Get a Clue
by Scott Hardie on July 24, 2012
Among hard-core board game fans, an argument has raged for years now over preferences for European-style games and American-style games. European games emphasize strategy, trade, and abstraction, while American games emphasize luck, conflict, and detailed themes. European games also strive to keep every player involved as long as possible, rather than eliminating them.
Much of the debate seems to be about rejecting what is "wrong" with classic board games. When a hard-core fan sits down for a game with a group of casual players, they may get stuck playing an old-fashioned classic such as Scrabble or Risk or even the worst of all, Monopoly. These games are loathed for eliminating players early, asking players to sabotage one another's progress, and allowing the dice significant influence over the outcome.
Last night, we played Mystery Express, a recent hit from Days of Wonder. It has a late-Victorian passenger-train theme, but is otherwise a Eurogame. Before I played it, I heard someone describe it as "Clue on steroids," and boy they weren't kidding:
- Clue asks you to solve three details a murder: The killer, the room where it happened, and the means (weapon). To these, Mystery Express adds the motive and the time of day when it happened.
- Clue provides one card for each suspect, weapon, and room. When you can figure out which are missing, you win. In Mystery Express, there are two cards for each, with only one of them being removed as the answer. When there are eleven suspect cards out there representing six suspects, and you have to figure out which suspect doesn't have a second card, you have to do a lot more deduction work.
- Cards change hands constantly. You rarely just see the other players' cards; you usually trade with them permanently to learn what they have.
- Each character has a unique ability, such as peeking at a certain color of card at certain intervals.
- Each room on the train confers a different ability. If you're in the lounge, you can force each opponent to reveal a single card of one category to the whole table. If you're in the passenger car, you can force all players to pass a single card each of the same category to the left.
- A conductor moves around the train randomly. If you stop in the same car he does, you can trade cards with him. Did I mention he has his own hand, kept on the board?
- At certain intervals, new passengers come on board, each one introducing more clues to the game. Thus, certain cards aren't even in play for half the game.
- The time cards aren't distributed to players. Rather, at three points in the game, you review them all at once in weird ways, such as going through the stack one at a time and relying on memory to deduce which one of the 24 cards is missing. Easy, right?
- There's a time limit. You only get five turns to play, although each turn can involve 1-3 steps. Since nobody solves the murder completely in time, you instead all make your best guesses, and the person who guesses closest is the winner.
That's not even mentioning certain even more intricate rules. That's just the basics!
Mystery Express is fun and I enjoyed playing it, but it's pretty ridiculous. It feels like an ambitious attempt to "fix" Clue by adding more rules, but it just highlights how little was broken with the classic in the first place. Has anybody out there ever played Clue and thought, I wish a bunch of the cards weren't even in play right now or I wish I only had five turns to figure this out?
I guess the movement die is considered a problem in Clue because it adds too much random chance, but there's still plenty of luck at certain points in this game. Besides, few players are sharp enough to keep every variable in their head at once, so luck plays a major de-facto role in what questions they ask that produce more information.
I've played a lot of good European games and American games alike. Mystery Express is ok, but its failure to improve upon a classic despite trying really, really hard is not going to help fans of Eurogames win any arguments that their games are superior (although they would probably disown this as "Ameritrash" anyway). An old proverb comes to mind: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The creator of Funeratic, Scott Hardie, blogs about running this site, losing weight, and other passions including his wife Kelly, his friends, movies, gaming, and Florida. Read more »