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Subject: Review: Mystery of the A..... Alibi rss

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Tim
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PROLOGUE This is a long, long, long, review. If you just want to know the final thoughts, feel free to skip.

I should start this review by saying right up front that I love deduction games. Whether it's a classic like Mastermind, What's My Word?, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, Orient Express, Code 777, or even Clue. I love them all. I love them with theme, I love them without. I love them on a plane, I love them on a train...

Sorry... Now, I've been chastised a bit for disliking deduction games where the information changes regularly during play. Games like Scotland Yard and Letters from Whitechapel (though I suspect my real problem with these games is that one person gets to sit with that smug self-indulgent smirk on their face watching everyone else struggle... I'd like to wipe that shi... Sorry, again), or Mystery of the Abbey. Argh. Mystery of the Abbey. My gaming kryptonite. The deduction game with no deduction. The game where everyone wastes time moving around the board to ask questions of other players that garner no new information. The game where random cards from the Library can turn the game upside down. The game where your best course of action seems to speed up the game by not asking any questions, and wait until the player to your right is forced to pass you a useful card. Mystery of the Abbey.

What does Mystery of the Abbey have to do with Alibi? Well, everything. And nothing.

THE GAME



I've seen Alibi on the shelf at my local Barnes and Noble every time I've been there for at least a year now. And every time I check out BGG on my phone just to see if the rating on this 18 year old game magically broke the 6.0 barrier all of the sudden.

Last week my will finally broke. "It's $15." I reasoned. "If it's arse, then I'll give it to Goodwill".

When I read the rules, they sounded an awful lot like Abbey. On your turn, you can ask a question of any other player at the table (as opposed to the location-restriction in Abbey). The question can be anything, so long as the answer can be stated as a number. After everyone has played one turn, all players pass an increasing number of cards to the player on their left... Just like Abbey, but without the cool monks.

*Danger Will Robinson! Danger!*

Alibi added a little something extra, though; Rummy. In Alibi, if you manage to get ahold of a complete set of 3 cards you can meld them onto the table and earn yourself some points. This struck me as brilliant. Suddenly you have an interesting choice to make during the game. Do I meld these cards faceup on the table for some quick points at the cost of giving the other players more information? Or do I hold onto them as long as I can, keeping other players in the dark, but losing out on some easy points (the value of new sets goes down as the game continues).

And just because I haven't mentioned it yet, at the start of the game you remove a single card of each category from the deck representing the who/what/when/where of the crime, just... like... Clue (Think I was going to say Abbey?)



Monday night I picked a table full of relatively new gamers, folks who aren't as jaded as the rest of us, and tossed Alibi out onto the table. I had intended to play with 4 but a nice married couple wanted to wait for their friend, and then two more players joined us. Now we had a 7-player game, and no idea if it this game was any fun...

So, was it better than Abbey? Definitively. For one, it's shorter. Assuming nobody is taking too long on their turns, a game really shouldn't last more than about 30-40 minutes. Early in the game it seems pretty random, and the questions you ask don't seem to harvest any information whatsoever (just like Abbey) and you'll likely hear a few groans from the players about that. But unlike Abbey, the game picks up speed fast. People start playing sets down on the table and you start passing more and more cards until soon you're passing your entire hand! It starts to feel like something of a race. You want to make an accusation, but you think if you can see just a few more cards or ask just the right question that you'll be able to solve the case. And so you start looking around the table at the other players, who also seem more intense than they did earlier. Can you squeeze out one more round, or will someone stop the game on you? The person that halts the game becomes "first accuser" and gets a 7-point bonus, then everyone writes down their accusations. Points are tallied from the accusations (including negatives for incorrect guesses -- doubled for the first accuser) and a winner, who is not necessarily the first accuser, is crowned king detective! They are whisked away to Hollywood where they get their very own crime-solving cable TV show (complete with sidekick and/or sports car).

SOME THOUGHTS ON STRATEGY
I came up with a few ideas during play that seemed to pan out.

- First, if you're holding two cards of the same set, you can ask the players one or two positions to your right if they've seen that card. That can give you some idea whether or not the rest of that set *might* be coming your way any time soon, and whether or not you should hold onto it. Conversely, you can ask a player to your left if they've seen some of the cards you're holding, so that you don't risk passing them a made set.

