Review of Tajemnicze Domostwo (a.k.a. Mysterium)

  • Designers:                Oleksander Nevskiy & Oleg Sidorenko
  • Publisher:                 Multiple
  • Players:                     2 to 7
  • Ages:                          8 and Up
  • Time:                         30 – 60 Minutes
  • Times Played:           8

TajemniczeDomostwo

Note: This review is for the Polish game Tajemnicze Domostwo.  For a review of the English-language Mysterium, see this link.  

Tajemnicze Domostwo: Is it worthy of the hype? 

Tajemnicze Domostwo (a.k.a. Mysterium) has been much hyped over the past six months.  The game has made numerous appearances on the BGG hotness list, and it is now the #10 ranked party game on that site.  It has also been a hit at conventions: Mysterium was reportedly the most played game at Geekway to the West, and it was number six on the buzz list from BGG.FAM.  That’s a lot of attention for a game that hasn’t yet seen an English-language release.

So is it worthy of the hype?  I think so.  I must admit: I wasn’t looking forward to trying Mysterium.  I had frequently heard it described as “cooperative Dixit,” and though Dixit is a fine game, it isn’t one of my favorites.  Nonetheless, heeding the hotness, I threw a copy into one of my recent imports and pulled it out at my weekly game night.  It was an instant hit, and I was unexpectedly impressed.

A note on the various editions, and an update on the U.S. street date…

Oleksander Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko created a prototype of the game back in 2011.  The Polish first edition (Tajemnicze Domostwo) was released by Portal Games in late 2013 or early 2014.  The game has since seen Italian, Russian, and Ukranian editions.  The art is the same in all of the editions, but the Italian, Russian, and Ukranian releases have nicer components, as can be seen over at BGG.

Libellud is reworking the game for its English and French releases, and it will be distributed by Asmodee.  Asmodee has previously indicated a Gen Con release.  I reached out to them, and they confirmed that they plan to release the game “near” Gen Con, but they clarified that no release date has been officially set.  They confirmed that they are re-doing much of the art and components and said the English rulebook is not yet available.  A preview of some of the revamped art and components can be seen over at TricTrac.

The Polish edition appears to have been the one most imported into the United States, and that is the one I own.  The rest of this review will focus on that edition.

Gameplay

Mysterium is a pure cooperative game for 2-7 players that takes place in a haunted mansion.  One player is a helpful spirit, and the other players are psychic investigators invited to the mansion to solve a crime from the mansion’s past.  The spirit interferes in the investigators’ dreams to steer them to the murder weapon, the related location, and the perpetrators.  If the identity of the perpetrator is found within seven days, there is a common victory for all players.  If not, everyone loses.

To set up, each player takes an investigator board for their chosen color (left side of the image below), the corresponding investigation progress token (the clock on the investigator board), and one of the investigator markers (the blue token).  The calendar board and round marker (bottom of the image below) are placed on the table, and the round marker is placed on the first day.  In a three player game set to normal difficulty, six cards each are drawn of the brown-backed item cards (showing the murder weapon), the location cards (showing a scene associated with the crime), and the character cards (showing the culprits).  These cards are put out on the table for all to see.  (The number of cards drawn varies by the difficulty level and number of players.)

Components

The cards on the table all have brown backs and are called the investigator cards.  There is an identical set of cards with blue backs, and these are used by the spirit and are called spirit cards.  The spirit takes the identical spirit cards (i.e. blue backs) corresponding to the investigator cards (i.e. brown backs) sitting on the table.  He then chooses for each investigator one character, location, and object.  He forms a face-down pile for each investigator and sets the corresponding investigator marker on top.  Only the spirit is permitted to see the cards in each investigator’s’ pile.  (See the top right of the image above for an example pile.)

To start the game, the spirit draws six “dream” cards from a deck of 84.  After inspecting the face down card piles for a chosen investigator, the spirit selects one or more dream cards that he thinks will help the investigators deduce the item card.  The spirit passes dream cards to the corresponding investigator.  The dream cards are placed face up, and the investigators are free to discuss among themselves.

For example, let’s say the spirit has the following six dream cards in his hand:

Dream Cards

Let’s further say that the following item cards are showing on the table, and the top left item card belongs to the blue investigator:

What

The spirit must hand one or more of the the dream cards to the blue investigator.  In this situation, if I were the spirit, I would hand the top right dream card to the blue investigator, hoping that the paper airplane would trigger the investigator to think of the letter on the top left item card.  The task would be much more difficult, however, if the blue player instead had the candlestick in the bottom left of the image.  In that situation I’d probably go with the polar bear image, as the color matches and there appears to be some illumination in the middle of the picture.

After the spirit has handed an investigator cards, he draws back up to six and then repeats the process for the next investigator.  After all investigators have cards, they guess which object the spirit was hinting at by placing their investigator markers on the corresponding cards.  The spirit must be careful not to give any hints other than the dream cards.

