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Wot I Think: Mysterium

A grave proposition

Mysterium [official site] is one of my favourite board games. It's somewhere between Dixit and Cluedo in that you're a psychic trying to find a murder's culprit, location and weapon but the only clues you have to go on are these wonderfully illustrated cards given to you by the "ghost" player which form your psychic visions. The game now has an official online version so I've been checking it out to see how it translates.

Mysterium's digital version has several different modes. The ones I've played are the multiplayer bit, both with friends and alone, as well as about half the story campaign. I've been both ghost and psychic in each of them. There is also a Blitz mode but there weren't any games to join in that one when I looked and a solo mode but I was a bit burned out playing with the AI, or at least playing with some form of simulated playerbase in the story mode.

So! Firstly I'll talk about the multiplayer with friends stuff because that's where I think the real strengths of the game lie. In case you haven't played before, here's a more detailed rundown of how the game goes:

One of you is the ghost (you can either let the game assign characters or specify who wants what role) and the ghost can see the murderer, location and weapon assigned to each of the psychics. A psychic will work through those three in order, only moving on to the next stage in deduction when they have picked the correct option in the previous category. To guide them the ghost gives the psychics one or more vision cards. Once everyone has worked out their own murder combo there's a final round where the ghost gives one final set of cards out to guide the psychics to ONE of those murder combos.

To win you must all work out your own specific murder combo in a certain number of rounds and then pick the correct final murder scenario. It is thus in the psychics' interests to collaborate by peeking at each other's cards and sharing theories.

This one is from the story mode and is rather more on the nose than I manage usually.

The vision cards are these deliberately ambiguous dreamscapes but you can usually find something in your hand of them which corresponds to an element of the card you're trying to get the psychic to pick. For example, if you want to guide someone to the library location you might try to pick a card that has books on it. If you don't have books, you might pick the option with a flying carpet because the library has a rug on the floor. Failing that you might see if there's a card which echoes the colour scheme of the library or maybe try to reference an in-joke with a partner in case they pick up on that.

The ghost cannot chip in with any other information, so you really have to work on your poker face in real life. Online you can either just play through the PC game communication system which lets the psychics type but the ghost can't or, as we did, all sit on voice communications but have the ghost either muted or be forbidden from saying anything to do with the game.

If you absolutely can't think of any links between cards and what you're trying to communicate to the psychics you can spend a crow token which lets you ditch any number of cards from your hand in favour of new ones.

Once we had got to grips with the interface this felt pretty much like playing regular Mysterium, albeit without the cosiness and tactile bits of the game. People were arguing over whether a fish with an open mouth might represent hinges or whether the greyish blue colouring was the important factor, the ghost had to listen to about half a dozen instances of someone being dead right only to gradually talk themselves out of that option and confidently select another, and there was a LOT of being absolutely baffled by the leaps of logic the people close to you can make (as well as some comforting shared instinctive associations which make no sense outside that group).

To illustrate, here's the conclusion of one of our sessions from my point of view. I was playing the ghost and we were already most of the way through the game but you can get a feel for how people were interpreting things and chatting and peering at each other's clues as we played while using Discord for voice comms:

Watch on YouTube

(I'm more chatty than the ghost is supposed to be, but was careful not to ruin the game or give away my frustrations!)

I would note for this mode, though, that you really need to have played a couple of the story missions if you want to know how to use the interface properly. I was working it out as I went along and that was okay, but it meant one or twice at the beginning I gave a psychic their cards before I was really finished faffing with them. I also only found out when playing the story mode that you can hold down the left mouse button to bring up a magnified view of the cards which might have helped with finding important details.

When it was a friend's turn to be the ghost there was another mix up and I get someone else's cards – something which is obviously far less likely when you're there in person and not just an icon on the side of a screen – so looking at my card history for the weapon visions was actually a case of the two of us needing to cross-reference.

The other big thing for me is that with Mysterium a significant amount of the pleasure comes from making the ghost explain themselves afterward and, if you were the ghost, from being able to finally let off steam. "WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DIDN'T GET 'GUN' FROM A PICTURE OF BEES AT THE EIFFEL TOWER? IT IS A POINTY THING AND BEES ARE BASICALLY PAINFUL PROJECTILES."

The online version doesn't have that facility. When a game ends you just get the Close Case button. You can't go back through people's card histories and get that reveal moment as their questionable reasoning is dragged, kicking and squealing, into the open. Being on voice chat helped with that, but it's so much nicer to have the cards to hand when you're doing the game post mortem.

This card is so useful!

The other two things to note if you want to play with friends are:

1) Each of you will need a copy of the game and an Asmodee/Days of Wonder account as well as your Steam login. This was mostly straightforward and the game is £6.99 so not a bank-breaker, but one friend had a problem with the multi-login side of things and it took a while to sort it out which notifications were sent and emails waited for and second accounts created.

2. There doesn't seem to be a way to set up a private lobby or password protect a lobby so we had a couple of false starts, creating a room and then strangers joining before we could all be ready. We ended up just trying to do the creation and joining incredibly quickly and hope everyone made it in. Because the player base is small at the moment that worked, but it's far from ideal.

When playing with strangers Mysterium had all the same beats as the regular game but generally it seemed far more muted. You'd expect that to an extent because even when I've played the board game with strangers people aren't letting loose in the same way. But I found that no-one seemed to use the chat facility in the game I played – certainly not without prompting, and even then only in a utilitarian way rather than for any real discussion.

We actually cracked this case :D

There are Clairvoyancy cards you can use to get a bit of help at the end with the cards for nailing down which of the murders you've picked up on is the one which you solve to close the case. These are an optional extra but essentially they let you bet on whether other people have got their guesses right each round. If you guess correctly you can rack up the Clairvoyancy points and get a boost in terms of the cards available to you in the final round.

The story mode has you playing rounds of Mysterium with a gradually increasing cast of characters. It's part tutorial, part solo Mysterium, part exercise in trying to figure out how the AI might be functioning as you try to game it into choosing the right options.

It's interesting inasmuch as it let me practice the game and try to tell which keywords or factors you equip an artificial intelligence with when you're facing them with what is essentially a murder-mystery Rorschach test. But generally I found it to be frustrating and rather lifeless. The fun of Mysterium is in trying to unravel the weirdness of someone else's thinking or in trying to use cards and conversation to orient yourselves into being on the same page. With an AI that's just not there and I dropped out of the story mode with no interest in how it might pan out.

No worries. That's plenty of time!

I think you might get lucky with strangers online in the multiplayer, but it's still too cold for my tastes because the text box just doesn't fulfil anywhere near as much of the human interaction side of things as possible. I've been thinking about what might help and I definitely think some simple emoji wouldn't go amiss, just to help with the feeling of people enjoying the game or getting into the spirit (PUN INTENDED).

For me, then, it's definitely got a place in my games library, and it's a really good way to play a version of the board game my friends and I enjoy even though we're rarely in the same city at the moment. It's not hellishly expensive so I don't feel bad suggesting someone pick it up for a couple of afternoons of play. I will say, though, that I didn't form any attachment to the single player stuff, nor was playing with the AI appealing. I'm going to be sticking to my human (or post-human in the case of the ghosts) buddies from now on.

FYI, I was playing the vanilla version. If you get super into it there's the Hidden Signs DLC which adds some more suspects, locations and weapons as well as more vision cards for £1.99.

Mysterium is out now via Steam on Windows for £7/$10/€10.

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