Antoine Bauza &
Serge Laget


No. of Players:
3 - 5



For some types of boardgames the last decade has brought a great leap forwards, and here especially the area of strategy games based on the worker-placement mechanism can be mentioned. However, there also exist some areas where games have seen no substantial change for quite a long time, and one of these games certainly is classic Cluedo which has been part of PARKER's portfolio as long as a can remember. In recent years some variant spin-offs like Cluedo - Harry Potter were released by PARKER, introducing some variant rules like spells or items, but overall Cluedo still remains the best-known murder-mystery game.

As it seems times are changing, and so Antoine Bauza and Serge Laget could convince DAYS OF WONDER that the time had come for the release of a new contender for the old classic. Being known for their beautiful games design and their fondness of extraordinary topics, DAYS OF WONDER virtually jumped aboard the train and released Mystery Express, a murder-mystery-game remotely based on Agatha Christie's novel "Murder on the Orient Express".

Once again the players are challenged to find out as much they can about a case of murder, but in addition to the three classic categories of culprit, weapon and crime scene the players now also have to find out about the culprit's motive and the time of the offence. One crime card for each category is randomly drawn at the beginning of the game and placed secretly below the gameboard, and it will be the aim of the players to gather as much information as possible to find out the true nature of this "crime sequence".

Mystery Express and Cluedo both share the fact that they are games in which the players have to follow a process of elimination, so that each card the players will see during the game might give a hint at the fact which cards are not part of the crime sequence leading to the murder. Leaving the time of the offence aside, six different cards exist for each of the other four categories, but to make things even harder for the investigating players, each card does not exist once but twice. Thus, the players only can be certain that a certain card is not part of the crime sequence if they have seen both copies of the card in question.

But how will the players see the different cards? Once again skipping the time of the offence, all other cards will be shuffled into a big crime deck at the beginning of the game. From this deck the players will receive a starting hand, but some additional cards also will be placed on passenger and train conductor spaces on the gameboard. The player characters themselves also are present on the gameboard, but they will be placed within different wagons of the Orient Express, and as the players move their characters from one wagon to the other they will be allowed a certain range of actions which will give them limited access to other players' hands of cards.

However, before we have a look at the different types of actions associated with each wagon, let's first examine the general mechanics of the game. Antoine Bauza and Serge Laget have tried to emulate a moving train with their rules, and so the game consists of a total of five rounds in which the Orient Express slowly moves from Paris to Istanbul. At the end of each round the train reaches a station, and the arrival at a station will trigger some kind of event. However, even more interesting is the time when the train is in motion, since it takes a couple of hours to get from one station to the next, and the players will have use this time frame to conduct one or more actions in the different wagons.

When the train finally reaches Istanbul, the players will have to write down their findings on the crime sequence, but they are allowed to skip one or more categories if they are not certain. Points will be awarded for each correct finding, but a penalty is deducted if a player has made a guess which was proved to be wrong, and the player with the highest final score will have won the game. In case of a draw, the players will have to rely on telegrams which they could send from Budapest, the last stop before Istanbul. The player with most correct information in the telegram will be the final winner.

But let's now return to the action aboard the train. As indicated, the players have a certain amount of time available on each leg of the voyage, and they may use this time to visit different wagons and perform actions there. The movement between the wagons is free, but the available actions differ from wagon to wagon. As an example, a player may visit the compartment wagon and spend one hour there. He then may name either his left or right neighbour who then must give him a crime card of the active player's choice. The active player then has to hand a card of the same category to his other neighbour, and so it continues until all players around the table have received and passed onwards a card of this category (players who do not possess such a card must directly pass on the card which was handed to them). Another example is the dining car. Here the active player may spend a number of hours corresponding to the number of players he invites for dinner, and he may name one category of crime card which each of the invited players must show to him.

As indicated, the choice of actions is broader since six different wagons exist, but most of the actions are concerned with different ways to learn about cards held by other players. Since possession of crime cards may change depending on the players' actions, the players will need both a good memory and a feeling for card changes which might be caused by other player's actions. The special composition of the deck of crime cards (remember - two copies of each crime card exist) and the fact that a category of crime cards always can be identified by its backside makes it rather important for the players to ponder which action might suit them best, and in addition the available time frame and the fact that some actions might be helpful to the other players all will influence a player's final decision which action(s) to chose. Overall this kind of decision making strengthens the observation that Mystery Express is much more tricky than its older predecessor, since the need to see both copies of a crime card to be certain that it is not part of the crime sequence requires the players to be of constant vigilance for card changes.

Just reading about this mechanism might bring you to the question how the heck the players should manage with such a chaos, but fortunately enough the authors have kept the chaos somewhat controllable. The players are allowed to keep notes which cards they have seen, and although it is impossible to memorize all player possessions testing has revealed that the task of finding parts of the crime sequence remains manageable. However, players with a good memory certainly are in an advantageous position, and this partly reduces the factor of luck when it comes to naming a category of cards which another player should show. In addition, the different player characters come in quite handy, since they possess different special abilities which should make the game a bit easier for newcomers since they allow a headstart in one of the crime categories. Nonetheless, the players will have to take a considerable initial hurdle upon their first contact with the game, and full enjoyment only can be tasted when everybody is willing to use his memorization skills.

The train ride is further spiced up by several other factors which all contribute to the game's atmosphere. Thus, the players may meet the conductor or one of the two passengers who will board the train at different stations, and all of these characters will exchange a crime card with the active player who has visited their wagon. Furthemore, a tunnel before the stop at Munich will allow the players to have a short glimpse at one of the cards help by both their left and right neighbours, and the events at some other stations will give the players access to the time of the offence cards which were omitted so far. Thus, at three times during the game the players will circle through the deck of time-cards in different manners, and here they must find out which of the eight different crime time cards only appears twice, so that the third card showing this specific time must be part of the time sequence. A rather wacky memory challenge!

Due to its interesting setting and the nice graphic design Mystery Express invites the players to join the train ride over the Balkans. However, it should be repeated here that the players with a liking for memory tasks stand a much higher chance to gather most information on the crime sequence, and so skilful playing alone will not be the key to winning. This leaves the game's final evaluation open for debate, since gaming groups with a liking for such kind of games will cherish Mystery Express for its rather innovative approach, whereas other players might feel that they have been robbed of any substantial means to control their position in the game. Such total rejection seems out of place, but nonetheless Mystery Express stands apart from many other DAYS OF WONDER products due to its rather different orientation.

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Copyright © 2010 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany