Interview with Jerry Hawthorne

When I began working on Sol Rising, I knew I wanted to make a game with a strong narrative component, more randomness than York (my previous design), and a fun take on scenarios. One of my biggest inspirations is Mice & Mystics, designed by Jerry Hawthorne and published by Plaid Hat Games. 

I’m a big fan of the game, which you can see in my review of Mice & Mystics. When I found out Jerry was taking interviews for the new expansion, Downwood Tales, I immediately contacted him. Here is the result! 

My comments are preceded by HG, with Jerry’s preceded by JH.

Hyperbole Games: For those who don’t know who you are, give us a quick introduction. What makes you tick? What’s something we should know about you?

Jerry Hawthorne: My name is Jerry Hawthorne and I am 46 years old. I have a lovely wife and two awesome kids. I work full time as a busy hair stylist, but I also design board games in my spare time (if you can call it that) as a freelancer. My games are visual, very story focused, family-friendly, and usually involve a healthy amount of luck. That’s just how I roll.

HG: Around 2012 you released a little game called Mice & Mystics that was a huge hit for you and Plaid Hat Games. I finished the first book, Sorrows and Remembrance, earlier this year and it was just a delight. I played it with a friend on lazy Sundays. He’d send me a text and say “bring over Rat Zelda.”

Give us the super quick explanation of what Mice & Mystics is so we’re all on the same page.

JH: Sure. Mice & Mystics is a story that you can play like a game. During the game, you will be playing the role of a human that has been magically transformed into a mouse to escape a treacherous sorceress who has placed your King under a spell and usurped his throne.

Play revolves around completing chapters in a bedtime style story book. As you play, you will also read from the story book and discover the unfolding events which will affect your game. The game was designed to give players a unique experience, and has random elements that ensure no two sessions are the same.

HG: To toss in my perspective as a player to complement your note, in addition to all of that, the game is a light, scenario driven dungeon crawler. Scenarios feature unique, thematic experiences driven by the story and these moments are strung together with a dicey combat mechanic.

Heart of Glorm, the first expansion, came out last year. It’s a great, small box with a few characters and a few new chapters. I’ve heard Downwood Tales is WAY bigger. What can we expect for this new expansion?


JH: The new expansion really adds a lot to the game. You get three new characters: A gecko named Jackobe who is hired to guide your mice through the forest. Ansel, a pure hearted warden sworn to protect the forest creatures. And Ditty, a shrew scamp who strums her magical fiddle to help the party. There are new bad guys to fight and new devious bosses, including an arrogant aristocratic bullfrog and a predatory snake named Hesster

The story is somewhat more involved, with an even stronger emphasis being placed on campaign play. There are branching story arcs and many twists and surprises, but it continues the story of Collin and gang as they are strangers in this new land. The heroes bring courage and correctness to a forest filled with dangers and double crossers.

The box is stuffed with 8 new 2 sided outdoor tiles depicting the forest floor, the burrows and tunnels under the forest, and also the trees and branches where the mice will need to go to traverse the terrain challenges in their path. There are also a bunch of new figures, 60 new search cards, and about 30 new abilities.

HG: Can you comment further on the branching play, perhaps with a tiny example? This was something I sought to do with Sol Rising to try to address the comment that scenario games are only fun once. But, also, I wanted to give players a little agency over their story.

How did you tackle this challenge?

JH: It was very challenging because the story has to come around to the same place eventually. I’ll give an example: At the end of chapter 1, there are two possible outcomes. The story splits and there is a chapter 2a and 2b. There are also two possible outcomes for chapter 2a, one will have you playing 2b, the other allows you to advance to chapter 3.

Wow, that sounds more complicated than it is. Anyway, these were very difficult to write because the events have to feel as though they fit story wise. I think we accomplished it quite well.

HG: As a designer and player I love expansions. They are a great opportunity to explore new avenues. What was the number one thing you wanted to do with Downwood Tales?

JH: With Downwood Tales, I wanted to give the players a more epic story that would seamlessly continue the adventure. I wanted to provide more bad guys with challenging abilities. I also wanted to take cinematic game play to the next level.

