21 April 2022
A word game that gets lost in the woods
Come, dear apprentice – venture through the Eternal Forest on a quest to prove your worth as a sorcerer! But the way is no simple matter – oh no. You must travel via a series of arcane portals which will only work when the correct magic words are spoken. Can you use your mystic intuition to divine these words and prove yourself a great magician?
Theme is a thorny old subject in games. Even ostensibly abstract games like Draughts have a theme of sorts, if you squint – it’s a war – but nowadays most popular commercial releases have clear, resonant subject matter, reflected in the art and the game mechanics. You’re scheming Venetian nobles, up and coming Dutch traders, pirates, dwarven farmers, apocalyptic cultists bent on world domination.
Mystic Paths attempts to follow this trend by adopting a High Fantasy setting. You are apprentice wizards, testing your divinatory skills by navigating an ancient forest filled with mystic portals – or so the instruction manual informs you. You control little mage miniatures with flowing robes, and the board is laid out in druidic greens and browns, edged with twisty Celtic borders and glowing mandalas.
All of which sets up – not unreasonable – expectations that this will be a game of spellcasting and magic, of adventure and mystery. Which it’s not, as it turns out. What Mystic Paths is, is a – competent but unremarkable – party game about guessing words via clues. The obvious comparison is smash hit Codenames, which similarly slaps a theme – in that case, espionage – over a relatively abstract guessing game.
In Mystic Paths, players navigate a grid of interconnected stepping stones with words on. You’re given a map card which shows you a secret ten-step route through the grid your mage has to follow. Then, using a hand of clue cards, you have to try to give the other players hints as to which of the adjacent spaces contains your next portal. Clue cards have adjectives like ‘Edible’, ‘Short’ or ‘Tricky’. As in games like Mysterium, you don’t get to choose which you have in hand, so you’re trying to make the best out of what you have. Everyone guesses on everyone else’s clues, and depending on how fast or slow you all make it through your ten portals, you’ll get a team grade from A to F.
It’s jarring that so much effort was put into creating this Fantasy theme, with wizards, dark woods and round marker images similar to the five mana symbols in Magic: The Gathering, only for the word clues to be completely unrelated. It’s hard to feel immersed in a mystic quest when the secret words you must utter to open a portal are self-consciously goofy clues like ‘Hot Pockets’, ‘Wigs’ and ‘Paul Simon’. The magical theming feels like an afterthought – something not only unrelated to the mechanics and objectives of the game, but that actively works against them.
In Codenames, the word clues come from the same reality as spies. But it’s weird to be told you’re wizards navigating ‘the Eternal Forest’ only to be confronted with clues like ‘the Eiffel Tower’ and ‘the Proclaimers’.
The problems run deeper than mere theme quibbles. For a start, putting your piece on a space obscures the word, meaning with multiple players it’s often hard for everyone to see either the clues or exactly where each piece is. The endgame is usually anticlimactic – some players typically finish before others, leaving the rest to limp home, until the game ends after round 5. There’s no win/lose condition – instead the question is, will we get an A- or a B? Which isn’t a very compelling tension upon which to base a game.
Mystic Paths is by no means bad – it plays quickly, set up and tear down are reasonably fast, and the mechanic of guessing via cumulative clues can be very funny. But it’s massively outclassed by other titles in its genre, which do similar things but better. To paraphrase Johnson, this game is both good and original – but the good parts are not original, and the original parts are not good.
Codenames, a superb party game which plays quickly, suits many different player counts and is tense, fun and thematic while basically being a straightforward guessing game with a theme slapped on top. If you want an alternative, Knitwit remains a very visually-appealing game of thread and clues.
Designer: Kevin Worden & Brian Leet
Publisher: R&R Games
Time: 20-45 minutes
What’s in the box?
- Eternal forest board
- 6 Apprentices and bases
- 30 Progress tokens
- 6 Wizard cups
- 60 Portals
- 42 ‘Not’ tokens
- 108 Clue cards
- 30 Map cards
- 5 Round cards
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