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Top 10 Mystery Games

Mystery Games - Cluedo

“Ah, sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found you!” - well maybe not quite but with this Top 10 mystery games list, hopefully we can point you in the right direction.

We all love a mystery whether it’s finding whodunnit, uncovering a spy or unlocking the rituals of some arcane lore. The list before you is slanted towards the criminal side of deduction but will also touch on more general mysteries, solving puzzles, unmasking shadows and revealing secrets.

The games can be split broadly into two camps: those with a brief, largely abstract version of the puzzle to be solved but can be played many times and those with a much more detailed and involved case that can be solved just once. Both styles have their merits and the choice is yours. Read on and ponder.

10. Cluedo - Classic And Discover The Secrets

If you are covering the top 10 Mystery games you have to include Cluedo the grandaddy of them all. Some games you may think have been developed by a pratt well this one really was - Anthony E. Pratt in 1943. First published in 1949 and still in print today and Cluedo (Clue in the US) has been bought by about 150 million people worldwide. Not too shabby. If you’re reading a Top 10 list on a leading boardgame retailer’s site I presume you’re probably one of them so I won’t spend too much time describing the basics.

In a nutshell you have to find the killer of Dr. Black from the 6 player piece suspects and with what weapon and in what room. This is achieved by determining which 3 cards: suspect, weapon, room have been removed from the decks to produce the crime. You eliminate options from the cards in your hand and by moving around from room to room on the board interrogating others about the cards they hold.

This game falls into the different every time group of mystery games. There are also many different and themed versions. Zatu currently list 21 versions and a jigsaw!

It’s clearly a family friendly game. Serious players can, however, invest a lot of deductive effort by not only eliminating the cards they have or are shown but also noting what their fellow sleuths are asking about. Of course they may be using deliberately misleading lines of enquiry to throw you off the scent!

The major variation shown “Discover the Secrets” released in 2008 revised the names of the characters, gave them back stories and special powers, renamed some of the rooms and added 3 more weapons and changed others. It also had intrigue cards that made getting around quicker but timer cards that meant you too could be murdered! This received a very mixed reception and subsequent editions returned to the classic formula.

9. 221b Baker Street

“The game’s afoot”

That quotation, of course, from Sherlock Holmes and in this game from Gibsons you play the role of the Master Detective himself solving a number of different cases in Victorian London. You read a detailed description of the crime before you from one of the 75 different case cards and then set off around the streets to visit key locations to gather clues. These clues are listed in a booklet and are linked to the locations by the numbers printed on the case card. These are randomised so you don’t accidentally read more than you should. The clues can be narrative or a cryptic hint to part of a key element. The clues are mostly linked to locatations relevant to the case so if the victim was a sailor you should visit the docks.

They’re not always relevant and some clues are red herrings or even no clue at all. This brings us the other element of this game: the Scotland Yard and Key cards. You get one each of these and you can use your Scotland Yard card to lock a location so no one else can enter until a Key is used to unlock it. Once used you may get replacements at Scotland Yard itself or the Locksmith. This introduces the only player interaction where you can lock up a really vital clue to frustrate your fellow sleuths or even lock an out of the way place that has no clue at all to lead them on a wild goose chase!

When you solve the mystery you must return to 221b and announce your resolution. After checking the answer you either bask in the warm glow of admiration of your colleagues or sit sulkily as they continue to unravel the case.

With a middle name of Watson I’ve always had a soft spot for Sherlock and whilst this is pitched as a family game, from 10+, it’s certainly not just elementary.

8. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders

Even less elementary is this next journey into the dark depths of Sherlock’s Victorian London. Here the cases are of much greater depth and intricacy requiring far more in the way of deductive reasoning and case work. The game is played co-operatively, as one of the Baker Street irregulars, and you will need all the combined brain power of your group to be able to post a score as good as the eponymous detective.

There is a descriptor to be read out for each case (the Space Cowboy website can read it out for you) and you are then guided to a copy of the Times for the relevant date. This may lead you to investigate a specific location on the supplied map of the central area of the capital. These copies of the Times will build up as you progress through the series of cases so as well as utilising the latest you may browse through the back copies to pick out nuggets of further interest. At the end of your deliberations you will be presented with a questionnaire, no less, for your team to complete with all the facts of the matter as you see them and dependent on your accuracy and completeness you will be awarded a score. Your aim is to match the great man’s score of 100. Well good luck with that!