In Downwood Tales your party might come to an impassable chasm in the forest. There could be a variety of options the players would need to discuss. Do you go around by exploring to another tile? Do you climb a nearby tree and use a leaf to float down to the other side? Or do you have a wild figure in your party who knows which vines might allow you to climb down into the chasm and continue in the tunnels known as the Underwood?

HG: I really like this opportunity for group discussion. It definitely has that “Lord of the Rings” element of “where do we go from here?” Could you give an example of the more challenging enemies? How did you up the challenge with the bad guys?



JH: Sure! We have frogs that leap around, newts that shoot flaming arrows, fearies that fly and they can curse you, bullfrogs who can zap you with their tongue, weasels that clobber you, and Hesster the snake who is this story’s equivalent of Brodie.

HG: I prefer cats to snakes. Much like Indiana Jones.


Expansions are also a great way to address rough spots or merely improve things that, in retrospect, you wanted to be better. Did you have any of those? Does Downwood Tales really improve something from the base game?

JH: I’m not a person who dwells too much on past failings or tries to use expansions as fixes. Mice & Mystics has resonated with its fans because it is an approachable game that really puts the story first. I wanted to give more of that stuff. The game is the same, the environment has changed for the mice. There are a lot of things to discover.

HG: How did you want to advance the story? Was there anything in particular you wanted to accomplish?

JH: I wanted to tell a story about growing up, rising to your expectations, the weight and responsibility of authority. These are very much a topic in my household, but can be applied to global events as well. As always, the story is light and filled with the same silly humor that you come to expect from jokers like Nez and Filch. But there are tender moments and contemplative moments as well.

HG: I’m trying to estimate the percentage of tenderness that came from Lord Bistro…

You have some really clever story and mechanical moments in Sorrows and Remembrance. I loved gambling with the rats and trying to keep Vurst on my side as we went through the sewers was really neat. Do you have any really cool set pieces in Downwood Tales?

JH: Yeah, this is just something you all can expect from Mice & Mystics. Each chapter will have a completely new and different set of challenges, and not all of them will involve fighting. There is an entire stealth chapter that the playtesters were raving about. There is a “Last of the Mohicans” style ambush chapter that is a lot of fun, and even a race down a babbling brook on boats made from fallen leaves.



HG: I like the idea of the ambush. It’s such a unique element to warfare games often miss. It’s usually just a straightforward fight. Finding ways to spice up every battle is really appreciated.

Different games need different testers. For something like Summoner Wars you want someone like James Sitz who is incredibly analytical and competitive. Mice & Mystics is such an experience though, if that makes sense. Yes, balance is important so it isn’t too easy or difficult, but I feel like you’re testing its soul more than its stats. Have you found it difficult to test the game and find the right people?

JH: For Downwood Tales, I gathered a small group who I call my ‘creative core.’ These guys helped me ensure that the chapters had the same compelling quality as the base game and that they offered a play experience that was cinematic and charming. The second playtest phase involved a huge group of volunteers who put in about 500 tests. This helps balance the challenge level. Some chapters may be harder than others (that’s just the nature of designing around a story), but none of them are unfairly tough.

HG: I spent the past year working on a story-driven tactical game, which was greatly inspired by your work on Mice & Mystics. Working on the narrative in a way that made sense and paired with the game was really difficult. What is something you’ve learned working on Mice & Mystics about story-driven games? What were some of your biggest challenges?

JH: Well, I’m glad you see how tough it is. I really have to say that it was an exhausting, grey hair inducing roller coaster. But I have gotten better at it. The trick is to portion out your story beforehand in equal chunks (chapters) that each rise and fall like an independent story within a story.

As an example, the first chapter of Downwood Tales has the mice traveling from Barksburg to a town called Headfall Hollow, that is located deep in the Downwood. This is rather easy. The story starts at Barksburg and ends at Headfall Hollow. What happens in-between gets filled in like using crayons to color the stuff between the black lines of a picture in a coloring book.

HG: I agree to this approach. With Sol Rising I created mini-arcs of about 3 missions apiece that contributed to the entire story. Thinking about the big points was not too difficult, but coloring in the spaces? Not so easy.

What are some of your favorite games to play? How, if at all, did they inspire you?

