The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Mike Fitzgerald

Larry Levy

October, 2004

Partial Ludography

1994 Wyvern
1997 Dragon Hunt
1998 Mystery Rummy 1: Jack the Ripper
1999 Mystery Rummy 2: Murders in the Rue Morgue
2000

Pez

WCW Nitro Trading Card Game

X-Men Trading Card Game

2001

Mystery Rummy 3: Jekyll & Hyde

Wyatt Earp (with Richard Borg)

2003

20th Century Time Travel Card Game

History's Mysteries Card Game

Mystery Rummy 4: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld (with Nick Sauer)

2004 Alienz
2005 Mystery Rummy 5: Bonnie and Clyde

Today's society is becoming increasingly specialized. Look at the medical, legal, and manufacturing professions: it seems the focus of what people do for a living has narrowed with each passing year. Interestingly, this is not the case with game design. Almost any designer with more than half a dozen published games to his or her credit invariably has several different categories of games in their portfolio. Sure, Leo Colovini has an affinity for abstract designs, but he's also produced card games, bluffing games and other kinds of games as well. It seems the profession rewards generalists; either that, or these creative folks just naturally crave variety in their designs.

One notable exception to this rule is Mike Fitzgerald. Every single game that Fitzgerald has released is a card game. What's more, most of these games fall into two narrow categories: collectable card games (CCGs) and games based on what was once considered the most humble of all traditional card games: Rummy. One possible reason for this degree of specialization: when you're very good at something, why mess with success?

Fitzgerald's first published games were collectable card games. Wyvern was one of the first of the CCGs to appear after Magic and featured an innovative positioning system. Like many of the post-Magic creations, it flourished for a while and then disappeared. Dragon Hunt is a simplified, non-collectable version of the game.

The one Fitzgerald CCG that I've played (I'm not a big fan of the genre) is Pez, with cards featuring the dispensers and candies of that tasty product. This is actually a decent, albeit light game and one with a reasonable amount of decision making. Nothing I'm anxious to play again, but also nothing Mike should be ashamed of.

About the time that the CCG craze was showing signs of petering out, Fitzgerald went to Wyvern's publisher, U.S. Games, with a remarkable proposition. He would create up to ten card games all based on the mechanics of Rummy. The main difference from Rummy, and the common thread in the series, was that there would be cards with special powers (called "Gavel cards") and no more than one could be played a turn. Each game's theme would be based on a well known fictional or real-life mystery; hence the name Mystery Rummy. U.S. Games accepted and a great game series was born.

I remember picking up the first Mystery Rummy game, Jack the Ripper, soon after it first came out. After struggling through the rather confusing rules, I concluded that the game didn't differ enough from standard Rummy to play with serious gamers, but wasn't straightforward enough for casual gamers. Consequently, it stayed on the back of my game shelf for quite a while. It wasn't until I started hearing glowing reports on the Internet that I finally tried the game. I soon found out that the buzz was dead on and I had misjudged this wonderful little game.

Jack the Ripper is the deepest of the Mystery Rummy games. The interconnections between the various Gavel cards, the tension inherent in the two potential endings for each hand (scoring normally by going out, or having one player score a shutout with the Ripper Escapes card), the timing of the melds, the possibilities for misdirection in the voting; all these combine to give the game a unique feel and a wonderful texture. I haven't come close to mastering this game yet, but it remains one of my favorite two player designs.

The second Mystery Rummy game, Murders in the Rue Morgue, is the only one of the series that I haven't played, an oversight I hope to correct shortly. The game handles from two to four players, but by all accounts it plays best as a partnership game of two versus two. There are numerous opportunities for partners to exchange information via card swaps and utilizing these well seems to be a big part of the game's skill.

Jekyll and Hyde is the best introduction to the Mystery Rummy series and probably should have been the first game of the series to be published. While simpler than the other games, I find it is still a solid, relaxing two-player contest with some thought required. The mechanic where only one of the two types of melds (associated, naturally, with Jekyll and Hyde) can be played at any time not only works very well, it fits the theme superbly (particularly since the players change this status by playing a Potion card!).

Wyatt Earp is not officially a Mystery Rummy game, but it follows the mold for those games so well (save for its non-mysterious theme) that it can for all intents and purposes be considered "Mystery Rummy 3.5". Designed in tandem with Richard Borg (of Battle Cry and Memoir '44 fame), its principle innovation is the scoring, in which the players' melds contribute to each outlaws' reward and the division of the swag depends upon the relative value of these melds. The system works very well and this, combined with the game's attractive theme and superior components, help make it Fitzgerald's most popular design. Ironically, it's my least favorite of the Mystery Rummy games. Wyatt Earp cards The source of my dissatisfaction is the "bullet hole" system, in which the success of many of the gavel cards is determined randomly. It may seem silly to object to a luck-driven mechanic in a card game, which inherently contains a good deal of luck, but to me, what matters is how well a player can recover from a bad break. If I'm dealt a lousy hand, there are things I can do to mitigate it—for example, I can play defensively, or try to end the hand quickly. But if a couple of gavel cards don't go off as planned, there's nothing I can do to help myself—particularly since I can't even play a second gavel card following the failure of the first one! I find the rest of the game very well constructed and I'll never refuse to play it, but this pet peeve does keep me from enjoying this design as much as the rest of the gaming world.

