07 January 2018

Mythos Tales: Macabre detection in Lovecraft's Arkham review

Mythos Tales is  a very interesting boardgame in that it does not feature a board and the main focus of the gameplay is performing interviews and detective work by visiting locations and people in Arkham to figure out the mystery in each of the 8 cases provided within the game.

To describe the gameplay in short I would probably say that it is a mystery/puzzle solving game with a taste of a roleplaying game that does not require a game master. The theme of the game is that of H.P. Lovecraft's horror filled universe. Over the 8 cases provided in the game players will investigate weird murders, cult activity and monster sightings in the city of Arkham. The premise is solid and we were initially - yes initially - very enthusiastic and engaged in the gameplay and stories.

To describe the gameplay I need to mention the components first. The game includes a main scenario book that is printed in full color - some 190 pages. Each of the 8 cases have their own segment  in this book. Each case is wonderfully described with an intro, time limit and starting hints and clues. Each case also has a reference to a multitude of locations that you can visit in Arkham to make inquiries about sightings and questioning people of interest. 

To help you out you will also have a full color map of the city of Arkham with reference numbers on each building, park and location of importance (and locations that are completely unimportant as well). Also a directory of the inhabitants of Arkham, Arkham businesses, university, city utilities etc.
Finally each case also comes with a 1 page newspaper "The Arkham Advertiser" that has news printed on it relevant or irrelevant to the case at hand.

Each case begins with a short introduction telling you about something that has recently happened in Arkham, a short rundown of events and locations and sometimes people of interest by professor Henry Armitage of Arkham University who needs you to help him figure out what's going on. In the short intro description you often get a couple of leads right away to get you started. Reading the newspaper can also provide some clues, sometimes they are directly tied to the mystery and sometimes you realize that something in the newspaper becomes relevant at a later stage during your investigation. 

Once you know where to start, you look up the names of people or locations in the Arkham directory and reference the number in the scenario book, for instance visiting the Arkham occultist Pasquale Fenton at the entry "L4" (which appears on both map and in the directory).

Each case will only have a limited number of entries of locations that have relevance or remote interest to your ongoing investigation. Aiming wildly and just blindly hoping to visit locations/people is not going to work. In each different case visiting the same location may have completely different results. Visiting Pasquale Fenton in one scenario may yield a lot of information about the occult occurrences currently plaguing Arkham, a visit to him in another scenario may yield little of interest and help to your case. 

This whole system of gameplay is actually, at its core, a very good and well working idea. 

To limit players from just pointlessly aiming and hoping for the best when visiting locations each scenario has a time track and a deadline. This limits you to the number of location you can visit before the case is automatically ended.  You can also voluntarily end a scenario prematurely if you feel confident in that you have found out all the answers needed to solve the mystery presented in a case.

At the end of each case there is a questionnaire where you will be given several questions about the current mystery. Questions that may ask about locations, people, details, events and other stuff that a thorough and deductive investigator should be able to answer.

On the next page you are given the answers and also if you are interested you can read a guide to how to solve each case in detail (reading this will limit replayability - especially if you failed). For each correct answer you can provide you are rewarded with a number of points.

Points are then reduced for having witnessed or found out particularly disturbing events or information. Points are also reduced if you visit X- number of locations beyond a certain limit which is different depending on what scenario you play. 

It is fully possible to "win"/solve a scenario by not being able to answer all the questions and/or having visited many more locations than would be needed. If you score particularly well in your investigation you get a pat on your back (and sometimes the next scenario becomes a tiny bit more difficult to increase the challenge). If you fail, you are sometimes given a slight handicap in the upcoming investigation. 

Overall I thought that the ideas and the gameplay were very interesting and it worked well. At its best you feel like you are a private investigator, going from location to location, deducting where to go next based on small clues, interviews or found evidence. And even if you don't uncover the entire mystery in each case by being able to answer all the questions to a 100% it feels realistic in a way that one person would perhaps be unable to piece together everything anyway. Oftentimes you are able to figure out the major plot/or detail to allow you to glimpse the evil stirring in Arkham. The point reduction for uncovering particularly horrifying pieces of information is a great idea and thematically well done. It would not be an H.P. Lovecraft game without some kind of mental penalty for seeing monsters or other nerve wrecking stuff. 