When guesses are made, more than one investigator can be on a card, although obviously at least one of them will be incorrect.  After all investigators have made their guesses, the spirit indicates which investigators are right, and the correct ones proceed to the next subject (location, and after that, character).  The incorrect investigators keep their dream cards, and the spirit will add additional cards on the next round.  The round marker advances, and the process repeats.

Below are samples of the location and character cards, which tend to be more difficult than the item cards, as there is much more detail in each card:

Where   Who

Depending on the difficulty level, a spirit may discard all of their dream cards and redraw a fixed number of times in the game.  On easy, this can be done once per round.  On normal, difficult, and very difficult, this can be done 3, 1, and 0 times per game, respectively.

Once all investigators have successfully guessed their characters, the investigators must collectively find the true culprit.  The spirit takes all of the character cards assigned to the players at the start of the game (the blue backs) and shuffles them.  He then draws one of these cards, looks at it, and places it face down in front of them.  This is the true culprit the investigators must now identify to win the game.  The spirit once again uses dream cards to give hints to the investigators.

If the investigators guess the true culprit by the end of the seventh round, all players collectively win.  Because all investigators must correctly complete four stages (item, location, character, and true culprit), in order to win any one investigator cannot make more than three incorrect guesses during the game.

Is it worthy of the hype?  My thoughts on the game.

I didn’t expect to fall in love with Mysterium, but my first game caused me to want to play again immediately.  My game group rarely plays the same game twice in the same night, but we ended up playing three times in a row.  It was so popular that we ended up with thirteen players on the third game.  (In case you’re wondering, no, Mysterium does not normally support thirteen players: we improvised by putting teams of two as all of the investigators, thus turning the 7-player game into a 13-player game.  It worked well.)

I’ve heard this called “cooperative Dixit” by several people.  I see the comparison (both use pictures for interpretive communication), but ultimately I don’t see it as 100% on target for three reasons.  First, the central mechanic is actually quite different: in Dixit you’re trying to be clever so that only a few individuals get what you’re hinting at, but in Mysterium, the spirit is trying to be obvious, and the cards are designed to make such obviousness difficult.  In that regard, as a good friend of mine pointed out, the game seems more like Concept than Dixit.  Secondly, I think Mysterium is weightier, and BGG seems to agree: Dixit has a weight rating of 1.3, and Mysterium has a 1.9.  Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, I think Mysterium is more tense than Dixit, mostly because it is more focused and themed: I’ve never had a stand-up-as-endgame-approaches round of Dixit (and in general I find that game to be dry), but all of my Mysterium plays have been exciting.  As one BGG user aptly described it, Mysterium is “Dixit with a point.”

The game is intuitive and easy to learn.  The rules explanation for the first play took less than three minutes, but we didn’t even bother explaining the game for the second and third plays that first night: people just picked it up from watching.  That said, don’t let the lack of complex rules fool you: the game has depth and is quite challenging.  The images on the cards are extremely well designed to interact with each other, and the dream cards can nicely correspond to several different item, location, and character cards.

The difficulty of the game varies quite a bit with the number of players.  Out of eight plays, I’ve only won twice, both times with three players.  I haven’t even come close to winning with larger groups.  To me, this raises a potential flaw in the game’s rules and design: the difficulty levels in the Polish chart seem, at least to me, to be out of whack.  Even on the “easy” setting the 7 player game seems devilishly difficult, whereas we beat the “very difficult” three-player game on the first try, although maybe we just got lucky.

I’ve been the spirit in two games and an investigator in six.  I would have expected being the spirit to be more fun, but I actually preferred being the investigator.  Being the spirit can be a lot of pressure, and I’ve found it incredibly difficult to stay Hanabi-style stone-faced.  I much prefer helping out the team and thinking through all of the hints.  That said, I suspect I’m in the minority.  Members of my game group have said it is more tense being the spirit, and the ones who have taken on the role have enjoyed it more.  Plus, on the spirit side, there’s often hilarity in seeing the inane connections the investigators contrive.

The artwork on the cards is fantastic, and it aids greatly in carrying the theme along.  The rest of the components in the Polish edition are nothing special, but the Italian, Russian, and Ukranian editions look much improved.  The previews of the Libellud art look even better to me, and I’ll definitely be picking up a copy of the English edition.

Is the game for everybody?  Certainly not.  Individuals who are not fans of cooperatives will probably not like Mysterium.  Fans of Dixit seem likely to enjoy the game, although some may not embrace the added complexity.  I think Mysterium is fairly classified as a party game, and like any party game, the experience will ultimately depend on the quality of the group.

