“This way,” Prince Collin whispered, crouched behind a chair leg and motioning to the others. They huddled across the room where a length of drape pooled on the cool stones of the dining room floor. At their head was Nez, leaning on his great hammer, nose twitching and whiskers working as he checked the air for danger. Behind him, Lily had her bow drawn while Tilda checked over a bad scrape Maginos had taken on his shoulder during their escape from the tunnels below the kitchen. There, they had been set upon by a centipede – something that once the Prince would have crushed thoughtlessly underfoot, but now had grown to monstrous proportions. Well, rather, it had stayed the same, and it was the evil Vanestra’s spell that had transformed the companions into mice – mice that were now very much in danger of being sniffed out by the kitchen cat.
“Psst,” Collin heard above him. Filch was hanging over the edge of the table, a great hunk of cheese in his hand. “Jackpot!” he smiled.
“There’s no time for that, Filch,” Collin snapped.
The grin didn’t leave the thief’s face. “There’s always time for a little brie,” the thief said around a mouthful.
From the other side of the room came a sudden, roaring, scraping noise as the dining room door opened. A great foot planted itself inside the door, the vibration setting Collin’s now-sharp teeth on edge.
“Oy,” shouted Nez. “We’re in for it now, your Highness. Miz Maggie’s come to sweep the floors!”
Mice and Mystics is a cooperative, narrative adventure game for 1 to 4 players. In it, the players take on the roles of heroes that have been transformed into mice by the evil sorceress Vanestra, and over the course of a series of adventures unravel the mystery of her motivations, fight – and potentially befriend – a variety of enemies, and collect treasures and achievements to help them along the way. It is family friendly – indeed, the game is best played with children, though it’s charming enough that even adults will enjoy it as a light dungeon-crawler – and both stands alone as a great game, as well as serves as an excellent introduction to adventure gaming concepts that will warm younger players up to the genre.
As of this review, Mice and Mystics has two expansions: The Heart of Glorm and the newer, more substantial Downwood Tales. Each expansion offers a new adventure book, new heroes, monsters, encounter and search cards. This review will focus on the base game and only touch on the expansions. In addition, there are a number of promo cards and shorter adventures that are available directly from Plaid Hat Games and other sources.
Mice and Mystics plays out over the course of an adventure book, each chapter of which advances a larger story. A chapter opens up with some narrative laying out the objectives of the game, directs the players which room tiles to use to build the game’s map, and adds special rules and exceptions to what the players may need to do in each room, such as limitations on movement, additional monster bonuses, or special side-quests the players may be able to undertake to earn bonuses later in the game. Each adventure can be played individually, or the game can be tackled as a campaign, with the heroes retaining any treasures and abilities they have gained from one adventure to the next. This is how we play in our house.
Before play begins, each player selects a mouse by taking its character card, starting equipment, and initiative card. The character card offers some basic information about the mouse – its name, class (or classes), special powers, hit points, and stats such as movement, lore, fight and ranged attack strength. In addition, each mouse will select one special ability from the ability deck. Abilities (and some treasures) can only be used by certain classes or by mice with certain ability scores. The initiative cards are used during the encounter phase to determine the each mouse’s turn order.
Besides the game map, another board is used to track game time, player and monster initiative, and monster surges. Each chapter directs the player to place a Chapter End token somewhere on the time track, and an hourglass token on the Page 1 space of that track. Throughout the game, various effects and actions may advance either the hourglass or the Chapter End marker.
The game is driven by dice rolls. Each face of the die has a small number in the corner, generally used for movement, and one or more symbols: cheese, sword, shield, bow and arrow, or some combination of these. Several faces also have an asterisk, which is used for searching and other special game conditions.
The rules of play are fairly straightforward, though they are riddled with small exceptions that players need to be aware of. At the beginning of the game, and each time the mice enter a new room, players will draw an Encounter card. The Encounter card determines – based on the Page space the hourglass token currently sits on – the type and number of monsters that will appear in the room. The monster figures are selected and placed on the board – usually, on spaces that bear a little set of mouseprints; then, monster initiative cards and player initiative cards are shuffled together and placed in the initiative track to determine turn order. Each mouse in order may may take an action or move, or move and take an action. Movement is determined by rolling a die and adding the numerical result to the mouse’s Movement score.
As an action, mice my attack figure in their space or adjacent to them, use a ranged attack on enemies in line of sight, use abilities, and a handful of other tasks. Primarily mice will be attacking and searching to both advance through the game and collect useful treasures. Players should be careful, though: the search deck is also sprinkled with traps, so a successful search may end up resulting in a surge of enemies or a mouse being captured.
