Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 42 mins
Setup Time: 5 mins
Value For Money: Mid
I’ve long been a fan of image interpretation games such as Mysterium, ever since I first played the brilliant Dixit, so much so that I’ve begun designing one. The main progenitors of this sort of game are undeniably Libellud with their output including not only Dixit and Mysterium but Dixit Jinx, Mysterium Park, Obscurio, One Key, Shadows: Amsterdam, all based around the central mechanic of interpreting meanings from a series of abstract images. Although Dixit is a giant, having won the Spiel Des Jahres and spawning an unstoppable line of expansions, Mysterium, often seen as the co-operative version, is a huge success in its own rights and arguably improves on the formula by lessening the need for the “right group” around the table.
Mysterium tasks one player with taking the part of the spirit of a murdered servant at a stately home while the other players take the part of mediums trying to lay the anguished soul to rest years later. To do so the spirit hands out abstract vision cards to lead the mediums to their killer, scene of crime and finally murder weapon. The images being led to are progressively sparser, making progress trickier as it goes on. Should each medium player successfully identify their own set of killer, location and weapon there is then a final round in which the correct set needs to be identified.
Mysterium’s single biggest problem is its pacing, the spirit is given the duty of handing out vision cards to all other players who then have to make their choices against the clock (in the form of a sand-timer). The handing out is made face down and then the choosing is simultaneous, meaning that particularly at higher player numbers mediums are generally left sat and waiting as the spirit is painfully aware that everyone else’s fun is draining away the longer they take as they stare at a knight on a toadstool and a lizard driving a coach trying to work out which one is most likely to lead someone to choose an ice-skate. This can reduce on later rounds as failing mediums keep previous clue cards allowing discussions to be ongoing, but its not really clear why the visions are ever handed out face down. More time is not necessarily a benefit in this sort of game as guessing players can easily second guess themselves out of correct answers. As such the game only seems to benefit from house ruling to play vision cards face up.
The greatest strength of these sorts of image interpretation games is that they give players that don’t necessarily consider themselves in anyway creative the power to engage in deep and pure moments of creative thinking. Humans are naturally inclined to both find patterns and build private language, which is exactly what these games are built on. Mysterium achieves this formula, arguably better than Dixit, by lessening the pressure on players to directly create clues. In Dixit the very strength of these games, that they allow the uncreative player to find moments of genuinely inspirational creation, can miss when players don’t click with the idea of “good, but not too good” clues. Since Mysterium is co-op there is no such internal pressure to second guess and self-limit, rather every clue and connect needs to be simply as strong as it can possibly be, making for a much more reliable play experience.
Arguably some of the more baroque image interpretation games that followed Mysterium from Libellud over egged the proverbial pudding, resulting in weaker and more watered-down experiences, but Mysterium itself is possibly the strongest iteration of the central idea from this publisher. It’s a massive game so it’s unlikely that someone reading this review hasn’t encountered it, but if you haven’t, or haven’t experienced any of the games in this genre, the underlying idea is revolutionary and here it is presented in one of its finest versions.