TABLE GAMES REVIEW: Mice and Mystics

As we draw closer to International Tabletop Day on Saturday 5th April we take a look at Plaid Hat’s brilliantly titled Mice and Mystics.

Mice & Mystics, from Plaid Hat Games, is a co-operative fantasy board game for one to four players. Wielding weapons ranging from the arcane energies of Maginos the wizard to the skull-crushing hammer of Nez Bellows the blacksmith, players take on the roles of heroic characters in a race against time to rescue King Andon from the predatory Vanestra. The twist: in order to escape captivity in the castle dungeons, these characters have been forced to accept apparently permanent transformation into mice.

I know, right?

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In Mice & Mystics players take on the roles of those still loyal to the king – but to escape the clutches of Vanestra, they have been turned into mice! Play as cunning field mice who must race through a castle now twenty times larger than before. The castle would be a dangerous place with Vanestra’s minions in control, but now countless other terrors also await heroes who are but the size of figs. Play as nimble Prince Colin and fence your way past your foes, or try Nez Bellows, the burly smith. Confound your foes as the wizened old mouse Maginos, or protect your companions as Tilda, the castle’s former healer. Every player will have a vital role in the quest to warn the king, and it will take careful planning to find Vanestra’s weakness and defeat her.

PHYSICAL COMPONENTS
Right, then – first off, let’s take a look at what you get in the impressively bulky box. While not quite up to Fantasy Flight Games standards of presentation and durability, the production values in evidence here are nonetheless strikingly high. The manual and storybook (more on that later) are nicely laid out and easy on the eye. The modular, double-sided board tiles are well designed and functional and there’s a “story control board” that keeps key game progress information clear and on display at all times. The 22 miniatures included in the base game are nicely detailed and full of character, and all the cards, counters and custom dice are well turned out. In terms of raw visual appeal, there really isn’t a weak link here.

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MECHANICS
As for the actual gameplay, we’re basically looking at a lightly seasoned relative of Descent: Journeys in the Dark and the Gears of War board game adaptation. It’s a fully co-operative system, with no referee or “Overlord” player. All the opposition in the game is provided by the system itself, mediated through the scenario being played. Fully custom dice do a good job of keeping everything accessible and camouflaging the underlying mechanics in theme and atmosphere. Various abstractions when dealing with line of sight and enemy movement are very reminiscent of FFG’s Gear of War, but it’d be hard to call that a drawback. The mechanics are simple enough, with character, equipment and ability cards allowing for each mouse to play in its own distinctive style.

There’s a surprising amount of flexibility in the optional actions a mouse can take each turn. Areas can be searched for new equipment, possessions and cheese (see below) can be shared and negative effects (being stunned or caught in a spider’s web, for example) can be shaken off, but the  constant pressure of a timer counting down does tend to discourage a lot of lateral play. This is compounded by the fact that the timer ticks forward on the basis of dice rolls made for enemy models, so it can be frustrating to be screwed out of a win by a couple of bad rolls at a critical time. If nothing else, though, the timer mechanism does keep the game moving at a satisfying pace.

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The initiative system is very elegantly handled, using an “action track” that makes the order of action for all mice and enemies very clear for younger players. That this order changes on entry into each new area, or as a result of certain cards, means that party actions and reactions will change in response. Certain abilities are also dependent on the position of mice and enemies on the initiative track.

CHEESE
The term “cheesy” is often used in a derogatory way in gaming conversions, but cheese in Mice & Mystics is the fundamental currency of the game.

Each die features a “cheese” face, with the effect of “rolling a cheese” varying depending on the circumstances. If a mouse is making an attack or defence roll then a cheese wedge is added to its character sheet. These cheese wedges can then be used to power special game effects or saved up to spend on a new ability. Abilities include magical powers, personal skills and actions that can be performed on other party members, such as healing.

Cheese can also be given from one to mouse to another, and cheese management can become quite strategic when considering which powers will be most effective in a certain situation, or which mouse to “level up” with new abilities. Do you want one powerhouse, or will you try to keep a well balanced party? Mice can be captured and removed from the board until rescued, so maybe hoarding your cheese and leaving no-one with suficient skills to defeat enemies and rescue you might not be such a good idea!

If an enemy rolls a cheese in attack or defence then that cheese wedge is added to the “cheese wheel” on the countdown clock. When the cheese wheel is full the story moves another page closer to its ending and a “surge” of new enemies enters the board. If the end of the story is reached before the mice have achieved their victory conditions then the game ends with a loss for the mice.

SCENARIOS
Okay, this is probably the most important section of the review. The key innovation of Mice & Mystics for us is the scenario format. Rather than the kind of quest book seen in games like Descent, what we have here is an actual, fully functional storybook that genuinely reads pretty nicely.

Chapters serve as introduction and epilogue to each scenario, and link play sessions together in a genuinely charming fashion. As an atmosphere enhancement, it’s invaluable. Playable characters are introduced and developed, while villainous plots progress in the background and notable enemies are cleverly built up in dramatic stature for their eventual arrival on the board. The scenarios also serve to introduce new game rules and concepts in a measured way, and provide a well judged difficulty curve as the overall story moves toward its climax.

While Descent may have many times the number of characters to choose from, Mice & Mystics offers heroes you can actually get to know and grow fond of over time, with a much more focused and coherent storyline coming at the expense of character selection breadth. It’s a nice narrative trick, and it’s used well.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND CAMPAIGN PLAY
Character development, through spending cheese and finding items, is part of the campaign play nature of the story. Mice retain special abilities and are able to carry over one found item between story sessions. Party development adds depth to the game as, while each individual mouse may gain skills and equipment, it is important to keep a good balance of abilities between the mice.

All the mice have a personal “special skill” and there is a basic “class system” governing which ability upgrades and items a mouse can take. Items can be traded between mice, so if one mouse does find something it can’t use then it still may be beneficial to the party as a whole.

In addition to permanent skills, characters are able to gain “individual achievements” for the duration of the scenario, based on having performed certain actions – such as being the first to defeat a certain number of enemies. There are also additional “party items” to be found at scenario-specific locations, which are held in common and can be used by any mouse under certain conditions.

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PROS & CONS
Stacking all this up, then, Mice & Mystics is a strong co-op game with nice production values and a lot of atmosphere. Varied scenario goals and in-game choices serve to elevate it above the rather basic hack-and-slash mechanics at its core, and the loose nod given to character skill advancement between chapters keeps things fresh without requiring a lot of bookkeeping.

That the currency of the game is gained on the basis of dice rolls can slightly diminish the feeling of control you have over character development, but as old Games Workshop gamers we’ve seen much worse examples of the roll-to-win trap than this. As a balance between fluidity of gameplay and character micro-management options, it works pretty well.

The storybook is a slightly double-edged sword, in that switching back and forth between the core manual and scenario-specific rules can occasionally get irritating – but again, we’ve also played games where the system seems to have been emptied into a giant rules mincer and mechanically extruded as an indecipherable, flavourless paste. Mice & Mystics not only avoids that situation, but emerges as both a charmingly told story and a highly re-playable and expandable game. In fact, there are already new story chapters available online from Plaid Hat Games, along with a boxed expansion featuring new hero and villain models and a whole new storybook to continue the adventure.

Mice & Mystics is a truly “all-ages” game. It would be a very good introduction to more complex board games or roleplaying for younger children, and is still charming and fun with enough strategic depth to make a satisfying game for adults.

GS RATING: 4.5/5

For more board game reviews on Geek Syndicate go HERE

Source: Mice and Mystics
Reporters: CY DETHAN AND NIC WILKINSON

 

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