Sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beasties
We all love a fairy-tale, right? Especially since we all know that those sanitized, kiddie versions Mum and Dad told us when we were little aren’t the real deal – we’re much too sophisticated for those, yeah? I mean the proper ones, the old-school versions, the ones with all the violence and pain and incest left in. Well, how’d you like to be the one experiencing the sharp end of all that nastiness, or indeed dishing it out? Here’s your chance brave traveller, if you’re sitting comfortably then I’ll begin to tell you a tale of daring and courage, of sorrow and remembrance, of Mice and Mystics.
Oh, one thing,I’m afraid there’s no incest.
Mice and Mystics is one of those games that comes with two books, one is your standard rulebook, but the other is what makes this game unlike anything else I’ve played. What is ostensibly a campaign book for the various dungeon crawls to be worked through is actually a bona-fide fairy story, one with brave princes and wise wizards, shifty thieves and stout blacksmiths. It’s even divided into chapters and includes story moments that should be read out (by the person who’s best at reading) when certain conditions are met. Albeit one with pages of schematics for floor tiles. I shan’t go into any more specifics on the matter for the same reason I won’t tell you Brad Pitt is Edward Norton, but know this, it is lovely, it sucks you in, and it makes you care unbelievably about what happens as you and your little plastic mouse as the game goes on. I’m getting ahead of myself, what does go on?
In Mice and Mystics you step into the tiny shoes of a wrongly-imprisoned party of characters who, in desperation, transmogrify themselves into mice to escape incarceration and attempt to save the king and kingdom from certain death and ruin. Up to four humans co-operate in this venture, choosing four of the six available characters as their murine avatars on this noble quest. Events unfold on two boards, the first of which depicts the areas of the castle through which you’ll all be scurrying in this chapter. You’ll be laying out some of the eight map tiles according to the instructions at the start of the chapter. The neat thing is that these are all double-sided, one face depicting a room of the castle, the other the tunnels, sewers and caverns beneath. For the cost of one action the team can climb out of the tunnels and appear under a rug in the dining hall, or down a drain into a sewer pipe, or lots of other places. These chambers and catacombs are where the meat of your adventuring plays out, fighting evil rat warriors and terrifying centipedes, struggling through fast-flowing sewers, searching for hidden treasures and items, and collecting cheese.
Oh yes, cheese.
Cheese is the currency of the game, the fatty, cholesterol-laden lifeblood pumping through its rodenty veins. Allow me to explain, all activities in Mice and Mystics are achieved with rolls of the gorgeous custom dice. In a scrap? You’ll want to roll sword or bows, depending on your weapon. Need to move? Check the number. Defending? Get a shield. So far so straightforward. Then there’s the cheese face.
No, not some baroque insult, it’s a face of each die that has a picture of cheese on it. Roll that when attacking or defending and you get a lump of cheese. Now please feel free to spend that cheese to use one of your abilities, I could use some healing, and the gal over there wouldn’t mind if you fired a super-powered arrow at the cockroach she’s wrestling with… What’s that? Oh, your saving up so you can get six pieces and gain a new ability? Oh, ok then, I guess we’ll manage…
The cheese also plays an integral part on the second board. Shaped like a grandfather clock (natch) this records the turn order, holds the cards that outline the baddies you’ll face in each chamber and the items up for grabs. It also shows how close you are to defeat. Each chapter tells you where to put the “The End” token on a track up one side. At the start of this track goes the hourglass token, and if the twain should meet you’re adventuring days will be over surer than if you’d taken an arrow in the knee. Two things will cause the hourglass to creep toward your defeat. Firstly, if any mouse takes enough wounds to be knocked out and captured…tick-tock, forward it goes. Secondly, surges. I hate surges, and I expect you will too.
Remember the cheese face? If a villain rolls the cheese face, the cheese goes straight onto the face of the grandfather clock. Cheese is also added if you tarry too long in a room after clearing it of monsters. If this fills the clock face, well, that causes a surge and the following happens:
- Advance the hourglass token
- Add some really nasty monsters to the current floor tile. Or the cat.
Mice and Mystics succeeds on two main fronts. Maybe it’s one front, but it’s certainly a well executed pincer-attack. That front is pure charm, and the generals leading each wing of the charge are the components and the experience. The miniatures are charismatic and beautifully sculpted, the cards and tiles are, like myself, gorgeous, satisfying and thick. As a matter of fact the minis are so nice I was moved to pick up a brush for the first time in about a decade and paint them. They seemed to demand it. As to the playing of the game, well, I can only speak for myself and those I’ve played with, but we’ve been by turns delighted and frustrated, heartbroken horrified and elated. The format of the story wins you over and the game generates such a current of charm that it pulls you along and under, immersing you fully in its fantastical depths. I’ve had my heart in my mouth, exquisite dread gripping my brain, as our last surviving mouse limped towards the end of the mission, only one piece of cheese away from triggering the surge that would lose the game. With a huge spider in pursuit, venom dripping lazily from its oversized fangs, potential cheese-bearing rolls up its eight hairy sleeves. Exhausted, she calmly turned around and make a dazzling last stand, bludgeoning the beast to death and succeeded at achieving the chapter objective. This is the experience in the box. These are the stories you’re paying for.
And it’s just as well.
Just as well because not only is Mice and Mystics pretty steep at sixty quid RRP, but also because if you pull back the rich gilded curtain, there’s nought but an unassuming little old dungeon crawler behind. The roll-move-roll-fight-roll action at the core of the game could easily become samey or monotonous if you aren’t invested in the character you’re playing and the swash you’re buckling. Even then the occasional corner of crude machinery will poke through a threadbare patch of said curtain, if you suffer a run of bad rolls say, or the enemy layout in a room negates any chance for tactical combat and the fight devolves into basic hack-and-slashery.
It’s a serious quibble, in fact I’d go so far as to say it’s more than a quibble, especially if you aren’t won over by the charm offensive. Chances are though you already know if you will be, just look at it and see what your gut tells you. Otherwise, you’d probably be as well steering clear.
I havebeen won over though. I love this game. For one thing it’s an excellent dungeon crawling game to play with people who don’t-think-they’d-like-to-dungeon-crawl-even-if-they-knew-what-a-dungeon-crawl-was. Furthermore, as far as I’m concerned the light gameplay reflects the lightness of touch of the overarching tale, and the tale’s the thing. Aye, there’s the rub. Each chapter spins out its own yarns, each one different, each one shaped by its own unique highs and lows, disappointments and exaltations. Even replaying a chapter with a different group is a fresh experience, encounters that seemed like a breeze will test you to your limit a second time, or a different party composition can have drastic effects on objectives that must be accomplished.
And there are a dozen of ‘em.
And there will be more.
So I take it back, what I said up there. You don’t need those layers of darkness violence, darkness, supposed sophistication and so on. They’re there if you want them, but they’re just a different kind of window dressing in this case. That’s not what makes fairy tales powerful. What makes them powerful is that we rememberthem despite or because of their simplicity and obvious morality. Something about them resonates deep inside all of us. That, and they’re really good stories. So I’ll take the tales we tell to children, enjoy them for what they are and enjoy them when they delight the child inside of me (you know what I mean).
After all, there will always be time for shadows another day.
Mice and Mystics is available from: