Mice and Mystics
Mice and Mystics is a cooperative role-playing board game, heavily inspired by Dungeons and Dragons. It’s simpler and more accessible than its sword and sorcery predecessor, offering a mix of story-telling and dice rolling. A spiritual successor to games like HeroQuest, with action akin to the comic Mouse Guard, there’s a lot to like here, and it is hard not to fall for its whimsical charm. The players are a group of humans who have been turned into mice, who must fight their way past rats, roaches, spiders and centipedes, and avoid hazards like mouse-traps, fast flowing water, or the ill-tempered castle cat, Brody. Their quest is to defeat the wicked Venestra, foiling her evil plot to rule the kingdom.
The characters are your standard array of heroes, albeit in rodent-form; a warrior, barbarian, healer, archer, mage, and rogue. Each has their own personality and particular special abilities. They choose one of these immediately and access others later by levelling up, a mechanic which will be familiar to those who have played roleplaying games before. In keeping with the theme, your mouse’s energy is represented by cheese tokens, which you can spend to use your ability or save up your cheddar chi to buy a new one. The pointy-eared party explore large tiles, representing rooms or outside areas, triggering the appearance of baddies and beasties, before defeating them and moving on. In some scenarios, your Mouseketeers get to do something besides combat, like gambling with rats over cheese.
Usually, the goal is to survive until the end before time runs out, but there are other victory and defeat conditions, like collecting information about Venestra’s diabolical plans or rescuing a mouse in peril. Each tile is double-sided, an inspired idea allowing the mice to explore the surface and underground areas as tiles are flipped over through special explore spaces in the floor or ceiling. Each mouse has a battle, defence, movement and lore score, measuring how tough, resilient, quick, or magically inclined they are. There is no Games Master, with the game running itself, although the players have to keep tabs on everything and move the monsters.
The game clock is a literal grandfather clock tile, as per the nursery rhyme, that measures how much game time is remaining. It also acts as the initiative track, showing turn order, another idea familiar to D&D veterans. The chapter marker and hourglass on the clock move around. If bad stuff happens, the hourglass advances, and should it ever reach the end of the track, it is game over. Good stuff can also advance the clock, buying you more time. At the top of the clock is the minion cheese-wheel. Just as your heroes collect cheese by rolling dice in combat, the bad guys can too. If the wheel ever fills it triggers a surge, generating more monsters and moving the hourglass counter closer to game over.
On your turn, your mouse has a choice of various actions. Usually, they will move and attack, but they can choose to ‘scurry’ (move twice), or move and search, in the hope of finding something useful like a large button to use as a shield, or an acorn-shell helmet. You might find something like the mouldy-cheese however, which is bad news, and sometimes special searches get you specific items. Sharing items, using your special ability, or equipping an item is a free action, meaning you can do it whenever you are able without it counting towards your two actions per turn, and some items and abilities allow you to break the rules.
The game’s story is a strong point, a mousey tail read aloud to introduce and round off each quest, with story updates triggering on certain tiles. The whole game is framed as a story told by an old mouse to his grandson, which is why quests are called chapters. It’s amusing enough to entertain adults and will capture children’s attention. The lack of a Games Master means that everyone can play as one of the heroes, but in practice, one player can end up being the de-facto GM. It’s better if players share responsibility for managing different aspects of the game. This set up also means that anyone preparing the chapter will have an idea about what’s coming, which can reduce the mystery and tension that comes with having a GM. Another drawback of leaving the business of running the game and the baddies to the players is there is the temptation to cheat, as with many cooperative games, when things don’t go your way.
The character gender balance isn’t 50-50, with only two of the six mice female. Presumably, this is because the makers thought this game would appeal more to males, and assumed they would want to play characters of the same gender. This limits the choices for players who want to pick a female character, especially in the first chapter where only one of the two lady-mice is available.
Some of the characters seem more effective than others. The mighty Nez is a powerhouse, has four health rather than three, and he’s usually front and centre squishing foes with his hammer. Tilda, the healer, is vital for keeping the party on its feet, although she doesn’t get a lot of glory herself. Filch the rogue – or ‘scamp’ as the game dubs him – is quick, versatile, and with one or two power ups is possibly the strongest overall character in the game. Maginos, while he can be effective occasionally through judicious use of special abilities, seems a bit underpowered, as his basic ranged attacks rarely find their mark.
There can be some confusion with ranged combat, as the battle score applies to both ranged and melee weapons, but uses a sword symbol. It would be preferable to have each mouse have a different ranged and melee score represented by a bow and sword. Sometimes it is hard to remember who has searched and who hasn’t, so it’s worth keeping tokens like pennies or glass counters close to hand.
Mice and Mystics can be surprisingly difficult, given the cutesy look. You have to be careful, and make the best use of your strengths, remembering to use your special abilities or item specific bonuses. The fact that enemy movements are predictable can be exploited to your advantage, and you should paws to consider before diving into combat. Sometimes, due to plain bad luck, you can make no mistakes and still lose, if the dice-gods aren’t with you.
Despite tactical decisions influencing the likelihood of success, this game sits firmly in the ‘Ameritrash’ rather than the ‘Eurogame’ camp, favouring a strong theme and chance over abstraction and deep strategy. Some players can get ratty when the rolls don’t go their way, while others are happy to share and pitch in fur the good of the party. Having said that, for players not familiar with role-playing games this could be a bit more complicated than they are used to. Newbies or younger children may need some hand-holding, although the clear step-by-step rules and online videos help considerably.
Mice and Mystics features beautiful components, superb art and design, and high-quality miniatures. It provides tense, nail-biting action, as your plucky team squeaks through a chapter by a whisker. If you’re expecting a giant cat miniature (giant miniature – a contradiction in terms?) then you’ll be disappointed. Brody is represented by a paw tile, but the mere hint of his presence is enough to fill the party with a sense of dread and foreboding.
The game isn’t very flexible, as chapters have a set number of mice involved. This means you’ll need to have exactly the right number of players or have some players control more than one mouse. You can’t just jump into any mission you feel like, as the story continues from chapter to chapter, so if you play with new people you’ll end up playing the first couple of chapters over and over. There is a fair amount of set up time and space required, so it’s not one you can play casually. Mice and Mystics is best suited for a regular gaming group who are committed to finishing the campaign. So is Mice and Mystics worth the investment? Getting hold of a copy can be expensive – I picked mine up for around £50, but copies are sold for £100+. The main thing to consider is whether it is right for you and your group. Unless you’re rolling in money, or really enthused, I wouldn’t pay more than £60-70 at most.
Each chapter takes between an hour and 90 minutes to finish, and there are eleven chapters, so that’s about fourteen hours play time, although it depends on how much pondering and analysis paralysis the players indulge in. There are expansions available, and nothing to stop you from making your own encounters. Despite its limitations, this is high-concept fun, if you find the right people to play it with. Try it out first to see if it is right for you, before burrowing straight in, and chances are you will enjoy yourself.