Mysterium is a cooperative Mimicry board game, in which players are asked to interpret pieces of artwork together and roleplay as 19th century psychics. It’s gameplay leans heavily towards Ludus, but implements slight tweaks based on the chosen difficulty. It paces itself in such a way that largely subverts the board game’s tendency to show their inner-workings and flaws, without sacrificing it’s intricacies. As a result, It deftly manages to partially achieve the aim of Schell’s Tetrad, hiding it’s technology in favour of it’s aesthetics. However, it has an equal chance of suffering and benefitting over its emphasis on player interpretation, and struggles to establish a strong hook model.
The aim of the game is simple: One group of players decipher another player’s set of personalised clues to correctly guess the circumstances of a murder. More specifically, the suspect, the area in which the murder took place, and the murder weapon. The combination is different for each player, and the correct one will be voted on when all players have correctly guessed their own combinations. Players have a set amount of turns to do this, and if they run out of turns, the game ends and everyone loses. It’s a simulacra of a seance.
Mysterium tries it’s best at keeping the game going at a steady pace, striving for a strong fun efficiency score and keeping its technology out of the mind of the player. The game has a set time limit of seven turns, in which the game must be completed. If the players have not achieved their goal by the end of the seventh turn, everybody loses. In each turn, the ghost must give at least one illustrated card, referred to as “Vision Cards”, to each Psychic. This is used in an attempt to direct Psychics to the correct guess through symbolism or a consistent theme/concept in the cards. Once the ghost finishes handing out Visions, The Psychics have two minutes to discuss their cards, and decide on the particular weapon/area/suspect they will each choose. If a Psychic is incorrect, they are held back, and must choose again then next turn. The others will move onto the next round. This creates a ticking time-bomb effect for the players. As if one player falls too far behind, it becomes impossible for the group to win the game. This encourages discussion within the group to help decipher the clues, and keep moving closer to the goal.
It is strange however, that the ghost is not given any such time limit. The ghost has a prominent locus of control in how they choose to do this. The vision cards are chosen out of a hand of 7. If these cards do not seem useful to the ghost, the ghost can trade in a Crow Marker to draw a new hand of cards. This leaves a risk for the game to lose all of it’s hard work maintaining a fast pace over an indecisive ghost. Particularly, if players choose the “Easy” difficulty, as the ghost can use the Crow Marker once every turn. On higher difficulties, this is greatly restricted. However, it also ensures the ghost is not pressured into just throwing random vision cards at the other players in order to meet the time limit. It also provides the Psychics a few moments of rest, and allows for quiet contemplation of the game so far. These similarly encourage the ghost to think hard about what cards they choose to give out.
One hurdle that Mysterium swiftly avoids is the tendency for board games to get longer with the more players involved. There are changes made to the game’s rules, but they do not affect the timing of the game. This is thanks to the two-minute time limit on Psychics, and the fact they all have their turn at the same time, rather than one after the other. As such, the game is not impacted negatively like most board games and is used to encourage strong communication between players. Overall, The management of time in Mysterium is used to encourage careful consideration and coordination. However, it still maintains it’s fun efficiency to prevent burnout or boredom from it’s participants.
Mysterium also has a very strong art design that helps hide the technology behind the game. The board is based heavily on 19th century Manor Houses; For example the seven-turn time limit is represented by a broken analogue clock, with roman numerals. A single hand points towards what turn the game is currently on. Meanwhile, the vision cards that the ghost gives to players all have a surreal, dream-like quality to them. Once again, they mostly fit with the 19th century period influence, but often mix it with fantastical elements as well. These cards fit well with the game’s aim of making player’s interpret non-verbal, indirect clues. It encourages player conversation over them; such as what a card depicting an hourglass containing a knight, a chicken and a large amount of wheat might be trying to direct them to. It detracts the player away from the technological side of the game, and forces them to engage with the game’s mechanics and aesthetics in order to progress. This is opposed to just collecting a scribble of a Giraffe from your friend with the subtlety of an osmium brick, as you might in a game of Pictionary.The art also allows for a more social insight into your friends. For example, if you know your friends well enough, you might know that they would opt for simpler concepts of symbolism rather than minute detail in the cards. This allows the player to resist overthinking the intended meaning of the cards, and reduce the chance that they’ll get an incorrect guess.
The primary gameplay loop of interpretation and guessing also allows for an intense euphoria/aporia cycle for the Psychics. It’s satisfying getting a guess correct after struggling for a couple turns over the handful of vision cards you’ve been given, especially when you know that time is not on your side. The game additionally contributes to this euphoria, through the clairvoyance system. Essentially, you can decide to agree or disagree with other player’s decisions about their own combinations, and place a corresponding token to signify that. If that psychic was correct, and you agreed with them, your clairvoyance raises. Your clairvoyance raises if the opposite happens too. This clairvoyance is then used at the end of the game, to determine how many vision cards you are allowed to see to deduce which combination of cards is the correct one. This is invaluable, as players are not allowed to discuss these particular vision cards, and must vote privately. The higher clairvoyance the player has, the more cards they can see. It means that the group at large can still benefit from someone getting a wrong answer. Additionally, it allows players who have already guessed their own combination to have a game mechanic they can still engage with, rather than simply spectating.
