Thursday, March 19, 2015

Mice and Mystics

Greetings, citizens! The birthday celebrations continue here at The Corner! Today, I’m taking a look at something I’ve never looked at before; a board game!

I considered myself a gamer for years, but ever since I started college, I began drifting away from video games. There’s a bunch of reasons for it which I don’t want to get into right now, but the main thing is that I’ve always really considered gaming to be a social thing, and there haven’t been as many opportunities for me to get that sort of experience with video games. Tabletop gaming, however, does provide that experience. I’ve already talked about how much I love D&D, but that’s hardly the only game I play. I play Magic and the Dresden Files RPG, along with any number of board games. I only have a small collection (being unemployed isn’t conducive to feeding hobbies), but the ones I do have I love, and I’m always looking for new ones to acquire.

Today, we’re looking at Mice and Mystics, a cooperative game for 1-4 players by Plaid Hat Games. Plaid Hat is a smaller game company, whose games focus more on the narrative experience. Mice and Mystics is one of their bigger successes, along with the newish Dead of Winter (which I’ll probably look at somewhere down the line).

The concept of the game is pretty simple. King Andon, ruler of the land, has fallen ill. His son, Prince Collin, as well as his closest advisors believe that this is all part of a plot by the King’s new wife, Vanestra. Collin and the advisors are imprisoned when they meet to discuss their concerns, and are jailed for treason. Maginos, one of the advisors and the court wizard, transforms everyone into mice so that they can escape from prison, but they’re stuck as mice. They must then try to thwart Vanestra’s evil plans and find a way to return to human form.

The game is played from one chapter to the next. The base set (Sorrow and Remembrance) has eleven chapters, each one with it’s own unique rules and goals. Every chapter has a victory condition which must be achieved in order to win and proceed with the story. The victory condition are things like defeating a particular enemy, rescuing someone, or gathering information about Vanestra’s plans. While victory is a variable, defeat is pretty consistent; if everyone is captured at the same time, or if time runs out, then you lose.

Each player chooses a character from one of the following:

Prince Collin: Son of King Andon, Collin is a skilled but inexperienced warrior and leader. His abilities can make him an excellent tank, a serious damage dealer, or just the most helpful guy ever. Collin's versatility makes him a really fun character to play, and as the only leader character, he gets exclusive access to some really useful powers.

Nez Bellows: Nez is a blacksmith, but also a skilled warrior. His abilities can make him a truly formidable damage dealer, or serve in more of a support/crowd control role. Nez is one I don't get to play much, since everybody wants to be the guy what does the smooshing. I'd personally like to see someone explore his more techy side.

Tilda: Tilda is a healer, and if you’re a veteran RPG player, you know how useful she is just from those four words. However, she’s also got some good (if situational) damage potential. As is common, nobody wants to be the healer, in spite of the need for her. I actually really want to try out playing her as more of a damage dealer.

Maginos (see below for picture): Maginos is a venerable wizard of some skill. His spells allow him to do a number of things. His versatility makes him probably my favorite character to play as. But that might also just be because I love roleplaying my headcanon of him.

Filch: Filch is a dastardly thief. Unlike the previous characters, he’s not actually one of King Andon’s advisors, but instead was just in the same cell as the others and got caught up in the spell. While he acts selfish, he does help the rest of our heroes without (too much) complaint, and his roguery is a great boon to the party. While he doesn’t hit as hard as Nez or Collin can, he’s got his own way of felling foes.

Lily: Lily is another odd one. She’s actually a real mouse, part of a town that lives in a tree in the courtyard of the castle. She joins the others after they rescue her. She’s probably my least favorite character, if only because I feel like she doesn’t do anything that other characters can’t do better. Also, I dislike archers.

Certain chapters either require or forbid certain characters. Regardless of how many people are playing, most chapters require four mice, so players can double up on characters if needed. Personally, my gaming group and I really like using Filch, Nez, Tilda, and Collin. Filch’s mobility lets him get around the board with ease and take out the weaker enemies, Nez can take out the tougher enemies with little problem (other than being slow), Tilda keeps everyone from going down, and Collin can pitch in and help out with any of the above, depending on how the battle is going.