The artwork in the scenario book is great, the writing is really damn good and captures the world of H.P. Lovecraft very well. Characters and locations are for the most part also very well written and interesting. The cases oftentimes touch upon the stories by Lovecraft, such as "Dreams in the Witch house" with the events of that story taking place simultaneously as your investigation and offering an interesting different point of view to that story.

The 8 scenarios all have a unique and different feel to them, rarely does it feel like you play the same mystery twice as there is always something new added to the case, either a new rule or something that makes the investigation feel fresh.

With that said, it is very sad that the game is plagued by a lot of problems that start showing up when you reach scenario 4 and onward.

First of all, the game has typos and missing text that can completely ruin an entire case by not allowing you to find out key information. We printed out and played this game with both a FAQ and an Errata at hand. And despite this behind the "2nd print" where much of the errata and FAQ stuff were already incorporated into the game there were still a lot of problems.

Scenario 4 completely ruined our enjoyment of both the game and the experience by being so broken it is pretty much unplayable. To make matters worse it was probably the most interesting premise and case in the whole game. Players will in this scenario need to play in both a "real" and a "dream"- version of Arkham to figure out the mystery.  Not only are the rules for the whole "dream Arkham" severely lacking in proper description and how to use them, some text is very ambiguous which can lead you to play it wrong in this scenario. The above mentioned problems aside we also failed horribly in this scenario as we simply did not understand where to go and who to speak with as it almost required you to visit locations in a specific order. Scenario 4 almost made us stop playing the game and the remaining scenarios were really tainted by this experience.

A couple of the later scenarios - and in particular the final one - are written in such a way that players get screwed by the game if they do things in a specific order other than the one intended by the game.

And this is probably the greatest flaw, in a game that is so open with what you can do and where you can go to limit you to a specific order that you need to visit places in breaks the game. In our final case which revolves a lot around your mentor Professor Armitage having disappeared we managed to find him very early on in the scenario. This we thought would have bought us time to investigate other things and focus on solving the remaining problems we were facing. However the game punished us for having found Armitage early on by having multiple entries being "If Armitage is still missing keep reading below , if you found Armitage this encounter ends"!!?

What the hell!?

So part of the requirements in that scenario was getting several things for a ritual meeting, among them an amulet used by a cult. The police station had one of the amulets that you could find, but you would only get it from the police if you had not already found Armitage. If you found him the encounter immediately ends and you get nothing. Why? We have no clue, Caroline was furious at the stupid gameplay restrictions - I was more disappointed and past caring by then. If this had been a real roleplaying game you would still be able to talk to the police, they would congratulate you to finding Armitage and you will still be able to inquire about the amulet in their possession. At the very least the encounter should have been divided into two segments - both giving you the possibility of acquiring the amulet.

A similar problem in this game is features when locations have "time requirements". Some of them are logical, with encounters at stores, schools or private locations being restricted to the time of the day (morning, afternoon, evening). But sometimes the game just throws in a "if you visit this location before day 4 afternoon the encounter ends". Great. Now you have wasted one of your turns.

What started out as a wonderful and very promising game was brutally messed up to the point of either being unplayable or severely reduced enjoyment. Anger, bafflement and disappointment at the game breaking aspects lead us both to conclude the experience by letting go of a frustrated "Fuck this game!" during our 8th and final case. It is rarely that Caroline gets properly angry with anything, but this game made her furious over the design choices. This game had so many good ideas and it was ruined by either stupid errors or illogical restrictions. The problems being all the more severe since this game is 100% text driven, which makes all kind of errata/FAQ possible spoilers as well. Considering that we had most of the problems already discovered in the first print while playing our second print of the game is unacceptable.

I would also throw out the damn game but it has some components that I want to keep as they will be possible to combine with "Call of Cthulhu" or "Trail of Cthulhu" roleplaying games (the map of Arkham and the directory in particular).

5/10 the score being saved from being lower by the good parts of the game that work.

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