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Review: Tajemnicze Domostwo (Mysterium)

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Mysterium TD box

This mansion is haunted, and it’s your job to fix that.

You see, there’s a ghost here who was executed for a murder he didn’t commit. And in order to get the ghost to rest in peace and, you know, move on, you need to clear his name and bring the real killer to justice.

Unfortunately, the ghost doesn’t have a lot of tools at his disposal. He can’t speak and can only use surreal dreams to pass along information.

Oh. And he only has seven days to tell you everything about the night of the murder.

Are you up for the challenge? Find out in Tajemnicze Domostwo!

How It Works

Tajemnicze Domostwo (“Mysterious Mansion,” known to my friends as “Polish Ghosts” and hereafter referred to by the name it will bear Stateside, “Mysterium”) is an asymmetrical cooperative party game for two to seven players. One player is a ghost who was wrongfully executed for a murder. He or she uses surreal dream cards to get the other players to guess the correct suspect and situation before the end of the seventh round. If players guess the correct suspect, all the players win.

The non-ghost players each receive a detective sheet, a wooden disc, and a clock token in their chosen color, and the ghost player receives a colored disc for each of the other players’ color. Players separate the game cards into six piles–ghost/player piles for suspect, location, and weapon. One pile of each type is shuffled, and a number of cards is dealt depending on the number of players and the desired difficulty. Then, the matches are pulled from the other respective piles. The player cards are laid face up on the table in full view of all the players. The ghost deals one suspect, location, and weapon card in front of each of the wooden discs, representing what each non-ghost player has to guess throughout the game. The ghost draws a hand of six clue cards.

Each investigator receives a cardboard sheet, a clock (to record which clue they are guessing), and a token to mark their guess.
Each investigator receives a cardboard sheet, a clock (to record which clue they are guessing), and a token to mark their guess.

In a round, the ghost will give each player at least one and as many as three clue cards with surreal art that represent a dream. The goal is to get each player to guess at one of the three cards in their individual solution. The ghost player must remain silent, but the other players may communicate freely. When players think they know which card they’re supposed to guess, they place their disc on the card in the common display. Once all players have placed their tokens, the ghost reveals which players were correct. Players who guessed correctly move to the next piece of information they have to guess (in order, weapon, location, suspect) and discard their clues. Players who guessed incorrectly must guess on the same piece of information again and keep their clues in front of them.

Once all players have correctly discerned the full set of weapon, location, and suspect information, the ghost gives one final dream to the group as a whole pointing to one of the players’ suspects as the true killer. If the group guesses the true killer correctly before the end of the seventh round, the players win.

Note: There are two (soon to be three) rule sets for this game, depending on the edition you own. They are all subtle variations on the same theme. My rules explanation follows the Portal rulebook, although in practice I often modify the rules to fit the group. (See my review.)

Ghostly Guessing, or Ghostly Messing?

We have a long-standing rule at iSlaytheDragon that we review a game based on what a game is rather than what it could be. That is, as Futurewolfie has pointed out, we don’t test variants intended to fix rules that are only posted on a publisher’s website or Board Game Geek. We try to imagine the experience a new player has when just opening a game without trying to fix whatever we don’t like.

With my review of Mysterium, I’m going to break from this tradition because the game is ripe for group modification (as you will see). And because Mysterium is simply one of the best social games I’ve played. Period.

The "board" setup. There are nine possible cards laid out for each category.
The “board” setup. There are nine possible cards laid out for each category.

The rules for Mysterium are fairly simple, although when players first hear them, the game sounds overwhelming. I have to guess how much? By when? And you use what cardsWhile I’m usually in favor of fully explaining the rules before beginning a game, if there’s a game that might benefit from just jumping in, Mysterium is it. There are currently two main rulebooks for the game–the Polish rules (published in Portal’s edition of the game) and the Ukrainian rules (published in I-Games’ edition). The rules are mostly the same–the differences come in which order things are guessed in, how many cards the ghost player holds at a time, and which cards are left on the table at the end of the game. I mostly follow Portal’s rules (love the one you’re with), although we often change the rules for the endgame slightly. The game lasts seven rounds, but especially with a full complement of players, it’s very difficult to win in that time, and it feels anticlimactic to end on day 5 because there’s no hope of winning legitimately. So we usually find some way to play for the asterisk win to keep players engaged and not feeling like they’ve completely failed. (Usually the group still loses even an asterisk play, but it’s better to bring it to the final moment if we can.)

Another way we’ve adjusted the rules is in the number of players. Mysterium’s box says it supports two to seven players. And it does. But did you know it also supports as many as thirteen? (That, at least, is the largest group I’ve played the game with.) While the game works well enough at its lower player counts, it also works great as a big party game. The reason for this is that the game is cooperative, and players are allowed to comment on each other’s dreams. With more players, there is more discussion. We assigned players to investigator groups so ultimately there was some sort of agency–not just mob rule–but with this number of players, everyone was still surprisingly invested. Of course, with a large group like this, we also incorporated multiple ghosts. While a two-headed ghost doesn’t necessarily make thematic sense, it speeds up the game to have multiple players offering clues, and it also gives ghost players a group to commiserate with. I’ve played with as many as three ghosts, and I didn’t feel like the game was diminished in the least. Truth be told, the free-wheeling and interpretive nature of the gameplay extends to the rules, and while the basic conceit is always intact, I feel great liberty in adjusting the rules to suit the group playing it.

