Mysterium Review – Casper the Confusing Ghost

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Designed by: Oleksandr Nevskiy, Oleg Sidorenko
Published by: Asmodee
Players: 2-7

Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.

In a feverish dream a ghost comes to you. It gestures toward a small table bearing Cluedo. With a shake of its head the ghost waves its hands and the word, “naff” is slowly carved into the box by some unseen hand. With another wave of the ghost’s hand the box is blown to smithereens, its pitiful existence annihilated in the blink of an eye. Before your very eyes the ghost creates from thin air a new box with the words Mysterium on it. With a nod it proffers the box, then begins to shake it at you. It clearly wishes you to accept the gift, so you reach out and as soon as your fingers touch the square container the ghost grins a ghastly grin, and then you wake up with a start. And that’s how I woke up next to a copy of Mysterium. Truly, the world is a mysterious place.

You see, Mysterium is much like Cluedo. Except, y’know, good. Cluedo has its place in the world, but it’s hardly a game that rewards skill or intelligence, although I’m sure there’s a small army of people waiting to disagree with me, which is fair enough. In it you must discover the name of a murderer, where the committed the crime and what horrible weapon they use, but to do this you just roll some dice and amble from room to room and asking other players if they’re holding certain cards. Sure, there’s some deduction involved and every now and then I don’t have any problem playing it, but it’s just so damn dull.

In Mysterium a group of people will take on the role of psychics who seek to solve a murder by attempting to communicate with the spirit of the deceased. One player will be that spirit, speaking with the psychics via the medium of incredibly vague visions, hopefully helping them to pinpoint the guilty party through a slightly odd method of first directing them toward several different potential murderers first. It’s like Cluedo, then, but so much more awesome because ghosts.

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Given until the clock strikes seven (that’s seven rounds to you, noob) the psychics must first finger (hehe) the person they believe responsible, then move to figuring out the location before finally establishing the murder weapon. As players move from one section to the next they’ll pick up each card they got correct, adding it to their own little pouch in preparation for the finale where the true kill will be revealed. As they do this the ghost watches on, silent and possibly a bit annoyed.

Speaking of which the ghost will be given a sizable deck of vision cards, and every round he or she will draw seven of these and hand them out to players to aid their investigation. The problem is these cards are highly abstract, depicting all manner of strange scenes that don’t seem to have any form of connection to the people, locations and weapons laid on the table. What does a guy on a unicycle balancing on a rope high above a city have to do with anything? No idea. But then, that’s the point. Mysterium wants you to open up your thinking and become creative with how you approach the puzzle before you, seeking out small details and potential links that you would never normally consider. Being the ghost is easily the most difficult job in Mysterium, because no matter what you do you feel like a failure. Every card you gift to the others will most likely only cause them frustration, and it’s possible that you might even choose not to hand any cards to a player at all because there’s nothing useful. It’ll frustrate you, too, because while maybe you can see some form of connection between the visions and the cards on the table the player you sent those startling dreams to might not see them at all. That’s why the game is best played with close friends, the kind of people who might be able to make educated guesses about how you think. Yet for all of its intense frustration Mysterium can create the most magnificent moments of delight when a player looks at their dream cards and things just click.

It’s a shared moment, too, because Mysterium is nearly an entirely co-operative experience, unless you count the obvious desire to prove your own smarts over everyone else. Every player around the table is at perfect liberty to lean over and help their fellow psychics out, attempting to help solve the mystery, because you see each player has a different person, location and weapon that they must find by the time the lovely cardboard clock has advanced seven hours. At the start of the game some suspects, locations and weapons will be dealt out onto the table, one of each very every player some extra ones for added confusion. The ghost will then pick out the matching cards (they’re all numbered for ease) from his/her decks and randomly select one person, place and weapon for each player The ghost will keep this information behind his/her screen for the remainder of the game, so in this way each player is looking to identify their own set of three cards, leaving them free to also help their comrades figure out theirs. At the end of each round player’s will reveal their selection, and if correct will move on from selecting a person to identifying a location, and then a weapon, while anybody who gets it wrong must remain where they are, although they do get to retain all dream cards in order to help them out.

