Review: Mystery Express

We picked up Mystery Express, by Age of Wonder, from our friendly local comic book and game shop today. Even though it’s a game for 3-5 players we gave it a whirl with a dummy* hand. The verdict?

Himself thought it was okay, but required too much concentration to ever become a real favorite for him. But I grew up playing Clue, and so I loved it.

I may be predisposed to love it just because it’s just so well made. Everything is made to feel nice in the hand. Even the player detective score sheets, which are made of lovely thick paper, are a pleasure to handle. The board lays flat without issue. The cards are lovely, and matte which is different from every other board game I’ve played. There are some (very nice) cardboard tokens, but the rest of game pieces are cast resin, including wee busts of each player’s persona! The texture of the game is just as opulent as the artwork, which is reminiscent of fellow Age of Wonders game Ticket to Ride, but with lots more personality.

The game is Clue, with more complex mysteries and all the tedious rolling to move removed. (If you’ve ever inched from room to room because you are only rolling ones and twos, you know what I mean.) To Who, Where, and How, the game adds Why and Time of Death. One of each variable is selected and hidden beneath the board, then the first four decks are shuffled together and dealt, while Time of Death is handled separately. Every Who, Where, Why, and How is a set of two, and your goal is to find ways to look at the cards which aren’t in your hand, to determine which cards are missing their mates, and are therefore under the board.

There are five investigative personas to play as, which seem to be based off characters from mystery novels. We identified Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Inspector Poirot just off the tops of our heads. Each persona has it’s own special power, the use of which is optional, that gives you an extra method to peek at another player’s cards. We didn’t use this mechanism, but it has potential be a fantastic balancing mechanism for playing with children.

The game then proceeds in five rounds which are the stages of your journey from Paris to Istanbul. Movement along the train is free, but taking action in a train compartment costs time, and on each stage of your journey you have limited amounts of time for investigation. There are different things to do in each compartment that give you access to cards, for instance in the sleeping compartment you pick a player and try to find and rifle through their valise. There are new passengers that board in Schonberg and Wein, which make more cards available. You go through a tunnel and get to sneak a peek at your neighbors’ cards in the dark. And you can even run into and chat up the conductor,

When you reach Istanbul, the game is over. You make your final selections and guesses, then the truth is revealed. Ties are resolved by the telegrams sent by the players earlier from Budapest.

One big advantage is that the game has a definite ending. You’ll never have a game like we once did in Clue that dragged on forever and only ended when we gave up and looked in the envelope to find two weapons and no room!

Also, you spend all your time actually working on the mystery, not also trying to desperately get from room to room. The mystery is tougher, but that’s just fine with me. The actions you can take in different train compartments are all pretty balanced too… With the exception of the sleeping car. To rifle another players bag, you have to guess which hand they’re holding the little resin valise in, which is pretty easy to work out of you’re good at rock paper scissors. Himself was pretty frustrated with me by the time we reached Istanbul!

The only real fly in the ointment is the implementation of the time cards. First, they have no numbers, just numberless clock hand positions. This takes a little puzzling out while you look at them. Then, Time cards are gone through at three different points during the journey, using three different methods to reveal them. There are three of each time point, not two, which makes it even harder to ID the missing one. It’s tough! I got it, but this part is pure memory game and not deductive at all. That was disappointing. Maybe there’s an alternative mechanic that could be worked out.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. The game mechanism is fun, but it does have a gentle to moderate learning curve. Its nowhere near being the most complicated game I’ve ever played, but it required moderate setup and constant reference to the rules, at least for the first play, which made it drag a little. But I still really liked it. In my opinion, it’s the game presentation that really pulls it together, makes makes up for the flaws, and makes it work.

* It doesn’t play well at all with a dummy hand, but I got a good enough feel for the game to know I’ll enjoy playing it.

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