|From:U.S. Games Cost: $9-$10 Players: 2-4 Playing Time: 60 minutes Type of game: Card Skill level: 5 Complexity: 5 Reviewed by: Nick Sauer, Issue 6.1 (21), Summer 1999|
Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper and Mystery Rummy: The Murders in the Rue Morgue are the first two games in a series of rummy variant mystery "cases" by Mike Fitzgerald and published by US Games.
The artwork in Jack the Ripper is a modern take on late 1880s style black and white line drawings. Rue Morgue features full color artwork on the cards. In both cases, the art appears on a black card background and is highlighted by a silver or gold frame. The color art in Rue Morgue really leaps off the cards in comparison to the faux period Jack the Ripper art, but both sets are attractive, well-designed, and functional.
The rules for each of the cards appear in a text box under the art so there is no need to access the rulebook during play. They also include flavor text that educates the players about the specifics of the two cases. The cards have easily identifiable icons in the upper left to identify card type and have a color bar on the left side showing the name of the card. This makes the cards easy to read in your hand. The colors are also well-chosen to make the cards easy to distinguish from one another. Some of the first edition Jack the Ripper colors were a little too close for people with some degree of colorblindness but this was fixed in the second printing. As one of the people who had problems with some of the original color choices I can safely say, after having seen the new edition myself, that they did a good job in fixing the colors. Rue Morgue does not have this problem at all.
Both games in the series share some common design features. There are two classes of cards in each game, Evidence cards and Gavel cards. Evidence cards are melded or laid off during the course of the game. Melding means playing a set of three matching cards from your hand and laying off means playing one or more cards in front of you that builds on a meld previously played by any player. Only sets of the same color can be melded (unlike standard rummy, there are no runs). Gavel cards are not melded, but are played individually (no more than one per turn). In general, the Gavel cards let you do things that you couldn't normally do in a standard rummy game such as searching the discard pile for a card or drawing additional cards into your hand. The Gavel cards are what really make these games work. I'm not a big fan of conventional rummy games but the Gavel card mechanic is what keeps me coming back to play the Mystery Rummy games again and again. Apart from these basic rules, the two games are completely different animals and each play like their own unique game.
In Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, players are detectives trying to determine the identity of the infamous Whitechapel killer. Each player starts his turn by drawing a card and ends by discarding one. In between, a player can lay down melds and/or play a Gavel card. Each round of the game ends with either an arrest of one of the six suspects or the escape of the Ripper. In Jack there are seven types of Evidence cards, one set for each of the six suspects and a set of Letters Evidence that Scotland Yard received (and largely ignored) from Jack the Ripper. There are also two wilds that can be used as any Evidence cards except Letters (the wilds are very well designed to remind players of this). The remaining cards are all Gavels and the single Ripper Escapes card.
The Gavel cards come in six types: Victims, Scenes, Suspects, Alibis, Ripper Strikes, and Commissioner Resigns. The first four types are left in front of you when played and will score points at the finish; the latter two are played to the discard pile. Playing a Victim lets you draw two cards from the top of the deck, a powerful advantage. Logically, no evidence can be melded until the first Victim appears. Scenes let you steal a card from the discard pile. If the card is a Gavel, it may be played immediately. This is the only way to play two Gavels on the same turn. There are six Suspect cards, one for each of the possible killers. Playing one makes it more likely for that character to be the Ripper. Alibis are kind of the reverse of Suspects- if one is in play at the end of the hand, the corresponding character can’t be the Ripper regardless of how much evidence there is against him or her. Only one Alibi can be played per hand, so at most one suspect will be exempt from suspicion.
One of the more clever card balancing design features in the game is the Ripper Escapes card. Neither a Gavel nor Evidence card, it can be played out of turn by any player as soon as the fifth and final Victim is played. If this happens the round ends with the Ripper eluding Scotland Yard, just like he did in reality. The person who played the Escapes card gets a hefty 35 points (victory comes at 100) and only Victims and Scenes score points- all other cards, including melded evidence, are worthless.
