Mystery of the Abbey

Days of Wonder, 2003, Game, $44.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Allen B. Ruch

When asked about the genesis of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco famously remarked, “I desired to poison a monk.”
Apparently the good Professor is not alone. I first heard about Mystery of the Abbey from a visitor to Porta Ludovica, a kind soul who informed me that a certain game in Europe was quite busy poisoning monks. Well, actually one monk – Brother Adelmo, the same unfortunate fellow from The Name of the Rose. Figuring that any game based on Eco’s novel would be worth playing, I acquired a copy....
....and let it sit on my shelf for three months. Of course, I glanced through it first: a handsome board, some nifty cards featuring dozens of shifty-looking monks, and a tiny bell to ring. Overall, it looked like an offbeat imitation of Clue, with Brother Adelmo standing in for Mr. Body. Using check-off sheets, each player interrogated the other players, trying to solve the murder through the process of elimination. Cute, I thought, and then filed it away, waiting until I could scrounge up five other players to give it a good test run.
Ah, foolish me. Had I known how complex, devious, and, well, bizarre the game was, I would never have let it languish, lonely and unplayed, gathering dust between Star Trek Monopoly and “Cooties.” Happily, it was not to suffer the same bleak fate as its shelf-mates, their novelty long worn off and spirits departed to the Island of Misfit Toys. A few months later, some visiting friends suggested that a board game might be a fun way to spend the evening. Somewhere between the second case of beer and the pot of hot-dogs-boiled-in-beer, I pulled out Mystery of the Abbey. Not only did it look comfortably familiar to Clue, there was that mysterious little bell to ring. Perfect.
But before I describe our experience, a few words about the basic rules. To win, all you need to do is find the identity of the killer – the room and weapon are immaterial. There are 24 “suspect cards,” each sporting a picture of a monk. Each “suspect” has a set of identifying characteristics: fat or thin, hooded or unhooded, bearded or clean-shaven. Additionally, each monk is a member of one of three orders, and has one of three ranks: novice, brother, or father. Each suspect card matches up to one unique arrangement of these five identifying features – for example, Brother Berengar is a fat, clean-shaven, unhooded Benedictine; whereas Father William is a thin, bearded Templar with a fondness for hoods. After randomly selecting a suspect card and placing it under the gameboard as the culprit, the remaining cards are shuffled out to players, with a few extras kept on the side for later circulation.
Aha, you think – you only have to find the killer? This should be easier than Clue! But this notion is woefully deceptive. For those of you keeping track, an Abbey player must navigate nearly twice as many variables as a Clue player: “I think the evildoer is a thin, clean-shaven, unhooded Franciscan novice!” versus “Professor Plum, in the Conservatory, with the Candlestick.” Additionally, unlike Clue, players do not win by a single, all-or-nothing guess. In Mystery of the Abbey, players accumulate points through “revelations,” public statements of fact regarding a single variable: “I think the killer is bearded,” or “The culprit is not a Franciscan.” Eventually, a player makes an “accusation” by naming the killer: if another player has that card, he reveals it, proving the accuser wrong, and the game continues. After the killer is correctly accused, the winner is determined by tallying points – points added for correct revelations and accusations, points deducted for incorrect revelations and accusations. Although the person who makes the correct accusation is often the winner, this is not certain – another player can win if he’s made strategic revelations throughout the game and accumulated enough points.
The rooms of the abbey are not part of the mystery itself, but areas where players may confront each other by asking questions: “Do you have any Templars,” “What was the last card you were shown,” or even, “Where are you going next?” The player so questioned may decline to answer, signifying an “oath of silence;” but if he answers, he is permitted to ask a question in return. Also, each room imposes its own rules: in the Confessional, you are allowed to sneak a peek at another’s cards, but the next person to visit the room gets a peek at your own. You may raid the other player’s “Home Cells,” but if they catch you, you are sent to the Chapel to do “penance,” losing a turn. If you stop in at the Crypt, you are filled with inner peace, and are awarded a free turn to use at any point during the game. If you are the player with the least amount of suspect cards in hand, the Library bestows you with a “Biblioteca” card, granting you a secret benefit. And so on.
So much for the “complex” part, but what about devious? Well, let’s look at the idea of penance. Normally, a player is assigned penance if he openly breaks the rules or gets caught snooping in someone’s Home Cell. But the game allows a majority of players to assign penance on another player for any agreed infraction of etiquette as well – such as not paying attention, playing out of turn, or “spilling consecrated wine, coffee, or whiskey on the gameboard.” And while this can certainly lead to the willful abuse of collective authority, the game rewards individual sneakiness as well: players may mislead other players by making false revelations, remain silent when questioned as a bluff, or deliberately lose suspect cards in order to qualify for a Biblioteca card.
Every four rounds, the “Mass keeper” rings the bell, and all players return to the Chapel for Mass. During this process, players are forced to trade suspect cards; but more importantly, a Mass card is drawn. And here’s where the game gets bizarre. Let me take you back to our maiden voyage.... For the first four turns of the game, we were having a lot of fun. It quickly became apparent that the game called for more strategy than Clue, and a better memory, too – and, in the spirit of the best monks, we were certainly enjoying our beer: a beverage not known for enhancing memory retention. But still, we valiantly forged on, raiding each other’s cells and gathering “sacred texts” from the Scriptorium. (And of course, no one abused the penance rule, oh certainly not.) But when the first Mass card was drawn, we shared a collective moment of disbelief: for the next four turns, we could only communicate to each other by singing – in Gregorian chant! What? Had Brother Alfred E. Newman suddenly been elected Pope? Although a few people protested (namely me), they were immediately threatened with penance, and the game proceeded, everyone chanting their questions in off-key plainsong. Suddenly it became clear just why monks were always brewing beer and poisoning each other.
By the end of the game, we had created new modes of Gregorian chant, we had issued various religious decrees and false proclamations, we had cheerfully sent each other into penance, and we had successfully navigated the maze of rooms and changing conditions to finally determine a winner. (Brother Malachi was the culprit, of course; with a name like that, what did you expect?) We immediately decided to play again – which, in the end, is the best endorsement a game can get.
So, while Mystery of the Abbey might seem a lot like Clue, it plays as if Mrs. White has spiked everybody’s drinks and relocated the crime scene to the Winchester Mystery House. Although the rules are simple to learn, there’s a surprising amount of complexity to actual game play, and the environment can shift at the flip of a card – whether or not that means one player may suddenly get to raid your stash, or the entire room is forced to sing “Frere Jacques” in rounds, it’s sure better than prying that fourth railroad from your vindictive spouse. I only hope that the game designers at Days of Wonder aren’t currently reading Foucault’s Pendulum....

– Allen B. Ruch
20 November 2003

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