|Interaction||Components & Design|
Many years ago, in Warwick Manor, there occurred a murder most foul. The crime had been carefully planned and so well executed that the police have ruled it an accident. But ever since Warwick Manor has not been the same. Haunted, they say. And in that haunting the new owner of Warwick Manor sees a chance to have the murder solved still, and the ghost thus laid to rest. He has invited the most famous psychics in the world to contact the ghost and discover what happened. A great plan in theory, if only the ghost wasn’t too traumatized by his death to clearly remember what happened, and if he hadn’t been a member of the Dixit fan club in life.
The game we’re talking about is Mysterium by Oleksandr Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko. They let up to six psychics come to Warwick Manor where they encounter one player in the role of the ghost. Despite the two different roles, Mysterium is a fully cooperative game. The ghost wants the psychics to discover how he died, and the psychics want to find out what really happened, but they don’t compete to be the first.
The psychics’ task doesn’t seem so daunting at first. They have to find who committed the murder, where in the manor it was done and what tool was used. All in a days work for a medium. The matter is complicated by the ghosts traumatic memory loss. He will tell each psychic a completely different story, and after they all pieced together their account of things they enter a final round where they (and the ghost) discover which story is the truest one. But then the matter is complicated again by the ghost being a Dixit maniac. He doesn’t communicate in cryptic verses, by Ouija board, via cold spots, or in any other traditional means of spiritual communication. He sends the psychics images with many surreal details that might mean everything or nothing, and nothing else.
Ghostly Communication 101 – The Rules
When the players arrive at Warwick Manor they find a beautiful and creepy display laid out in front of them. On the manor’s ground floor they find an array of Suspects lined up for them, on the first floor a selection of places in and around the manor, and finally, in the attic, the tools that may have done the deed. And they only have one night, seven hours, before their connection to the spirit realm becomes to weak to receive the ghost’s messages.
Each hour starts with some hard work for the ghost player. From a hand of seven Vision Cards he has to choose at least one for each psychic, but can hand out more if he thinks it will help get his point across. In the first round all psychics will be looking for the murderer in their story. That sounds (slightly) worse than it is, because the Suspect Cards don’t only show a portrait of the person. You can always identify their profession, and on the card they are surrounded by flags, medals, tool and all sorts of knickknacks the ghost’s card can allude to.
After the ghost has chosen all the cards the psychics turn them over and then have one two-minute timer to guess what the ghost was trying to tell them. They may help each other out as much as they want, but in the end they each must put their marker on their guessed card. Then the ghost reveals which of the psychics were right and which were wrong.
The ones who were right advance to the next floor. The rest have to try again next round, but they’ll get another hint from the ghost and have fewer options left, so it gets progressively easier for them. Besides working on their own advancement, psychics can also bet if their colleagues were right or not. For each correct prediction they make here they receive clairvoyance points, which are great in the final round where you find out what really happened. But those bets must be placed in the same two minutes they have to place their own markers, and then time gets pretty short.
The higher the psychics climb in the manor the harder the game gets for them and for the ghost. The Location cards on the second floor have many, tiny details on each card, and the Vision Cards might be connected to any of them. Or to the general mood of the Location. Or to the color scheme. The ghost has a very limited selection of cards, so he might be grasping at straws with the cards he hands out. The murder weapons on the third floor are even more challenging, because those cards show exactly one item and a background color. And you not only want to make it through all three floors, ideally you want to do it quickly. When you found all three parts of your mystery you get one clairvoyance point for each round remaining in the game.
If all players make it to the top – which is not guaranteed – they go to the final round where they each present their stories and then figure out which of them found out what really happened. The ghost doesn’t really find out what happens, he chooses one of the stories. And he should be grateful for it, because this is the hardest part of the game. The ghost will pick three more cards from his hand that should identify one of the psychics’ murder plots. One card for the location, one for the suspect, one for the instrument. Choosing which story is the real story means he at least can pick one that fits his cards, but this is nevertheless the hardest pick of the game.
Then comes the hard part for the psychics. Depending on the clairvoyance points they collected during the game they see all three of the ghost’s cards, only two, or only one of them before they have to decide which of the discovered murder plots is what really happens. And they don’t know which part of the crime the card they see relates to, either. If the majority chooses right then everybody wins, the ghost is released from his earthly bonds and the psychics go home and tell the world of their great powers. If the majority guesses wrong then the ghost stays trapped and I guess the psychics still go home and tell the world of their great powers. Who’s going to check?
Fun in this world AND the next – The Verdict
I keep wanting to say that Mysterium is a mix of Dixit and Clue, only to realize that it’s wrong. You search for the same three things you do in Clue, murderer, scene of crime and weapon, but Mysterium has no deduction element beyond “it can’t be him, I tried that last round.” It’s a Dixit murder mystery, and that’s a pretty good indication who will enjoy Mysterium.
It’s a very different game, of course. It’s cooperative and asymmetric, those are pretty big differences, but the core of interpreting surreal – and beautiful – picture cards to guess what another player might mean is very similar. And it works incredibly well. The surreal Vision Cards don’t show anything that is uniquely recognizable from the cards the players are looking for. There’s always room for interpretation, and often heated discussion between the psychics: the colors of the card are similar to this one, the general mood feels more like that, there’s a knife here and a sword there, but there’s a chair here and a table there. What did the ghost mean!?
And during that discussion, the groaning from behind the screen is not the ghost player trying to be spooky, it’s his expression of despair because his card shows a boat and the player needs the card with all the nautical instruments. Or, worst case, the ghost is in despair because the card had nothing to do with what the player needs but the rules force the ghost to give each psychic at least one card.
That’s the one hair to find in Mysterium, if the ghost doesn’t have the right cards the game can go quite badly. On easy difficulty he can exchange his hand cards for new ones each round, but on medium difficulty it’s already down to thrice per game and only once when playing on hard mode. If you’re unlucky with the cards, some games will be harder than others. However, the general level of difficulty is well balanced, and I especially like how the difficulty increases from floor to floor. The game remains tense even if all the psychics find their suspect on the first try.
Mysterium is another great example how a similar core mechanism can be put in very different games. The asymmetric game with the heart of Dixit is different, but still great. And it doesn’t have to hide behind Dixit when it comes to looks, either. Suspects, locations and Vision Cards are all beautiful and lend a very nice sinister mood to the game. It’d be a shame to exorcise Warwick Manor, really.