The cooperative boardgame Mysterium first appeared in Polish (Tajemnicze Domostwo) in 2013 and acquired a small following outside of eastern Europe thanks to an online translation of the rules into English, eventually spurring a reissue of the game with the new title and slightly altered rules in October of 2015. Fantasy Flight Games, the English publisher, has since added an expansion called Hidden Signs that adds new cards to the game’s various decks, but the game itself remains intact—and unlike any boardgame, cooperative or otherwise, I’ve come across, because so much of the game involves the players’ imaginations.
In Mysterium, one player plays the role of the dead guy … okay, the dead guy’s ghost, but it sounds better the first way. The ghost must try to communicate to the other players, who are psychics called to the mansion where the murder took place, who killed him, where and with what object. The ghost can only do so using “visions,” represented by cards that have the weird, unrealistic qualities of dreams, with items and scenes that don’t clearly go together. The vision cards should remind the psychics of something on the card representing the correct suspect, room or object for that specific psychic—each player-psychic has a specific combination of three that s/he is responsible for identifying before the players work together to identify the actual culprit. Players get seven rounds to try to guess all three of their cards, visible only to the ghost-player, and only work on one of the three at a time, first guessing each of their suspects, then the locations, then the objects.
The vision cards are the key to the game because, while they’re beautifully rendered, they’re about as strange as … well, my dreams, for one thing. A man flying an old-timey velocipede lofted by balloons over a pastel-colored village. A diminutive white-haired man, holding a diamond, running down a hall away from a spectral knight, a painting of a queen shooting a gun at him, and two dogs straining at their leashes to leap from their painting to catch him. A door, slightly ajar, with two open books floating in mid-air above a paper airplane. And so on. The idea is that the ghost-player sees something in each vision card that connects to the card that particular psychic (to whom he deals one or more vision cards on each turn) is trying to guess—an object on the target card, the function of the room or object, or the occupation of the suspect.
In games of four to seven players, the psychics use clairvoyance tokens to try to advance their scores so that, when the final round arrives, they can see all three of the vision cards the ghost-player deals to try to identify the final culprit. Each player has six tokens, three with green check marks and three with red X’s, to place on other players’ guesses each turn. So if you think your neighbor’s guess that the chef is his/her suspect is correct, you’d place a green clairvoyance token on it; if you think it’s wrong, you’d place a red token instead. (You don’t have to place a token at all if you’re unsure.) If your guess is correct, you move up on the clairvoyance meter, and if you get 7 correct guesses over the course of the game, you get to see all three of the ghost-player’s final vision cards. If you get your score to 5 or 6, you get to see two of the cards; otherwise, you get just one. This is essentially a way to ratchet up the game’s difficulty level and we found that the game doesn’t benefit from it, and the fact that you lose your used tokens until round four is an unnecessary complication. In games with fewer than four players, the psychics each double their roles, thus attempting to divine two triplets of cards (suspect, place, object) during the seven rounds of the game, and the clairvoyance tokens are not used. While we felt that the game worked best with five players, this was an acceptable variant for three players, just not for only two.
Psychics can communicate during the seven rounds of the game, but once all players have identified their triplets of cards, the communication stops and the ghost-player holds all the … uh, you know. Out of all of the players’ suspect-room-object triplets, the ghost-player picks one as the actual killer and the details, and then lays out three vision cards from his/her hand that best point the psychic players to that answer. The players then must each guess independently in a secret ballot, with players rating lower on the clairvoyance track guessing after one vision card is revealed, then those in the medium range after the second card is revealed, then those at high clairvoyance after the last card is revealed. If the plurality of player votes goes to the correct answer, the players have won. If the players picked the wrong answer, or one or more players failed to guess all three parts of his specific solution before the end of the seventh round, the players have lost, the game will raise the safety bar and the ghost will follow you home.
The game is absolutely appropriate for younger players—the fact that the subject is a murder is tangential to the game play and there’s no gore or violence depicted anywhere. It’s more of a sophisticated matching game than a straight murder mystery, using imagination and abstract thinking in place of logic, and my ten-year-old daughter enjoyed playing a psychic and playing the ghost. The Hidden Signs expansion adds more suspects, rooms, objects, and, most helpfully, vision cards to the base, but the core game remains unchanged. It’s just a really fun, clever game that doesn’t require the time commitment of many Eurogames or the increasingly complicated scoring rules that have infected the field.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.