We also have an accessibility teardown of Mysterium available.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1 Corinthians 13:11-12, King James Bible
If you ever needed some evidence that the bible has some real world insight to offer, even for hardcore atheists like myself, it’s this passage here. You may not know this, but eminent scholars are now convinced these passages refer to the psychological transition players experience when moving from Dixit to Mysterium.
Mysterium is Dixit as reimagined by Guillermo del Toro. It’s the sinister mirror universe version of that seminal party game – the evil twin that has been hidden up in the attic for decades. It’s Dixit viewed through the lens of an eerie fever dream. It’s darker, it’s edgier, and it’s more mechanically mature. This is Dixit for grown-ups. It’s Dixit AFTER DARK. And it’s good. It’s very good. It is, hands down, a better game than Dixit could hope to be.
Ah, but enough of what Dixit is not, and more of what Mysterium is. Gather round, my friends, and let’s talk. Put a log on the fire – it’s a chilly night and evil beasties abound in the mists and marshes that surround us.
Mysterium is a mystery game in which players collaborate to uncover the clues linking a brutal suspect, a sinister location, and a vicious weapon to a grisly murder. In this, players are aided by an unlikely source – the restless ghost that haunts the malevolent castle that was the scene of the crime.
The investigators aren’t police officers, you see – they’re baffled psychics picking up on each and every emotional resonance that is to be found in the creaky halls and sheltered corridors of the castle. And the ghost? He, or she, is a player just like everyone else except driven by a different set of rules and guided by a different set of motivations. The ghost sends visions to the psychics, and the psychics interpret them in line with the evidence available. At least, in theory…
The ghost is still confused, reeling from the act of vandalism perpetuated on his, or her, body. The psychics receive visions at random, representing partial views of a complex picture – a whirlwind of evil faces, menacing places, and bloody maces that may mean nothing, or may mean everything.
Ah, and what faces, places and maces they are! The scene of the crime is spectacularly beautiful – dark, baroque art expresses an environment with real sinister presence. Look at that wedding dress in the top left, illuminated by the soft light bathing a demon-haunted attic. Look at the creepy shed in the bottom left – clearly occupied by murderers, or perhaps by bears on fire. Look at the chapel, with a silent angel that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Doctor Who. The castle of Mysterium is more than mere backdrop – it’s infused with palpable presence, and an ominous personality.
And then look at the suspects – each one obviously guilty of something even if it’s not this specific murder. There’s not a single person there that I’d like to meet in a dark alleyway. Their pictures are festooned with trinkets and tokens representing salient features of their occupation. Each of them looks like they stepped out of the pages of a penny dreadful murder mystery. Regardless of what you may suspect though, they can’t all have done it even though they all have done something.
And then there’s the grisly collection of potential murder weapons. Each is deadlier than the last no matter in which direction you examine them. Each conjures up mental scenarios of brutal violence, or seductively sinister assassination. Murdered with a chair? Egads, how brutish. Silenced with a syringe? Gadzooks, how sly!
This is a lovely looking title – it’s the party game that Tim Burton might design.
But all these clues! They’re all contradictory! How are our psychics supposed to solve the murder? How can our ghost help guide their fumbling faculties towards a happy resolution? How is justice to be served, when there are so many tales to untangle?
Well, that’s easy – justice is served erratically, and faculties are guided unreliably.
Each psychic gets a flash of inspiration regarding a specific suspect, a specific location, and a specific weapon. Their job is to interpret that inspiration and select the clue that is pertinent to them. The ghost will help them in that respect, but only through the medium of visions. The ghost is mute – they cannot speak. The ghost can knock – once for no, and twice for yes. Do you understand?
Brrrrr. Is it getting cold in here, or is it just me?
Maybe I’ll just tighten up my jacket. It just felt like a chill breeze burst through here. Maybe somebody walked over my grave. Ha ha. Ha.