JH: Everyone knows I love Heroquest, and that Mice & Mystics was heavily inspired by it. Heroscape also holds a prominent portion of my heart.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to play the finalized version of Dead of Winter. I can’t wait to play it again. It is a game that offers an experience so incredibly close to its aim, that I can’t imagine anybody ever getting tired of it. It perfectly creates the same emotional response from players as you’d expect from a real desperate group survival scenario. Every choice seems so important… It’s blissfully agonizing.

HG: I played an earlier version of Dead of Winter when Colby and Isaac visited San Francisco. Pretty entertaining! The pre-order is still available, actually.

This just occurred to me writing the questions, but would you ever want to create another experience within the Mice & Mystics universe? For example, managing the mouse city and the goings on, or playing the game from the perspective of the bad guys. Would that even appeal to you? Have you thought of something like this?

JH: I’m actually currently working on another game in the Mice & Mystics world. I can’t talk about it yet, but I am very interested in exploring the potential of the Mice & Mystics world.

HG: Excellent! Some of your first design projects were on Heroscape. Mice & Mystics has a similar heft – simple combat, clean abilities, simple movement. What are some of the most important things you learned working on Heroscape?

JH: I learned that theme can be supported with simple game mechanics. As an example, Jackobe the gecko in Downwood Tales uses a boomerang. To convey the odd way that boomerangs work, I wrote an ability for it that allows it to curve around and hit an enemy from behind should he miss with the initial throw.

Simple but thematic, and that is exactly how Heroscape is.

HG: Are you able to comment on when we can expect to purchase, approximately, Downwood Tales?

JH: I don’t have that info yet, but I should have a better guess in a few days.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

JH: I’d like to thank you for taking the time to do this Q&A. Also, thank you for your fantastic blog. I really enjoy reading your thoughts on game design. I find myself needing these perspectives from others who enjoy the thematic game sub-genre as much as I do. Most blogs on game design are directed at the more structured nuts and bolts stuff that I find so dry.

HG: The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

My Personal Favorites of 2013

Post by: Grant Rodiek

2013 is near its end and I wanted to write about some of my favorite games and publishers of the year. According to my Board Game Geek plays, which I update regularly, I played just shy of 400 games. I have no doubt others can trounce that number, but considering the average length of games I play is about an hour, that means I spent, on average, about an hour per day playing games. That’s pretty cool!

One thing to note is that I’m not really holding myself to the calendar year of 2013 for my selections, as you’ll soon find. My opinions are based on the best games I played in 2013, regardless of when released.

My Favorite Game of 2013: Mice and Mystics

  • Published by: Plaid Hat Games
  • Designed by: Jerry Hawthorne
  • Illustrations by: John Ariosa

I reviewed Mice and Mystics earlier this year, so you shouldn’t be terribly surprised that I enjoy the game. This game was released in the final weeks of 2012, so the fact that 12 of my 14 plays were in 2013 shouldn’t be shocking. I’ve now finished all but the final 2 chapters of the first storybook, which means I’m only 2 chapters from experiencing the glorious expansion I’ve already purchased.

Mice and Mystics is not so much a revelation in mechanics, but as a package, it is near unrivaled. The components are outstanding! Gorgeous, detailed miniature sculpts. Gobs of artwork from John Ariosa, a personal favorite. Tons of tokens, custom dice, and big, beautiful location mats. Then you factor in the delightfully whimsical fairy tale and lightweight cooperative action and you just have a treat.

I was so excited every time I brought this game to the table and I look forward to playing it for years to come. This is such a special game from the great team at Plaid Hat. Great job guys, especially you, Jerry.

Best Game for a Large Group of People: Space Cadets Dice Duels

  • Published by: Stronghold Games
  • Designed by: Geoff and Sydney Engelstein

This game is ridiculously stupid, laugh out loud funny, and armpit stains intense. Two teams of up to 8 people total square off in one of my favorite Star Trek parodies of all time. Every player mans a station on the ship, such as the helm, weapons, sensors, or shields. Your station comes with a set of custom dice that, when rolled properly, can be assigned for bonuses or to execute actions. Like moving the ship, or shielding your left side.

