Designer: Oleksandr Nevskiy & Oleg Sidorenko
Publisher: Asmodee, Libellud (2019 English edition)
Year Published: 2019
Playing Time: 60 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play
Growing up, my family and I played plenty of classic board games. Monopoly, Chess, Scrabble, and others hit the table every now and then, but the one we played the most often was Clue. If you haven’t played it before, Clue is a deduction game for three to six players where you search a mansion for clues to solve a murder mystery before the other players figure out the solution.
Mysterium takes Clue's conceit and transforms it into something magical. The players are still solving a murder mystery, but here they're Psychics receiving visions from the victim’s Ghost. Well, all except one player. That last player is the Ghost, and they are not allowed to speak to the Psychics for the entire game. They can only communicate by giving vision cards to the Psychics. These cards depict surreal and abstract art. Unlike Clue, all the psychics are working together and can share their visions with the other players to try and figure out what the Ghost is trying to tell them.
At the beginning of the game, the Ghost will arrange a number of cards face-up on the table for all to see. The set closest to the players will be various suspects who were at the house when the Ghost was murdered last year. The next set are locations in or near the house where the murder may have occurred. And the last set are various objects that may have been used to murder the ghost. The Psychics all start with their markers at the first step. The Ghost will secretly assign one person, place, and thing to each player behind the screen. The Ghost’s objective is to get each Psychic to identify their specific Person, Place, and Thing before the end of the seventh round.
In the first round, the Ghost will give 1-7 vision cards to a player to help them guess their suspect. Then the Ghost draws that many cards from the vision deck before giving a hint to the next player. The Ghost continues this until every Psychic has at least one vision card. Once the Ghost has given a vision to a player, they cannot give that player any additional cards. Then the Psychics discuss their visions, and place their markers on the suspects that they each think match their visions. Last, the Ghost tells each player if they are correct or not. If you want to stay in the spirit of things, the Ghost can use gestures or facial expressions, but my friends and I just use words for convenience.
If a Psychic is correct, they move their marker up to the next stage and discard their vision card(s). They pick up their suspect card and slide it into their Psychic Sleeve (it’s just cardboard) for later. Their next vision will be about a location. If the Psychic is incorrect, they remain at their first stage and keep their vision cards. The Ghost will give them an additional vision of 1 – 7 cards to supplement their existing vision and hopefully help pinpoint the correct suspect.
After seven rounds, if not all of the Psychics have identified their Person, Place, and Thing, then everyone loses. But if they all make it, then the game shifts into Phase 2. Each of the players will lay out their suspect, location, and object cards so that everyone can see them all. The Ghost will determine player’s set is the actual murderer, and then provide a final vision to point the Psychics to the proper murderer. The Ghost’s final vision is three cards, one each for the person, place, and thing. However, the Ghost cannot tell the players which vision card belongs to which category. The players will have to figure that out for themselves. And unlike the previous rounds, the Psychics cannot discuss the vision. They must figure it out for themselves. Once everyone has thought it over, they will secretly select which player’s combination they think is the murderer. The Ghost will reveal the correct answer, then the Psychics reveal their selections. If a majority of the Psychics get it correct, the players win!
What I love about Mysterium is that it resembles a one vs. many game. The Ghost has to make strategic decisions about which cards to play, how many to give, and when to use their ravens. I didn’t mention ravens. The Ghost begins the game with several raven tokens perched on their screen. At any time they can remove a raven token, make a cawing noise, and discard their hand to draw seven new cards. In other words, the Ghost gets to play a resource management game where the only resource is weird art.
The other players are cooperating, and all they have to do is try to figure out what exactly the Ghost was thinking. Is this picture of a chessboard with a piece of cheese a hint toward the hunter, because he hunts game and chess is game? Or is it a hint for the chef because it has food on it? Or could it be the pointing to the heiress with her elegant black and white dress? Since the Psychics can discuss with each other, they can piece together clues or talk each other out of the correct answer. And all along the Ghost can only listen and moan inwardly at how dumb their friends are!
I first learned Mysterium in the simplified mode I described here, where the players are simply trying to solve the mystery. Those are actually just the rules for a two or three player game. I’ve found that this is also a fun way to introduce this game to players who may not be familiar with board games and want a lighter experience. You can always adjust the difficulty by adding more red herring cards to each set, reducing the number of ravens the Ghost has access to, or by using the timer that the game provides in the box to force players to figure out their visions more quickly (I have never used the timer, I think it's unnecessary). But the full game (i.e. 4-7 players) adds an extra mechanic to give players more investment in everyone else’s choices.
This extra bit is called the “Clairvoyance Track.” Each player begins the game with six clairvoyance tokens, three marked with a checkmark and three with an x. When a player thinks they know what their vision cards are hinting towards, they place their marker on that card. Then the other players can use their clairvoyance tokens to show if they think the guess is correct or not. If the vote is correct, then that player’s clairvoyance marker advances on the track. If it’s incorrect, nothing happens.
Whether you are right or wrong, the token is used up and set aside. That’s right, each player only gets to vote six times. However! At the beginning of Round 4, every player gets their spent clairvoyance tokens back, so that’s a maximum of 12 votes by the end of the game. Also, when a solves their last vision and identifies their object, they advance on the clairvoyance track a number of spaces equal to the number of rounds left before the end of the game. In other words, 0-4 spaces depending on how quickly they solve their mystery.
So what’s the clairvoyance track for? Well, it’s relevant to Phase 2. When the Ghost reveals the final vision, they won’t reveal all three cards at once. Instead, players who are low on the clairvoyance track will only get to see one card, and must make their final selection based on that one card. Players who pass a certain level will get to see 2 cards, while players who advance high enough get to see all three. That’s right, the final decision will come down to people with incomplete information. That adds a big wrinkle to the Ghost’s decision for which vision cards to use. It also makes the game significantly harder to win if you do manage to reach Phase 2.
As you can see, this game is fairly light compared to other strategy games, but also fairly involved compared to other party games. It takes the inductive reasoning of a game like Dixit or Wise and Otherwise, and adds a plot and a concrete goal. The best part of Mysterium is its art. The design is gorgeous, evocative, and creepy in all the right ways. The vision cards are so abstract and surreal that it’s a joy just to look at them. And what’s great is that it can fit players who are in a variety of moods. If a player wants a real challenge for their brain, they can play as the Ghost and make the hard decisions each turn. If a player wants something more low-key, they can join the Psychics in the cooperative effort to solve the mystery. And there are so many ways to adjust the difficulty that you can tailor the experience for your friend’s experience level.
The one major downside to this game is that setup is complicated. There are seven decks of cards to shuffle and arrange and sort through, and nearly all of it has to be done by the ghost otherwise the Psychics will have information about which people are the red herrings. The game’s box states that a game takes 42 minutes, which is fairly accurate. However, I listed the game at 60 minutes above because once you include setup, that’s a more realistic estimate.
But what’s remarkable is that this is really the only flaw to the game. Everything else is so well-designed that all kinds of people can have fun with this game. If you play it too much, you may find that you start to get tired of seeing the same cards, or if you have the same ground of friends playing you may develop a shorthand where certain vision cards always mean certain clues. There’s a simple solution to this problem: add other cards! If you have a copy of Dixit or something similar, you can replace or intermingle the vision cards with that game's cards. Or, if you want to preserve the integrity of your game, you can get one of Mysterium’s expansions. These offer many new cards for every deck, which will jolt the game into something more lively again. Mysterium is a game that is always worth playing.