A Tale of Madness and Mythos
Well something magical happened over the holidays. My family and I were able to find enough time to sit down and work through a new little game called Mythos Tales.
Course, this game isn’t really new. I believe in released in 2016. What’s more, it was released in the same genre as another game I’ve discussed at length on this blog: Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. In fact, the game is essentially Consulting Detective but instead of investigating the twisted streets of London you are hunting down the insane footsteps of cultists on the fictional streets of Arkham. All the familiar trappings of Consulting Detective have returned but this isn’t simply a reskinning in Lovecraftian lore. Mythos Tales takes several bold strides to separate itself from the genre’s founder. Some of these changes work. Some of them don’t.
The game is shorter than Consulting Detective. Only eight mysteries await in the tentacle covered box. Nine if you have the bonus kickstarter mystery called The Faceless Expedition. It does, however, contain a map of Arkham, a directory, a collection of newspapers and the casebook. There are, however, a few additional elements.
Prime among them is the time tracker. Mythos Tales takes a curious approach to try and address the major shortcoming of Consulting Detective. Cases have a time limit and each location you seek will draw you towards an inevitable conclusion to your investigations. These vary depending on the case presented but you generally have between four and six days to get to the root of whatever evil is currently besieging the little Massachusetts town known for its plague of eldritch horrors and despicable witches. Each day is further broken down into morning, afternoon and evening.
There is also a small deck of cards called Requirements. Both the time tracker and requirement cards feature in all the cases and represent the biggest shift in gameplay. My feelings on these two important elements kind of tie into my overall feelings of the whole experience. Sometimes they work. Often times they don’t. I like the experimentation even if I’m not tickled with the overall results.
Let’s start with the good. Requirement cards are my jam. I had some issue with Consulting Detective, especially in the West End Case Files, where the mysteries were getting a bit convoluted due to the nature of the game’s setup. Since the scenario writer is unable to know the exact sequence players will investigate locations, they often write each location on a nebulous expectation that it’s the first place you’ve visited in the case. This means if you happen to, say, find some mysterious white powder at the crime scene, going to the forensic pathologist may or may not actually work out depending on the mood of the writer. The pathologist may be preemptively analyzing the white powder which, if you happen to visit him before the crime scene can be baffling when he’s discussing details of the case you haven’t uncovered yet but treating you as if you have. On the other hand, the scenario writer may just have the pathologist never say a word about any white powder and you’re meant to use Sherlock Holmes’ alien space brain to predict that you’re supposed to visit the taxidermist about it because obviously that’s where you take strange white dirt.
Mythos Tales sidesteps this issue. During the course of the investigation, you’ll come across people who will give you a generic greeting and information for your first visit but the end of their section might contain further instruction for the reader. Generally this reads as, “If you possess Requirement Card 1, proceed to supplementary encounters on page 42 and read encounter 3.” This effectively allows you to follow-up on clues and discoveries without having to worry about the order players travel to locations. The only downside, and it’s pretty minor, is that if you visit the pathologist and don’t have the request requirement card, you know there exists something out there that he can shed further light on. However, this bit of meta knowledge isn’t necessarily helpful. Oftentimes these supplementary encounters aren’t always fruitful and this can be a gameplay trap due to nibbling away at your time tracker.
Which brings me directly to that new mechanic.
