Mice and Mystics Review

Mice & Mystics box shot

Once upon a time, there was a boy. And the boy loved games very much.

He would pester his friends and his parents to play games all the time, but while they loved him, they didn’t love games quite so much and he never seemed to get to play as much as he would like. Then, one day, he read a book about a game called Dungeons & Dragons, and his little eyes grew round and bright like brass buttons, and he knew his world would never be the same again.

But even less people wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons with him. So he screwed up his eyes and wished as hard as he could wish, even though he knew wishes didn’t really come true. He wished that one day he would have a friend who would play games with him whenever he wanted.

Years passed and the little boy grew into a man. He still loved games very much. In fact he loved them so much that to fill the aching void of time when he couldn’t play, he started to write about them instead. And other people started sending him copies of games to write about. Every time a game arrived, he thought about the wish he’d made as a boy, and smiled a secret, knowing smile.

One day a game called Mice & Mystics came in the post. The man wasn’t really sure about this game. He had children of his own now, and the picture on the box, of a mouse holding a button shield, made him think of the Beatrix Potter books about anthropomorphic animals that his daughters liked to read. Hedgehog washerwomen and shop-keeping dogs. Hardly fit material for a game.

But he opened the box anyway, and the first thing he saw changed his mind. It was a book, lavishly illustrated with a stained-glass effect picture of a dying king. “Sorrow and Remembrance” was the very adult-sounding title. Inside there was a story, a bit like this one, except that rather than read the story from start to finish you were supposed to read a few paragraphs out loud, and then play the next bit as part of a cooperative game, before resuming reading again.

The story in the book was about some adventurers who transformed into mice and tried to save a kingdom from a wicked sorceress. And there were decisions you could make early in the story that would affect what happened later on, a bit like the choose your own adventure books the man had so loved when he was a child. He closed the book, not wanting to read ahead too far and spoil the surprises. Perhaps this was going to be a good game after all.

So the man sat down with some of his grown-up friends to play the game. He didn’t read out the story to them. Instead he just gave them the background, and tried to explain the very simple rules. But it was hard: there were a lot of gaps in the rulebook, and contradictions and hardly any examples of how to play it right.

They muddled through as best they could, but it got worse. The game mechanics were stale and didn’t lead to very interesting decisions. It seemed very random, and sometimes choosing a side quest made it swing from far too easy to far too hard. It wasn’t even very exciting. It felt a bit like a role-playing game because it really needed one player to have read the scenario beforehand to keep things flowing smoothly. Otherwise you had to stop, and look things up, and that made the story elements clash with the game elements. The man didn’t really like it, and neither did his friends. With a heavy heart, he put it back on the shelf.

Mice & Mystics in play

The man’s oldest daughter didn’t love games the way he did, but she enjoyed them. And that was great, because he didn’t really want her to be as obsessed as he was, but they still had something to share together. One day, when they had time to play a game, she looked at the shelf, and saw Mice & Mystics.

“Daddy?” she said, “can we play this?”

The man didn’t really want to, because he didn’t think the game was very good. But he wanted to humour his little girl, and he knew she like cooperative games where no-one had to lose, and fantasy stories too, so she would probably enjoy it. So he smiled his secret, knowing smile and set the game up, one of the adventures he’d already played with his friends and understood, so he wouldn’t have to stop and look things up again.

This time he read the story out loud, like the book said you were supposed to. And as he read, he watched with amazement as his daughter’s eyes grew round and bright as little brass buttons, an expression he recognised very well. She listened without interrupting, through two long pages of dense text. And then he stopped, and got ready to play.

“Daddy!” she exclaimed, “don’t stop! I want to know what happens next!”

And when he told her they were going to play what happened next, he knew the expression on her face was one he’d remember for the rest of his life.

So they played. And as they played, all the the things the man found so troublesome about playing with his friends melted away like snow in the face of his daughter’s burning enthusiasm. He didn’t worry about the patchy rules, or reading the scenario, but just went with whatever felt right as part of the unfolding tale, and she was far too engrossed in the game to notice.

They finished off the rat guards in the dungeon, lost the wizard mouse to the roaring tides in the sewer, decided to ignore the cook’s pleas for help so that they were more likely to win, and get to read the next part of the story the same day. But then they almost got finished off by a spider in the kitchen tunnels, and a mean old crow in the courtyard but they made it into the old tree. Just. By the skin of their teeth.

So the story continued. And it was wonderful.

The man sat back in his chair, and he considered Mice & Mystics. He knew it was unlikely he would ever play the game with an adult again, but also that it was a game he would never get rid of. He realised it was a game he didn’t think was very good mechanically, but that he was going to be playing it a lot and, paradoxically, he was going to enjoy it immensely.

