Exploring Transactional Nature of Language and Knowledge with Mysterium


Whenever I tell people about Mysterium I say ‘its Cluedo but you can talk to the ghost of the deceased.’ Which gets them interested but isn’t actually a particularly good metaphor for what really happens when you play the game. However, the use of clumsy metaphors is a good metaphor for playing Mysterium. If that makes sense…

Mysterium, designed by Oleksandr Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko with incredible artwork by Igor Burlakov and Xavier Collette, is a 2-7 player cooperative deduction game. One player, as the ghost, has to communicate via abstract ‘dream’ cards in order to lead the other players (the mediums) to a particular set of cards. This is their only method of communication with the mediums, who are there to solve the murder in just seven turns as they try to identify the killer, the site of the death and the murder weapon. To assist the process it is good for the mediums to project their thoughts back to the ghost (and each other), usually by thinking out loud about the associations they make between the dream card they have been given and the options laid out in front of them.

As Quinns at SU&SD points out in his excellent review, one of the best things about the game is the way in which successive rounds play differently because of the design of the cards:

Each set of problems feels radically different to solve, giving the game three semi-distinct acts. The murder weapons are individual items, which require seriously abstract thought patterns to connect to the dream cards. The rooms are always hugely cluttered, which leads to the opposite problem; a single dream could refer to multiple rooms. Then the suspects you’re trying to choose from (all depicted with the paraphernalia of their life) give the game an almost Dixit-like feel. Does a rat in the clothing of a human better represent the writer, or the soldier? The woman, or the man? City life or the countryside?

Our game of Mysterium took place at one of Tabletop Manchester’s Monday night meetings at The Wharf. As the only person who had played the game before, I took on the role of the ghost –breaking character on occasion to explain things – while Sam, Laura and Paul were the mystics, hired by the police to help track down my killer.

As the ghost, I found the final round most frustrating simply because the objects I was trying to describe were so concrete compared to the abstract nature of the cards. Trying to get Paul to pick the chest, I scrabbled for every card that had square objects on it (pictured below). My own (partially accidental) reputation for making puns held me back, so Paul kept reading far too much into my choices, leading him to everything other than the chest for three turns. Eventually, I had an opportunity to stick to my own pattern of square objects and meet Paul’s pun expectations with a card depicting a chess set (chess/chest ‘chessT’ is close enough, right?). Paul eventually picked the chest, but it was infuriating getting there.

fullsizeoutput_761From a practical educational standpoint I’m reminded of Black and William’s work around the roots of Assessment for Learning (AfL); you have no real idea what’s really going on in the ‘black box’ heads of the other players so the best approach seems to be to test what they ‘know’ before you give them any more clues. However, in the same way that AfL, like most educational trends, has become twisted into an agenda that’s too often followed blindly, it’s easy to become overly reliant on this particular strategy. What you don’t get from just following whatever the medium thought-out-loud last time is a consistency of approach across players, so you’ll find that your successive clues don’t work together, or that you have to start from scratch having accidentally set an unintended pattern, or that other players keep putting the wrong spin on a conversation that’s meant to be happening between you and just one player. To use another clumsy metaphor, Mysterium’s mediums are basically any class of students.

Coming as I do from a Deweyan pragmatist perspective, the game is a great way to explain the transactional nature of language and knowledge (Dewey, 1929). The game makes physical the idea that knowledge acquisition is an active, social process, as well as illustrating the move from ‘indeterminate’ to ‘unified’ situations in which intended meanings line up with taken ones and ghosts’ and mediums’ actions are mutually coordinated. All of the players, even the ghost who is meant to have all the answers, are feeling around in the dark, and are not sure that their interactions with each other will have the intended consequences. Only through experiments in adjusting their own expectations, and by treating everything that happens as a potential symbol (or a clumsy metaphor), can they get towards the answers.

The one thing I’m not entirely convinced by is the endgame; after all the complicated guessing it falls a bit flat to be so convergent in your thinking. I’m sure there’s a ‘house rule’ out there somewhere which makes the final round as weird and compelling as the rest of the game. Something for further research!

John Lean


Black, P. J. and Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the black box : raising standards through classroom assessment. King's College, London, School of Education.

Dewey, J. (1929) Experience and nature, 2nd ed. New York: Dover.