Meurtre à l'Abbaye
Murder at the Abbey

Published by MultiSim
Designed by Bruno Faidutti & Serge Laget
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

£25 / $45
3 to 6 players
about 60 mins

I am a pretty poor player of detective games. I can handle Cluedo, but seldom play it these days, I don't think I have ever played 221b Baker Street, have never yet solved a case in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, and the only games I am any good at - Orient Express and The X Files - are really tame logic puzzles. Perhaps it is because I couldn't care less about most crime and whodunnits - fact or fiction. Or perhaps I am just not cut out to be a Pinkerton man. Which all goes to explain why I really enjoyed Murder at the Abbey. Where SHCD is flavoursome but intellectual hard work, MatA is great fun and will not trouble your brain too much. While Cluedo is familiar and a little dull, MatA is quirky and makes you want to play again. And whereas The X Files makes a poor show of camouflaging its core system and can sometimes drag, MatA is up front and all over before you have time to slip in any "It was the butler" jokes.

MatA is designed by Bruno Faidutti, of Knightmare Chess and Valley of the Mammoths fame, and Serge Laget, of whom I have not heard until now. What was immediately apparent from reading the rules is that this is not some old re-hash of Cluedo, but a novel handling of the whodunnit theme. I was advised by my co-players that is also resembles 3M's Clue, another system I have not played, but that there were sufficient differences and improvements to set MatA apart as its own game. This is good news, since there is some interesting stuff here and I'd like to think it will earn some recognition for that alone. One of its main benefits is the speed of play. Due to a clever series of mechanisms the game builds to a rapid conclusion and I strongly doubt you would be playing this for more than an hour. It is also good fun, with plenty of opportunity for 'interactive friction' (ie stealing cards from other players or stuffing their plans) and a slightly zany (can I still say that?) feel which is common to many French games.

Those of you who have read the excellent Umberto Eco novel, or seen the very good Sean Connery film, may quickly guess that MatA is based loosely on The Name of the Rose. Brother Adelme has been horribly murdered, chopped to pieces and thrown off the monastery walls (or vice versa), and it is your task to find out who killed him. We do not care to know with which implement, nor whether it was in the chapel or in the confessional. Only which of the 24 suspects did it. And what a bunch of suspects they are. In a religious version of Quattro, they are either Benedictine, Franciscan or Dominican; Reverend Fathers, brothers or novices; bearded or clean shaven; hooded or bare headed; fat or thin. So, Brother Halluin (a murderer on two occasions already, so I'd watch him closely) is a thin, hooded, beardless Dominican which, as you'll have worked out by now, makes him unique among our monkish chums.

At the start of the game you are dealt a hand of cards which immediately enables you to rule out half a dozen suspects - these are crossed off of your master suspect list, which has big pictures for the hard of understanding. As you might expect, one suspect card is set aside face down, who is indeed the murderer, and each player now has some information with which to start their investigations. But they need more. So, in turn, each investigator moves around the map of the monastery. Most rooms have something to offer, except for the cloisters which instead join the four monastery wings and mark the passage of time - an important feature since as a monk, you cannot indulge your Poirot tendencies all day. There are prayers to be said and masses to be attended. So after five turns, wherever you are, your dobber is whisked back to the chapel and you must start out afresh.

Without wishing to troop out a list, it will help if I give you a guide to what happens where. In the crypt you can collect a crucifix which allows you to take a useful double turn later in the game. The Parloir is where you can go to find people with a firm alibi, the Scriptorium and library allow you to pick up event cards (which we left out of our second and subsequent games as they are a bit heavy on luck, but do speed the game up) and the Salle du Chapitre is where you go to make accusations - more on this later. There are six cells, one for each investigator, and by going to a rival's cell you can rummage his belongings and glean more information - but woe betide you if you are caught in the act. Finally, there are two confessionals which each allow you take a suspect card from the last visitor, with the trade off being that you will be next to suffer....

The bulk of the game is spent wandering the monastery asking questions. If you are alone in a room that is no use (no-one to ask), if there are three of you that is also a non-starter (too embarrassing) but two is perfect. You ask a question, and he asks you one. Being of a holy order, you may not lie, and the questions can be specific or quite wide ranging. "How many Franciscans are you holding?", "Have you eliminated Barthélémy from your enquiries", "Do you believe the murderer has a hood?", "Can you recall how many bearded Benedictines you have seen?", "When does the next train leave for Chartres?". Not only does the answer give you information, but everyone else is listening and combined with the their information, they might be able to make a sweeping conclusion, or perhaps rule just one suspect out of their enquiries. Indeed, as the game progresses, you may find that an innocent piece of information, or even a throwaway line, will give someone else The Answer.

As the game proceeds, your information builds up steadily, enabling you to form a view of whomighthavedunnit. However, if you are having a hard time, the game comes to your aid. At the end of each round (ie five moves for each player), the player to your right passes you two, then three, then four cards (and so on) so that there is a steady flow of suspect information beyond that discovered by questioning and listening. At this point, one of the more quirky rules often comes into play. Approached and questioned by a brother late in the game, or earlier if you choose, you may declare a vow of silence. This means you do not answer his question, but neither can you ask him one. In the spirit of a faster game, we usually waive this rule completely, but it is fun, and can help no end when you have key information that you'd rather keep to yourself.

The best part of the game is the victory conditions. While most whodunnit games rely on you simply accusing someone and getting it right, in MatA there is an added dimension which, I think you will agree, is rather clever. Throughout the game, having gleaned enough information, you can make 'revelations'. This might be something like, "The murderer is not a novice" or "The murderer is a bearded Franciscan". If this revelation turns out to be correct, you collect two victory points at the end of the game. Even more clever, if it turns out to be wrong, you score minus one. However, unlike questioning, it is not required that you make accurate revelations - so there is scope for bluff and blatant misleading of your fellow investigators (for a small price). Against this, the identifier of the correct murderer scores four points, so while this is a good total, if you have done nothing else, you may still lose to someone who has made three accurate revelations. All this leads to a neat little end game, where if you know whodiddit you have to trade off making revelations to increase your points, with the possibility that, with open knowledge, another player will rush in and claim the four for the final accusation. You can even try to name the murderer and get it wrong, retiring to your cell to do penance. Since all this takes place in one room, presumably at a pulpit or similar, one can imagine some unseemly pushing as Brother Nutter 'removes' Novice Cecil from his soapbox, and the other brothers are charging around trying to get that last snippet of information.

In keeping with most French games, Murder at The Abbey is not inexpensive. It is however nicely produced and the overall package is a good one, if not exactly stunning. At £25 one would almost certainly hesitate to buy without playing, but I hope the above description will go some way towards aiding your decision. It would be a shame if the price did put you off since this is a good little game. Certainly the match of most titles that have come out of Germany in recent months, it was a pleasant surprise and an indication that there are still good design ideas out there, even if heavily based on an established theme. It works (well, no one has broken it yet in four games), it's quick, it's fun, and it is reasonably light. If you are a person who can do the Times crossword before you wake up, or solve a Morse within ten minutes, then this will probably provide little in the way of entertainment, but for me, a detective to rank with Clouseau, it is a winner. Recommended.

The Game Cabinet - - Mike Siggins