Problem is, you can only roll if engineering “activates” your dice to roll. The game quickly turns into shouts of  “dear god give me a 4!” and “shiiiiEEEEEELLLLLLDSSSSS!” Both teams are doing this, by the way.

The game is entirely in real time EXCEPT when someone shouts “FIRE.” Then, you evaluate to see if they were successful or not. The game plays in 30 minutes or less and I’ve never not played two games in a sitting. Everyone always says “one more!” in between breaths immediately following the destruction of their ship.

Best Storytelling Moment of 2013: Bodies washing ashore in Robinson Crusoe

  • Published by: Portal Games
  • Designed by: Ignacy Trzewiczek

GenCon 2013 was a great deal of fun. I know more people than ever in the board game space and GenCon is a great way to meet them all. My good friend Cole and I took Ignacy up on his offer to teach us Robinson Crusoe after hours. Me, Cole, and a lad named Mike sat down while Ignacy took on the role of teaching and overseeing the game.

Robinson is a very difficult game, but also a dark one. Bad things happen to you and they aren’t just boo boos. At times, the disaster is just a continuing series of waves. You know your doom is imminent, but you don’t quite know what the final straw will be. Like survivors starving on a deserted island, Cole and I more or less went mad and couldn’t stop laughing.

We finally lost it when the bodies of our shipmates washed ashore, which further damaged morale. Or was it when Cole suffered a head injury from a spider? It doesn’t matter, really. Between the game being brutally, hilariously hard, and Ignacy’s dry sense of humor (and Polish accent), we laughed heartily and I knew I had to buy the game (which I did).

Best Euro of 2013: Ginkgopolis

  • Published by: Z-Man Games
  • Designed by: Xavier Georges

I reviewed the game here. I bought this game purely because I loved the art style, but was happy to find it’s a very compelling, interactive euro experience. The drafting mechanic is well-implemented, but it’s the incredibly tense area control mechanic that really won my group over. Just when you think you own a district, an opponent plops down an unexpected tile to completely re-wire the city.

The graphic design is also top notch and really helps teach this game that can be a bit kooky to learn. This is a great lunch game and I think it’ll be the one I bring in this week. Thanks for reminding me, Grant.

Note: I would have nominated The Speicherstadt, but it won last year, so I’ll let it rest. For now.

Note Note: We don’t play that many euros, nor do we play really hefty ones, so you shouldn’t be surprised that we didn’t pick something like, say, Terra Mystica.

Games I really like but didn’t play enough to give an award

  • Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy: This is a really fun Euro-ish worker placement-ish game. You’re managing a family tree and building your aristocratic legacy. It’s an odd theme, but it totally works here (and as players my group really gets into it). There’s a lot of tiny info to process, but it’s the type of game my mind really processes well. I’ve played thrice and expect this to become a favorite.
  • Theseus: The Dark Orbit: This is a really clever game and I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ve played it in head to head, team, and four player free-for-all and it offers something different for each. I need to play more to understand the balance and really dig into the game, but I love the art, the theme, how you dynamically build the station every game, and how the game hides a great deal of complexity behind one really simple mechanism.
  • Shogun: This is a game I played, sadly, only once. What a neat game! This is a grand game of strategy and area control. It has a classic euro aesthetic, the unique battle tower mechanism, and pre-planning of actions. This needs more love in my future.

Games I Desperately need to play more of in 2014

  • Android: Netrunner: I just learned it and I want to play it quite a bit. Scratch that. Need. Complex, but intuitive. Beautiful art and highly thematic. A great opportunity for deckbuilding and developing a sense of meta-play among friends.
  • Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel: I bought this game last year and have only played it once. I re-read the rules every few months to longingly express my desire to play.
  • Twilight Struggle: I’ve owned this game for I think 2 years now. If I don’t play it soon, I’m selling it. After all, what’s the point of a game you don’t play?
  • Tales of the Arabian Nights: I played this with Cole last night and loved it. We just laughed so hard. My favorite part was how, for a VERY random game, the story of us and our world was somehow consistent. We kept seeing hints of continuity that just made the game better and better.

