Mysterium is one of those games that doesn’t want to hold your hand and lead you through the rules — it wants you to unravel its convoluted rules slowly and with a bit of a flutter in the bottom of your stomach. No one has any idea if we’re playing the game right… until it all comes together and we’re suddenly communicating with the dead.
The game’s premise is built on that of a murder mystery — up to six players assume roles as mediums, attempting to communicate with the ghost of the murder victim. The ghost role is where the complexity of the game either makes or breaks the mediums. The ghost must be silent — no talking, no gesturing, no nothing — and may only communicate to the mediums through visions. These visions, which are akin to the storytelling cards used in Dixit, are made up of anywhere between one and seven cards, depending on how the ghost prefers to communicate their vision to the medium.
The visions are given to the mediums in a specific order. First, they must discern who the murder suspects are from their visions. Each medium is given visions that are unique to a specific suspect, location, or murder weapon, which the ghost will either confirm with a nod of their head or tell the medium to try again by shaking their head. Remember, the ghost is not allowed to speak throughout the course of the game. Every interaction is through the vision cards, a head shake, or a nod.
Depending on who’s assumed the ghost role, the mediums are in for an interesting ride. Vision cards are meant to be used either as sentences in a story or as a single story. Some ghosts choose to communicate through abstract concepts and ideas, while others use their visions to show the medium shapes, colours, and theme. The ghost may use their crow, a token that they affix to a gamemaster screen, to discard their seven vision cards for new ones, though that can only be done once per round.
After each round, the ghost ticks time forward an hour on the clock. The mediums have one less hour to solve the mystery. If all has gone well in the previous round, the mediums will have unraveled the visions and found the suspect they believe the ghost was leading them to. Each medium will have been pointed to a different suspect, of course.
The game progresses until either time runs out, in which case the ghost has failed to accurately communicate their vision to the mediums, or the mediums have uncovered a suspect, location, and murder weapon. At the end of the game, the ghost must provide the final clues so the players can discern which of the visions was correct. The mediums talk among themselves and come to a conclusion. They vote and, if the ghost has managed to do a decent job and the mediums have voted accurately, the mystery finally comes to a conclusion.
What I love about Mysterium is that even though the rules are infuriating to learn, once at least one player understands the mechanics, the game gets out of its own way and allows the players to unravel the mystery in the way that they see fit. The ghost is the driving force, the storyteller, and the subject of the story itself. The ghost’s role is inarguably the most important… and the most difficult. Having to improvise a story from pictures on cards without being able to communicate the context behind those cards is a tall order, especially for those who aren’t particularly confident in their storytelling abilities.
The ghost must use the cards in ways that the players will understand, which is where the greater complexity of the game arises. A ghost who uses the same strategy for every medium will often end up foiling the story in favour of the mechanics —paying attention to how each medium interprets cards will provide deeper insight as to which cards to use in the future. Is a medium an abstract problem solver, favouring ideas and concepts in lieu of concrete reality? Or is a medium more partial to literal interpretations? How do they react to the cards? Using those facial cues and the reactions of the mediums (and if the cards are favourable), the ghost will have a better opportunity to help the mediums solve the mystery within the time allocated.
Mysterium is not for the timid or the faint of heart. It requires stalwart players to field the mediums and the ghost. This game has become a board game night staple, right alongsideBetrayal At House On The Hill. I would recommend playing it with a ghost who is familiar with the rules so that the mediums can get the most out of the first experience. And, of course, playing the soundtrack in the background to set the right tone.
(Original Post: The Daily Crate)