Though it’s clear we’re living at the start of an age of digital board games, Mysterium isn’t exactly the typical sort of game you’d expect to see on a screen. It may not be the first socially-oriented game to hit your local app store, it certain relies heavily on the fun of talking and interacting with your fellow players as you try to work out the mysterious clues given to you by the Ghost. So how does that experience translate to a handheld device?
Ghosts in the Graveyard
I hope you’ve had a chance to play Mysterium in its cardboard form. We reviewed the unpronounceable Polish version, and while largely unchanged the North American release is beautifully produced with some great rules updates that add to the fun.
If you’re unfamiliar with the game, it plays out a bit like a murder mystery with a supernatural twist. One player, the Ghost, must communicate to everyone else via “dreams” – represented in the game by works of abstract art – in order to get each player to correctly select a suspect, location, and weapon from a wide array of options. Once all players have discovered their correct selections, a final round is played to see if players can guess the true culprit of a murder with a single set of clues.
It’s a great game in its own right, and one of the more popular offerings on my shelf. And here’s the thing: when you’re starting with a great game, the best a digital app can hope to do is get itself out of the way. It has to be easy and fun to use while retaining the core experience. Rarely can an app actually make a gaming experience better than the tabletop equivalent (I’m not saying it can’t, but it doesn’t happen much).
Because of that, a review of the app might come off as a bit negative when it points out the flaws created by the app. I mention that now because the Mysterium app is by no means perfect, and I’m going to go into some of those flaws, but I want to lead with the fact that I actually do enjoy playing it. Overall, it’s a solid implementation with some elements that truly shine, and for the most part it works great.
To the great relief of many, I think, there are both single player and multiplayer modes, and the single-player can be done offline. I know that plenty of people like to have these apps on hand just to blow some time here and there; maybe on the commute to work, or on a lunch break, in which playing an online game isn’t really feasible, so it’s nice to have the option.
Let’s talk about the single player game first. You’ve got two options here: the Story mode, and a randomized Solo game. The Solo game functions exactly like the online multiplayer, allowing you to set up how many players, choose which role you want to play, and turn on or off a few options for gameplay. It randomizes the setup of all the cards, just like the real game.
The story mode is a series of “cases” – each case being a single play-through of the game, with some backstory connecting everything via journal entries and character dialogue. This mode gives you a little more purpose than the randomized solo game, with a greater sense of satisfaction as you work your way through.
However, playing against the AI isn’t particularly enthralling. As a psychic, you can at least treat it like a puzzle to be solved, although the AI Ghost occassionally throws a bizarre clue at you that doesn’t even make sense once you know the right object.
Even worse is trying to play as the Ghost against a team of AI psychics. You can easily avoid that in the random Solo game, but the story mode requires you to play as the Ghost.
Now, I don’t know how the AI works, and I don’t really know if it’s smarter or more sensible than your friends. But Mysterium in general relies heavily on the intuition of the player, something that cannot be reproduced by an algorithm. Even if it comes close, deep down you can’t ignore the fact that your clues are simply being processed by a few lines of code. There’s not necessarily an apparent rhyme or reason for when an AI player guesses right or wrong, and it can be frustrating – either as the Ghost or as a psychic along side them – when the AI just gets it wrong.
But the big problem is that you can’t discuss or argue with the AI. You can’t chat, and even if you yell at the screen it doesn’t listen. This is the social aspect of the game – in real life, you can argue with your friends and point out details to convince them that your ideas are right. You lose out on that element, and you can’t save a game that is doomed by an AI. In fact, I have seen online multiplayer games lost because an AI character in the mix gets something wrong when everyone else in the room who happens to be human can see clearly the real answer.
Another issue I have with story mode is that the results are predetermined. While this makes sense, it also kills the fun when you lose. You have to win the case to move on, but the next time you play there’s no more mystery. You know exactly who and what and where your votes need to go, but you have to go through the motions and it feels less than enthralling.
While I’m still on the story mode, I might as well nitpick – the dialogue seems to last a bit longer than it needs to. The writing could’ve used a little editing down. Conciseness is king; give us the setup and then let us play.