I’m less enthused about the time tracker. I understand why it exists. It gives a general idea of the complexity of the case Armitage, your Sherlock Holmes replacement with significantly less character, will inform you of the approximate number of steps you’ll need to solve the case before setting out on it. There is a hard limit, so you can’t somehow get wrapped up in sideplots so much that you end up running the additional step penalty to the point of not even wanting to finish the adventure. It’s a way to ensure that players don’t try and read every entry in the game. They literally cannot since the case’s conclusion comes at the time tracker’s conclusion regardless of their progress.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel the time tracker is as smoothly integrated as the requirement cards. Both will shape player actions in ‘unnatural’ ways but the time tracker is more intrusive. The requirement cards simply make players want to find whatever card they’re missing in order to come back to the location it was needed at to learn what they couldn’t access. It can sometimes feel like you’re playing “Where is card 6?” instead of trying to logically follow the case (and trying to guess what the card would even represent based on where it was needed). The time tracker, however, puts unnecessary pressure on the player. Oh, you haven’t solved the case yet and you have three more steps to go? You’ll probably start lashing out erratically trying to find some magical location that will allow you to stumble into the solution instead of properly following up your leads. Even worse, the game tries to incorporate the time into several of the cases. Some locations can’t be accessed except at certain times of the day or on certain dates. If you arrive early then you’ll feel the siren song of curiosity drawing you back on the date you should have visited even if you had no good reason to do so outside of the directions given in the location’s entry.
Even worse, however, is the fact that the time tracker double punishes missteps in the adventure. Not only are you evaluated on the amount of time that you spend on the case (and receive point penalties at the end for going longer than Armitage much in the same way you are with Sherlock) but each false lead also eats into your allotted time for the case and could simply run you off the clock before you can properly solve it. So, you lose a point for going to the wrong location for the point tally and you lose the time that would be needed to follow the proper path to the conclusion. And woe betide you if you need to visit a location at night but the case concludes in the afternoon and you only learned of this requirement after your final nighttime step!
I liked that the game tries to make a day/night cycle more important to gameplay and an additional consideration of when you want to visit certain locations. But trying to wiggle your investigation around these time restrictions especially given the free form nature you learn about them is far too fussy and punitive to the player. For me, the few cases we failed often hinged on the fact we skipped a location we learned about early on and never went back to it because we felt we wouldn’t have enough time to track down any leads it would dovetail into as our time tracker was nearly filled.
Perhaps the best use of the time tracker was as a way to adjust the difficulty of consecutive missions. If you scored poorly on a mission, then next case you investigated often had a small handicap afforded to you to make it a little easier. This would be either reducing the number of locations you were penalized for visiting by one, allowing you an extra time slot for visiting locations or giving you a free requirement card for the case. On the flip side, if you were proving to be far more competent than even Armitage, you would be handicapped by having less time on the next case by starting with your time tracker advanced one space.
There were also several tokens that came with the time tracker that were never used which I thought was a bit weird.
These were the biggest changes to the game. However, there were several smaller ones that I thought were a bit interesting. A lot of the cases had unique game elements strictly for that case – explained before you started out on them, of course. In one you had to deal with poison. Another you could give chase to a suspect after certain encounters. Perhaps the most interesting one was a mystery that focused on passing into the dreams of the town’s inhabitants and exploring their dream version of Arkham. All the relevant locations in that mystery had a corresponding dream version that you could visit and had drastically different encounters associated with them. It’s almost a shame these elements didn’t come up in later cases though I can understand that the additional complexity would simply be too much to handle from a scenario creation standpoint.
Finally, and this isn’t a new mechanic or anything, Mythos Tales does a far better job of outlining what exactly you’re expected to do with each mystery. One of my long standing complaints with Sherlock is you have no idea what you’re going to be asked at the end and, since Sherlock sets the questions, you’re playing from a massively disadvantaged position. Mythos Tales makes this far more fair. First, Armitage does a very good job of making explicit what you’re supposed to do. At the end of each case introduction, he’ll tell you exactly what he expects for you to solve. If a painting were missing, his closing remarks would likely be directing you to identify who the thief was, where the painting went and why they stole it. That way you know you don’t need to waste any time worrying about how the theft was performed since it isn’t a primary concern for Armitage.
Second, Armitage is explicitly incapable of answering all the questions at they end. They’re not based on his investigation but based on the overall mystery itself. My estimation is that Armitage can answer about seventy percent of the questions but there are a fair number of points to accumulate for going off his beaten track and learning elements that he won’t know. Course, the danger in trying to strategize around this hole in Armitage’s method is that you don’t know what these questions are until the end and the primary questions always award the most points. So it’s important to listen to wise, grumbling Armitage and focus on his directions.