The psychics though have only a brief window through which they can commune with the afterlife. An ornate clock ticks down the hours. Each slow, ponderous rotation of its hand brings the investigation ever closer to its unsatisfying termination. When the seventh hour is reached, either the ghost is laid to rest or condemned to an eternity of restless wandering. No pressure.
Did you hear that? It sounded like a moan, coming from right behind that door. No, it’s okay, don’t open it. It’s fine. It was probably just the floorboards settling. Ha. It’s fine.
Seriously, you’re not cold? I’m freezing.
Oh yes, our psychics – there are six of these available, although the only thing that differentiates them is colour. Not their physical colour, but the colour with which they’re associated. I don’t see colour that way. I mean, I see it but I don’t see it, you know.
Now, hush up – the séance is about to begin.
Those mysterious coloured orbs at the foot of the table are our psychics. Arrayed in front of them is a labyrinth of spiritual visions. Only one path is true for any one psychic, and no psychic will share a clue. Everyone is receiving their own piece of the puzzle – a shortlist that is of relevance only to them. This is the arena of the psychics – the crucible in which their clairvoyance will be considered.
And the ghost? Well, it all looks much clearer when viewed from the Other Side.
The ghost sits behind a partition, upon which is the spiritual spreadsheet that shows the relationship between the clues and the psychics. Each coloured line represents a psychic, and this threads through the connections each must make. The other cards represent false positives, true negatives, or crossed-lines from the spirit world. It’s all so clear to the ghost, and it must be made clear to the psychics. And how, you might ask, is the ghost to do this if the ghost cannot speak?
The ghost has his, or her, own special vocabulary – that of symbolism, reflected in this hefty deck of esoteric cards.
That deck is the heart and soul of Mysterium – it contains the visions that the ghost can provide to each psychic to help them identify the clue that is pertinent to them. Here is where Mysterium takes the cheerful whimsy of Dixit and perverts it into something altogether more ominous. As befits the sole witness to a brutal murder, the ghost’s visions are tinged with darkness, and despair.
Okay, I definitely heard something rattle behind that curtain. I saw something in the corner of the room too – not an apparition, not exactly, but more the… the memory of an apparition. Does that make sense? No, of course it doesn’t. Don’t mind me. It’s all the stress. My nerves aren’t what they used to be.
Sorry, let me continue.
The ghost draws seven cards, and chooses one or more at a time to give to a psychic. This represents their attempt to communicate the correct clue for the correct person. This is an intensely difficult task, because all of the art is deeply abstract and none of it offers an especially tight fit to the case. The ghost must communicate through visual metaphor, shared experience, and through the desperate association of tone and colour and light and shade. The ghost has a tremendously difficult job – each of those cards can relate to each of the clues, depending on how the recipient may interpret the meaning.
The ghost deals each of their cards out one at a time, to the appropriate psychic. Purple gets a dark, sinister image of abandonment and nocturnal despair – an image that is supposed to lead the psychic to the stern nun. Why? Who knows? Perhaps it represents, to the ghost, the long dark night of the soul. Perhaps the ominous shape in the middle is supposed to reflect the silhouette of a wimple. Perhaps the moon represents the white of the nun’s habit. There are many reasons why this should be so, and even more reasons why this should not be.
Yellow is given a vision of breaking rope ladders… or perhaps a decaying railroad line? Something that disappears into a portal of unknown providence. This is the clue for the postman – does it represent travel? The melancholy act of deliverance and completion? The Sisyphean futility at the heart of the postal system? The ghost could explain, if the ghost could talk.
Red’s card represents the police officer. Why? Safety? An act of help? Or the mute observation and acceptance of a soul in despair? Perhaps the walking stick is symbolic of a truncheon. Perhaps the hat is representative of a helmet.
And blue… what is blue to make of their card? Dark, brooding skies and a tumultuous sea – is this the Scottish coast? Perhaps the boat represents a sword. It is all so unclear. Everything is so unclear. During our lives we understand the world only in silhouette, and only ever truly in hindsight. Why should the afterlife be any different?