And he thought about the wish he’d made, that silly wish all those long years ago. And realised that, thanks to Mice & Mystics, it had finally come true.

13 Responses to “Mice and Mystics Review”

  1. dglenny May 24, 2013 at 4:45 am #

    Outstanding.

    I am still waiting for that moment with my children; Catan Junior is what we play, but that is as story-less as you can imagine. You’re now the third or fourth advocate for Mice & Mystics for children, so I guess I’ll have to give in sooner rather than later.

  2. dougisfunny May 24, 2013 at 7:09 am #

    Have you considered playing it with adults and reading the story and seeing if it makes a difference in that context?

    • Matt Thrower May 24, 2013 at 9:20 am #

      I’ve thought about it. But I’m just not sure it’d have that same narrative magic. Can you really imagine being spellbound by one of your friends reading out a short story about rodent warriors? But for family play it’s absolute magic.

      • slothboy May 24, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

        Actually when my regular D&D group is a man down we use Mice and Mystics as our alternate. You better by God believe we listen to the story. But we’re too old to be self-conscious about that sort of thing.

      • drunkenpandaren May 25, 2013 at 1:17 am #

        Nothing that a packed bong and huge case of beer wont fix!

  3. webdanzer May 24, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    This game drives me batty. Both of the major ways that ‘cheese’ functions in this game are so wonky and random, and they are critical gameplay elements. The passage of time of the cheese clock is completely random based on your rolls, and in a way that seems even worse than the normal issues with dice games. Where normally bad rolls might see you hit or miss more in combat or some such, in this it just means time passes more quickly! “Sorry, kids, we didn’t win because we just had less time this time around.” is much worse to me than “Drats, we lost! We just couldn’t manage to hit that last ratman!”

    With the clock as your main enemy, the only thing you can do to fight it is ‘gamey’ things like extending the combat rounds to get extra searches in, kiting a guy until you can kill him at the last moment for extra search time, etc.

    Cheese as currency is odd too, as it is gained by die rolls, and the better combat characters roll more dice, and thus gain more cheese to use on their powers and skills. While you would think it would be rolls like the healer and mage that would use more skill and power abilities, nope, it is the guy who swings the big hammer because his powerful attacks, hit or miss, generate the fuel to power the special abilities. It just plays out really poorly, IMO.

    I do understand that the theme and narrative are strong, but the game systems themselves are so off that I feel like you are better off just simply playing with the figures and dolls and such in a world of pure imagination, forget the game entirely. I don’t find the stories to be THAT great that they overcome anything my sons and I can invent when we are just sprawled out on the carpet adventuring with toy monsters, army men, etc.

    Eh, I’m probably coming across as too harsh. The game is ‘okay,’ but I admit I was expecting much more for all the hype it was getting. In my case, I am lucky enough to have sons that will play more ‘gamey’ games with less wonky systems. If this was the first game a child would play, then I would understand why it gets the love it goes from that parent.

    • Matt Thrower May 24, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

      Not too harsh. Pretty much on target in fact, in many ways. Those are the reasons why I don’t think this is a game for grown ups.

      As for kids, gender and age probably make a lot of difference. My daughter is seven and (obviously) female. She’s not really interested in exploring “systems” or strategy just in building a story and having fun with the thrills of dice-based combat.

  4. Mark E May 24, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

    I love this game, unabashedly.

    One of those titles where despite obvious problems it tickles my fancy in just the right way.

    In my world it’s basically the board game equivalent of Phoenix Wright :)

  5. Nyzorus May 24, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    I love the approach you took with this review! You’ve sold me on it. Now I just have to sit and wait for the kids to age.

  6. ralsar May 24, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    As an adult I do enjoy the game. It is simple and fun. But as a parent this is one of the best family games in existence. My 5 year old loves it and is always asking to play. Reliving the excitement of being introduced to these types of game is such a pleasure. And I had forgotten how much I used to love being a GM (which you have to do with young children who can’t read much yet)

    This summer I plan on running my niece and nephews through the campaign with my daughter. My daughter is 5, nephew #1 is 5, nephew #2 is 7 and niece is 10. I can’t wait.

    Great review.

  7. drunkenpandaren May 25, 2013 at 1:19 am #

    I love this post. It might just be one of my favorite posts on the internet. It also reminds me on how much people end up getting suck on playing the numbers rather then taking whatever is given to them at it’s own value. Something that messes with a lot people when it comes to games like this. Like sometimes the gun you pick when playing some multiplayer game might not be the best weapon to use, but who the fuck cares when to you it’s just so fucking cool.

    • Autistic Angel May 26, 2013 at 6:33 am #

      Yeah, I read this when it went up a couple days ago and it’s been with me ever since. This is a truly stupendous article, Matt!

  8. Frohike July 11, 2013 at 6:58 pm #

    Nice Giving Tree reference :)

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