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Review: Mystery! Motive for Murder

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Mystery! Motive for Murder: Box

I’m a huge fan of Masterpiece Mystery on PBS. They’ve always offered great whodunit’s in the classic mystery tradition of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. Plus, these are the people who brought the BBC’s Sherlock to the U.S. I’m also a lover of mystery-themed games. Games like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, Mysterium, and even Clue remain among my favorites. So when I saw that an officially licensed Masterpiece Mystery game was being released, I was excited. The only question was, would Mystery, Motive for Murder join the pantheon of great mystery games, or would it die an ugly death?

How It Plays

In Mystery, Motive for Murder, a stabbed body is discovered in the courtyard of a stately English mansion. The location and method of the murder are obvious. What’s left for you, as the investigator, to discover is who did it and their motive. To accomplish this, you will interview suspects, uncover their relationships to the victim, and figure out who had the greatest motive for murder.

Mystery offers five different game levels and each one adds new elements to the game. The game becomes more complex as you progress through the levels, so by the time you reach the last level, you’re playing the “advanced” game. While hard core gamers might just want to start with the higher levels, level 1 is the basic game and is the recommended starting point. Rather than describe every level and all of the additional rules, I’ll describe the flow of the basic game and then lightly touch on some of the additional elements.

In any of its forms, Mystery is played over a number of cases (you can think of a case as similar to a round in other games). The number of cases which make up a full game is equal to the number of players.

Mystery! Motive for Murder: Suspect Tiles
The final arrangement of the suspect tiles at the end of a game. 

At the beginning of each case, one of the suspect tiles is randomly chosen and placed in the center of the table. This is the dead body. Each player is dealt three suspect tiles and all remaining tiles are placed in a stack facedown near the board. Each player is given their interview cubes and status discs, one of which is placed next to the scoring track.

Turns are simple. On your turn, you must play a suspect tile from your hand adjacent to any tile that’s already on the board. (The gravestones on the tiles must all point in the same direction, so you can’t turn tiles any old way.) Tiles may not be played more than two spaces away from the dead body (there are 12 spaces, total, that can/will be occupied by suspects). Once you’ve placed your tile, place one of your interview cubes on that tile and then draw another tile from the stack. Play passes to the left.

Once all the tiles are placed, interview cubes are removed from the board one at a time. When a cube is removed, determine how much motive the suspect had for the murder. Advance that player’s status disc on the scoring track by that number of points.

So far, this sounds like a bland tile laying game, right? And it might not even make much sense because it sounds like you’re just randomly slapping down tiles and putting cubes on them. I hear you asking, “What’s the point?” The point of the game comes from the relationships that are forming on the board as tiles are laid. It makes sense, but the first couple of rounds may not feel intuitive.

Each suspect tile has red (indicating hate) or blue (indicating love) numbered arrows on it and some text like, “Daughter/son of,” “Holds incriminating photos,” “Lover threatens to tell all,” or, “Caught stealing by.” When you place two suspect tiles together, their numbered arrows might line up and point directly at each other. When that happens, those suspects have a relationship. Only suspects that have a relationship with the dead body have a chance of scoring (because, logically, these would be the people most likely to commit the murder).

Mystery! Motive for Murder: Motive Cards
A few of the motive cards.

A suspect has a direct relationship to the dead body if that person is placed immediately next to the body. These relationships will only score if they show hatred (red arrows). Suspects that are two spaces away from the dead body have an indirect relationship. For an indirect relationship to score, two things must exist: First, one of the direct suspects between your indirect suspect and the victim must also have a relationship to the victim (love or hate). Second, your indirect suspect must either hate an intermediary that loved the victim, or love an intermediary that hated the victim.

You’ll end up with a story that might read like this: Miss Ursula is dead. Her lover, Count Chester, was afraid that she would reveal all. (This relationship is worth five motive points and he looks, at first, like he might be good for the murder.)  However, Karl is Count Chester’s son. (A relationship worth four motive points, plus he also gains the five points from his father’s relationship to the deceased. We can infer that this is because he’s loyal to, and concerned for, his father. So this gives him nine motive points.)

But that’s not all the we can pin on poor Karl. He’s also been dating Agnes, who is the daughter of the victim. Karl is angry with Agnes and refuses to return her gifts, earning him four more motive points. Perhaps he killed Agnes’ mother, Miss Ursula, to get back at Agnes, knowing how much Agnes loved her mother (that indirect relationship earns Karl four more motive points).