No, I’m fine. But it is so cold. We are all so cold. We living, in this place of the dead. Or are we the dead, in this place of the living? Lines, and barriers, and space, and time. It all merges. It all diverges.
And for the psychics? This uncertainty is multiplied. Every card could refer to every suspect. Perhaps the green of red’s card represents the background to the nun. Perhaps the dark portal of purple represents the delivery of mail. This is a symbolic language, and only one participant in the conversation knows the vocabulary in use.
As investigators make their guesses, the ghost indicates failure, with a knock, or success, with two knocks. Those psychics that are successful move on to the next stage – locations. Those that guess incorrectly are given another card, one that will hopefully yield greater insight although it is considerably more likely it will raise more numerous questions.
As psychics identify more and more of their clues, they progress farther – identifying weapons, and hopefully standing together on the precipice of the epic denunciation of the vicious killer. But before that can happen, a final puzzle must be solved. All investigators must make it here before the clock chimes seven. If one should fail, all will fail.
The ghost collects up the clues of the suspects. The ghost selects which set of clues is the correct one. And then the ghost lays each set in front of the investigators. The ghost then selects three cards from their vision deck. One represents the murderer. One the location of the crime. The third the murder weapon. These cards are shuffled, and then dealt out to the table. Face down.
Much of Mysterium is spent in consultation and collaboration, debating over the meaning of clues and identifying the likely path each psychic should take. The climatic finale of the game takes place with no discussion. There is only secret voting as to which of the identified sets represents the solution to the puzzle.
The first card is flipped over.
Those psychics that fared poorly during the game must decide, on the basis of this single piece of evidence, which set is correct. They pick out a voting token, and slip it into the envelope that represents their investigator. This is handed to the ghost, and put aside. Their part in the proceedings is over.
The second card is flipped over.
Those psychics that stumbled, but basically succeeded, make their secret votes here. Whether these cards represent location and suspect, suspect and weapon, or weapon and location is unknown. All they have to go on is their confidence in how well they can read the intentions of the restless spirit behind the screen.
The third card is flipped over.
Those psychics that played expertly can cast their vote in the full knowledge of the cards, although this is slim comfort when all cards seem to refer equally plausibly to all sets. The silence of the final séance is oppressive. They cast their vote, and hand their envelopes to the ghost.
The ghost checks the votes behind the screen. There is a moment’s quiet contemplation.
And suddenly everyone erupts into conversation…
… and the séance is over.
There’s more to Mysterium than this – there are a lot of special tokens you need to manipulate through the game. There are clairvoyance tokens, spent to agree, or disagree, with the guesses another psychic has made. Those that use these tokens wisely earn points, moving them up the clairvoyance track – the higher you are up this, the more cards you see in the finale. There are raven tokens, spent by the ghost to refresh their hand. There are voting chits, and investigator markers, and more. It’s a game that revels in the trappings of its theme.
Really though, many of these things just get in the way. Mysterium is also a game that spends a lot of time undermining its own powerful sense of immersion. It’s often engaged in an extended act of self-sabotage, where its mechanical sophistication doesn’t gel with its professed intentions. It places more emphasis on game rules and mechanics than Dixit, and in the process becomes a less satisfying experience. A better game, definitely. But an inferior experience.
Really, this is mostly down to that thrilling finale where psychics cast their vote on the basis of a partial glance at imperfect information. It’s a wonderful piece of theatre that makes every guess matter throughout the course of play. But mechanically, all you’re doing there is taking those players that were least successful and pretty much setting them up to fail. In the process, you’re setting everyone up to fail. If the vote comes up incorrect, everyone loses. All of the extra game conceits needed to set up that tense finale ends up undermining the effect that must have been intended – to end play on a dizzying high. The enforced silence of voting just creates the situation where the end result can be recrimination. The best co-operative games create camaraderie – you win together or you lose together. Mysterium handles that with aplomb until the end, at which point it takes on a far less collegiate ambiance. Those psychics that couldn’t get into the flow of gameplay are the same ones that are probably going to cost the team a win. It’s an awkward and clunky negative feedback loop.
