Most board games require logical thinking, the ability to calculate risk and the skill to plan ahead. Games like Mysterium, Codenames, and Deception: Murder in Hong Kong demand something entirely different: imagination. Often seen as party games because of the silly scenarios they can create (how did the murderer use dentures to kill their victim?!), these games offer an experience that’s unlike most board game evenings.
Codenames pits two rival teams of spies against each other, attempting to rendezvous with all their agents before the opposing team does. Each team faces the same board of codenames, and must guess which ones belong to their agents. The only players who know the answers are the Spymasters, who give verbal hints to their clueless spies. It’s then up to their team to work out the meaning of the clues and take a guess. Taking only 15 minutes, it’s a playful take on the spy genre that is pretty light on theme and mechanics.
Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is an asymmetric game – one murderer against the police force. One player takes the role of “‘Forensic Scientist”. The rest of the players have a face-up array of possible murder instruments, from ants to ice skates. The murderer, in a secret round, shows the forensic scientist which of their cards they used to commit the murder. After everyone opens their eyes again, the Forensic Scientist chooses clues from a list of possible options, attempting to lead the investigators to the killer.
Mysterium is a lushly illustrated co-operative take on the genre. The ghost of a murdered servant haunts a mansion, trying to communicate with a group of mediums investigating the crime. One player takes the role of the ghost, whilst the rest are mediums. The ghost passes “dreams” (picture cards) to the mediums, each illustrated with intriguing images that could have many different connotations. Players solve the mystery by interpreting the dreams and choosing which murder weapons or locations they think they correspond with.
These games are popular because they’re such a departure from traditional, analytical board games. The subjective nature of Codenames or Mysterium levels the playing field – it’s less likely that a more skilled player will stomp everyone else, as can sometimes happen in strategy-based games. Since they’re team games, they generate plenty of discussion as players debate the meaning of an oblique clue or confusing image. It’s a fun way to play with friends and creates a great party atmosphere. The asymmetric nature of these games creates plenty of inherent replayability too – after you’ve played the Forensic Scientist in Deception, you can swap out and get a totally different experience as an investigator!
The genre is not without its problems though. Chief among them is that the game can get very repetitive if playing with the same group over and over. Players will quickly become familiar with the cards and how their friends communicate in game, reducing the challenge. There’s also the limitations of the “party game” label – players may expect a short game (Codenames and Deception clock in at about 15-20 minutes each), and one that’s probably quite light on theme. The immensely popular Mysterium defies both of these expectations, showing there’s room for more richly thematic and mechanically interesting games within the deduction genre.