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Graham Dean
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Murder! Mystery! Mastermind!

Review

Overview

I had become aware of Murder! Mystery! Mastermind! during my preparations for Essen although very little information came through. I was principally interested in the relatively short duration and the number of players, with the crime deduction theme being of interest since one of the playing groups I had in mind for this loves Cluedo.

I discovered that Murder! Mystery! Mastermind! would not make Essen in time, but that a prototype version would be available and planned demo sessions could be arranged. I booked myself in for a game on Friday afternoon and it is my experiences during this session which form the basis for this review.

Components



Disclaimer: I have only seen a prototype demonstration copy, although I gather that what I saw was very close to the final version. I was told that the reason Murder! Mystery! Mastermind! did not make Essen was due to the designers not being happy with the quality of the manufacturing being done, so I have good confidence that the final product will be good quality.

The game consists of a large central board, five metal deduction boards, magnetised tokens, a small metal question board, 30 cardboard tokens covering the three areas of deduction (evidence, witness and motive), and a stack of Trial tokens in individual player colours.

The artwork is good – of a graphic novel light-noir style, although some of the text on the board was a little difficult to see against the dark background – detailing which doesn’t affect gameplay. The metal boards were well done and I was assured they will remain in the final version.

Setup

The main gameboard representing the city is placed in the centre of the play area. The motive, evidence and witness tokens (collectively I shall call them MEW Tokens) are shuffled, and one of each type is placed to one side – this is the evidence around the murder which we are looking to discover. The remaining 27 MEW tokens are placed on the board face down – three in each of the nine locations. It is possible to tell from the back of the token whether a piece of information relates to witness, evidence or motive, but that’s all.

Each player selects a character (Police, CSI, Widow, Detective or Reporter) and receives a metal deduction board, a set of magnetised tokens, a stack of trial tokens – each player starts with 5, with the rest placed to one side, and a pawn representing the position of their character on the board.

The non-reporter characters have starting positions on the board which already contain three evidence tokens. The three in your start position become your starting information. They are removed from the board and placed in front of the player, and your deduction board is updated accordingly.

With four players I would expect the Reporter would not be used. With three or fewer players I would expect the Detective would not be used, although that is probably less critical to game balance.

Gameplay

General gameplay mechanisms

Murder! Mystery! Mastermind! is split into an investigation phase and a trial phase. During the Investigation phase players take turns to move around the game board looking at the MEW tokens on the board, removing some as they go. During the Trial phase players effectively place bets on each of the three categories of evidence.

There are three categories being investigated, with five possibilities in each. So there are five different types of evidence (fingerprint, shoeprint etc), five different witnesses and five different motives (power, love etc). Each of these 15 have two MEW tokens – designated A and B. When you have seen both A and B tokens for a single item you can rule it out of your investigations. Since three MEW tokens have been set aside, one of each category will only have one MEW token in play, and this is what you are trying to discover.

Tracking the deductions

Each player has a metal board with 15 magnetised tokens, one for each witness, piece of evidence and motive. The four sides of each square token are marked with an A, a B, a P or is empty. The idea is that when a particular piece of evidence has been seen the magnetised token can be rotated accordingly. If you have seen the A evidence only, A is rotated to the top. Similarly for the B token. If you have seen both the token is rotated so that the P is at the top (I forget what the P stood for, but it made perfect thematic sense).

There is quite a lot going on, and the mechanism works well as a means of keeping track. The magnetised tokens on the metal deduction board is also a strong solution to a design problem.

Special abilities of the characters

The three basic characters are the Police. the CSI and the Widow. Each has their own area of expertise, all justifiable based on the theme. The Widow should be expected to know her husband well, and so she is an expert on Motive. The Police are very good at interviewing people and going door to door, and are experts on Witnesses. The CSI are experts at forensically investigating a crime scene, and are experts on gathering evidence.

In game terms this relates to collecting the MEW tokens from the board – please see the “Moving around the board” section below.

The fourth character – the Detective – has no specialisation, but has a random chance of viewing MEW tokens – see below, and is better at asking questions – see the “Asking questions” section below.

We didn’t play with the fifth character – the Reporter – in our demo game. We did have a brief explanation of what it did, but I can’t remember the details. I think it had better Interrogation skills than anyone else, and could move around in a slightly better way – derived from the perceived abilities of the paparazzi.

Moving around the board – following a lead

The nine locations are positioned on the game board in a simple three by three square. Movement is possible to any orthogonally adjacent location, or diagonally from the centre to the corners and vice versa.

If a player moves over an empty link, they may take one of the MEW tokens from their destination only if there are three MEW tokens remaining.

Players may place one of their MEW tokens face down over an empty link before crossing. If a player crosses over a covered link (i.e. “following a lead”) then they may pick up a MEW token from their destination if there are only two MEW tokens remaining. This is quite a neat mechanism which forces players to give up information in order to acquire more.