- You're going to know more and more cards that the people to your left have seen. You gave them to them. Use that to your advantage, if you can. Make a special note on your record sheet indicating cards that you've passed, and in what round you passed them. That will also give you a gauge for how far along the table a given card *might* have traveled.

- Early in the game the questions you ask aren't going to matter much, so try not to bog down the game by thinking too hard about them. Late in the game as lots of cards are moving around the table and sets are made, you really can start to ask questions that will give you information. In one round there were two or three questions asked by other players that were able to completely eliminate some of my suspicions. Just because questions aren't useful in the beginning, don't think they can't ever be useful.

As I mentioned before, sets decrease in value depending on the round you make them. In the first round they are worth 7 points, then 5 in the second round, then 3 in all subsequent rounds. I think that 7 points seems like a pretty big advantage to have out of the gate, based on the luck of the draw, but it encourages players to get that set on the table early too. I think that is a fair tradeoff. And, as other players mentioned, in a game with a smaller number of players, everyone will be more likely to have a set in the first round. Do you jump on the bandwagon for 7 points now? Or do you hold it back?

FINAL THOUGHTS
This game suffers from the same problem as so many other games out there today. There are too many better games on the market. It's a fine game. It's quick, it's fun, there's some strategy (I was awed by how many correct answers our first accuser managed to get right), but there are just so many other great deduction games out there that there's no compelling reason to buy this one if you have any of them (unless, like me, you're a sucker for a $15 impulse buy). And so that's my final thought.

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Randy Cox
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Thanks for the review. I've owned this game since it came out and never tried it because of the negative ratings on BGG.

But as a fellow Misery at the Abbey basher, and lover of deduction games, it sounds like it might be good. I do wonder, though, if the questions won't garner much info, as you indicate. I would expect some very elaborate questions, a la Code 777 (like, "considering all X and Y and Z, calculate the sum of 10 times the number you see plus 1 times the number you have seen in the past but aren't currently in your hand..."). You could gather multi-dimension information in that manner.

But speaking of that, and it's a problem in a few deduction games, I don't think you can ever ask a question about "how many you've seen" and expect an iron clad answer. I mean, I can answer "how many have you eliminated" (through both seeing and deducing), but I don't keep a tally of which cards in Clue I have seen vs. just marked off as definitely not the answer.
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Tim
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Randy Cox wrote:
I do wonder, though, if the questions won't garner much info, as you indicate. I would expect some very elaborate questions, a la Code 777 (like, "considering all X and Y and Z, calculate the sum of 10 times the number you see plus 1 times the number you have seen in the past but aren't currently in your hand..."). You could gather multi-dimension information in that manner.


I'm pretty much convinced that in Alibi, early-game questions should be centered around the set-building aspect... Finding out if cards you need are coming your way and making sure that you're not handing a set to the next player. It's easy enough to pose the question such that nobody can tell right away which cards you're inquiring about, by masking it in a question with cards you already have (like you always do in Clue). As the game moves on and you're forced to pass more and more cards, you'll start to find better questions to ask that might actually net you some info.

The questions seem so useless in both Abbey and Alibi because you only get to ask one person and they are as clueless as you. In Clue, you ask everyone the same question in turn until you get some info. In Code 777, the other person has all the information in front of them, except what's on their own rack. In both cases, you're getting real solid information. In Abbey/Alibi, if I ask a question of someone at the opposite side of the table from me, that doesn't really prove (or disprove) anything. The card could still be hiding anywhere to their right or left.

Alibi makes up for the shortcomings by hiding them behind a quick-moving game that gets more frantic as you go. Abbey highlights it's weaknesses by being slow, requiring players to spend time thinking about where to move on the board (which is pretty useless itself), adding additional randomized card events, only being able to ask questions of players when you are in the same room as them, and having a confessional that causes cards to move "out of sequence" to anywhere at the table. All of that adds up to a worse experience.

Btw, the box says from 3-10 players, and I suspect that the game would be very solid at 3-4 (where everyone has more information -- that is, more cards, from the outset). It worked with 7, but I can't imagine playing with 10. It would start to take too long, and you'd get less information from every question asked. And really, there are so many better games in the 7-10 player range now days...

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