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Mystery of the Abbey

Designer: Bruno Faidutti
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Players: 3-6
Time: 75 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

A deduction game for those who don't like deduction games? Can this be possible? Brother Adelmo has been murdered and one of the residents of Templar Abbey is the culprit. Was it a Franciscan or a Benedictine? Was he clean shaven? Did he wear a hood? Was he fat or skinny?

Suspect cardsAt the core of the game are 24 cards, each showing a suspect and listing his characteristics: Order, Title, Hood, Facial Hair and Girth. These are shuffled and one is removed (this is the murderer whose identity the players are trying to determine). The rest are dealt evenly amongst the players with any left over placed in the Parlor. The players then assemble in the Chapel and the game begins.

On your turn, you may move one or two spaces on the beautifully illustrated board. Many of the spaces have a special function: draw a special card from the Scriptorium, steal a card from another player by snooping in his Cell, take a suspect card in the Parlor, etc. Additionally, if you land on a space that contains another player, you may ask him any question you like. The only restriction is that you cannot ask a question in which the answer would involve naming one of the monks other than this, anything goes. The questioned player does have the right to invoke a vow of silence but if he answers, he may then ask you a question in return. This continues for four rounds at which point mass is called and the players return to the Chapel where they will exchange cards. At first, this involves passing a single card to the player on your right but at subsequent masses it will be two cards, then three and so on. This passing of the cards has a very profound effect on the game so I will come back to this later. The game continues until someone successfully identifies the murderer.

The first problem facing players is the difficulty devising questions. Since all answers are spoken aloud, you generally help all the other players as much as you help yourself. If Bob tells you that he's seen Brother Guy, then everyone knows to cross him off the list. Ideally, you want to ask questions that provide you with useful information but leave everyone else in the dark. This can be rather difficult to achieve. For example, you have two of the three Templar Novices in your hand. If you ask Fred how many Templar Novices he has and he answers "one", then you know exactly which one, whereas the other players do not. The problem is that you're more likely to receive an answer of "zero" which is not nearly as useful. "Aha!" you say, but now you know that Fred does not have a particular card and you can then use that information to devise further, more complicated forms of deduction. Unfortunately, this generally won't be possible because at the next mass (if not sooner) Fred will acquire one or more cards. Perhaps one will be the remaining Templar Novice? As such, you can no longer be sure that he does not have a particular card in his hand. It's this passing of cards that will drive the analytic player batty. Attempting to logically determine the other players' hands (as you would in Clue or Black Vienna) will be a very frustrating experience that will likely result in despair.

It strikes me that this is not at all by accident and that the game is intended to be approached in a more light-hearted fashion. Rather than playing according to a strict line of questioning, you should be more liberal and "loose" with your investigation. Rely more on intuition than cold, hard facts. It should be noted that unlike other similar games, you are not eliminated if you make an incorrect accusation, so a guess may be warranted even if you're only "pretty sure". There are a number of special cards that further indicate that Mystery of the Abbey should not be taken all too seriously one requires that all players spend an entire round speaking only in a Gregorian chant! Much in the game indicates that it's the flavour and atmosphere that is to be emphasized and I think it works best when the players accept this. One potential problem with the underlying mechanisms is the open-ended nature of the questions. Since you can ask pretty much anything, this creates potential for abuse. It's not too difficult to devise a question that could break the game. Such questions are obviously counter to the spirit of the game but are troublesome none-the-less. Again, it points to the notion that you should play Mystery of the Abbey the way its designer intended (however difficult this may be for some).

Bibliotheca cardAs I already stated, the game continues until one player correctly identifies the culprit at which point scores are calculated and the winner determined. Scores? That's right, identifying the murderer does not guarantee victory, but rather earns you four victory points. Players also earn victory points throughout the game by making "revelations" at the Chapter Hall. Such revelations are positive declarations about one aspect of the murderer, made aloud to all players. e.g. "The murderer is a Franciscan" or "The murderer wears a hood". For each correct revelation, a player receives two victory points. If a revelation turns out to be false, he loses one victory point. To my mind, this scoring system simply does not work. Since ties are broken in favour of the player correctly identifying the killer, the only way to win without doing so requires that you make three correct revelations. (Remember there are only five attributes in total.) While possible, this seems unlikely. For the most part, you can make only one revelation per round and so it's improbable that you'll have sufficient time to correctly deduce three characteristics and make the necessary revelations before the culprit is identified. If the winner will, in almost every case, be the player who correctly identifies the murderer, why complicate things with an extraneous scoring system?

Graphically, Mystery of the Abbey is one of the most impressive games I own. The board is a work of art with all sorts of wonderful features and details, but more importantly, it's clean and functional. The cards are of excellent quality and well-designed. I especially like that the eight mass cards show a different time of day as this nicely simulates the passing of time. The turn indicator is a little bell (which is rung to call the players to mass) and the player figures are small resin monks. Wonderful stuff! Unfortunately, form won out over function when it comes to the suspect sheets while attractive, they do not provide sufficient room to make notes. I found that it was best to use these sheets simply to mark who you have seen and use a separate sheet for notes and deductions.

So, what's the final verdict for Mystery of the Abbey? I must admit that I'm conflicted. I'm a fan of deduction games and absolutely love the production and theme. However, in many ways, it isn't a deduction game! The passing of cards really does "gum up the works" of any logical inferences you may hope to make. If you approach the game with a strictly logical approach, you'll experience frustration. However, this can be seen as a feature and not a bug. The problem with many deduction games is that there's often a wide variance in the abilities of the players. Mystery of the Abbey does an excellent job of leveling the field, albeit at the expense of adding a generous dose of luck. If you prefer a game of logic and deduction, I suspect that you'll be disappointed and would steer you towards other games in the genre. However, if you want a light, luck-filled game with a modicum of deduction, then I think you'll enjoy Mystery of the Abbey.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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