Tabletop Tuesday – Paranormal Detectives
We’re halfway to Turkey Day, but I’m not giving up on my Halloween themes yet!
So far, I’ve written about games based on recent films, old movie franchises, and even novels. All of these were classic board games, whether cooperative or competitive, with figures, dice, cards, etc.
For my final horror-themed game, let’s take a step into the realm of deductive party games, those interactive experiences where you have some fun. From Codenames to Secret Hitler, there’s nothing like the joy (and arguments) that abound when you’re trying to figure things out with friends.
That love of social gaming and mystery is why I picked up Paranormal Detectives, Lucky Duck Games’ take on the ghostly “whodunit” theme.
If that description sounds a lot like Mysterium, you wouldn’t be wrong. The premise is almost entirely the same: a group of investigators attempts to determine the truth behind a death, aided by the ghost of the deceased.
Paranormal Detectives even presents the same asymmetrical play and limited interaction. One person plays the ghost, who can only communicate through specific ways that are open to interpretation by those playing the investigators.
The big difference is in the style, with this newer game more satirical and full of tropes than the somber, surreal atmosphere of its elder.
Mysterium pits a group of “professional” psychics and diviners against the clock, aided only by the ghost’s surreal visions. Paranormal Detectives portrays a group of walking cliches, as they use a mix of Ouija boards, ghost meters, tarot cards, etc., in their attempt to figure out the mystery.
Essentially, Paranormal Detectives is for people who liked the concept of Mysterium but hated Dixit (and art interpretation).
Paranormal Detectives is a competitive game (unlike Mysterium’s co-op), where most of the players take on the roles of an investigator. The Detectives must solve the mystery of somebody’s death, using only their various techniques to figure out the full story.
The Ghost chooses one of 28 Story cards, which will explain who they are and everything that happened. The deceased isn’t necessarily murdered, but there’ll be a series of five Keys: who’s responsible, why they did it, how it happened, where it happened, and the weapon or tools involved.
Each investigator is slightly unique, with their own set of Interaction cards that they use, from automatic writing to staring into mirrors. With seven Detectives and nine techniques, different characters will often share the same cards.
As the players are competing, they all receive shields with which to hide their Investigation Sheet so that they can write down their answers in privacy. The Ghost, as well, keeps their information private, from their chosen scenario to the sheet on which they track the Detectives’ progress.
Play continues around the board, with each Detective playing a specific Interaction card and asking a question that isn’t yes-no. (e.g., who, why, where, etc.). The Ghost must answer per the Interaction card’s technique, whether it’s pantomiming, mouthing a single word, or arranging pieces of rope in a shape or symbol.
After the Ghost does their best to communicate their answer, the player permanently discards that Interaction, and everyone writes down their interpretation for that Key. They may then pass to the next player or try to Guess the Story.
If a Detective guesses the five Keys correctly, they win. If they guess wrong, however, the Ghost secretly writes (for themselves and the Detective) how many correct guesses they had. The Ghost may then choose to use one of their own Interaction cards, in the hopes of giving that player an additional clue, before moving to the next person.
Unfortunately, each player only has two chances to Guess the Story, before they’re out of the investigation. If they don’t succeed the second time, they must sit out and watch the other Detectives learn more and make their own attempts.
Although this is a competitive game, players can still observe the results of each other’s questions. Detectives may figure out the full story by building on each other’s successes (or failures) until it’s time for them to try and guess.
Once every player has had two guesses without success, or all Detectives have used up their Interaction cards, the game ends. Whoever guessed the most Keys correctly first (as tracked by the Ghost) is declared the winner.
The Ghost only wins if they successfully lead a Detective to correctly guessing all the Keys to their story, a victory they share with that player.
Although Paranormal Detectives and Mysterium share a lot in common, some notable differences make them equally valuable.
For one, Mysterium has simpler things to figure out (a person, place, and object) but requires a single, complicated communication method (interpreting surreal art). Paranormal Detectives has five Keywords to solve (who, where, why, how, and weapon) but also provides much more variety (and agency) in how the Ghost communicates.
Mysterium also likes to take itself seriously, with stoic professionals (who are all uniform except for color and appearance), limited turns and a timer, and an all-or-nothing group goal. Paranormal Detectives is more carefree in their characters (who have some uniqueness in-game), is only limited by Guesses or Interpretation cards, and someone wins even if they only get one or two things correct.
Finally, Paranormal Detectives takes things a step forward in that it’s not just competitive – it also has a cooperative variant. Like Mysterium, the players work together, but they only receive two guesses as a group.
During cooperative play, everybody (including the ghost) only wins if they guess all five Keys by their second attempt. Their score is dependent on how many Interaction cards they used, with less meaning a better win.
I think my biggest critique with Paranormal Detectives was the downtime, followed by the cast of characters.
If you’re eliminated early (two bad guesses), you spend a lot of time just sitting there and watching others have fun. Similarly, even if it’s not your turn, the best you can do is pay attention, which leads to a lot of just watching and listening rather than playing.
On another note, of the five possible Detectives, one is an obvious (and humorous) parody of John Constantine while two more represent the different eras of paranormal investigation. One character, however, is a walking ethnic trope (a Romani fortune-teller), while the other makes no sense whatsoever (Whoopi Goldberg from Sister Act?).
I want to praise the designers, however, for their consideration in the rules regarding boundaries and age-appropriate materials.
One section warns about the adult themes of some Story cards, and they are explicitly marked as “Parental Advisory,” allowing players to cater their game toward younger crowds. Similarly, two Interaction cards require physical contact between players, and the designers provide advice on using replacement cards for groups where people aren’t comfortable with that.
In an age when consent and content are being prioritized, these notes and adaptability were quite welcome.
For those who disliked Mysterium’s cards and focus on art interpretation, Paranormal Detectives might be more enjoyable. The different methods of communication and a lighter tone might be more preferable.
Even if you like the older game, this new one has enough differences that make it worth the purchase. More in-depth stories about the ghost and competitive play make this game stand apart from its predecessor.
Also, Lucky Duck has an app available where you can find more stories, adding to replayability. If popular enough, perhaps future expansions might have new Interaction cards and Detectives!
Overall, I think this is an excellent ghostly mystery game, perfect for groups where Mysterium is either overdone or merely unpopular.
Paranormal Detectives is on shelves now. 2-6 players, 45 minutes, Ages 12+.
I give Paranormal Detectives a haunting 4 hangman’s knots out of 5.
(We’d like to thank Gamers-Corps in Ellicott City for providing us the space to playtest and demo this game!)
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