from Thanksgiving through Christmas. The themes, mechanics and mechanics may have changed over the years, but at the root of our gaming is the chance to spend a few hours playing with those closest to us. This Thanksgiving, step away from the screens, clear the table and find your own gaming tradition with your family and friends.

New Game Weekend: Dixit Journey

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I play a lot of games with my kids. I started them at an early age, so they have a pretty healthy knowledge and love for hefty wargaming miniatures games like Flames of War and elaborate strategy games like Settlers of Catan, Village, Canterbury and Civilization. Even with a big stack of boardgames crowding our shelves, we regularly run into new games that capture our imagination in new ways. After several rounds of of Dixit Journey with three generations of my family over the Thanksgiving weekend, we have a new favorite in our constantly-growing list of favorites.

journeycontentsDixit Journey is a variation on the family of games and expansions from Asmodee , an award-winning French Eurogame publisher. In essence, Dixit is a storytelling game with the only real skill needed is your imagination. Each round a storyteller player secretly selects an illustrated card from their hand of six cards and announces a clue somehow referenced by the picture on the card. Anything can be used for a clue — song lyrics, characters from a book, famous quotes, historical figures, TV shows, sounds, news stories, etc. — provided it somehow references something depicted on the card. After the clue is announced, the other players then likewise secretly select a card from their hands which they think may also depict the clue in some way.

Cards are then revealed and laid out along the edge of the board. All players except the storyteller then place their guesses on the card they think is the storyteller’s card. Player guesses are then revealed with points going to the storytller if their card is selected and to other players whose cards were also guessed on. Choosing an overly-obvious card and clue combination everyone guesses correctly results in no points for the storyteller, so balancing a clue and card pairing that is both guessable but not too literal is key to the winning the game.

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Like many Eurogames, Dixit is simple on the surface with minimal rules and reading but creatively open in how it plays out. In our games, one clue was given as an interpretive dance of sorts. Other clues included movie references, literary allusions and just flat-out odd phrases inspired almost wholly by the cards themselves. Part of the fun of the game is to see how it plays out with different people’s minds interpretting the same clue in multiple cards.

For a taste of how a game of Dixit plays, check out  the episode below of Wil Weaton’s always entertaining Tabletop web series.

Dixit is a gorgeous game with trippy, weird and abstract cards that may be reused over and over again. The many expansions available add more storytelling possibilities to the game, and the Journey edition makes some improvements on the scoring and game board included in the first edition box. Playing in about a half hour and with multiple players or even teams, Dixit makes for a great nighttime game with family or friends of all ages after the dinner plates are cleared.