The real Mystery of the Abbey is why this game is rated so highly by so many people. With so many people rating it an 8 or higher, I had no reason to think that it would be so awful. In fact, we chose it for my games column based on the positive word-of-mouth. We made a poor choice, as this game fails to deliver on all accounts. Everyone agreed that it was the worst game we've playtested for my column. Ever.
For those unfamiliar with it, Mystery of the Abbey is basically a deduction game with a few twists to keep it fresh. It is set in the Templars’ Abbey – a monastery of 24 monks. One of the 24 monks is the murderer of Brother Adelmo and it is up to the players to use questioning and deduction skills to discover and accuse the culprit.
As in Clue, players navigate through different rooms on the game board. When a player lands in the same room as another player, he can ask that player a question about a monk’s personal attributes. (Each monk has three personal characteristics – fat or thin, bearded or clean shaven, and hooded or unhooded. In addition, the monks each have a title (Father, Brother or Novice) and come from one of three orders (Templar, Franciscan and Benedictine). The questioned player can take a vow of silence and refuse to answer, or he can answer the question and ask a question in return. Certain rooms also allow player actions, like drawing valuable cards or stealing monk cards from another player’s hand.
Overall, I enjoy deduction games. Although I haven’t played Clue in more than two decades, I have fond memories of playing the game with my family. I also really like Hunting Party, which has a deduction element. So I really had high hopes for Mystery of the Abbey and based on positive word-of-mouth, I was certain it would be a winner. It certainly was not.
My biggest gripe with the game was Mass. At the end of every fourth round of turns, mass is called. All player markers are returned to the chapel. Since a player can only move two spaces in a turn, the most one could move before being whisked back to the chapel is eight spaces. This really limits choices; there just aren’t a lot of places you can visit in one round.
Following mass, an event card is played. These cards introduce a new element into the game, with certain events increasing the game’s fun factor. For example, one card had us speaking in plainsong (Gregorian chant) for an entire round of turns, which was somewhat humorous. However, it was completely irrelevant to the game. It was almost as if the designers knew there game was lacking and threw in these cards to heighten the levity. But too few event cards are introduced for it to really matter (only three event cards took place in our game). And while some of the event cards have absolutely no effect on actual game play (like everyone singing a round of "Are You Sleeping?"), other cards have a major effect. There just isn’t a good balance, making event cards rather pointless.
I really thought questioning other players would be the best part of the game. While there is a challenge of coming up with creative ways to ask questions that help you without giving too much information to the rest of the players, the trading of cards virtually eliminates opportunities for strategic questioning. Throughout the game, players are constantly exchanging cards. And when mass is called, players are forced to pass monk cards to the player on their left, and with each mass, the amount of cards passed increases. This introduces such a random and chaotic element that it makes asking unique and clever questions nearly impossible. As a result, most questions asked help everyone equally and all players discover the identity of the murderer at the same time. The winner is then determined by who can get to the chapter hall the fastest to make the accusation.
Since deducing who committed the crime is at the heart of the game and is its best attribute, people who enjoy Clue or other deduction games might enjoy Mystery of the Abbey. But it doesn't explain why so many people rated it 8 or higher. (It even ranks 24th on Tom Vasel's top 100 list...) And despite my dislike, I feel that there might be a good game hiding inside somewhere. Some tweaks to the rules could create a more enjoyable playing experience. If nothing else, the game looks great. The game board and playing components are of the highest quality. The suspect sheets are fully color. The artwork is tremendous. Each monk is depicted as an actual character, which adds a lot of flavor to the game.
But overall, there was just too little planning, strategy and player interaction to make the game enjoyable. Mystery of the Abbey just wasn’t any fun and I won't mind if I never play again (actually, if I can't trade it off, I might make a few rules changes and play with my kids when they are a little older to help them develop their reasoning and deductive skills). It isn't as bad as H2olland, but it is one or my lowest rated games at 3 out of 10.