Review: Mice and Mystics
Review by: Grant Rodiek
You can read my review policy here.
Quick Notes: Mice and Mystics is a game for 1-4 (arguably 5) players for which you should set aside 2 hours to play. You may not need that much time, but the play length is highly variable based on the scenario played and the way things proceed. This is a game to sit back and enjoy. It's not one to rush! I've played the game solo, with 2, and 5 players a combined total of 7 times. I have completed Chapters 1-4 (out of 11) in the base game.
The game's rules are well written, but they are quite broad and you should set aside some time to parse them. There's a great tutorial video provided by Plaid Hat Games, so they really do their best (and succeed) at teaching the game.
I think the gameplay is identical regardless of player count, but I think this game is better with more people playing. It's an experience for friends to enjoy. The more people who participate, the more silliness and ridiculousness. Once, I played with 5, where I acted as the keeper of the rules, storyteller, and the enemy AI, while my other 4 friends played the heroic mice. It was great. Truly, one of a kind. One of them even played as the rogue and did his own thing while we desperately fought the rats. He was a jerk, in character, and it was hilarious.
The Review: Mice and Mystics is a cooperative dungeon crawling game with a heavy focus on designed scenario gameplay (as opposed to random events) and a story driven campaign. The base game ships with 15 meaty chapters, 4 of which I've played. They aren't simple and they aren't brief -- there's a lot of game to be found here. The story always progresses with significance.
At the start of a scenario you select (typically but not always) 4 characters from the standard fantasy archetypes: warrior, archer, rogue, magician, healer, and leader. Each begins with pre-defined gear. Characters have 4 stats that dictate movement speed, the number of attack dice to roll, defense dice to roll, and dice to roll for special lore events. They also tend to have unique passive abilities that are simple but really tend to be meaningful.
Scenarios specify a level layout of (typically) 3 or 4 double sided square tiles. This system is fantastic and a brilliant piece of design. For example, one tile is the tunnels under the kitchen on one side and the kitchen on the other. There's a way to climb up from the tunnels, at which point you remove your guys, flip the board, and place them on the newly flipped side. With only a handful of double sided tiles there are so many creative combinations of levels. It's really delightful and simple to understand.
The beginning of a scenario comes with a story for a narrator to read to the group. I recommend you bring forth your best (see also: worst) British accent and bold, narratory Jazz hands.
The game revolves primarily around combat. Either due to specified enemy spawns or well-tuned random spawns (based on a drawn card), every room involves some number of enemies. Until you best them, you cannot proceed, but once you best them, if you linger you'll be slowly penalized. Players take turns in order using a simple and effective initiative mechanic with the enemy taking turns as appropriate.
To segue briefly, I strongly dislike "AI players" in board games. This was a worry of mine and I'm glad to say it's not a problem in the game. Let's say you have 4 enemy rats, which share a turn. On their turn, you first roll a die and move them the appropriate spaces. You always move them towards the closest player character -- in the case of a tie, choose (this doesn't happen often, surprisingly). If they are in range to attack, they do so. You check their attack number, roll the indicated dice, and they deal damage. They don't have special powers to manage or complex routines. They are trying to stop you, so like the guards in every movie ever created they charge forth and try to stop you. It's simple, easy to understand, and it works.
Turns typically revolve around the following choices:
- Where do I go to put myself in the best position? If you're a ranged mouse, you may want to get out of the fray. Or there may be a certain enemy you want to defeat first, how do you get to them in the best way?
- Who do I attack first? And do I use my default weapon or a special ability?
Every character begins with 1 class-based special ability of your choice (fun!) and these have a big impact on the game. You can also gain more throughout the game. Abilities are activated by spending cheese, which is the game's version of mana. A side of the combat die is cheese, so when this side is rolled, you gain a token. There is a downside! When the enemies roll cheese in combat, you add these to the center board. When 6 are dded, a surge occurs! This pushes the game one step closer to an untimely end (which happens when bad events occur) AND adds new, more powerful enemies to the board. It's the thematic equivalent of a guard shouting for backup and the backup arriving before you manage to escape. It's great and really adds tension.