Hapless Karl now has a total of 17 motive points. (And we have a sordid soap opera.) Karl is our likely murderer and the person who placed Karl’s tile (marked with an interview cube of that player’s color) scores those points. The person who placed Count Chester’s tile earns five points because Chester did have some motive, just not as much as Karl.

The player with the most points wins the case. After you have played all of your cases (again, equal to the number of players), the player with the highest combined point total wins the game.

Additions to the base game:

Level #2: This game introduces a second dead body. It plays just like the base game, except now you can score motive points for each body. There may also be a larger playing area (up to 19 spaces), depending on the placement of the second body. 

Level #3: This game introduces motive cards which can change relationships, grant additional actions, and give you points. Each player is dealt two motive cards and may play them on their turns as directed.

Level #4: This is considered the “full game” and introduces more motive cards (including cards that can change the motive value of a tile), limits the number of rounds per case to three, and limits scoring to only interviews of the prime and secondary suspects, plus a few select bonuses. This level also introduces the opportunity to change turn order between rounds.

Level #5: This is considered the “advanced” game. In addition to everything from game #4, game #5 introduces the ability to interview suspects for a second time, two new motive cards, and detective cards which grant special abilities to each player.

‘Till Death Do Us Part or Bored to Death?

This game isn’t getting much attention on BGG and what is there is somewhat negative. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I think there were expectations that this game would be different from what it is. I suspect that people were expecting a deeper deduction game, something more akin to Sherlock Holmes, Letters from Whitechapel, or even Scotland Yard. But Mystery isn’t a deduction game.

You’re not looking for just one murderer and proving beyond doubt that the person did it. Mystery is less about solving the case than it is a social game about constructing and analyzing the relationships between people that might give them motive for murder. When you’re placing your tiles, you want to place your suspects in the relationships most likely to lead to murder. On each turn, you need to look at the relationships that already exist on the board and then see which tile/card in your hand might strengthen that relationship (or create a new, more powerful relationship) and then play accordingly.

I say that this is a social game for two reasons. First, it’s lightweight. It’s heavier than a party game (particularly at the higher levels), but it isn’t a deep brain burner. It plays quickly and the base game with two players may be over in less than twenty minutes. Second, the fun is dependent on how willing you are to get into the narrative that the game creates. As I showed above, you can end up with quite the little soap opera going on with lovers, friends, and family members backstabbing and double-crossing each other. If you’re willing to laugh and flesh out these stories, Mystery can be a fun game.

Mystery! Motive for Murder: Detective Cards
Some of the detective cards used in the advanced game.

Unfortunately, if your group isn’t into that sort of thing, Mystery starts to lose its appeal. If you strip away the stories, what you’re left with is an abstract game where you’re placing numbered tiles in an effort to maximize points. What was a story about a lover scorned becomes, “I place a five point tile next to a four point tile and get nine points. You place another five point tile next to a three point tile and get eight points.” As you get into the harder levels of the game, you can modify the values of tiles, use special abilities, and alter relationships, but without the storytelling aspect, it’s all abstract. Even the detective cards, which give you a special ability, aren’t terribly thematic. They’re just another card that gives you extra actions, points, or ways to modify the board state. If the game devolves into simple numbers, it’s not much fun.

I will say that, if you can get into it, the logic of the relationships really does make for a thematic game. During our first game, I was thinking, “I don’t get it. I’m just placing a tile here and someone else is placing a tile there. What is the point?” But then I started seeing how the logic really worked and once you see that, you see that this is a really clever game that captures the human emotions at play in murder.

For example, a love relationship won’t score because someone who loves someone else isn’t likely to murder them. Hate, on the other hand, is the driver of motive. Direct relationships (adjacent to the body) of hate will always score because that’s the most likely source of motive. But indirect relationships can also score if the murderer hates or loves the intermediary, and the intermediary also has a direct relationship to the victim. It echoes real life where you love someone who hates the victim and you may kill to protect the person you love. Or, you may hate an intermediary, but the intermediary loves the victim. Would you kill to get back at the person you hate? You may just be laying tiles, but if you can appreciate the logic and the emotions that are being represented, this can be a fascinating game.

Mystery! Motive for Murder: Player Aids
Player aids front and back. One’s for the lower level games and one for the higher level games.