If a player has a particular specialism (the Widow, Police or CSI) they get preferential access to MEW tokens relating to their specialism. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was either the ability to look at MEW tokens where there was only one remaining, or the ability to look at MEW tokens after passing over an uncovered link.

The Detective has a similar but slightly random ability. They must declare which type of MEW token they want to look at and roll a die. If they roll the correct symbol they get to see it. Otherwise they get nothing.

When moving over a covered link, the player may look at the MEW token and update their deduction board accordingly, replacing the token. One of the coloured Trail tokens is placed on each token to indicate who has seen it, which prevents players mistakenly going over old ground. Once all players have seen a token, it can be flipped over.

The final MEW token can be removed from a location by a player who declares that one of the private MEW tokens they have in hand is a part of a pair with one already revealed on the board.

Asking questions - interrogation

Moving to another player’s home location, or to a location where another player’s token is, allows you to ask a question. This is done by taking the small interrogation board and transferring one, two or three magnetised tokens (depending on certain variables) from your deduction board and passing them to the other player. The player being asked chooses one to answer (making the ability to ask only one question more useful than asking three), rotates the magnetised token and hands it back, telling you which one they answered.

A basic question involves three magnetised tokens, which allows the person being asked to choose the least helpful question to answer.

If you wish you may sacrifice a MEW token to establish a relationship with another player – something which may not be refused. A MEW token is shared, after which all questions you ask of that person consists of only one magnetised token, making the questioning much more effective.

All questions asked by the Detective use two magnetised tokens, unless they create a link.

Making a deduction

During their turn a player may attempt to make a deduction. This cannot involve MEW tokens they have see – this would be an observation, not a deduction. The player openly states that they think two MEW tokens are a pair. The specialist in that area checks.

If the deduction is correct, the player gains a Trial token for the next phase, but you lose a Trial token if the deduction was incorrect.

Ending the Investigation phase

Play continues until (as mentioned above) only a limited number of locations (three, I think) still have MEW tokens. This can be increased to four (I can’t remember how) if a player is feeling confident, as this means less evidence has been revealed and increases the pressure on the other players.

Once the Investigation phase ends, play moves to the Trial phase.



The Trial

Players take their stack of trial tokens and take turns placing them on Witness, Motive and Evidence spots. Since no player can have seen all the MEW tokens, there will be an element of guesswork at this stage.

It is not simply a case of playing your Trial tokens. Tokens are placed in turn order, and if you place on an area someone has already used, you place a higher total value down – but you are not using up your tokens. In a couple of placement rounds you can opt to ask questions instead of making accusations, reflecting new evidence coming to light during a trial.

Any correct deductions during the game will have generated additional Trial tokens which allow for additional placements. Majority wins, so the extra tiles may be crucial.

The Reporter wins by correctly identifying the crime before the trial starts. We didn’t play this so I can’t comment on how well it works.

The Mastermind

There is an advanced variant where one of the players is the mastermind behind the crime. This player is the only one able to lie when questioned, and wins if the crime is not correctly detected.

This did not form part of my demonstration game so I can’t really comment on how it plays. It seems like quite a difficult variant for advanced players, and probably explains why we are trying to find a Witness and not a Suspect.

Ending the Game

Once all placements are made, the three set aside MEW tokens are revealed and the Trial tokens of the Mastermind, if there is one, are set aside. If the majority of Trial tokens do not correctly identify all three parameters the Mastermind wins.

Otherwise, the player with the majority in each area scores points based on how sure they were (value of tokens placed). The player with the most points wins.

Features of the game

These are aspects of the game which are neither good nor bad, but features which will affect the gaming groups this game would be suitable for.

d10-1 I would characterise this as a heavy weight game. I do not play a lot of deduction games, but consider myself to be a logical thinker (regularly score highly in logic tests), and I found myself rather overwhelmed by my first game. I was simply tracking what I had seen – I was some way off from making deductions.

d10-2 The initial hurdle to playing this game is quite high – there are a lot of rules to get right, as reflected by the length of this review. However the rules all make sense thematically and I did find that the game I played in flowed very well once we got going.

d10-3 The theme is woven into the mechanics of the game very well, and is clearly an inspiration for some of the gameplay. However without question this is a balanced (Euro) style game, and not a thematic (Ameritrash) one.

d10-4 Murder! Mystery! Mastermind! caters for 2-5 players aged 14 and up in about 60 minutes. I obviously don’t have much experience, but I would say the recommended player ages and duration were about right. The relatively high player age recommendation would not be due to theme, but due to the depth of gameplay.

d10-5 Although there are no ways to directly attack another player, player interaction is strong.

d10-6 Murder! Mystery! Mastermind! is a deduction game but not a perfect information game. No player can have seen all MEW tokens at the Trial, and so will need to back a hunch at some point.

d10-7 There are significant asymmetries in the game design. In particular the Reporter seems to be quite different from the others.