Attacking isn't all you do, however. You can also search for items, which involves a lucky die roll (which some characters can mitigate), after which you draw a card from the item deck. I love the items. You may draw new armor or weapons, which increase your combat effectiveness. You may draw one-time-use items, which sometimes seem useless, except they aren't. As an example, I drew a levitate card, which lets me climb on bookshelves and chairs (remember, you're a mouse) without penalty. "Okay," I thought. "I guess this is neat." Then, I entered the final room with 5 elite rat archers on a bookshelf and only 2 melee mice left to fight them. I used levitate, sprinted atop the bookshelf, and eeked (squeaked?) out a win. It was great!
I also love that items are relatively easy to trade among the mice in your party. I often have Lilly, the archer, hang back, take opportune shots, and use her ability to search more effectively. When the gang's all settled, she's like "hey guys, I found some new stuff!"
Were this just combat and item optimization I think Mice and Mystics would fall flat. Luckily, after only 4 chapters I think it's an absolute showpiece for good scenario design. The designer cleverly uses neat map setups, configurations of bad guys, forces you to use (or not use) certain mice, and even introduces silly and fun mini-games to vary the experience. At one point I happened upon a posse of "off duty" rats playing a dice game for cheese. I just so happened to have a disguise (items are awesome) to infiltrate their game. I ended up winning a pile of cheese and scared them off without fighting once. Had I screwed up, I would have had to fight it out. This was great.
I should also note the scenarios sometimes have alternate paths and side-quests. I really appreciate this small detail.
Combat and resolution throughout the game is solved through dice. It's a well implemented, consistent use of the dice. There is some luck, for sure, but I find the tuning is such that it never feels plodding. You will sometimes get screwed, just like you'll sometimes have incredible rolls. But, the course of the experience is one of great tuning and enjoyable outcomes. This isn't a "play 2 hours to get hosed by bad luck" type game. If you're okay with some luck, you'll have fun. If you're not, lighten up! And why did you buy a co-op game with mice on the cover in the first place?
Mice and Mystics isn't a cheap game, but if you look inside the box you'll understand why. The game is full of beautifully detailed miniature sculpts.The boards and cards are jam packed with unique illustrations beautifully crafted by John Ariosa. There are tons of tokens, some for just a few uses, and nothing was spared. I think it's a good value, especially considering I have about 15 hours of gaming in already and am only 25% through the campaign. I don't want every game to have this price tag, but when a special one comes along, I'll buy it and do so with a smile.
This is a co-op game, so I feel I need to bring up the point of "dominant players." This isn't a really deep strategy game (though there is strategy). It isn't like Pandemic where you're weighing probability and optimal choices. Here's my suggestion: Don't play this with people you don't like. Get some beers, some pizza, and take over a huge table with all the cool stuff in the box. Set aside a few hours on the weekend and play a few chapters. If you complain about the dominant player problem here, it's maybe because you need better friends? To quote Viper in Top Gun, call me. I'll fly with you.
The Conclusion: I really enjoy Mice and Mystics, but I also think for the price, time commitment, and style of game, you need to enjoy this type of game. It's not just a well-woven set of mechanics, but a story and experience that need to be read aloud and with gusto to be enjoyed to the fullest. If you want brain-burn, or competition, or super elegant euro-stylings, you should look elsewhere.
I don't think Mice and Mystics is trashy, because all of its components serve a purpose and are distilled, clean, and well-designed. But, the game is full of content, often to support the variety in scenarios, and you may find yourself checking the rules even 4 games in to find out what the grape or fish hook do, for example.
As a side note, I'd love for Plaid Hat Games to release an expansion full of short stories, small, 60 minutes or less stories for those of us who want to game at lunch, because it would be a blast for my lunch crew. Regardless, I've already pre-ordered Heart of Glorm and will hasten my play through the base game so I can enjoy it!
Here's how the story ends: Mice and Mystics is really delightful. If co-operative storytelling with awesome mice miniatures and combat is your thing, consider a purchase.
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