I always loved Clue. Okay, the die-rolling was largely unnecessary but I loved the deduction and record-keeping, the strategy behind deciding which cards to show which people to keep them in the dark. Well, now Days of Wonder is releasing a new deduction-style board game, Mystery Express. It’s like Clue, except on a train, and harder. Much harder, but it’s definitely worth the extra brain-bending effort. So far I’ve played three times (with new players each time) and everyone has given it a thumbs-up.
Since I think many of you are familiar with Clue already, I’ll draw some comparisons and then really dig into the gameplay. Clue had you looking for the murderer, weapon, and location; Mystery Express adds motive and time of murder into the mix. (Plus they use the fancy term Modus Operandi instead of “Weapon” so your kids can learn a bit of Latin, too!)
But the biggest difference is this: instead of one of each card (so that seeing a card allowed you to eliminate that particular suspect), there are two of everything (and three of each time!) so you’ll need to see both cards in order to eliminate something. Oh, and did I mention that the cards can change hands throughout the game?
Components and Basic Information
The game has the high-quality components we’ve come to expect from Days of Wonder and comes in the same-sized square box as their other games (such as Ticket to Ride). There’s a game board, six character pawns (including the Conductor), five ticket wallets and matching character tokens, 72 crime cards, a train pawn, a baggage pawn, a (non-working) conductor’s whistle, two passenger tokens, a pad of telegram sheets and a 100-sheet notepad for taking notes. One of my pawns was chipped when it arrived; Doctor Strauss is supposed to have a pipe in his mouth but it didn’t survive the journey.
The illustrations are done in a sort of turn-of-the-century style and everything has a sort of opulent look to it. The train is supposed to be the Orient Express, traveling from Paris to Istanbul, and the game takes place over five rounds, one for each leg of the trip. However, what I discovered after playing the game is that much of this lavishness is just that—extra cost for components that make the game look nice but aren’t strictly necessary to playing the game. More on that later.
Mystery Express is for three to five players. The box says it takes 60-90 minutes to play, but I’d allow closer to two hours the first time you play while you’re still learning the rules. It retails for $50 and ships at the end of the month.
Looking for Clues
Your goal, of course, is to find out as much as you can about the murder. However, as the game is played in a certain number of rounds, you may not be able to definitively figure everything out by the end, so the player with the most correct answers wins (with a tie-breaker). When the game starts, every player has the same number of crime cards in their hands; in addition the Conductor has three cards (on the board), and the rest of the crime cards are held by two passengers who will board the train later. The Time cards are set aside and will be revealed later. Of course, one of each card—representing the who, what, when, where, and why of the murder—have been removed at random and hidden under the board.
Each leg of the trip takes a certain number of “hours” which the player may spend to perform certain actions in order to collect clues. In turn order, each player carries out as many actions as time allows. Each car of the train allows you to perform different actions for varying amounts of time. For example, spending one hour in the Passenger Car allows you to pick a crime category, and each player passes a card of that color to the player next to them. Or, for two hours in the Sleeping Car, you can attempt to rifle through somebody’s luggage to steal a card. In later rounds, when the passengers arrive on the train, you can spend three hours in the Club Car to gain a card. Finally, if you take an action in the car where the Conductor is present (he moves from round to round), you also trade a card with the conductor.
Since cards can change hands and it’s important to know whether you’re seeing the second appearance of any particular card, the game adds an ingenious mechanic: every time a card has been shown, it goes into a discard pile (each player maintains their own pile). The discards are picked back up at the end of the round (or earlier, if you use the “Get a Grip” action in the Club Car). But this way, if you spot a particular Motive card twice in one round, you know that you can eliminate it. However, once the round is over, all bets are off, unless you take good notes about which cards have been moved around during the round! As with Clue, a big part of the strategy is deciding which cards to show when; and the other piece is figuring out how to see the cards you want within the time allotted.
Each character also has a special power: four of the characters allow you to peek at one discard per round (according to the player colors), and the fifth gives you an extra hour per leg of the trip. These definitely do come in handy, but you have to remember to use them. There are also a few special actions that take place at particular stations, from peeking at some of the other players’ cards during a long tunnel to a “Sudden Revelation” that turns a few cards up for the remainder of the game.
What’s the Time?
Figuring out the time of murder is, as everyone agreed, the hardest part of the game. There are eight different times, and three of each card. To make things trickier, the times are pictured on analog clocks with no markings whatsoever, and the times were carefully selected to make reflections harder to tell apart. For example, 4:45, 6:15, 11:15 and 11:45 are all easy to mix up, particularly if you’re looking at it upside down.
The Time cards are revealed, briefly, at three of the stations during the game, and you have those three chances to see the cards to figure out which time only appears twice instead of three times. For someone like me who never really liked analog clocks to begin with, this can really get overwhelming, but it brings a different sort of observation-memory skill into play.
Find Alan Moon!
To celebrate the release of the game, Days of Wonder is running a Whodunit contest: game designer Alan Moon has been kidnapped on the Orient Express, and you have to figure out the five elements of the crime. The first person with all the correct answers wins $500, plus they’ll be giving away 10 copies of Mystery Express along the way. The game ends April 7, so better get to sleuthing right away!
Mystery Express is definitely a game that will see more play on the game table. I won’t say it’s for everyone—it’s certainly a different sort of strategy than most of my Eurogames, for instance, but for those of you looking for a grown-up version of Clue this is a great addition to your collection. The only complaint I had, actually, is that this is a game that really doesn’t need all the bits and pieces: to play the game, all you really need is the cards, and maybe a chart showing the various trip times and station events. The board, the player pawns, and the oversize box are just there to make you feel that you’re getting your money’s worth.
Wired: A much better (and truer) successor to Clue than Hasbro’s own Clue: Secrets and Spies. Double-card feature makes elimination much trickier and adds a lot of depth to strategy. Nice sturdy components.
Images provided by Days of Wonder. Disclosure: Days of Wonder provided a copy of Mystery Express for review purposes.