Each character starts off with one ability, which they can use by spending cheese (more on that in a moment). You choose an ability based on which class(es) your character has. The abilities all do different things, sometimes letting you do a special kind of attack, letting you move in a special way, or just boosting your attack or defense. You gain additional abilities by spending six cheese to level up (again, more on cheese in a minute). One of my favorites is a mystic ability called Invisibility. Pretty straightforward, but it prevents your character from being targeted by attacks for one turn. It’s a great defensive ability for Maginos, whose defense is not very good. Characters also begin play with particular gear. Everyone starts play with a signature weapon (except Filch, who just has a nondescript dagger), and maybe some armor. As you journey through the cavernous castle, you can find even better gear, in standard RPG fashion. However, you’re only allowed to keep one item that’s not part of your starting gear when going from one chapter to the next.

On your turn, you obviously have different things you can do. Each character is allowed to move, use an action, and do free actions. Moving is pretty straightforward, you roll one of the dice and add the number to your mouse’s speed value, and that’s how many spaces you can move. Terrain, such as water or having to climb something, can alter how far you can move, but most of the time it’s not an issue. Free actions are mostly limited to equipping/unequipping items, and trading items/cheese with other nearby characters. Finally, there are a number of actions that you can perform. You can take another move (called a scurry action), you can search for items, you can recover, you can explore, and of course you can attack something.

Searching for items it pretty simple; you roll one of the dice, and hope to get one of the faces with a star burst symbol on it.

If you get that, then you find an item. Sometimes, a tile will have areas where you can find specific items, but most of the time you’ll just draw a card from the top of the search deck. Usually, this will be an item, but it could also be a trick, fortune, or treachery card. Tricks are special moves that you can do, such as taking down an enemy without having to roll. Fortune cards grant a boon to you and the rest of the party such as healing. Treachery cards are… well, treachery. They cause something bad to happen, sometimes just for you, others for the entire party. Treachery cards suck.

Recovery is pretty simple as well. When you’re afflicted by a condition (being webbed, stunned, or on fire), you take a recovery action to attempt to end the condition. Stunned just goes away, but being on fire or being webbed requires rolling the dice and hoping for a star burst symbol seen above.

Exploring is a more dramatic way of saying “moving to a new tile.” If you’re in the proper space, you can use an explore action to move the entire party to a new tile. Unfortunately, you can only do this if there aren’t any enemies on the board. So, if a fight isn’t going well, you can’t just run away.

The battle action is probably the most used one, because what kind of RPG doesn’t involve lots of stabbing of enemies?

Battle is pretty simple; every mouse has a battle value on their character card. That value can be enhanced by abilities or equipment (weapons usually give a bonus). You take a number of dice equal to your mouse’s battle value (including all the modifiers) and roll them. If you’re doing a melee attack, you’re hoping for the sword or sword/shield symbols.

If you’re doing a ranged attack, then you’re hoping for bows and arrows.

You add up the number of attack symbols you get, and that’s the number of potential hits. The player to your left then rolls defense for whatever minion you’re attacking. They’re “trying” (only half-heartedly if they’re good teammates) to get the symbols with shields. If you got more hits than they got blocks, then the minion takes wounds equal to the difference. Most enemies go down after taking one wound, but others (like bosses) are more resilient. If you roll cheese while either attacking or defending, then you receive a piece of cheese for each die it shows up on. Cheese is important because, as mentioned before, that’s what powers your abilities, and also allows you to level up in order to gain more abilities. The dice are six-sided, each with a different face. There's 3 faces that have the star burst symbol and three that don't. There are 3 faces that have a sword, 2 of which also have a shield, 2 faces with a bow, and 1 with cheese. So, on any given die, you have a 50/50 chance of scoring a potential melee hit, a 1:3 chance of getting a ranged hit or a block, and 1:6 chance of getting cheese.

Those are the basic rules of the game. Each chapter has specifics that are detailed within the story book, and there's some stuff I didn't get into for the sake of brevity. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the pieces of the game. The board is comprised of 8 double-sided tiles. Each chapter uses a different tile setup, usually utilizing both sides of each tile, and requiring you to explore to the other side during the game. The tiles are all nice and uniquely designed, with some good artwork to really immerse you into the story. My only complaint about the tiles is that they’re not the most robust game board I’ve ever seen. Mine have gotten a decent amount of play, and they’re all dinged up with indents on them and an annoying amount of damage to the corners.

