On a dark and stormy night, is there anything better than curling up with a good murder mystery? A great writer like Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle can transport you into the soft, leather-appointed chairs of posh English sitting rooms with their dark wood, musty books, polished brass and secret passageways. You can almost hear the conversations between the menagerie of characters; the retired Colonel, the learned Professor, and the beautiful Femme Fatale. In their own ways, each of them are dangerous, each have their secrets, and all of them capable of the unthinkable. Cold. Blooded. Murder.
Such stories shouldn’t be so seductively fun, but oh, they are! Could our attraction to them be that they dare peek behind the curtains of polite society and expose the beasts who live therein? Could it be because the reader is challenged to solve the puzzle before the world famous fictional detective does – assuming the author plays fair and provides all of the clues to the reader? Could it simply be the new experience – most of us do not commit murder (I would hope) or have the opportunity to solve one – so here’s an opportunity to flex those mental muscles?
The format of the classic murder mystery perfectly ports to board games. Take a single exotic setting, fold in a collection of tropes in the form of characters and weapons, and sprinkle in just enough of the macabre to chill the bones but not upset the stomach. Shake well and you will have a murder investigation that is safe and fun for the whole family.
The first, and by far the most well-known murder mystery board game on my list, is Clue. Created by Anthony and Elva Pratt and originally patented in 1947 and published as Cluedo in 1949 (delayed due to resource shortages from World War II), Clue is a love letter to the Agatha Cristie style mystery. A stately manor is host to six colorful (pun intended) characters like Professor Plum and Colonel Mustard. Each player assumes one of the roles and through deductive reasoning, they determine who the killer is, where the murder took place (the Ballroom? The Conservatory?), and what implement of destruction was used (the Revolver?, the Lead Pipe?).
Again, one would ordinarily assume that beating someone to death with a lead pipe would be too grisly for the family hour, but the game handles it with such class and aplomb that you don’t stop to picture the proceedings. You just want to know whodunit.
And there is the only issue I have with this classic game. At the risk of throwing shade on a game that most of us love and grew up playing (I confess that I still own two copies), the flaw in the logic is that the players are also the suspects. For you to win the game, you have to determine the killer – and the killer may actually be you! In reality, the killer would do anything they could to not get caught, but the game mechanics don’t support that logic. Which brings us to our second game of murder…
Kill Doctor Lucky, designed by James Ernest and published first by Cheapass Game in 1996 and then again in a beautifully rendered version by Titanic Games, tells the story of a murder plot before it happens.
Doctor Lucky is described as a despicable old man which I suppose is intended to give comfort to the players competing to kill him. Every night he roams the rooms of his enormous mansion where the players lie in wait. If a player is able to be in a room alone with Doctor Lucky and unseen by any of the other players, then they can play a weapon card and attempt the murder. The other players then attempt to foil the murder. If the murder is foiled, then the would-be murderer receives a spite token (which can later be used to boost their next murder attempt, or foil the attempt from a rival) and Doctor Lucky continues on in ignorance. If the murder isn’t stopped, then the bad doctor is dead and the game is over.
If committing the murder isn’t your bag, Kill Doctor Lucky has also given rise to a few different versions, including Save Doctor Lucky where you attempt to save the old man from a sinking ocean liner while witnessed by the other players.
The artwork in the Titanic Games version of Kill Doctor Lucky is absolutely gorgeous, as is the artwork for the newest game in this murderous cabal, Mysterium.
Designed by Oleksandr Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko, Mysterium adds a layer of mysticism to the mystery. In the game, one to six players are mediums, brought together in a dark and dilapidated mansion to solve a decades-old murder. An additional player is the ghost, who round after round wordlessly sends images to the mediums to help them determine who, where, and how they were killed. That’s right, in Mysterium, you may actually play as the victim!
When you see Mysterium played, it has more than a casual resemblance to role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. One player knows more about the story than the other players, and they hide that knowledge behind a game screen. In this way, there are actually two different games happening simultaneously. One game has the mediums conferring together to determine which person, place and weapon the ghost is trying to tell them was involved. In the other game, the ghost player is more focused on determining which cards to give to which players in order to steer them in the right direction. Since the cards are limited, and can point to more than one solution (their artwork is very abstract after all), card choice is the key to success.
Side note: When I bought my copy of Mysterium at Games Unlimited in Pittsburgh, the owner told me to never criticize the ghost player until I’ve been the ghost myself. Choosing which cards to give to which medium is by far the hardest aspect of this game.
Each of these three games, Clue, Kill Doctor Lucky, and Mysterium are great variations in the murder mystery tradition. Of course, there are other great murder mystery-themed board games on the market. Games like How to Host a Murder, 221b Baker Street, and Mystery! featuring pen and ink drawings from artist Edward Gorey (a personal favorite), all immediately spring to mind. Unfortunately, those will have to wait for another day.
Until then, as Sherlock would say, the game is afoot!
© 2016 Robert S. Moyer, All Rights Reserved