The Mystery Rummy concept is such a compelling one that many gamers have tinkered with their own versions. One man who did is veteran gamer Nick Sauer, a regular in the Mystery Rummy playtest group. Nick's game was based on the charismatic criminals who ruled Chicago during the Roaring Twenties. Each gangster's melds gave its owner a special ability, making the game quite involved and challenging. Nick showed the game to Fitzgerald, who was very enthusiastic. This didn't stop Mike from making numerous changes, most of them streamlining the design by putting the special abilities into the gavel cards. I'd love to play Nick's original design some day, but I can't really complain about Mike's changes because the resulting game, Al Capone, is my favorite of the Mystery Rummy games. I had the pleasure of playing this for the first time partnered with the designer himself, and playing opposite Bruno Faidutti! It doesn't get much better than that, folks. The game has something of a Canasta feel, since there is a hefty bonus for melding all the cards of each gangster. Best of all, no card is safe in this game. There are gavel cards allowing you to swipe cards from player's melds, their hands, and the discard pile. The game plays best as a four-player partnership game, but it's excellent with two as well and I discover new depth each time I play. This is a very good card game and one that deserves greater exposure.

U.S. Games, obviously happy with the Mystery Rummy series, asked Fitzgerald if he could also design some simpler games for them that might appeal to a wider audience. So far, he has come up with three such games. The only one I've played is History's Mysteries. This one is also Rummy-based, although there is nothing comparable to a gavel card in the game. The main gimmick is that each card can be played as a Fact or Fiction card when melded. (The melds correspond to New Age mysteries, like crop circles or the Loch Ness Monster.) The first cards played in each group are always melded as Facts, but if another player melds an identical card as a Fiction, he can change one of your Fact cards to Fiction as well. If there are more Fact's than Fiction's in a meld, each Fact card scores double, and vice versa. I've played this with three and the game actually has a good deal of decision making. I'd say it's comparable to Jekyll and Hyde in weight. Clearly, the game doesn't work for two, but this is a nice gateway game for three or more players.

The other two non-Mystery Rummy games look like they have a bit of meat on them as well. The 20th Century Time Travel Card Game is a spin-off of Uno and Crazy Eights. There is a card in the deck for each year from 1900 to 2000. Each player on their turn must play a card which either has the same last digit as the previous card or is from the same decade. Players can play more than one card a turn. The last card played determines whether play continues in the same order or if it reverses (clockwise or counter-clockwise). There is a fairly involved scoring system that kicks in after someone plays their last card—this undoubtedly makes the game more interesting, but might also scare away its target audience. Nonetheless, this looks like it would be fun to play and the familiar mechanics and information filled cards would no doubt attract non-gamers.

Alienz also packs a lot of text on each card, including illustrations, vital statistics, and descriptions for each of the 64 imaginary races and 8 fictional planets—possibly the most involved non-game related information I've ever seen in a game. Hiding beneath that chrome is an unusual game. Each card lists the alien's home planet on the front and one of the planets on the back (that's all that's really needed to play the game). On your turn, you want to schedule flights to send your aliens back home. To do so, you must play one of your cards as the destination (planet side up) and at least two others as aliens from that planet. You also have the option of taking the top card of the deck and using its planet as the destination, but in that case all the other players can send any matching aliens they have along for the ride as well! There are also a few Event cards and as each is drawn, it changes the rules of play… at least, until the Event card which cancels all the proceeding ones is drawn. The scoring system is similar to the one from The 20th Century Card Game. All in all, another clever job by Fitzgerald of hiding an interesting sounding design in what looks to be a game aimed at the mass market.

Fitzgerald's foray into the lighter side of gaming in no way means the end of the Mystery Rummy series. Those of us who were fortunate enough to play the prototype of Mystery Rummy #5 (Bonnie and Clyde) at The Gathering got to experience a game that could be just as good as any other in the series. The game uses a unique timeline made up of some of  Bonnie and Clyde's heists that gives it a feel completely different from any design I've ever played. This is a game I'll be picking up the moment it hits the stores, probably in early 2005.

There is a remarkable consistency in the quality of Fitzgerald's work that I greatly admire. This is true of all his games, including his simpler designs and his CCGs, but without question it is the Mystery Rummy games which will be Mike's legacy as a designer. He has succeeded in taking a straightforward, high-luck type of traditional game and, without introducing much complexity, imbuing it with skill and variety. He continues to come up with new and interesting additions to the game's basic mechanics, making each game well worth playing.

Fitzgerald is just about the only designer whose games I like to collect, so I own all of his non-CCG publications. Of these, I play Al Capone and Jekyll & Hyde just about every week, with Jack the Ripper being another favorite, but I'll happily play any of his games any time.

- Larry Levy

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