Notice that I said it’s nearly an entirely co-operative experience? That’s because there is one mildly competitive element; whenever all the players have made their decision as to what card they believe the ghost is trying to point them toward everyone can either agree or disagree with the assertion, placing down a token to indicate their opinion. If they’re proven correct they’ll move along a track next to the ghost’s screen which becomes important at the end of the game. You see, for some odd reason the ghost spends the entire time trying to guide psychics toward several different suspects, locations and weapons rather than directing all of his/her energy toward pinpointing the specific murderer. What this equates to is that if everybody manages to successfully identify their person, place and weapon by the time the clock strikes seven they’ll clear the table and place their acquired cards down to form sets. The ghost then secretly selects which set is going to be the correct one, before picking out three vision cards from his/her hand that represent the person, place and item. These cards get placed face down on the table, and will be flipped over one at a time. As for the players, their position on the track I mentioned earlier indicates at what point they must cast their vote as to which set they believe to be the correct one. If you didn’t do well then you’ll need to cast your vote once the first vision card has been flipped over, while those who did better might get to vote at the second or even third card. So while there is the tiniest touch of competitiveness in agreeing or disagree with your fellow psychics it’s therefore in the groups best interest to help each other out so they stand a better chance of getting this last stage right, since it’s the majority vote that wins out.

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If it sounds a little complex in writing, don’t worry; Mysterium is incredibly easy to teach and play. Even my little eight-year-old niece was able to enjoy the game, although unsurprisingly she did struggle to find the links between her vision cards and the cards on the table. The point is what I love about Mysterium is that I was able to bring it out with just about any group of people, from experienced players to complete novices, and teach it to them in just a few minutes. Everyone grasped it, and everyone enjoyed it.

But here’s my absolute favorite bit of the game; according to the rules the ghost should never utter a single word throughout the entire experience, remaining silent and hopefully expressioneless so that he or she doesn’t give anything away. The only communication the ghost is allowed is the handing out of dream cards and the incredibly tense moment when he or she can knock on the table to indicate whether a player has guessed correctly. One knock for no, two knocks for yes. It’s such a small detail, but if you follow this rule then those knocks are the best moments of the game, because when the ghost raps on the table once everybody holds their breath, waiting for the second knock…that doesn’t come. Everybody breathes out and looks deflated. But then NO! There’s that second knock. Grins appear on the faces of the players. It’s just damn brilliant. It’s a moment of thematic beauty.

But no, wait. That’s not the brilliant bit. The brilliant bit is the end when everybody sets down their cards, takes a moment to gather themselves and then conversation erupts like a volcano around the table as the ghost can finally speak and all the players want to discuss what just happened. At long last the ghost can finally reveal all those tenous links that the psychics didn’t get, almost screaming his/her reasoning across the room. “What the bloody hell did this mean!?” one player asks loudly, to which the ghost replies, “How did you not get that, you tit?” or something to that effect. I can only assume that your gaming pals may not be quite as foul-mouthed as mine. In our very first game my group directly accused me of being a crap ghost and giving them utter nonsense to deal with, so I smugly stood aside to let someone else take on the role of the deceased for the next game, and to my delight half-way through they broke their silence to admit that being a spirit isn’t all that easy. At the end of each game we’d all just talk about it, and that’s rare. Normally when we finish a game we might  briefly chat about it, but then we’d move on to something else or put on a movie or whatever. Not so with Mysterium. It sparks conversation.

Underneath all this there’s so smart design at work. The suspect’s cards depict not only the person but various bits of paraphernalia that go with them, like a set of bagpipes or a picture of a race card, while the location cards tend to be cluttered and full of things that visions could be indicating. The weapon cards change your train of thought completely because they don’t have any distractions; just a background color and the item, which doesn’t give the ghost very much to work with. Whether a player is seeking a suspect, a location or a weapon alters the game subtly but smartly.

And did I mention how pretty it all looks? There’s some rather beautiful artwork to be found within the box, and once the entire game is laid out on the table, complete with the ghost’s screen that has plastic pockets to hold cards, it looks great. You just need to Get yourself a oiuja board and some candles to complete the loo. Mind you don’t accidentally summon the ghost of Elvis or something, though. Bugger is a right pain to get rid of.

To summarise, then, I rather love this game.It is horribly frustrating when you’re struggling and delightfully satisfying when you aren’t. It is not difficult to learn, either, making it a great choice if you’re friends aren’t big gamers. The fact that it’s co-operative and that there’s no dice, miniatures or other stuff definately makes it look and feel inviting to anyone unused to the charms of tabletop gaming. Since getting my grubby mitts on it Mysterium has become a staple of my gaming nights, a true delight that I don’t forsee leaving my collection anytime soon. Therefore this one is a very easy recommendation from me.

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