Combat is largely a matter of rolling dice for each the mouse and the monster, comparing the number of swords or bows in the attack roll to the number of shields rolled in defense. Many monsters only require one successful hit to kill, but there are some powerful monsters that will require many hits (and lots of teamwork) to defeat. If at any time a mouse takes its maximum damage, it is captured. Its figure is removed from the board and it loses all treasures it has gained so far in the game. The mouse, or mice, will be freed one the last enemy figure is defeated on the board, at which point the mouse is immediately returned to the board
Over the course of the game, mice will collect cheese, which is used to activate special abilities or gain new ones. During combat, any time a mouse rolls a cheese result on a dice, they collect one cheese token. (Note: We have augmented cheese tokens with 8mm orange wooden squares, as we would often run out of tokens over the course of an adventure). If at any time a mouse has 6 tokens, they may cash them in to gain a new ability. Similarly, if, during combat, an enemy rolls a cheese result, a cheese token is added to the Cheese Wheel, which appears on the time-tracking board. If at any point the cheese wheel is full, a Monster Surge occurs. The hourglass marker is advanced one Page, and a monster or monsters – determined by the Encounter card or by chapter special rules – is added to the game board.
Cheese may also be added to the Cheese Wheel if at any point there are no monsters left in a room and the last mouse on the initiative track has ended its turn. In this way, the players are under constant pressure to move the game forward.
The players lose if the hourglass marker reached the Chapter End token or some other condition described in the chapter is met. Similarly, their win condition is explained in the opening of the chapter narration.
If the players win, there is generally some end-of-chapter narration to be read, the story advances and the mice move on to the next chapter. If they lose, they are encouraged to replay the chapter until they win, though you could easily move on to the next chapter without penalty.
There are a handful of other rules detailing equipment use, status effects, and so on, but these are what you would expect in a dungeon-crawler adventure game. In addition, the mice are able to collect achievements for accomplishing certain things during a chapter – such as being the first mouse to gain three cheese in one roll, thus becoming the Cheesemaster – which gives the party a special bonus for the duration of the chapter. For the most part, though, Mice and Mystics is a straightforward, hack-and-slash (though a bloodless hack-and-slash) adventure game with a great storybook feel and rules that are accessible by gamers of all levels.
I picked up Mice and Mystics at the Gen Con 2013 along with Tokaido, hoping both would be hits with my family. It ended up taking a lot longer than I expected to get Mice and Mystics to table, as after a review of the rules and some mock set-ups I could tell the games would be long. Eventually, we made time for it and I sat down with my daughter, who was 8 at the time, and my girlfriend and her children, a son and a daughter who were 10 and 8, respectively. Though they were initially a bit skeptical about playing a game, once I took all the pieces out of the box and the kids saw the exquisitely detailed mouse figured and the equally well-done monsters, the lush artwork and the various bits and pieces, they were sold.
Let me start by saying Plaid Hat games did incredible work with the art of the game, which is carried through on all of its components – the game boards, the rule and adventure book, and especially in the figures. If I was one to paint miniatures I would have taken a brush to these tiny creatures instantly, and indeed a quick Google search will show that some talented folks have done incredible work with these pieces. Even without painting the figures of both mice and monsters are of amazing quality. I’m particularly impressed with the centipede figure, which rises in a menacing coil above its base, glaring down at the smaller mice and ready to strike.
As mentioned in the rules, players are guided through the adventure by a chapter book from which is read various bits of narration. The story is a standard fantasy yarn, nothing particularly groundbreaking, but the work of storytelling is really not done here – it’s in the playing of the game. For example, in one chapter where the party splits up and is sent on two different objectives, we had a moment where one party was down to a single mouse – the mostly defenseless wizard, Maginos – and being set upon by monsters. Were Maginos to be captured, it would have ended the game. Suddenly, heroically, we were able to get the thief, Filch, from the other party into the room with Maginos and aid him against the monsters to win the day. In that chapter, this moment of heroism is what we remember most – not the written text – and my girlfriend’s son, who plays Filch, continues to proudly recounts the story over and over again.
Everyone in the family enjoys this game, though I have to admit I don’t enjoy it quite as much. Not because I don’t like playing, but because I am responsible for keeping track of the rules, tokens, and chapter exceptions, which often means flipping back and forth in the book to look stuff up, or hunting around for the right tokens and monster figures. I mention as one of my Five that constant rules refreshers and a custom box insert to make tokens more easily accessible would be highly recommended for the adult who takes on this role.
