Legacy and campaign driven games are having something of a heyday currently. Perhaps it’s the influence of streaming services like Netflix and Prime, but designers seem keen to bring some of that grand narrative experience to the game table, unfolding plot and twists over multiple gaming sessions. Of course, campaign gaming is as old as Dungeons and Dragons and there is a rich history of story driven games, so over the last few months a friend and I have been scurrying and slashing our way through Mice and Mystics; a game first released way back in 2012, spawning multiple expansions and spin-offs from designer Jerry Hawthorne, all set in the same/similar critter-based universe.
Mice and Mystics casts you and your fellow adventurers as a band of heroic mice out to save king and kingdom from the evil plans of the mysterious Queen Vanestra. On the way you will face off against Vanestra’s army of minions, comprising cockroaches, centipedes, rats and spiders. You will also grapple with bigger foes like the dastardly crow that patrols the courtyard and Brodie, the castle cat.
The campaign is split across eleven chapters in the storybook, ‘Sorrow and Remembrance’, with each chapter representing one game. As eleven games might be daunting for some, it is possible to play the chapters as individual games and not part of a longer campaign. Some chapters even come with special instructions to make this possible. This also gives the game replayability once the campaign is completed.
Gameplay is co-operative, with players controlling one or more mice to try and achieve the chapter goals before the timer, marked by an hourglass on the chapter track, runs out. One of the neat parts of the game is the initiative track. As each new tile is discovered and encounter faced, cards representing each hero and group of minions are shuffled and laid out to determine turn order. Mice are also limited to one movement and one action (unless they have special abilities). This can create a perplexing puzzle of who should do what and when, leading to high levels of player interaction.
The key actions in the game are fighting minions and searching for quest items and/or items to power up your mice and help you in your quest. The battle mechanism is dice driven with the option of ranged and melee attacks. That may involve too much random luck for some players, but my friend and I have found it adds great tension, especially when you just need one more wound to finish off that tricksy to kill spider. Each roll can be met with fists in the air cheering or hands on head groaning and after a succession of bad rolls you may feel under Vanestra’s curse. My friend is convinced she’s jinxed.
In terms of story, I have to be honest and say the writing isn’t Game of Thrones or Tolkien, though mocking the corny dialogue in ‘story moments’ is an extra layer of unintended fun my friend and I have took from the game. Corny or not, the story is enough to invest you in the characters and cause care for what happens to them. Plus, as the chapters have progressed, we’ve imbued each mouse with character quirks and developed a fondness for some (Filch) and dislike of others (Maginos). The story is also family friendly, meaning this is something I could play with my nephew when he is a little older and I plan to use it to introduce him to more complex games.
As an older game, Mice and Mystics might not have the story branching of modern app supported games like Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth, but its use of two sided tiles and ingenious ways to change mission goals (quest decks, random tile placement, boss characters), allows it to avoid the trap of becoming samey as you progress through chapters. Later chapters also provide different ways of achieving goals depending on previously earned choices and story achievements and, despite its age, Mice and Mystics still feels like it holds its own in the contemporary market.
Embarking on an eleven mission campaign with the same people might be difficult for some, not least practically, but the game works solo too and scales across two, three and four players well. Although you could easily and conceivably swap players in and out, the whole point of a campaign game, for me, is in sharing the experience. Over the course of the game my friend and I have got to know each other better and it’s given us a reason to get together regularly and provided us with some of the in-jokes and references that the best friendships are based on.
Even better, in this worrying time of lockdown, we have found the game is easily playable over Skype, with me moving the pieces and rolling the dice (thus conveniently avoiding my playing partner’s cursed rolling). While I have been mainly hitting the solo games hard in lockdown, being able to play a game socially and face to face over webcam has provided a much needed connection with each other and the outside world.
That we have wanted to get together to play the game (even while social distancing) has undoubtedly been helped by the fact that Jerry Hawthorne has put together a fantastically fun game in Mice and Mystics. There is a reason some games stick around for a while and it is easy to see why people love and have fond memories of this one.
Whether it is the sheer joy at finally defeating Skitter-Clak the centipede and shooing off Brodie the Cat before he totally wipes out your entire rodent troop or the despair of failing chapter three for the fourth time (this will probably happen), Mice and Mystics offers all the exhilarating highs and soul-crushing lows you could ask for in a mid-priced box.
And, perhaps most importantly, you get to be a little mouse with a sword or a crossbow, which is pretty cool!