Now that we’ve covered the good and interesting aspects, let’s dig into the bad.
The biggest problem with Mythos Tales is actually the biggest problem facing Consulting Detective: bad writing. Mythos Tales has about four cases that are solid from my experience. Unfortunately it has three that are pretty bad with one of them literally unplayable because of bad writing. And the problems in Mythos Tales are possibly more egregious than Consulting Detective. Forewarning, you can’t solve the sixth case. Straight up, there is no path through the mystery that lets you answer the questions posed. Armitage’s path makes no sense in that he literally can’t follow the locations provided at the end because he doesn’t gain the requirement cards needed for them by where he goes. Furthermore, one requirement card that’s necessary for the solution isn’t even available anywhere in the entire case! It’s a shocking case of everything going horribly wrong on a production side that I’m surprised at least some of its errors weren’t discovered before print. Ignoring case six, however, there are others with missing locations in the directory, spelling errors on names so you can’t find them, locations on the map with the same number or no number so you don’t know where some places are and other minor errors that can have a pretty big impact on the case depending on their importance or perceived importance.
These careless errors stand out in starker contrast since the rest of the game is so careful otherwise. At least you come to expect bullshit from Sherlock that when it comes up again, you aren’t taken unaware. But Mythos Tales has a solid first couple of cases before the quality of the writing takes a noticeable drop. So if you do decide to play Mythos Tales, it’s unfortunate but you need to search through the internet for errata to make some cases playable.
And I’m just going to say it: the newspapers were dead useless in this game. They felt like they were tacked on because Consulting Detective had them. I think, once again, the time tracker is partly at fault since you can’t have obtuse clues hidden in papers since players are so pressed for time they’ll never investigate longshot possibilities in the print. So it simply isn’t feasible to build cases around using them.
As for the difficulty, I found that overall Mythos Tales was a lot easier than Consulting Detective. Our results support my impressions too. I think we only failed two cases and one of them was the aforementioned impossible to solve case. Two or three we scored within Armitage’s expected window (even including the hilarious bonus mission where we got ‘Cthulhu devoured’). The rest we crushed Armitage in. Granted, it sometimes felt like we cheated in those and this is due to a unique issue with Mythos Tales. I, personally, am a fan of Lovecraft’s work having read a lot of it over the years. As such, I was able to pick up on the Lovecraftian elements and references pretty quickly. Other players wouldn’t. So they may need to hit up more locations trying to understand the relevance of Dagon references whereas I knew immediately what the writers were implying and the implications it had on the case. Oftentimes this meant I would be able to get us some free points in the end by answering some minor questions without needing to resort steps or time in researching them.
But despite this unique weakness of the game, I felt that the cases were pretty straightforward anyway. I’m not sure if this is a necessity due to the constraints enforced by the time tracker (you can’t have surprise twists if people are trying to manage their incredibly limited time) or by the fact that all the mysteries rely on some supernatural element (you can’t use deduction on things that are, inherently, illogical). Overall, most cases didn’t really use the supernatural element all that well, either. For most it was window dressing, though the several cases that executed their mystical elements well were certainly highlight cases of the box.
I’d say I liked Mythos Tales more than Consulting Detective and I know my family greatly appreciated the fairer cases even if they could have done without all the tentacle dressings. Mythos Tales isn’t really a refinement of the genre but it does add its own twists and elements that make it a worthwhile foray to explore. I’m not certain I’d jump at a sequel partly due to the quality of the later cases. If one were realized, I’d certainly wait on others impressions before looking into it. However, more than anything, I think Mythos Tales demonstrates that the game systems of Consulting Detective are flexible enough that they can be applied more broadly and that the systems themselves are still pretty fun even without major changes to them.
Until next time, happy hunting detectives.