It’s not fair to describe this as a “kid’s game,” though it is a game that is very appropriate for kids and might be a little light for adults. As a roll-and-move hack-and-slash, there’s not much in the way of strategy to engage a group of adult players; however, as a cooperative game and an introduction to adventure games (and even roleplaying games), Mice and Mystics is excellent. In my house, it ends up serving valuable teaching roles, and each player is forced to decide whether to take an action to help the group, such as attacking a threatening monster, or to help themselves, such as taking precious time to search for treasure. We are forced to make decisions as a group, make sacrifices of Cheese for each other, trade or give new equipment for the mouse who can best use it, and so on. Certainly, this is core of any cooperative game, but in Mice and Mystics, it feels like the player negotiation is a bigger part of the experience. Further, the ongoing narrative contributes to character development. For example, in the chapters we have played so far, we have seen the Prince, Collin, come more into his own as a leader as he realizes the nature of the threat to his father and kingdom. Even though this is not really a roleplaying game, this narrative element makes it impossible not to roleplay your characters a little bit, not to take into account what the narration has said about your character’s development when making decisions. It’s extremely satisfying to see the kids grasp this intuitively when working with each other.
As great as it is to play with kids, the game is not without its frustrations. There are some fiddly rules that are difficult to remember, and a careful reading of each chapter is a must so you don’t miss any of the important rules variations or exceptions that appear. Further, as mentioned in my Five, as a luck-base dice game, incredibly frustrating moments are possible and likely. If the game were all adults, you’d lose, shrug, and try again. Indeed, Legends of Andor is just this kind of game, and I look forward to the challenge of retrying a level until I get it right. However, a few failed chapters in a row or a bunch of bad rolls can cause kids to check out of the game entirely or feel picked upon, particularly if others are rolling well. I have had a number of times where I have had to call an audible and make exceptions to the rules, something as a gamer I am not entirely comfortable with, but as a father I find necessary. Unfortunately, having made an exception once I have since had request to just “bend the rules” again at times where the need is not as dire. In that way, I suppose, it’s not only the kids who are learning something over the course of the game.
Mice and Mystics is high on my best-games-for-kids list, and probably near the top of my highest-quality games list of any category (seriously, I can’t say enough about how well done the figures and art are in this game). Its frustration level can be a little high, but that’s more than offset by how eager my kids are to get it to table, which is another way of saying how eager they are to spend time with their family. It’s hard to give a game a more successful recommendation than that.
As you will note, I have criticisms of Mice and Mystics, but none of that should detract from how much my family and I love this game. This is easily my kids’ favorite game. They love the story, they love the art, they love their characters. We have been playing campaign-style, so with a couple of exceptions we’ve played the same characters throughout, and much like any roleplaying campaign we’ve all become pretty attached to our particular characters. Indeed, there’s often a lot of light roleplaying taking place, whether it’s me attempting a Scottish accent for my character, Nez, or my girlfriend’s son lobbying, in the voice of Filch, to sneak around and look for treasure rather than assisting with the swarm of cockroaches we’re facing.
The main activity in the game is combat, making it a light hack-and-slash version of a dungeon crawler. Indeed, players are penalized if they clear a room of enemies and hang around searching for treasure: if at the end of a round there are no enemies on the board and the last mouse has taken her turn, a cheese is added to the cheese wheel, signifying mounting pressure of a surge of new enemies. A few games we’ve played have been lost due to spending a little time on failed treasure searches to equip our mice, only to suffer a Surge. Occasionally, we have not been able to take advantage of a special search or other room bonus because by the time we had cleared all the enemies out we were only one piece of cheese away from a surge and couldn’t spare the time hanging around in the room. It can be frustrating, but it’s also an important lesson in decision making.
Mice and Mystics is dice-driven, so luck is a major factor in the game. This can be somewhat mitigated by the use of treasures and abilities your mice gain along the way, but even so dice, as we are all aware, can be fickle masters. The momentum of a game can pivot wildly on a series of unlucky rolls without much ability to mitigate the shift, and it’s entirely possible for the game engine to ramp up in opposition to the players as enemies advance the cheese wheel, mice are captured making it more likely that enemies will get to roll the dice, making it more likely they will capture more mice and take them out of combat, and so on. Normally, this is merely the risk you take with this kind of game – the same criticism can be leveled at Arkham Horror or Last Night on Earth, but for a game that is otherwise so kid-friendly this can result in frustrating game play and hurt feelings.
There can be a lot of referencing of the adventure book and management of tokens during the game. I generally act as a kind of Dungeon Master as we play, but the need to reference the book, look for tokens and monster figures, and verify rules can slow the game down a bit. Recently, I made a custom insert for the base game box to hold both my base game as well as the Heart of Glorm expansion, making everything more accessible. I suspect that having everything organized and compact like this will make the game run more smoothly, and I would recommend something similar. If you have lots of downtime between plays, I would also recommend occasionally rereading the rule book to refresh your memory of all the little exceptions in the game.
Because the game board is modular, there is a great opportunity to extend the life of Mice and Mystics by creating new adventures for it. The mechanics easily allow for homebrew versions of the monsters, the creation of new abilities, and the layout of new maps. If you have a budding dungeon master in your family, letting her take a shot at “running” a Mice and Mystics game could be an excellent way to encourage some creativity.