The cards for the game. These are the ghost's dream cards and then the item, location, and character decks. The blue-back cards are for the ghost to use to determine which clues to give to each player.
The cards for the game. These are the ghost’s dream cards and then the item, location, and character decks. The blue-back cards are for the ghost to use to determine which clues to give to each player.

Because ultimately, Mysterium is about the experience. It’s a social game, and the goal of a social game is to get players invested. The mark of a good social game is what happens both during and after the game. It should get the players talking. And by this measure, Mysterium is a hit–which is surprising, since at least one player is required to remain silent.

The way this talking and investment usually works is the players receive clue cards and groan. “How in the world am I supposed to guess this?” they wonder. Then another player will step in. “Well, look what’s prominent in this picture. Clearly the ghost is pointing you toward this card.” Understanding dawns on the investigator’s face as she places the token on her guess. Meanwhile, dread fills the ghost player. I was actually thinking of that thing in the background… Then even more dread, because the investigator’s logic that led her to choose her guess is actually better than the reason you chose that clue card in the first place. Oh dear. What a mess. This, of course, leads to mess upon mess as the ghost tries to redirect the flow of inquiry, but it’s often too late: first impressions are, indeed, lasting impressions.

Time is running out...
Time is running out…

Players groan, players kibitz, players await the final revelation, when the ghost can finally unseal his lips and Explain Himself. “Those were the only cards I had!” is usually my excuse, followed by, “And you should have guessed this anyway, because…”

Mysterium is full of wonderful moments like this. There’s the challenge of representing an idea pictorially, and having to do so under severe constraints. The ghost does not have the luxury to choose the ideal card(s) to express a clue; the ghost must work with what is in his or her hand.

And what the ghost has to work with isn’t much. Granted, there are some cards that seem almost too representative of certain items (the steampunk contraption and the gigantic chandelier are frequent stand-ins for the spider and the candelabra, respectively), but for the most part, the clue cards are purposely busy and opaque. They have layers upon layers of objects, colors, and moods, and what is evocative to the ghost will not always be evocative to the investigator, and the ghost player doesn’t always have multiple cards that point to a single idea to hone the clue for the investigator. So the investigator not only has to parse what the dream card is but also what portions of the dream card the ghost thinks are important. Is it the mushrooms? The plates? The dead bug? The yarn? The color scheme?

Here’s a real example from one of my plays. I was playing an investigator, and the ghost gave me this card to point to one of the displayed weapons:

Mysterium TD example 1

Now, I looked at that card and said, “Well, it looks like Rapunzel. So it could be pointing to the shears or the rope, both of which seem to have some relation to hair.” The ghost player’s wife, who was a fellow investigator, said, “I think he’s pointing at the syringes. The sword is pointy, and the tower looks kind of like a syringe.” Another investigator steered me toward the rope. I feared to contradict them, but I ultimately decided on the clock, since the color scheme is similar and the prominent tower seemed to match the statuette on top of the clock.

I was wrong. So he gave me this clue:

Mysterium TD example 2

“Well,” I said, “there’s a whip hanging up, and I thought the rope might be it before. I’ll bet it’s the rope.” But the ghost’s wife said, “In the first clue, the knight is swinging his sword like a hammer, and the second clue is all tools. I’ll bet it’s the hammer.” Unassailable logic. I chose the hammer. Next clue…

Mysterium TD example 3

The rope and the syringe were both other players’ weapons and were removed from the game. “It’s a hat!” I said. “Rapunzel’s hair, sharp objects, and a hat–this must be the shears!”

When it wasn’t the shears, and most other item cards were removed either from other players guessing their clues or my already having guessed them, I realized that the ghost was really pointing to that fork in the background of the hat clue, and indeed, the weapon I was trying to guess was the meat fork. (He was pointing to sharp objects in the first two clues.) I, of course, was furious at the ineptness of the clues and the clue giver. And the ghost, of course, was furious at how thick I was being. “There was an actual fork in that picture! How could I make it more clear!”

It’s moments like this that make Mysterium what it is, because it is a board game that isn’t forgotten once it’s over. (Indeed, this clue exchange happened months ago.) Players stand around and discuss it. “I can’t believe you missed that clue!” or “That was a shot in the dark–I can’t believe you got it!” or “I’m sorry! That’s all I had to work with!” Even long into the night, players will still come back to clues given, or the thrill of guessing correctly, or the bummer of guessing incorrectly or of letting the entire team down by taking too much time to guess your cards. It’s fantastic, and it’s the kind of game that players want to play over again, back to back.

The rules for this edition are in Polish, but this chart (showing how many cards to lay out for each player count) is all you really need once you know the rules (which are simple).
The rules for this edition are in Polish, but this chart (showing how many cards to lay out for each player count) is all you really need once you know the rules (which are simple).

