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MONA LISA MYSTERIES

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Winning Moves, 3-5 players, ages teen to adult, 35-45 minutes; $25.95 )

 

Leonardo Da Vinci was a true genius, an intellect who excelled in many fields. Arguably his most famous contribution to the world is his masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, a painting that has captured the imagination of art lovers the world over for centuries. Part of the appeal comes from her mysterious smile. Although her portrait takes center stage in this game (from box cover to game components), her smile is not the mystery. Instead, we have something a bit more tangible. In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre Museum in Paris. In the world of this game, two years have passed and the search is on to discover, among all the forgeries out there, which player possesses the genuine Mona Lisa.

Mona Lisa Mysteries, an uncredited Phil Orbanes design, comes mona1 (1)with 5 Mona Lisa player boards, 60 gems (red rubies, green emeralds, blue sapphires and clear diamonds) and a bag to hold them, a Gem Value board, a deck of Art Expert cards, a deck of Bid cards, score pad, card tray and 5 pages of rules.

Expert Cards have a Rating (from 7 to 15) which symbolizes their “reputation” and “experience”. They also indicate the types of gems showing on the BACK of the card (gems which will play an important role in determining the real Mona Lisa).

The deck of Expert cards is placed face up in the card tray. Each player begins with one of the Mona Lisa boards (showing the painting in that player’s possession – the one each player HOPES will prove to be the real deal) and 12 gems (three each of the four varieties). In addition, players receive a starting hand of 11 cards consisting of a set of eight color-coded Bid cards (ranging in value from 1000 to 8000) plus three “special” Bid cards which are shuffled and randomly distributed to the players. Remaining Bid cards are placed in the card tray face down.

Expert cards (the amount equal to the number of players) are drawn from the tray and placed up for bid.
Bidding is done at once as all players choose one card from their hand and play it face down. The cards are revealed simultaneously and players, in high bid order, get to choose one of the Experts in the pool. (If a tied bid, NEITHER player gets an Expert.) Special Bid cards may also be played and, depending on the card, act as a regular Bid card or exert a “power” such as allowing you to take an Expert card or break a tie or even cancel all bids! All cards used in the bidding are now discarded and each player places his chosen Expert into his Expert Board, inserting the card into a slot on either the Burgundy or Yellow edge of the Board (matching the color of the Expert). Position on the board is key.

Only after insertion can a player look at the BACK of his Mona Lisa Board to see the value of his Expert. The slot will often (but not always) reveal Gems. (You only have three slots for each color. If you find yourself with a new Expert card in a color that is completely filled, you must open up a slot for the new card by discarding one you already hold.) An Expert’s value remains secret.monalisaboards (1)

The second phase of play involves playing gems onto the Value Board. The Value Board has rows for each type of gem with values ranging from 50,000 down to 10,000. As with Bid Cards, each player secretly removes a Gem from his stash and all are revealed simultaneously. If one and only one Gem of a type is played, it is placed on the Value Board in the next available space of that type, LOWERING the value of that Gem. (If more than one Gem type is played, ALL are discarded and NOT placed on the Board.) As the column of a particular Gem fills up, its value FALLS! But, in a clever twist, should all spaces of a column become filled, that column is emptied, all of those Gems are discarded and the value of that Gem reverts back to its original 50,000 value! Now, more Experts are drawn to fill the pool (or at least as many Experts as needed to have as many available as there are players) and the next round begins. Rounds continue until one or more players have NO Bid Cards left. At that point, the final value of each player’s Expert Board is calculated.

The Mona Lisa Boards are now flipped over to reveal the Gems of the Experts. Those Gems are multiplied by the final values of those Gems as determined by their positions on the Value Board. The player with the highest valued Mona Lisa Board is the proud possessor of the REAL Mona Lisa masterpiece and wins the game!

Mona Lisa Mysteries contains elements of gaming we’ve seen before. The rise and fall of Gem values is reminiscent of The Queen’s’ Necklace (Summer 2003 GA REPORT) and players using, basically, identical decks of cards to bid is a tried and true staple of Hol’s der Geier and many other games. The addition of randomly received “special” Bid cards introduces a luck element that can be
unbalancing as all special powers are not created equal. The luck factor is increased as the values of Experts undergo vast changes depending on which slot they occupy, a change over which a player has only limited control. (You can, of course, bid for an Expert in a color you have already filled to force a lower valued Expert off your board, a strategic option that balances your vulnerability to luck.) For players who like to see a strong link between a game and its theme, the connection between the mechanics of the game and its theme are as mysterious as La Gioconda herself! What possible relationship can there be between the values of Gems, the validity of an Expert’s opinion and determining if the Mona Lisa in your possession is the true masterpiece? Truth be told, none! But even with all that, it really doesn’t matter.

The interaction of the three key elements to the game – the Expert cards, the Mona Lisa player boards and the Value Gem Boards – works well and makes the game. There is enough information given (regarding the bidding potential of you and your opponents, the potential values of the Experts, the possibilities of effecting changes in the Gem values) so that you feel a certain sense of control over your fate which helps to balance the luck elements. Add to the mix the first rate graphic presentation and you have a game a notch above standard mass market fare. Mona Lisa Mysteries, like some films, asks you to “suspend disbelief”. If you can do that, you’ll not only discover the real missing masterpiece but some genuine entertainment too. – – – – – – – — — – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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