We are sliding up the complexity versus number of cases scale here as there are just 10 to solve but of great depth and such skilful writing with a 13+ suggested age rating. It thus garnered the 1985 Spiel des Jahres albeit for the original version of this now improved game. This grants a fuller, more immersive experience but at current Zatu pricing works out at £3.41 a case as opposed to about 20p a case for 221B.

7. Suspects

We now come to the world of Claire Harper. Born in 1910, an avid Agatha Christie fan and more British than 5 0’clock tea (it says here). This means we have moved forward to the 1930’s to be given a number of classic style crimes to solve In this beautifully produced game from Studio H Hachette.

The full boxed version of this mystery games includes three separate cases each being detailed with up to 60 lavish cards containing clues, suspects and various locations. There is also supporting documentation such as maps and family trees. Each case is anticipated to take between 60-90 minutes and is tackled in a co-operiatve manner. The version I have, as depicted above, is a smaller 1 case version with 32 clue/suspect/location cards to take up to one hour. After reading the initial details of the case you are given a number of avenues of investigation to approach by way of the numbered cards. These cards may in themselves lead to further cards and clues. Some of these may only be accessible if you have collected the right pre-requisite cards.

The information presented was both detailed yet vague enough to give you alternatives to consider. You will be asked to determine the key salient points of the case, typically who did it, where and with what? Though it might be more considered topics like what evidence supports this being pre-meditated? You can make a guess at the answers at any point making a note of the number of cards revealed to provide your score for each question. Play then continues with more cards being shown. You can make a later guess and change your previous answer in light of the new evidence but you will now score a lesser amount based on the number of cards revealed.

When all the cards are gone – it’s worth seeing all the details – and everyone has made a final decision you then read the detailed outcome. In my attempt I got it about half right but missed a few salient points. I was entertained enough to want to try another case. I did like the fact that the victim in my case mas a Mr MacGuffin. Film buffs will know that a MacGuffin is a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to describe a plot development that needs to be presented to the audience but would have no interest for the characters involved if they were real.

6. MicroMacro Crime City

Now we move up to date in the mystery games list, albeit in a cartoon Where’s Wallyesque world. You have 16 cases to solve detailed in small packs of cards. These break your deductive process down into a number of steps: from 5 for the easiest up to 11 for the hardest. At each stage you will be asked to find a small figure or scene on the truly Macro sized town map – 75 x 110cm.

This works because the sheet shows not only the final scene of the crime but also all the different steps going back in time leading up to it so your protagonist or victim can be shown many times. The hints you get on where to look get vaguer as the cases increase in difficulty. When you have located the target asked for or when you’ve given up you flip the card to show the sought scene with a handy grid reference and get given the next objective.

You can play with as many as can fit round the table and peer at the map without getting in each other’s way. I suggest a fairly low count and it does play well solo. The publishers provide a small magnifying glass and recommend strong lighting. I wouldn’t disagree.

5. Murder Mystery In Paris

Murder Mystery in Paris and its companion title Complete Murder Mystery Night represent a genre of mystery games that revolve around hosting a murder mystery party. This may or may not be a dinner party although the game does include recipe suggestions.

The key to the game is that the invited guests will each be given a character to play and, indeed, one of them will turn out to be the murderer. Each of the players will be given a character reference booklet to help them answer questions posed by the others. They must answer to the best of their ability and in keeping with the character. You may have pieces of information marked to only be revealed if someone asks you a particular question. The murderer, of course, can lie to cover their crime.

We are moving into the arena of role-play here and you can make the evenings as spectacular or prosaic as you see fit according to how flamboyant your friends are. Roles can be allocated in advance and can be played in full costume. These games are not so much about winning or losing but enjoying yourself on the way.

Alcohol may help for these mystery games!

4. EXIT: The Game - The Pharoah’s Tomb

Turning away from a life of crime let’s consider other forms of mystery. Springing from the surprising success of locked room adventures where people pay a lot of money to be incarcerated by a total stranger on the vague hope that they can solve enough puzzles to extract themselves within the given time we see the hugely successful EXIT: The Game series. Here we see the same time-pressured puzzle solving, maybe more cerebal and less physical, without the claustrophobic fear of the confined space and worrying about how up-to-date the hosts fire certificate is.

Despite the fact that these mystery games can be played only once and by a clever (cynical) device of component destruction denying even the chance to pass it on they are hugely popular. Zatu lists 25 variations including the new, well-received advent calendars and 3 jigsaw puzzles. I’ve played 2 or 3 myself and personally found some of the puzzles a little opaque. The Pharoah’s Tomb is generally cited as one of the best and my colleague Matthew Thomasson’s review does it full justice.