What’s good about this game?

thumbsup The quality of the components and artwork (as far as I saw them) is good. The designers seemed to me to be committed to producing a high quality product, so I would expect some of the components (Trial tokens, player pawns) to be amended for the final game,

What’s bad about this game?

thumbsdown I find it mildly annoying that I am investigating a crime but don’t seem to want to find out who did it. I am looking for a witness, but not the perpetrator. I think this is due to the advanced variant where one of the players is behind the crime – you can’t discover that Tim was the criminal and the CSI investigator as well. However I would have thought this could have been avoided by searching for the Assassin rather than the Witness. This would have allowed the base game and advanced game to still work thematically – the Assassin was hired by the mastermind. I don’t know if the designers will still have time to change this – I think they are targeting January 2012.

Conclusion

Murder! Mystery! Mastermind! is a very good game, and probably the deduction game offering the greatest depth of play of any that I know of, although I don’t regularly play this genre and can’t claim to be an expert.

It is without question a heavy weight game for gaming hobbyists and deduction game fans. I can’t see this game working for casual gamers or non-gamer family and friends, due to the complexity of the deductive process, and to an extent the number of rules regarding checking MEW tokens.

I would recommend this game as a potential purchase for anyone who regularly plays with groups who would regard the features above as positives or do not mind about them, and are big fans of crime themed deduction games.

For myself I decided not to place an order as I am by far the most logical thinker in my regular gaming groups, with the most tolerance for rules, and I found it difficult on my first play. I couldn’t see any way I would be able to get this to the table, but for the right group I can see this game being a lot of fun.

Rating 3.5 out of 5. (this is higher than my personal rating, and reflects my belief that this is a good game, although not the right game for my groups).

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Ng Edwin
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Hi Graham Dean,

Thanks for the long review and comments. It was a cool read (but of course I am biased ).

There are a couple of errors with the rules, but I will not comment on them here as will leave it to when the rules are posted, or unless there are specific questions on them.

The features of the game and the conclusion however are almost spot-on, except that among our games in the pipeline, M3 is actually a medium-weight game hahaha. Maybe we need to re-think our classification laugh

I will explain the thought process behind using Witness instead of Assassin (Murderer) here. Most times in a crime, once you know FOR SURE who the murderer is, the other categories are more academic, so we wanted to have a special treatment for the murderer. In this M3, it can be assumed that once you have the Motive, Evidence and Witness (MEW), the murderer will be caught, and it is just whether the deeper conspiracy of the Mastermind is discovered.

This is because in the pipeline, we have 2 stand-alone but combinable expansions for M3, one of which will allow the 6th player to play the Murderer (you can see the hint in the cover art of M3 ). Everyone will know who the suspected murderer is (since he is on trial/bail), but the Murderer does not know who the Mastermind is and needs to hook up with him/her to coordinate their escape...or...the Murderer could choose to give the Mastermind up for a reduced sentence/immunity . This is not added to M3, as the base game is already quite heavy (as you have noted) and we would like to see the response from players as well.

The second stand-alone combinable expansion is targetted for 2012 which is a Witness Interrogation game (W3) which can be played on its own or when combined with M3 allows the interrogation of Witnesses in M3 as well. It is a lighter deduction game than M3, so it could be more appropriate for your play group.

Anyway, it was fun meeting and playing with you in Essen. Look forward to doing it again.

Thanks again for the support.

Regards,
Edwin

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alex w
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On the contrary, I'm placing an immediate order for the game. (Or willing to purchase the prototype as it is.)

Heaviest 'deduction game' I know, but considered a light-medium weight game.....as a game.

The simplicity of the game goes as far as the number of times you play with it.

In time (and a few plays later), it would be as simple as Ticket to Ride but as in-depth a deduction game as would be compared to a wargame.
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Kurt R
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Sounds even more interesting than I expected. I look forward to getting my hands on this... whenever that may be.
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Graham Dean
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Heavenblazer wrote:
This is because in the pipeline, we have 2 stand-alone but combinable expansions for M3, one of which will allow the 6th player to play the Murderer (you can see the hint in the cover art of M3

OK - I give up. Where is the hint in the cover art about the 6th player as murderer?

I am such a useless detective...
 
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The Soot Sprite
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Uncle G wrote:
Heavenblazer wrote:
This is because in the pipeline, we have 2 stand-alone but combinable expansions for M3, one of which will allow the 6th player to play the Murderer (you can see the hint in the cover art of M3

OK - I give up. Where is the hint in the cover art about the 6th player as murderer?

I am such a useless detective...


There's a shadowy figure lurking in the arcade in the background... ninja
 
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