The complex art, naming of the player roles and mechanics additionally provides an insistent design within the game. It pressures the players to be immersed in the role of a “Psychic”. By extension, it upkeys the player into the character world; collecting “Visions” from the “Ghost”. This also reflected in the paratext included inside the games manual; a series of news clippings and a letter that details the background of the Manor that the game is set in. The Psychics that the players take control of are similarly given a backstory, and the story of what’s happening in the board game is explained. It encourages players to get into their characters and roleplay the situation, complimenting the game’s nature as a game of Mimicry.
As a result of all this, the game manages to emphasise it’s aesthetic, mechanics and even it’s story over the technology behind it, as per Schell’s Tetrad.
However, the game does not have a strong hook model. The game fits into the criteria of having simple behaviours in anticipating a reward; interpreting illustrations, guessing a correct answer and being rewarded with progression to the next part of the combination. However, the reward is never guaranteed- it is very easy to lose a game of Mysterium. If even one player falls too far behind, don’t communicate well enough or they take too long to vote on the correct combination at the end, the game is already lost. The combinations of murder weapon, crime scene and suspect will change for the next game. All of the player’s deductions, combinations, clairvoyance and overall progress will be reduced to nothing.
The player is left with a level of satisfaction that is heavily dependent on the quality of their guesses. But if they didn’t get any correct guesses, didn’t get along with their group, or failed to find much euphoria in guessing correctly, then the player is left with next to no motivation to try again. The game does not guarantee any particular investment into the game will be rewarded or even acknowledged. It relies on the peer pressure of fellow players to be tried again, but that only works if they enjoyed it more than you. In this sense, the game relies heavily on the people you choose to play with.
But the game may not even have that to support it at all, if you chose a poor group to play with. If you cannot act as a team or do not have a prior understanding/relatedness of eachother’s thought processes, the game is nigh impossible to win. For example, if a group struggles to understand the ghost’s clues, they will likely struggle to deduce their combinations. Nor would they likely have a high clairvoyance score, assuming that they managed to somehow reach the final stage of the game. As such, to play with strangers, vague acquaintances and dysfunctional families, is to introduce an unpredictable, contra-ludic influence on the game. Additionally, if these discussions devolve into arguments, it becomes hypo-ludic, as everyone will be pulled out of the game and down-keyed back to the social world. At this point the magic circle is broken, and the game’s carefully crafted aesthetic and mood is undermined. As such, the game’s greatest pull, it’s premise of interpreting and discussing artwork, is also it’s Achilles heel.
The conclusion of all of this, is that Mysterium is a well made and polished game. It balances Schell’s Tetrad as best as possible, going the extra mile in many places to do so. It’s fun efficiency has the potential to be high, provided it is played with an optimal group. But the game’s reliance on the players having a strong relationship and understanding of one another, leaves room for it’s hard work to be toppled over in an instant.
Nevsky, O & Sidorenko, O 2015, ‘Mysterium’, Libellud.
– Mimicry: A roleplaying game.
– Ludus: Rule bound, rigid and skill based, as opposed to “Paidia”, which means less rule bound and improv games. These are not strict categories, they exist on a scale.
– Schell’s Tetrad: The idea that a game’s aesthetic should be most visible to the player, followed by its story and mechanics, with the technology behind the game being the least visible aspect to the player.
– Hook Model: The idea that first, you draw a player in through outside influences, usually advertising, then you allow them to have a simple gameplay loop that’s easy to enjoy and understand. This is followed by a reward that leaves the player wanting more, and the concept that the work that they have done thus far will somehow increase the likelihood of the player returning. For example, A story cliffhanger at the end of a gameplay section will entice the player to return and continue playing to see what happens next.
– Simulacra: A simulation of something, based on the flawed/limited perception of it’s creator. For example, developers of first-person shooters have likely never been in a war and often, although not always, glorify it in a way the Veterans would disapprove of. These games would be Simulacra due to this flawed portrayal.
– Fun efficiency: If fun could be quantified, you would divide by time. The higher the score, the better spread of fun over time. A 1-hour game is not good, if you’re only having fun for 5 minutes.
– Locus Of Control: A scale of Internal (“I’m in control.”) vs. External (“I’m under control.”). It makes sense in context here, as “Locus” means position.
– Euphoria/Aporia Cycle: Intense pleasure of overcoming an obstacle.
– Character World: The world of the game, without the perception of it as a game. This is a large part of Mimicry games like Dungeon And Dragons or The Witcher, Although it is ideal for most games to have the player here. Players can be brought in (Upkey) or pushed out (downkey) depending on what’s happening and how other players are behaving.
– Paratext: Text that is created by the author/publisher that supports the main text or is otherwise connected. Technically speaking, Harry Potter And The Cursed Child is a paratext to the main Harry Potter book-series.
– Social Contingency: The idea that the player’s around you will have an influence on what happens next in relation to the game.
– Contra-Ludic: A way of describing something as making the game harder.
– Hypo-Ludic: A way of describing something as De-gamifying the game.
– Social World: The real world, with the perception of the game as just that, a game. An almost existentialist place to be when playing a game- and thus not a fun place to be playing a game in.
– Magic Circle: Essentially the game itself. The idea that a game is a setting where it isn’t the pieces, but the context that make it powerful. For example, A manager has power in their workplace, but not outside of it. Magic Circles are so broad you could apply it to almost anything.
Image Source: The itch.io page for it’s digital adaption. (Please Note: This essay was based upon the physical board game. The image utilises the same artwork and iconography used in the board game.)