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James O’Brien Mystery Hour Board Game Review

james o'brien mystery hour

No nonsense LBC Radio host James O’Brien first came to my attention during one of the pandemic’s many lockdowns. Aside from his daily three hour offering of burning political discussion and criticism, James hosts a weekly slot every Thursday called Mystery Hour. During these sixty minutes he invites listeners to call in with either a question they have long pondered but have never known the answer to, OR to suggest an answer to one of these questions already posed by another listener.

Questions can come from the world of science, literature, language or be as bonkers as “Why do pigeons have manky feet?” or “Do birds get jet lag?” The rules are simple: Googling is forbidden, and, if giving an answer, callers have to state their credentials. A caller may have a degree in a particular area of expertise, work in a specific field, or have seen a documentary on the subject. The whole thing is wonderfully random and a real breath of fresh air, often at the tail end of a typically turbulent week in British politics. A palette cleanser between Prime Ministers, if you will.

When I first discovered Mystery Hour, it came at just the right time. The world stood more fractured than ever at the height of the pandemic; staying at home became the norm, as we isolated from loved ones, friends and colleagues in a collective effort to protect the most vulnerable in society. And all of this on the backdrop of widespread condemnation of the government’s response to the covid crisis. In contrast to the disconnect many felt at this time, Mystery Hour almost felt like a greatest hits album of humanity: strangers from across the nation coming together for an hour a week, irrespective of political leanings and grievances, to learn from each other. A chance to debate obscure knowledge, to forget the harshness of their immediate reality and trust that no one would use a search engine to get one up on anyone else.

As a now established fan of O’Brien’s show, I had been aware of the Mystery Hour Board Game for a while. The game has long been coveted as a weekly prize for best answer and proof of credentials- the radio trivia equivalent to the Countdown teapot, but thankfully much more readily available. I purchased a copy at my local games outlet and began wondering just how well the concept would translate to the table. Overall, I have to say, the results are mixed.


Upon opening the box, my first impressions were not entirely positive. For a start, the game is massively over packaged. While the box itself is not huge, most of it is dead space. The size of the scoring board is responsible for the box size, but the excess cardboard padding could have been easily replaced with more question cards to boost the longevity of the game (more on that later).

While this may sound a bit petty, space is a serious consideration for avid board game enthusiasts and families who need to justify a game’s place on their shelf. Component quality also leaves much to be desired. The card stock itself is very flimsy and feels cheap. At least two of my cards were poorly printed, one almost bent in half due to poor finishing. The board itself was already frayed at the bend too. This is something I expect to happen over time, but not straight out of the box.


Our group of three were keen not to let these early setbacks dampen our expectations of the game, and we were subsequently pleased with the quick set up and speedy explanation of the rules. Although the rules are quite far removed from the original concept of the radio phone in show, mechanically they represent a suitable compromise: each player takes a turn asking a question.

There is a correct answer and a false answer on each card, but the player asking the question (the host) is allowed to invent a false answer of their own to replace the one on the card before the game begins. Three points are scored if a player answers the question posed correctly without hearing the correct and false answers first as prompts. One point is scored if a player gets the correct answer, having heard both the correct and false answers (a 50:50 chance). The host can also score two points from each player who chooses their invented answer as the correct answer. The game is relatively simple at its heart, both for good and for bad.

Things can be quite slow to get going - this will frustrate some but please others. Each player is encouraged to look through the cards they have been dealt, familiarise themselves with the text on each card and think up their own false answers (if they wish) before the game begins. Our gaming group approached this with varying degrees of application - some were burning to get going, whereas I was keen to take my time to come up with alternative but plausible false answers, but felt under pressure from the others to start playing whilst doing so.

If you choose to invent false answers, pre game is the time to do it. I tried to invent one answer “on the hoof” - I was successful, luring one of the other players into choosing it as the correct answer, making sure I stumbled through the “correct answer” text to make it seem like I was making it up on the spot. While this was hugely satisfying, this tactic relies on a large degree of quick thinking, wit and convincing delivery. Your gaming group may or may not possess the traits needed to perform a live dupe like this. And if they choose not to spend time beforehand inventing false answers, the game has the potential to descend into a 50:50 guessing game. This flip of a coin approach to trivia hardly emulates the sixty minutes of intellectual stimulation that fans of O’Brien’s Mystery Hour have come to know and love.