There are a bajillion little bits representing various things in game; achievement tokens, party items, condition markers, cheese, enemy marker things and more. I highly recommend using a bunch of tiny bags to keep the various different kinds of pieces separate. Sadly, the game doesn’t come with a bunch of baggies, so you’ll have to get them yourself. I didn’t have any baggies for awhile, and it was a huge pain sifting through the giant pile to find the pieces we wanted when we wanted them.

The best component of the game in my opinion is the miniatures. I’ve never really been a miniatures gamer, since minis games generally require a bank loan in order to get into, but I love minis. I started collecting them for D&D several years ago, so I’ve seen quite a few minis. The ones for Mice and Mystics are great. Every mini was made from a quality sculpt, and the details are nicely preserved in spite of them being mass-produced. Each of the heroes has a nice, unique look to them, and there are some nice details to each one, like little tools in Nez’s apron, a clasp on Colin’s cloak, etc. The minis are unpainted, however, which is a turn-off for some people. I, however, loved it because it gave me an excuse to do some painting (something I hadn’t done in entirely too long before getting the game). Minis painting is a lot of fun to me, and if you don’t like how a character looks in the artwork for the game, this is a great opportunity to change it.

Speaking of artwork, I absolutely love the artwork. From the tiles, to all the cards, to the illustrations in the story and rule books. The artwork is reminiscent of the artwork from Redwall illustrations that I’ve seen (not the cartoon though), which is fitting because it does have a similar sort of feel. There’s a great balance between detail and simplicity, realism and stylization. The colors are all warm and inviting, much like the illustration from an old fable might be.

Likewise, I also really like the writing for the story. Some would say that it’s childish, because it’s about a group of adorable mice. While I agree that there are some elements that are rather simplistic (particularly the names of things), it really doesn’t bother me. It just has a feel of an old fairy tale in my opinion. Not as dark as the Grimm tales, but it’s darker than any of the stuff I was exposed to as a kid. It’s serious and somber at points, and also has some really epic moments if you have the imagination to envision them. The pacing of the story is kind of slow, with the heroes taking longer than they really should be in getting shit done, but it just reminds me of the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring. Get off your ass and GO FRODO!

Ahem. With all of this in mind, what are my overall thoughts on the game? Well, I love the flavor, with it having a similar feel to Mouseguard, if smaller in scope. The aesthetic is also solid, as I explained up above. The writing has its fault, but is overall still pretty good. Hell, I read through the stories for no other reason than wanting to know how things played out. The gameplay is pretty good and if you’re accustomed to turn based RPGs, you’ll get used to it real quick. My only complaint is that there are some chapters that are very difficult. Chapter 3 is notorious for crushing the spirit of every group I’ve played it with. If you get really unlucky with rolls, then an otherwise alright chapter becomes a nightmare, although you could say this argument applies to many RPGs as well. Another point that some people might have a problem with is the price; at $75, it’s on the upper end of board games when it comes to cost. However, just playing through the game will take several sessions (each chapter takes an hour to an hour and a half), and each play-through can feel different. Just like any RPG, there are choices you can make in chapters to get a different kind of play experience.

There’s currently two expansions available for Mice and Mystics as well; Heart of Glorm and Downwood Tales. Heart of Glorm adds six new chapters to the story, as well as a new character, and the ability to be lit on fire! Downwood Tales introduces ten new chapters, and three new characters (two of which aren’t even mice). Heart of Glorm didn’t thrill me too much, but Downwood Tales I am incredibly excited to play (sadly I haven’t gotten to do so yet).

Overall, I say the game is worth it. It’s mechanically simple, but there’s depth and complexity to it as well, and an enjoyable story driving the action. If you’re not sure about it, I’d suggest trying to play a demo of it at a convention or your local game store if they’ve got it.

Next week will be the final entry of the Couchman birthday spectacular. Join me next week, as we wrapped things up in a mythic fashion! Until then, citizens!

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