Review: Mystery of the Abbey

You are a monk and one of your fellow bretheren has committed the ultimate sin – he has killed another amongst you. Your current calling is now to seek out the sinner and expose him to all. Mystery of the Abbey, published by Days of Wonder and codesigned by Bruno Faidutti & Serge Laget, is a deduction style game set in the sacred halls of a monastery. The game radiates with atmosphere, from the beautifully illustrated board, the lovely cartoonish character cards to the little bell used to mark mass. Three to six players can play under an hour and is very easy to teach and learn. The game is not difficult to grasp and is one of those airy, light games that is best played purely to be with friends and joke around rather than with great seriousness. (Read: don't try to "game" this one, but sit along for the ride.) People seem to enjoy it ok fine, though, as much as I have tried, I can't warm up to it for reasons I'll later discuss.

As usual, DoW productions are second to none. A very charming, detailed view of a monastary and the surrounding area makes up the board. Like other such "Clue-style", who-done-it games, this is based within the different rooms and thus each area is named, appropriately in latin. The board does impress and is perhaps a reason I stuck with the game for so long. It's a pleasure to stare at. Each player receives a plastic character and a mark-up sheet for notes. Ok. Let me say that I have never seen such a nice mark-up sheet. Printed in full color and filled with the same competently illustrated characters as the cards, these throw away notepad pages add a great deal to the game. After all, players will be staring at this for a good bit of time as they examine their notations and make their deductions. Since deduction games are primarily about record keeping and who can do a better job at it, such attention to detail here is very appropriate. A folded player's aid is provided for information and to hide one's notes, which works very well. The game has a few type of cards, all full size and produced nicely. The character cards are particularly nice, with unique illustrations for each of the 24 monks which are amusing and fun. Information design is very clear, nicely organized and designed. "Well done!" to Cyrille Daujean, the French native graphic designer of DoW. Finally, there are a few dice with player characters on them for special purposes and a little bell used to track time. The box cover is mediocre and dull – which is typical for DoW – bringing together an odd mix of illustration styles, no doubt a combination of the two illustrators who worked on the project. In themselves the illustrations are nice, but together they clash. Nonetheless, this is an extremely minor point as far as things go.

Game Objective
The object of the game is to score the most points. Points are given to the one who guesses first who the dishonorable monk is, as well as to players who correctly guess any characteristic that that monk has. Conversely, points are deducted from incorrect accusations or characteristics declared. All said, more points are awarded for right guess than wrong guesses, so guessing is encouraged. The player who scores the highest, wins. While often the case, it is not always that a correct accusation will seal one's victory, so some caution can be needed with declarations.

Game Play
Game proceedes around the board with players moving their monk a distance of one or two rooms. Many of the rooms have special events that are triggered when players enter. I won't fully go into all the details, but suffice it to say that this game is more than simply gathering clues. Players will want to take advantage of some of these card driven events to aid them in their ways. At the start of the game, a deck of character cards will be distributed mostly to the players, with some cards set aside for a room (which those who enter may draw from) and a single card which is stashed under the gameboard. Yes, that's the guilty one. Throughout the game, cards will exchange hands, so knowing which cards you've seen and who you've given cards to is vital to game play. As mentioned, each player is given a nice mark-up sheet for record keeping. On this sheet is each character along with their five characteristics. For each character we have an order (Franciscan, Benedictine and Templar), a certain title within that order (Father, Brother, Novice), bearded or shaven, hooded or unhooded and fat or thin. Throughout the game information will be gathered along these characteristics, so as typical with deduction games, process of elemination through cross referenced characteristics can put players one step closer to victory. When a player enters a room that is already occupied by another player, they must stop and ask that player a question in front of the other players. There are guidelines to what can and cannot be asked, but in general, it cannot be more than two characteristics nor can a question be structured so that a player answer with a suspect's name. A player may answer a question or may take a vow of silence. If they answer the question, then they can ask a question back. If they take a vow of silence, no more may be spoken. Now the moving player may move further, if they had another move left.

As said, different rooms have different effects. For instance, the confessionals allow a player who enters to take a peak at a card of the player who last entered it. (A die with players' colors record this). He may reveal any of his cards he wishes to the one in the confessional. This is where good record keeping comes in handy. Knowing which cards in your hand other players have seen can help players keep a core group unexposed to others for a good long while. Each monk has their private quarters or "cell". If another player enters your cell, he can pull a random card from your hand. Now, if you "catch" him in your cell by entering while he is in there, that character is penalized and must forfeit a turn praying in the chapel. It's all fun stuff and as I said this game oozes with atmosphere. The parlor will allow players to draw from a small deck of previously unseen characters – this is typically where players run to at the start in order to build up a larger hand of characters and before said cards run out. The chapter hall is designated for making accusations and declarations. There is a crypt which gives a player a card for a extra movement to be used once. The scriptorium will let you draw from another deck where random events can occur. And past that, there is the library, where only the player who has the fewest cards may enter. He can then draw a special card that is usually very powerful. Such an entrance is only available once per person if he meets this condition - a nice touch for players that are behind. Play passes round and round with "mass" being held once players have gone through another four rounds. At mass, players must pass a certain number of their cards to the player to their left with an increasing exchange as the game progresses. Additionally, a special event occurs. These events can effect game play or effect a player's sanity as they can be annoyingly silly. One card calls for all discourse to be chanted. (Our group refuses. If you think this is fun, you're gonna love this game.) Players then all regroup in the chapel and go their separate ways for another four turns.

As said, this can be a fine enough time if one does care too much for quite a bit of shifting chaotic information. This is a light-hearted atmospheric game. My problem here is that deduction games by their nature demand a certain level of thinking. They reward players who have better organizational and record keeping abilities as much as anything. There is the feeling of control in this record keeping as information remains static. The passing of so many cards between players belies this a bit though. Information that one is working to keep track of, suddenly fades away as cards go through numerous exchanges. Careful questioning of others can help reveal certain information lost, but it is not always possible to get as players don't have to answer questions. Add to this, certain crippling event cards – like showing all your cards to your neighbor – and careful plans to hide certain characters are blown away. These are my personal issues with the game. But, the bottom line is that it is just not for me. It is a game that falls much closer to the mass appeal than the gamer appeal. If that is what you like, combined with a Clue-like game with lots of atmosphere, a touch of silliness and is wonderfully excecuted, you might just like this.

– Mike