This appreciation isn’t likely to happen on the first play, however, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the rules aren’t stellar. There is a lot of flipping around to figure out what all of the components do and you have to study the illustrations to really understand how things connect. The terminology gets confusing, too. Games, cases, rounds, etc. all all used interchangeably and make it harder than it needs to be to figure out what’s going on. It will take a couple of plays to overcome the rules, see it all laid out on the table, and feel the “click” in your brain. If you’re not willing to invest the time, or you get frustrated after one play, this game isn’t going to be for you. I won’t go so far as to promise that you’ll love it if you stick with it because you may not. Just be aware that your first impression isn’t likely to be great and that the game needs multiple plays for a fair judgment.

Setup is also fiddly. The different levels each use different cards and components and sorting everything out for the level you want to play can be annoying especially when you’re learning, aren’t sure what everything does, and the rules are working against you figuring it out. This can be fixed with some organization but since all you get in the box are baggies and no insert, finding a way to organize and label everything is going to be up to you.

Mystery includes a solo option and this is a nice addition. In the solo game, you take on the role of the murderer. You’re trying to get away with your crime by leading the police to consider other suspects. In order to win, you must end up with a tile display that has either one suspect with at least 20 motive points, two suspects with at least 15 motive points each, or three suspects with at least 30 motive points each. There is a harder variant that adds additional evidence of the other suspects’ innocence that you must overcome. I will note that the solo version is more of an activity than a “game.” You’re not playing against an AI, as you are in something like the D&D Adventure games. It feels more like solving a puzzle than a game, and some of the fun is gone when you can’t make up stories with other players. Still, there are worse ways to pass a rainy afternoon.

I felt like Mystery had a similar vibe to another game that I reviewed, Lords and Ladies. While Mystery is a tile laying game and Lords and Ladies is a card game, the setting, artwork, and the relationship manipulation all feel similar. They’re both about the same weight, in my estimation, and the fun of both comes from telling the stories about the sad and sordid relationships that form over the course of the game. Fans of Lords and Ladies who can appreciate the storytelling aspect of that game might also enjoy Mystery.

Mystery! Motive for Murder: Tokens
Tokens and dead bodies.

Other than that, I’m not sure who the ideal audience is for Mystery. There is too much fiddliness and rules ambiguity to recommend it for non-gamers. I have no doubt that non-gamers can learn it because it is a simple game once you crack it. I just question whether or not they will put forth the effort to get past the initial frustration. That kind of lets out those who I would think would be the main audience for this game: People who watch Masterpiece Mystery on PBS but who don’t play games.

As for gamers, I doubt there’s enough here to keep them entertained for long. Even the highest levels of the game are lacking in deep strategy. Yes, you have decisions to make in which tile to play and when to play your cards or use your special ability, but nothing here is brain burning. The game isn’t completely luck dependent, but you are at the mercy of the tile draw and the cards you are dealt. You’re also at the mercy of your opponents. They may place tiles that completely screw up your plans (and they may do it intentionally, meaning that this game has a take that element that some will dislike), or leave you in a situation where none of the tiles in your hand will earn you points. Since you have no way of knowing which tiles they have, there’s no way to see this coming or mitigate it. Mystery is more a game about making the most of what you get rather than optimizing every move. Play a tile or card and hope for the best. If you don’t like that sort of game, Mystery isn’t going to be your friend.

Mystery is what I would call an odd duck. It has some really good points and you can see that a lot of thought and creativity went into the game. The art is fabulous if you like Edward Corey’s art that you see on Masterpiece Mystery. However, all of that creativity and care don’t quite translate to the game play. There is fun to be had, but you have to work so hard for it and if your group isn’t into storytelling or is easily frustrated, you may never find it. I highly recommend trying this game before you buy it. 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Mayfair Games for giving us a copy of Mystery to review.

  • 6.5
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Summary

Pros

"Starter" rules with gradually increasing complexity as you progress through the game levels.
Offers solitaire play.
Tie-in with Masterpiece Mystery and Edward Gorey's art will attract fans of the program.
The relationships can spur some funny stories and table talk in willing groups.
The logic makes thematic sense, once you get used to it.

Cons

Rules aren't very clear.
In a group unwilling to tell stories, the game devolves into an abstract game.
Setup is fiddly and not helped by poor rules.
First play is likely to be frustrating and doesn't leave a good impression.
Take that element and luck of the draw may turn off serious gamers.

6.5 Average

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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