Then there are the rules regarding handing out cards, which is to say – there aren’t really any rules. You can give one, or more cards to any given investigator – that can be in itself a signal and a ‘loophole’ in the game mechanics. Give all your terrible cards to one psychic, and what you’re saying is ‘I have a hand of crud but don’t want to waste a raven on a full refresh’.
You can play Mysterium without the clairvoyance system if you don’t like it, and even ignore the prohibition on discussion at the end. You can have an open vote, where everyone agrees. You can let everyone see all the cards. You can house-rule the card distribution, saying ‘one card per investigator’. All of this can be tailored to your own preferences. There is though a deeper problem with Mysterium as an experience – it’s just a pain in the backside to set up.
When you take on the role of the ghost you have a whole solution that you need to put in place before anyone can play. You deal out a certain number of suspect cards, then you hunt through your ‘ghost deck’ for the matching suspects to place in your screen. Then you do the same with the locations. Then you do the same with the weapons. Then you shuffle them all up, and then you slide them into the containers at the back of the screen. Then you deal out each of the psychic clues onto the game board, and then you deal yourself out the vision cards, and then you need to carefully pick a card for each investigator and then everyone else gets to play. You pay a lot of upfront cost for the thematic conceits Mysterium offers, and it’s not always easy to convince others it’s worth the effort. While the game is in full swing, it’s certainly one I enjoy more than Dixit. But when the game is over, and the investigation is won or lost, and someone else wants to be the ghost… well, there’s a lot of waiting around and that’s never a crowd-pleaser.
The mechanical scaffold Mysterium erects around the collaborative act of interpretation is both its greatest selling point and its biggest drawback. It gives purpose to Dixit, but in doing so it sacrifices the ease of play. More so than in Dixit, Mysterium lives or dies on the interplay of personalities around the table. A bad ghost can ruin the game for everyone, and it can be intensely stressful to be the reason nobody is having a good time. The sedate pace of a slow or uncertain ghost distributing cards can forcefully break immersion – nothing spoils the ambiance of Mysterium quite like a bored psychic idly checking their phone.
That really sums up my problem with Mysterium – it’s a lot of added cruft for a the improvement it offers on the experience I have with Dixit. It’s darker and edgier, certainly – but if you want a gritty, edgy reboot of Dixit you can just play it with Mysterium cards. They work exactly as well.
Don’t get me wrong – Mysterium is a very fine game. A better game than Dixit. It is often worth the extra ramp up time. It’s often worth persevering with its strangely prudish mechanics and flow-breaking stumbles and starts. Play it with candles on a dark, windy night and you’ll feel a genuine chill fingering its way up your spine as a silent and recalcitrant ghost ominously knocks out affirmations and negations in the murky darkness. With a little pantomime, Mysterium becomes as much a role-playing game as it is a board-game. It can also offer moments of great levity, especially given the way multiple cards for the same clue begin to create a narrative context of their own. Generally you get the best card a ghost can muster for your clue – followup cards may seal the deal, or leave you more thoroughly baffled than when you started. While it doesn’t fit the baroque horror theme of the game, it’s a wonderful gameplay moment to be dealt a card of absolute gibberish, look over at the ghost, and see them silently giggling away to themselves. In the best of circumstances, recrimination bleeds into moments of genuine comedy.
That’s going to be completely dependent on the indulgence of the group though. Mysterium doesn’t go out of its way to meet players half way in this. It’s a beautiful, dark chest of wonders. It can be a magical and electrifying experience. It’s a Ouija board for the internet generation. And sad as it is to say, in most cases I’d probably prefer to just play Dixit.
What was that? God, tell me you heard that this time? It was a scream! It was a definite scream, and it came from right over there by the…
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