On the other hand, there is some potential for clever tactics to come into play. Maybe. Psyching an opponent out by claiming you know an answer for 3 points before hearing the options (even though you don’t) can work in your favour at critical points in the game. By doing so you can potentially lock other players out of scoring points if they take the bait. But, then again, maybe they won’t. Is this even a tactic? After all, they might know the answer and you, a brazen bluffer, are left red faced and eating dust. A lack of tactical depth does make the game feel a bit two dimensional. But how many dimensions should a game that revolves around answering trivia questions typically have? Maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there and doesn’t need to be.

Our group did spot one glaring omission in the rules though: there is no penalty attached to incorrectly guessing an answer before the correct and false answers are revealed. This makes committing to answers for 3 points not as high stakes as it seems - a big payoff, but little to lose by sticking your head above the parapet. I can’t help but feel that such a penalty or at least a roster of QI-esque general ignorance no no answers would be welcome. If nothing else, this would serve as the closest thing to James O’Brien himself giving you a robust dressing down live on air for ringing in with an uninformed answer which cannot be substantiated and which you refuse accept as incorrect. It doesn’t happen often on the airwaves, as those that call and get through usually know their onions but it would make for good banter around the board.

Every Day Is A Learning Day

On the plus side, the game is very educational, albeit dealing in quite obscure but interesting tit bits of knowledge. For me, the discussion generated following the reveal of a correct answer is where the true value of the Mystery Hour Board Game lies. Interaction reaches its pinnacle as ideas on why an answer may or may not be true are exchanged, which can often lead players along odd and exciting tangents.

Any game that gets people talking in the most natural way possible, outside the realms of in game objectives and rules, is a triumph in my opinion. Replayability is always a consideration before deciding to invest time and money in any board game and I can hear the inevitable cries re how much worth the game will have once all the cards have been revealed. But I should be clear: there are a lot of cards here. And even if you’ve seen them all, you would need to be something akin to Rainman to retain every factoid the game has to offer. There may even be some joy to be had for Mystery Hour anoraks in coming up with their own questions and answers, perhaps even using podcasts of past Mystery Hour episodes to prolong the experience. Learning is never done but it remains to be seen just how long the Mystery Hour Board Game can capture our particular gaming group’s attention.

Overall Impressions

Overall, we enjoyed the game but I doubt it will make it to the table regularly. There just isn’t that much to it and it just doesn’t have that wow factor. Having said this, the more we played, the more we settled on the idea of James O’Brien’s Mystery Hour having all of the ingredients for a fiery Christmas Day family gaming experience. For a start, all of the question cards could be quite easily distributed before dinner to allow players to invent clever false answers in good time. As our group played, it became clear that some of the cards are very subjective in their wording (“Does mixing drinks get you drunk faster?” If you’re a pedant, surely a yes or no should be enough to get points here, as it doesn’t ask you to justify anything). Answers can be wide open to interpretation too.

The host, as judge of the worthiness of correct answers, can lose friends quickly if they choose to be overly strict or overly lenient. The result is a recipe for raucous remonstrations between players. With only three, we found ourselves embroiled in heated discussion fairly frequently, so you imagine what the game would be like during the festive season, with a room full of family members who only see each other semi regularly, all at each other’s throats over the wording of an answer. Is this not the true spirit of Christmas? If nothing else, the Mystery Hour Board Game has the capacity to provide a nice change from the tried and tested usual Yuletide offerings: Trivial Pursuit (1995 edition) or an M&S party game your auntie might impulse buy on the way to the till.

The Mystery Hour Board Game won’t change the world but for fans of trivia or those simply looking for a casual family game that will teach you interesting things and ignite discussion, this game certainly deserves a round of applause. Just maybe not the rapturous round of applause that Mystery Hour fans may have been hoping for.

That concludes our thoughts on the Mystery Hour Board Game. Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts and tag us on social media @zatugames. To buy the Mystery Hour Board Game today click here!