Okay. Moving on. Where the app really shines is Online play. You can join a game or create your own, with complete control over how many players you want to include. You can also choose whether or not to use Clairvoyency tokens (added in the North American release of the game which let you agree or disagree with other player’s guesses, officially, to earn points that give you greater insight into the final clue) or DLC.
Very conveniently, only the person who sets up a game has to own the DLC. Even if you don’t have it, you can still join a game and experience some of the new cards, which is a nice touch.
It’s quick and easy to join games, and there’s a public chat room so you can let people know if you’re looking for a few extra players. You can choose which role you prefer, if you like.
I do wish that there was a way to see all online players. As it stands you can only see those not currently in a game, and you can’t see if there are any active games running. The main reason I’d like to have these features is that players are often willing to jump into a new game as soon as theirs finishes up, so you can start up a game and wait a few minutes and expect to see it fill up. But you don’t know for sure how many people are around or how close any other games might be to finishing up. It also makes it feel like there aren’t too many people online. I can only see four or five. But are there more? Are there twenty? Or hundreds?
The interface for actually playing the game is generally high quality stuff. I have the Steam (desktop PC) version, but I play on my Surface tablet. I can play entirely via touch and it all works very smoothly. (The only thing I have some slight issues with is chatting with my keyboard detached – haven’t figured out how to get the virtual keyboard to pop up over the app, if that’s even possible). I know I’m playing cross-platform too with androids and iphones, so that’s neat. Anyway, if you know how the game works a lot of the app functionality is pretty intuitive. You can drag cards and tokens around, there are clearly highlighted buttons to select your choice, and there are clear icons that show when a player has received cards from the Ghost. You can also see who has officially chosen their selection, and how people have voted with their clairvoyance tokens.
I do wish that the character icons were labeled with the player names. That would make communication much easier. People mostly just refer to each other by their color, which feels a little less friendly.
The cards are very visible, and the game makes it easy to focus on one card and even zoom in to card details to make sure you’re seeing things right. It’s very nice to see these things in high resolution, and it’s all coated with sound effects and haunting music to increase the immersion. No, the app can’t fully recreate the tabletop experience, but when you get a sweet online game with 7 players and everyone’s participating and chatting and having a good time? Well, that’s a whole lot of fun.
I will mention that if a player drops out of a game, they are immediately replaced by an AI controller. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice to be able to finish a game no matter what, and I’ve only played one out of a dozen or so online games in which no one dropped out. However, as I mentioned above, there are issues with the AI, and it is extremely frustrating to lose a game because the AI didn’t get an obvious clue.
There are a couple bugs that need ironing out – the lobby chat room tends to throw random letters at the start of everyone’s chats, and the game sometimes crashes when I try to close the program. (At least it has never crashed in the middle of a game). For some reason, when an online game finishes up and you hit the “leave” button it sends you all the way back to the main menu instead of back to the online lobby. Minor issues that hopefully get ironed out quickly.
I hope to see features get added over the next few months to make the system really robust. The biggest thing I already mentioned – it would be nice to see everyone who was online along with active games. It’d be neat if you could jump into a game in progress if there was an open AI-controlled character so you didn’t have to wait around for people to show up. I’d also like to see options for password-protected games so you could arrange something with your friends. A friends list might be nice, too.
None of these things are out of reach, and I know that Asmodee Digital will continue to support and develop their apps, and that they listen to their community. I look forward to seeing new updates and features get added. But what the app really needs to succeed long-term is a robust online presence. If I sign online and there are only a few people, it’s not extremely encouraging, but if I see half a dozen games lined up and about to start with a bunch of people signing into the lobby, I know I’m going to get into a game right away. As it is right now, it feels like a very small number of people playing online. I haven’t even been able to try out “Blitz” mode, billed as a quick way to play, because I’ve never been able to find anyone else using that mode.
Overall I can definitely recommend the Mysterium app. It probably won’t be my go-to time waster and I doubt the solo mode will see much play. But playing online with a big group of people is about as close as it gets to the real thing without the time and effort it takes to get 6 people over to mu house. So go check it out.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee Digital for providing a review copy of the Mysterium app.