Favorite Publishers of 2013

I define my favorite publishers as folks who consistently make games I love. These are games that I really want to play and have beautiful aesthetic qualities. Furthermore, the publishers act in ways I greatly respect. When I play the game of “What would I be like as a publisher?” these are the folks I’d try to emulate. These three publishers really scratch an itch for me and teach me things about the industry.

One thing I noticed about all three is that all of them are very designer-driven companies. In fact, the head of each company has had a big hand in the company’s biggest games, if not designed them outright. Another thing is that I’ve met the owner for each of these companies. That may be a factor of my fondness for them.

Here they are in no particular order.

Plaid Hat Games: Plaid Hat publishes some of my favorite games (Mice and MysticsSummoner Wars), hosts a weekly podcast that is actually quite informative if you pay attention and piece the details together, and are all around great guys. My other favorite thing is that they are open with their community, bust their butts to improve constantly, and in my opinion, do things right. As a final tidbit, they introduced me to John Ariosa, who is one of my favorite illustrators.

I recently received City of Remnants (rules read, unplayed) and can. not. wait. until Seafall arrives. I love watching Plaid Hat succeed and can’t wait to see where they go next.


Portal Games: Portal is a company I’ve been aware of for some time, but haven’t played many of their games. I played Neuroshima Hex extensively on the iPhone a few years ago and really enjoyed it. But, this year I really dove in, starting with the excellent Robinson Crusoe. Then, I took a chance on the company’s Essen pre-order and bought everything on offer. Guess what? LegacyTheseus, and Voyage of the Beagle are all excellent.

It’s not just the games, though. Ignacy is ridiculously responsive and frank on BGG. If you have a question, post, and he’ll be there immediately. You can also read his blog, filled with hilarious, informative, and brutal entries about development and publishing.

He recently announced his game based on the popular The Witcher IP is going to print. After playing his other titles I was so interested I read the book (it’s good) and now really want the game. Ignacy tries to create games that tell stories and I’ll continue watching him in 2014 to see what new stories he’ll bring to my table.

Academy Games: These guys take historical premises that are typically mired in 6 hour, overly complex simulations and distill them into games you can learn, play, and love. 1775: Rebellion is this year’s excellent example, much like 1812: The Invasion of Canada, or the Conflict of Heroes series.

I met Uwe Eickert and his son Gunter at GenCon 2012 and again in 2013. Both times they’ve played my prototypes and provided me with invaluable feedback. These are great, friendly guys with much to teach and share. If you find an opportunity to demo with Uwe, do so. The man’s a character and loves games. He’ll also give you outstanding, frank opinions on your designs if he has the time to play them.

Every Academy Games release tempts me. I’m curious to see what 2014 brings.

What are some of your favorites? Share below in the comments!

Review: Mice and Mystics

Me playing solo.

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.

Two of my favorite characters.

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.

Following the scenario instructions is quite simple.

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.

From the arrow my mice and “climb up” to the other side of the board.

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.

Just playing dice with rats.

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.

What do you think of this review?

Designing for Joy

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Please keep in mind that the below piece, largely based on a single game, is NOT a review. I’ve played it only twice. As a designer I was inspired by our experience last night and I’ve spent the past few hours thinking about how I can attempt to bake that experience into my own designs. So, please take this anecdotal reference as such, not my hyperbolic and premature review. 

Four of my friends came over last night for pizza, wine, and the first chapter of Mice and MysticsIn case you’re not familiar, this is the latest release from Plaid Hat Games. It is a highly story and scenario driven cooperative adventure that features minis, custom dice, cards, beautiful illustrations, and tons of boards with which you explore the castle…as humans changed to mice.

If I had to summarize it, it’s a simplified tactical combat game, like Heroscape, that’s cooperative and scenario driven.

Designers design for different purposes  Some purely for self-fulfillment (i.e. I don’t care if this gets published), others for mechanics, others for theme, and some do it to appeal to a specific demographic. Some designers want to create a brain puzzler and some just want a dice fest. While playing Mice and Mystics last night, I was reminded that one of the most powerful emotions and experiences we can craft as designers is joy.


Simple, pure, smile and laughter inducing pleasure. At times we can get so caught up in chasing the mechanics or the theme or the whatever that we forget that we’ve been given the opportunity to be Willy Wonka in a Chocolate Factory of our own creation.

