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Mystery Express

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Days of Wonder, 3 to 5 players, ages 12 and up, 60-90 minutes; $50)

 

I love mysteries. If you are a fan of the genre as I am, you will recognize certain themes. Perhaps you prefer the dark world of hardboiled detectives, dangerous dames and film noir. Maybe the adventures of super sleuths grab your attention. Then again, exotic locales with a puzzle to solve might pique your interest. And that’s what we have here as fans of mystery and deduction will find their talents challenged as they board the legendary Orient Express to unravel a murder mystery in the aptly named newest release from Days of Wonder: Mystery Express.

mysteryexp2lf you’re thinking Clue, you’re not that far off but Mystery Express, designed by Antoine Bauza and Serge Laget, has a personality of its own, shifting the action from a mansion to a speeding luxury train with a different cast of characters: five mysterious passengers and the train’s conductor (all represented by nicely molded plastic busts). There is a long mounted board which displays the cars of the train as well as the train’s itinerary, Deduction and Telegram pads, passenger and conductor tokens, a whistle (used to indicate the first player), a travel bag, character “wallets” and tokens, and Crime category cards used to indicate the Suspect, Motive, Modus Operandi, Location and Time of the crime.

Each player receives a Deduction sheet, one of the character busts, its matching wallet (used as both play aid and a place to hide the Deduction sheet from prying eyes) and round character token and a blank Telegram. The Suspect, Motive, Modus Operandi, Location and Time cards are separated and shuffled with one from each deck removed and placed underneath the board. These cards are the solution to the mystery and it is the job of all players to deduce what they are.

The Time cards remain in a separate deck off to the side. The remaining cards are now shuffled together and dealt out with each player receiving a hand of 7 cards, three cards placed on the conductor spaces and 2 or 3 cards (depending on the number of players) placed in the designated areas for the two new passengers who will climb onto the train later in the game. The six conductor tokens are mixed and placed, face down, in their spaces along the train’s route (from Paris to Istanbul with stops along the way at Strasbourg, Munchen, Wien and Budapest.) The first conductor token is now revealed and the conductor bust is placed in the revealed railroad car. The train piece is placed in Paris and the game can now begin.

The first player receives the train whistle and starts the round. As the train rumbles from city to city, a certain amount of hours are available to use for investigation. On turn, a player may venture into any railroad car. Moving from car to car takes no time at all but actions – and the time needed to perform them – in each car differ. For example, in the Dining Car, a player may spend a number of hours equal to the number of players you decide “to share your meal with”. This means that invited players must show you ONE Crime category card from their hand. Shown cards are then placed in that player’s discard pile (with his character token placed on top of it). The Lounge Car allows you, at the cost of 2 hours, to force every player (except yourself) to simultaneously reveal one card from your chosen Crime category to all. Other activities allow for shifting of a particular type of card from player to player, asking two other players to give you a card type of your choice (and then return a card from your hand to them). You can even enter the Sleeping Car and search to uncover evidence. (This is simulated by having a targeted player take the game’s miniature travel bag and hide it in one of his two hands. If the active player guesses which hand is holding the bag, that player spends 2 hours and randomly takes one card of a specific Crime category from that player and adds it to his discard pile. If he guesses wrong, however, then HE is left “holding the bag” and loses one hour and receives nothing.) An action may only be performed if the player has enough hours remaining. In all cases, cards received or shown are placed in the owning player’s discard pile (marked by the player’s round token). All the while, you are making confidential notations on your Deduction sheet to help you narrow down possibilities. (All characters have a special “power” which allows them to either look at a particular discard for free or use an extra hour on their turn.) If you have performed an action in the car where the conductor is located, you may “chat” with the conductor to pick up more information.

Chatting with the conductor means taking one of the three cards found on the board’s Conductor spots, placing it in your discard pile and replacing the card with a card from your hand. This action is free, requiring no outlay of time. Once all players have had a turn (in clockwise order), the whistle is passed in counter-clockwise order to the player who went last in the previous round. This is an excellent design touch, compensating a player who goes last by having that player go first the next round.

As the train rattles down the rails, several things happen. At Strasbourg and Wien, new passengers board the train. Now the cards associated with these passengers may be picked up (and placed in a player’s discard pile) by going to the Club car and spending 3 hours. But all of this activity is only good in trying to uncover four of the crime elements. Time is handled in a very different way.

In Mystery Express, there are TWO cards for every possible Motive, Suspect, Modus Operandi and Location. This makes deduction more difficult. But when it comes to the time of the crime, there are THREE cards for each possible Time. Time cards are revealed to the players at three junctures – when the train arrives at Strasbourg, at Wien and at Budapest. In Strasbourg, the stack of Time cards is flipped over, one at a time, so every player can see them. At Wien, the deck of Time cards is dealt out and are then shifted from player to player until all have had a chance to see them. Finally, at Budapest, the Time card deck is flipped face up to form 3 piles of cards with each card, one by one, placed on a stack. After each viewing, the cards are gathered up and placed in their position, face down, off the board. But that’s not all.

When travelling into Munchen, the train goes through a long tunnel. All players place their cards face down on the table. Now each player choosing one card from the player on his left and the player on his right and looks at it. (This is a FREE move costing no time.) And, as the train nears its final destination, players arriving in Budapest must fill out a Telegram, trying to predict what their final conclusions will be. After doing so, ALL players now reveal ONE card from their hand (which stays on display for the rest of the game).

Finally, the train arrives in Istanbul. At that point, all players mark on their Deduction sheets their final conclusions. Now, the cards hidden under the board are revealed. The person who correctly deduced the most elements of the crime is the winner. If a tie, the Telegrams are consulted with the person with the most correct suspicions on his Telegram named the Master Sleuth.

Graphics are, as is typical with Days of Wonder releases, first rate. The artwork by Julien Delval wonderfully conveys a 1920s Art Deco feel and the board works in providing both a sense of movement and of time gradually running out as the train speeds towards its final destination.

Clue is probably the standard by which mystery/deduction games are judged but there have been other games for would-be detectives. Sid Sackson’s Sleuth streamlined the process by eliminating the board and concentrating purely on the deductions. Mystery Express goes in the opposite direction by increasing the atmosphere (from a mansion to luxury rail cars) and expanding the variations possible, making it a sort of “Super-Clue”. Just as with Clue and Sleuth, player questioning remains the cornerstone of the game but here the challenge is increased by having multiples of the cards in play. Control in the game is more than what may be feared but less than what many players may prefer. There is a certain amount of chaos here (just think of that travelling bag option which is a 50-50 guessing game). The approach to solving the Time element abandons deduction altogether, more closely embodying the Sherlock Holmes reprimand to Watson (“You see but you do not observe”) as players must be acutely aware of what they are seeing as the Time cards parade before their eyes. But you still have choices regarding actions and, despite the flux of cards shifting from player to player and from player to board and back again, most players (if they have been paying attention) will be able to have a fairly good handle on the elements of the whodunit and come up with a sensible solution.

Mystery Express is a niche game, too difficult and frustrating for casual gamers who, if they enjoy solving mysteries, are most comfortable with Clue or Sleuth. But for serious devotees of the mystery/deduction genre, Mystery Express is the right solution.

 


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