It’s no secret that I love mystery games. Santa brought me a copy of Clue in 1980. It was love at first sight. Santa out did himself in 1986 when he brought me Milton Bradley’s Mystery Mansion. While Mystery Mansion is not a great game, it is a game that inspires a lot of nostalgia.
1. Clue has a challenger
Clue was the perennial mystery game for me. Players would move about a mansion, collecting clues, slipping through secret passages and raced to find the solution. You can imagine my excitement when I opened up Mystery Mansion on Christmas Day, 1986–a game where players moved through a mansion, slipped through secret passages, collected clues and race to find a treasure.
The box artwork exudes a more ominous feel than Clue. The mansion, with the lightning in the background with a dark blue and purple overtone is reminiscent of Scooby Doo’s opening score. That alone hooked me. I was eager to rip open the box and examine the contents.
2. What’s in the box
A game of Mystery Mansion comes with lots of plastic bits. There are stairways, secret passages and treasure chests. The stairways are just chrome but it was a nice addition to the game.
There are two decks of cards: one for searching and one for clues.
But the coolest components in Mystery Mansion were, of course, the rooms. The rooms were made of cardstock. They had to be constructed before your first play. But after that, you have a three dimensional game board.
The artwork on the rooms really sells the fact that you are in a creepy old mansion. The rooms are a top view of the room with a cool 3D perspective. I definitely approve of the artwork choices Milton Bradley made.
3. Game Play
The goal of Mystery Mansion is to find the treasure. There are two treasure tokens and five spider web tokens. These are randomly placed into plastic chests (which actually open and close). Successfully finding and navigating a treasure laden chest to the starting point is how players win.
Players will have three actions on their turns.
They can move or search with their action. If they search, they play a Search card that has an icon matching something on the room they are in. For example, you might have a Search card that says “Crate” or “Sink”. If there is a crate or a sink in your room, you may draw a Clue card. The Clue cards might be a chest, a key, a special action or (more than likely) a cob web.
Once you find a chest, you immediately place one of the seven chests into the room you are at. Each chest has two numbers on the bottom. You claim the chest if you have a key that bears this number. Take your claimed chest to the starting point and then open it up. If it has a treasure in it, you win!
Other actions you can take are moving and/or adding rooms to the mansion. You roll the die.
Five of the sides are “Open” which allows you to move or to add a room to the mansion. The rooms must be placed copacetic to other doors on the mansion. There are plastic stairways you can place between rooms of different floors. This is chrome but it does make the mansion look cooler.
The strategy of the game is really to manage your hand of Search cards so you optimize your actions. Go in the basement if you have Search cards that would typically be used there. Make use of secret passages when necessary. Have a few special actions (some of the Clue cards) ready to slow your opponents down. Rinse and repeat.
4. Mystery Mansion’s place in gaming history
Mystery Mansion was ahead of its time. The use of “actions” is easily recognizable in most modern games. I cannot think of too many games previous to Mystery Mansion where players were given several different action choices on their turns and were given more than one action on a turn.
Mystery Mansion is easily the inspiration for Avalon Hill’s Betrayal at House on the Hill. In both games, you explore a creepy old mansion. In both games you search for clues (or omens…). In both games, you build the mansion as you go, selecting from three different stories. I’m certain the designers for Betrayal at House on the Hill were big fans of Mystery Mansion when they were kids. They simply removed the treasure hunting aspect and replaced it with a horror theme.
Mystery Mansion really makes you feel like you are exploring and searching. Adding rooms to the mansion adds the exploration facet. You never know what you will encounter. And the playing of search cards requires you to pay attention to the artwork on the rooms. So you are searching for rooms that have the items matching what you have in your hand.
Mystery Mansion is ultimately dated. Despite being ahead of its time, the game is showing its age. A game can drag on because of the luck of the draw of keys or chests. The internal game clock present in modern games is missing in here.
Mystery Mansion would be a great thrift store pick up. I would like to find a copy at a local store to add to my heap. Hopefully I will be able to report that I found a copy in my next thrift store blog.
-Chris, noted gaming nostalgist.