The Unlock! Series of games from Space Cowboys also covers the same territory of escape room style mysteries giving you a wide range of these one-shot wonders.

3. Scotland Yard

Scotland Yard, despite its provenance, is not actually a crime mystery but a one against all hunt for a fugitive across present day central London. In this 1983 Spiel des Jahres winner one player plays the role of Mr.X (alright he presumably is a criminal!) and the remaining players form a detective dragnet trying to close in his location. There must be at least 3 detectives in the hunt so when there is only 2 players against Mr. X they must play as 2 detectives each.

All the players take a starting location at random from the 18 available. The detectives duly place their pieces accordingly whilst Mr.X secretly makes a note of his. A nice touch is that he is provided with an eye-shield so the cunning tecs can’t spot what part of the board he is looking at. Mr.X then makes his first move.

Moves are made by travelling via Bus, Taxi or Underground and in a special case for Mr.X only, on the river. You pay using the appropriate ticket and move 1 stop along the corresponding coloured line. All locations are linked by Taxis for the shortest 1 hop move. Buses give longer moves skipping some intermediate locations and the Underground longest of all. Detectives each get 10 Taxi, 8 Bus and 4 Underground tickets and they have to find the fleeing fugitive before they’re all used up.

Said fugitive on his move will write down on his board the location he is moving to and cover it with the ticket used. At 4 prescribed points in the chase he must surface to reveal his position before disappearing down again giving the flatfoots a fighting chance of finding him. This leads to a very tense game of cat and mouse, finishing when the culprit is apprehended or the pursuers have run out of tickets.

A nod of appreciation, too, to the map which is in a splendid graphic style showing all the key sites of the capital.

2. Codenames

Codenames is straightforward to learn and quick to play and you get a chance to show off to your friends how clever you are. Or even how good they are at mystery games.

That is unless they misinterpret your brilliantly worded clue and accidentally uncover the assassin instead!

The mystery here is where are your agents in a field full of enemy agents, innocent bystanders and one deadly assassin. They are hidden by cards that each contain a single word. The spymasters see a grid corresponding to the 5x5 layout of the cards showing which are Red, Blue, neutral or deadly Black. Taking turns they give a single word clue to their team followed by a number. This indicates how many of their agents they can find by working out which words the clue relates to. If they reveal their own agents all well and good. If they reveal a grey innocent bystander their turn stops and if they reveal an enemy agent it is passed to the enemy team and again their turn ends. If they reveal the assassin it’s instant game over.

The skill lies in trying to link as many words at once without leaving yourself open to misinterpretation. In the example shown I might say as Blue : “Up 2” hoping they’ll guess “Line” and “Beat” and not go for “Belt” and horror I just realised “Wind” which I read like a breeze can also be read to rhyme with ”Find” and be another mis-step!

Codenames has been hugely successful and has many spin-offs including Duet for 2 players, many themed variants and Codenames: Pictures. I’ll leave you mystery unravellers to work out how that last one varies!

Would you have thought to put Codenames in the mystery games list?

1. Dixit

And then there’s Dixit. The mystery, in mystery games, in Dixit revolves around the uniquely illustrated, large, glossy playing cards. You have to try to fathom which card has just been described by the Storyteller whilst trying to mislead your opponents with your own cunningly selected card.

Each round someone is the Storyteller. They secretly select one of the six cards they hold and describe it out loud. The description can be a single word, a sentence, a famous quotation or even a sound. The others then select a card from their own hands that they feel matches. The Storyteller gathers all the cards, shuffles them and lays them out. The other players then secretly select one card, not their own, that they think is the Storyteller’s.

Points are gained for picking the right card or if someone else picks your card. If everybody or no-one at all picks the Storyteller’s card the Storyteller scores zero and everyone else scores 2 points. Play continues with the next player as Storyteller until someone has 30 points. The trick, therefore, is to describe the card somewhat obliquely so that it is not completely obvious but neither totally obscure.

The issue arises if as a guesser you have no card in your hand that could remotely relate to the description. This may be alright once or twice but a run of such frustrations can terminally mar the game.

For me the mystery is why this game is so popular but it is the 2010 Spiel des Jahres winner and has sold over 3.5 million copies so it must make the list. Libellud themselves describe it as an illustrated game of creative guesswork and I prefer a bit more analytical evidence. The surreal but beautiful cards have garnered their own following and there are many expansion decks that I suspect are collected for their own sake rather than the game-playing possibilities of the original being exhausted.

So we're at the bottom of my mystery games list but at least it’s not as weirdly warped as Mysterium which would have been No.11 but that’s for another day.