Overall, I expect this to be a popular game for years to come.  It’ll need a few expansions to keep it fresh, but the game seems like a great addition to any cooperative repertoire.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Nathan Beeler:

Mysterium is at heart a communication game: a player is trying to pass along crucial information to another while keeping within the confines of the rules for information transmission. These kinds of party games tend to reward clever play and can be deeply satisfying when one finds a money clue that hits its mark. Some of my favorite games, let alone party games, are of this style: Celebrities/Time’s Up, Word Blur, Thingamajig, Password, Objet Trouves, and on and on. So it was no surprise that I fell in love at first play with Mysterium, a game that uses dreamy Dixit-like art as its sole communication channel. This squishier medium removes the hard edges of a more raw logic-based game like Hanabi, but it keeps the pensive pace that you’d lose in a timed communication game like Hoopla. Mysterium primarily hits all the right notes, and I applaud the designers for that. My only complaint is that the art of the items and locations sometimes matches a little too well with the dream cards. It doesn’t feel particularly clever to play the giant metal spider card to clue the location that has a giant spider on it (going from my memory there). I would like to try playing with actual Dixit cards that weren’t made to have major and minor overlaps intentionally. This is a small quibble, and I feel that the game is definitely in my wheelhouse and I will be buying a copy at first opportunity.

Larry:  I’ve only played this once and almost certainly will not play it again.  I was totally mystified by the cards the Spirit was handing me.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t see any connections, but that I saw too many of them!  My fellow players had no problems interpreting the cards, but even after they correctly explained which card I should take, I still didn’t see why that was the correct answer!  Maybe my way of thinking is just too logically boring.  The thing is, I love games where you have to make associations, like Time’s Up, and am quite good at a lot of them.  But I’ve never been able to interpret the cards in Dixit either, so I guess my ineptitude at Mysterium shouldn’t come as a surprise.  At any rate, most certainly a game that is Not for Me.

Mary Prasad: I only played one time but I am interested enough to play again. Right now I put it in the “I like it” category, but I could see this going either way. I think with the right group it is fun. There were a few too many distractions during our game so I can’t really evaluate it from that experience (not to mention, one play is difficult enough to form an opinion in most cases anyway). It is innovative – using card with artwork to communicate with the rest of the players to solve a mystery. I kind of wonder about replayability in that the association with images may be used and more easily guessed. From what I can remember, the card art was really nice. (I find it humorous that Nathan thought the card art matched too closely in some cases but Larry couldn’t find any connections – ha ha!)

Joe Huber (2 plays): I am generally not a fan of cooperative games.  I enjoy playing them well enough – they’re just never what I want to suggest to play.  And Mysterium – is no exception.  After passing up numerous opportunities to play the game with one of my groups, I finally did end up playing it – twice – when I was at a small convention in March.  And it was exactly what I expected – interesting, enjoyable, and not a game I’d ever be calling for.  I suspect I’ll play it again sometime, and I’ll be happy to do so, but if I’m in the mood for a cooperative game it’s always going to be for Hanabi or Witness instead.

Frank Branham (6-8 Plays): This has quickly become our go-to party game, heavily influenced by Her Ladyship’s high opinion of the game. (Creepy art + a Seance theme. Not a surprise.) It is a superb game. The above review doesn’t really tell you how remarkably well the theme and art mesh with the overall play. The mechanics tell you that it is a cooperative melding of Clue and Dixit, but not how nicely the seance/occultist feel comes across in actual play. That’s almost unheard of for this kind of game.

I have the Ukranian edition (which has only minor rules differences–number of cards in hand and spirit hand refreshes.) The one big chance is that Portal created a downloadable single page expansion called the Spirit Board. Instead of a sort of throwaway expansion, the Spirit Board allows the ghost to make “sounds” by placing a Spiritualist token on this board to indicate what the Ghost is doing. Each “noise” has a different, slightly vague hint to that player in addition to the proffered Dream Cards. (Especially the essential “Don’t listen to what the other players are telling you.”). This is a requirement for games with 5-6 players, as there is always one person who isn’t quite getting the clues this go. It also nicely reinforce the theme–can’t have proper Victorian spiritualism without some knocks, a creak, and a whiff of ectoplasm.

It just isn’t done.

Fraser (a few plays)  Like Larry I have always found the problem with the cards is that the spirit chooses a card for reason A and the players come up with reasons B, C and D and get it totally wrong,  Time after time.  I think we usually found any given card from the spirit could always be reasonably matched to at least three cards out on the table (common themes being colour, or water, or a particular sharp object), the trick is to try and match your thinking and it’s not an easy trick.  I’ll play it, but I am not likely to choose it.

Lorna: Fun game for gamers and nongamers. I find it really interesting to see the group think with different groups. Even if you have a player that just doesn’t “get it” the other players are allowed to help out and give suggestions I believe. Anyway I had enough fun with it to make it an insta buy at BGGCON last fall.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris W., Eric M., Nathan Beeler, Frank B.
  • I like it. Mary P., Lorna
  • Neutral. Joe H, Fraser
  • Not for me… Larry
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