And to this impulse, I say resist. Mysterium is a great game–once. But I’ve found that back-to-back games are common, and often not as fun. Players want to switch up who is the ghost, what cards are available to guess. They want to redeem themselves for ruining the previous game or prove how awesome they are by dominating a second game. But really, they want lightning to strike twice: they want the same great experience to happen just as it happened before. And that’s not how the game works. It is a surprise delight, but when you try to manufacture that experience, the magic is lost. Playing too much Mysterium at once is like eating too much ice cream (if there is such a thing): it tastes so good going down, but then you realize that you’ve stuffed yourself with empty calories, and there’s no undoing it. Mysterium also has a way of commandeering a game night, so my recommendation is to play it once. Per game night. Because really, it’s good enough to play every time. But only once.

I am also in favor of switching the ghosts up when you play with the same group if for no other reason than to develop empathy. Cocksure investigators are forced to eat humble pie when faced with the constricted choices of the ghost, and ghosts have a rude awakening when they realize that other players have a different method for choosing clues than they do.

Which of these clues would you give to get a player to guess the iron?
Which of these clues would you give to get a player to guess the iron?

And really, that’s what Mysterium is all about. It’s not only what do your friends think, but how do they think? Why would they choose one card over another? Because of this, the game–the rules, winning and losing–hardly matters. The game is simply a gateway into discovering how your friends tick. Yes, it’s fun to win, and it’s good to have a goal. But the game’s difficulty is what’s revelatory. Again, to me, Mysterium is the ideal social game because it lowers players’ guards so that their thought processes are on display. You learn about your friends, and it’s wonderful to watch.

Of course, despite my love for the game, it has not received universal approval in my groups. Some players absolutely cannot handle the free flow of the game. To them, it seems like any card can be used as a clue for any card, so you might as well just throw your guessing token on the board–your odds are about as good as actually guessing. I don’t fault them for this (I refuse to play Apples to Apples because of the capriciousness of the judges), but, as you know from what I’ve already written, I disagree. I think the problem is perception. Mysterium, while hailed by many as a deduction game (“It’s Dixit meets Clue!”), will frustrate you if you approach it that way. This is a party game, through and through, and while there may be some light deduction in the game, it has more in common with guessing games like Charades, Pictionary, and Catch Phrase than with Clue or other deduction games.

Another criticism I’ve heard is that the dream cards might get stale with repeated plays. There’s certainly something to this, especially if you play the game back to back. (Did you see where I said not to do that?) Some cards can become shorthand for other cards, although there are enough of them in the deck that this isn’t likely, especially if you place restrictions on ghosts refreshing their hands. I’m not as concerned about this, as the cards still aren’t old for me yet after around 15 plays. I would imagine expansions will come, and I’d bet Dixit cards could be used as added clue cards if need be. And really, increasing the difficulty (by having more cards on the table at once) should solve this problem if you encounter it. For me, I think replayability is excellent out of the box, simply because each ghost really will find something new to focus on with every single card.

I have the Polish edition of the game, and the components are great. The illustrations, obviously, are stunning, albeit very dark and perhaps disturbing to some players. The included boards and discs work well, although the crystal balls I’ve seen in other versions look great. (They are completely superfluous, and I don’t really miss them in my copy.) The rules are, well, in Polish, but they’re available in English online, and the only thing you really need to reference each game is the table showing how many cards to lay out. The game is completely language independent, so whether you spring for the Polish or Ukrainian or Italian editions now or wait for the English edition later in 2015, you won’t find it unplayable (although, as I said at the beginning of this review, you may have to make some modifications, which seems in the spirit [!] of the game).

A lot of love went into even the insert for the game. I love this look.
A lot of love went into even the insert for the game. I love this look.

The game works well with two players (where the game is a more cerebral, explanatory game) all the way up to the advertised seven and beyond. As I said, my favorite way to play is as a raucous party game with as many as want to crowd around the table, but tastes may vary here. The game is super easy to teach, especially if you get players into the game right away. Setup takes some time, but even with setup and rules explanation and a larger-than-advertised group, I don’t think I’ve played a game that lasted longer than an hour.

All told, Mysterium is an excellent social game, and one that rules-wise will work for most ages (as long as they are comfortable with the subject matter and illustrations). It’s one I wasn’t sure would get much play when I bought it, but it has been the go-to icebreaker in many situations. At work, at game night, at home–most people I’ve played it with have enjoyed it and been eager to play it again. As I said, I think the game is best in moderation–don’t plan a whole game night around it or plan to play it too often back to back, even though players will want to. In moderation, Mysterium is one of the best social game experiences you’re likely to encounter.

  • Rating 9
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 9
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Summary

Pros:

  • One of the most fun social games I've played
  • Fully cooperative play means players are invested the whole way through
  • Excellent, albeit creepy, art throughout
  • Unique--there's nothing else that does what this game does

Cons:

  • Rules aren't great
  • The endgame and thematic explanation are unsatisfying without some modification
  • Players want to play this back to back and shouldn't
  • It is HARD to win legitimately
9.0 Excellent

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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