If joy is a desired outcome, how do we sew the seeds to make it a reality? I think there are some obvious, tangible mechanics and themes we can look to for inspiration.

Classics include dice, or a mechanism by which the possible outcomes are understood but not precisely known. Probability is comfortable and uncertainty builds tension, surprise, and thrilling moments.  In our game last night, we missed 9 sequential 50/50 rolls in a row. This is absurdly improbable! This almost cost us the game and there was no mechanism by which to mitigate this. In many games this would be infuriating. We almost became frustrated, but at some point we collaboratively developed an attitude of c’est la vie and it became a point of laughter and tension with every roll. And when it was finally hit? Exuberance!

Another solid tool for us is humor. You often see the best writers weave humor into even the most serious of stories. It’s a wonderful thing. One can obtain this through funny card art (Farmageddon, Munchkin), take-that mechanics (schadenfreude can be rather enjoyable), or a generally silly premise. The rules for Scallywags explicitly state you should read the cards with a pirate’s emphasis. But, without prompting, my friends quickly jump into these roles and before long we sound like idiots of the Caribbean.

Let’s not forget the humor of Dixit, Apples to Apples, and Cards Against Humanity. Even boring people can be funny if you give them the chance.

I’m not entirely sure Mice and Mystics sought to be a funny game, but we, being horrid adult males, turned it into one. For one, I read every story moment with awful Cockney, Scottish  and Monty Python-esque “accents” and one character’s name in particular became a recurring crude joke. I’ll just say his name is Maginos and leave it at that. Big moments like the cat chasing us were, despite the circumstances, rather entertaining. And every time my friend paid the cheese to use his special ability and STILL missed we laughed.

How can your game latch onto such a thing? I’ll try to approach this with a practical and personal example. How can my area-control strategy game Empire embrace such a concept? It’s pretty important as the game is fairly dry!

If I quickly think about it, there are quite a few little details and embellishments I can make to provide players a canvas for mischief. Or at least a more interesting war.

  • The factions have names. One in particular, the Yorkan Clans, always causes a smile as it’s a weird word to say. Can I lean into that more without going into full-on Harry Potter vibe?
  • The Tactics in game that have more dramatic, active names evoke a response from my playtesters. The player who plays “Dig In!” often shouts and slams his cards down with confidence. Not so with the player who plays “Encirclement.” Fun verbs > boring verbs?
  • One playtester suggested I add phrases, like “Come and Take It” or the rebel yell to the faction boards to help people get into character.
  • I should spend a little time creating characters. When you play the General, should it be “General,” or “Sir Lord Marshal Haversham, Order of the Bath?” And I could name a weak Infantry Unit (in Empire simply a card with an Infantry symbol with a 1 as opposed to a 2 or 3) as the Yorkan Militia, or Yorkan Volunteers. People will draw that card and think “Ugh, not the militia!” instead of “Oh I see a 1.”

Beyond the tangible tweaks, the obvious things that just seem to be widely accept best practices, how do we approach the pursuit of joy from a philosophical level? After all, there are some things that just work, but less because of something we can point to or write speeches about, but a certain je ne sais quoi (I’m finished with the French).

There is something about Mice and Mystics that made coming to the table and sitting down just really enjoyable. It’s something that games that are arguably better mechanically, or arguably better from a game sense, often seem to lack. It is easy to point to mice being cute, miniatures being awesome, and the well-crafted stories all being primary factors. I’m also a really big fan of Plaid Hat, but honestly nobody else in my group shares this fanboyism so it’s not entirely that. Maybe it’s the art by John Ariosa that everyone kept praising?

All I know is, I will be spending the next few days improving Empire in ways that make it a richer, more vibrant, and exciting experience for a group of friends without compromising its mechanics. For Innie, my new design that’s being fleshed out, I’ll take a step back and re-examine my current assumptions in light of potential opportunities to do the same from the beginning. The value in doing so seems quite obvious.

If I can help someone create a moment, a story, or a time to remember, doesn’t that supersede the value of just making a good game? I think so.

What are some games that provide the je ne sais quoi for you and your group? Where do I make the wrong assumptions? Let’s discuss, shall we?