Last Saturday I and 7 others sat down and tried to make our way through the 1992 classic How to Host a Mystery: Star Trek the Next Generation. I had never played any of the “Host a Murder” line of games or their “Mystery” counterparts. The most challenging part of the game was ensuring we had exactly 8 people, something that was not confirmed until 4 pm that day. The second challenge was acquiring a tape player for the included cassette (follow the link for an explanation of what I’m talking about kids).
The games are incredibly simple. You have a booklet for your character. The host reads a page to set the scene and everyone then reads their first-round page for their character. There are four rounds and each round has a single page that provides what your character knows about the situation and what information you must reveal to others and what you know but want to keep secret. This provides you with parts of the story to piece the mystery together yourself as well as motivation for your character's behaviour. You cannot lie, so if asked directly you must reveal your hidden information, but obfuscation and clever deflection is the name of the game… well, it's other name anyway. The game simply sets the scene and it is up to the actors to make the dialogue happen and to bring the characters to life. That’s it. No indication of who starts talking first, no rules for listening to each other, no time restrictions or penalties. It's pure performance. The round ends when each player has provided all their information they are required to reveal to the group. Yet often our scenes ended after we were done play acting, which was long after we had revealed all our information.
There is an argument that could be made that this doesn’t even constitute being called a game as the rules are too minimal and there is no clear winner or path to victory. Yet minimal rules are still parameters for action and with a shared goal and potential winners I think the game part is covered. However, the fun is not in the winning or competition. The How to Host a Murder/Mystery series is possibly one of the simplest role playing ideas that use minimal writing well to generate a complete story. For me, the genius is how much control the authors hand over to the players. The excuses, the narrative is in the hands of the actors. We could have just read out the dot points of provided text, but instead we argued, we acted, we dramatised, in short, we invested.
I had real fun balancing revealing my information, hiding my secrets and trying to work out the mystery. The best part for me was how well the story was themed to Star Trek. It did not feel like a generic story using Star Trek Characters, it really felt like a Star Trek TNG episode. I loved each of the characters and their role in a complex and engaging story.
I cannot express how brilliant this is. It’s a game that is akin to role-playing without the dice and completely trusts the players to make the game successful. Trusts the players! That’s not a small thing. I have talked about this concept before. many games generate rules to ensure people don’t break the game, this game just says “You break it? Too bad, you’ve already bought it”. The onus is on you to make it happen. Of course you might get a bad player, but for the most part, the people who are playing WANT to have fun and WANT to make it a worthwhile experience. This was not without challenge. As there is no clear indication on how to start conversations the first two rounds were a little jarring as people looked at each other wondering who would start. But as soon as someone got going we were in full swing. By the third round, we were practically talking over each other.
I recently opened the box to Vast and was taken by the number of rules. More and more we are becoming dependant on others to do the worked of reading these rulebooks for us, such as the excellent videos by Rodney on Watch it Played. But I think it is no surprise that many Spiel winners and popular games of late such as Kingdomino, Magic Maze, Azul, and many others, are opting for simple concise rules that take no time to play. I wonder if it serves as a challenge to new designers to push back against the growing trend to control the players in the interest of making complex games. It makes me wonder if less control can still provide rich gaming experiences. My experience of How to Host a Mystery says it is is not only possible, but possibly more fun.
This is a feature of design I often see Mike Selinker toying with in his own design. Selinker regularly provides players the power to make or break his games. It’s the breaking part that gets criticised. Betrayal at House on the hill might result in an overpowered villain due to an early haunt, but when players are fully sold on the theme and invest in the story this hardly matters. Perhaps the call is to us as players to let go of our slavish adherence to rules and mechanics. The challenge might be for us to value house rules and turn our focus to the gaming experience rather than rule accuracy.
How to Host a Mystery: Star Trek The Next Generation is a wonderful game that would barely see play anymore. Yet it makes me wonder if our strict concept of modern games has led us away from the simplicity of enjoying the gaming experience. .