The downside to the Ripper Escapes card is that if you are caught with the card in your hand when someone else goes out, you lose two points per Victim card in play. Thus, it becomes more and more risky to hold onto as the round progresses. Trying to force an escapes round is a risky proposition but it can be quite an exciting challenge for an experienced player.
Why don't you just prevent the Ripper Escapes from being played by never playing the last Victim? Other cards can force the issue. The Commissioner Resigns card forces everyone to play all Victims from their hand immediately. And what if someone who is way behind in score has the Ripper Escapes card and wants to force an escape round? The Ripper Strikes card lets you flip the next five cards from the top of the deck one at a time and place them into the discard pile. If you draw a Victim, you stop flipping cards and play it immediately. If you’re trying to force an escape, an effective tactic is to use Scenes to recycle Ripper Strikes cards from the discard pile. Of course, another player can use a Scene to take that Ripper Strikes card into their hand instead, sitting on it to prevent you from getting it. The designer of the game has an annoying habit of doing just this.
Escapes rounds will be more common in games with inexperienced players until they figure out just how many Victim cards you can safely play. My rule of thumb is to never play the fourth Victim in a two-player game or the third in a three-player game (assuming, of course, that I‘m not the one holding the Ripper Escapes). With experienced play, a round will normally end with one of the six suspects being identified as Jack the Ripper. If a player empties his hand on his turn, the round ends. The Ripper is the suspect with the most evidence melded against them who doesn't also have an Alibi in play. The Ripper’s Evidence and Suspect cards score double for whoever played them, creating quite an incentive to be the one having the most evidence against the Ripper.
You may not want to tip your hand too soon, however. Once per hand a vote may be called, initiated by any player at the start of his turn. All players secretly write down the name of the suspect they think will be the Ripper. At the end of the round everyone reveals their votes. Players who voted correctly score ten additional points for that round. If the Ripper escapes, of course, nobody gets the bonus. Typically, a great time to call a vote is when you’ve got a hand full of one suspect’s cards and enough time left to play them all. Chances are good you’ll be the only one voting for that suspect, which you hope will be the surprise Ripper.
Scores are recorded for each round and a running total kept throughout the game. A game consists of any number of rounds until one player's total score clears 100 points.
Murders in the Rue Morgue is a considerably simpler game than Jack. The game is based upon the famous Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name, generally acknowledged as the first mystery story ever written [warning: this review contains a spoiler for the story- Ed.]. Unlike Jack, the four player game is a partnership game with two pairs playing to one common "team" set of cards. Turns work just like in Jack with a player drawing at the start of their turn, playing melds and/or Gavels, and finally discarding at the end. Each round in this game will end with the orangutang either being captured or escaping.
The orang is the first of many major differences between the two games. When hands are dealt out, a number of cards will be placed under the orang (which is represented by a card)- some dealt there and others thrown from players’ hands ala cribbage. Perhaps the most interesting difference in the set-up is in the four-handed game where the partnered players exchange one card from each of their hands simultaneously before selecting a card from their hand to place in the orang. Some of the Gavel cards in the game can allow for further such exchanges during the round. This introduces an almost bridge-like set of conventions for communication between partners. You may want to discuss passing conventions with your partner before you sit down to play. Not only will it help your team to win, it will also prevent short tempered boors (like the reviewer) from jumping across the table mid-round in an attempt to strangle their partner after a particularly bad exchange.
In Rue Morgue there are ten sets of Evidence cards. Eight are evidence that Dupin (the sleuth in the story) used to solve the crime. Each set is paired with another. If one player or team has melds from both sets of a pair in their area they score ten additional points at the end of the round. The Evidence cards are designed to make it very easy to distinguish which evidence cards bonus with which. The remaining two sets of Evidence cards are Adolphe Le Bon (a red herring in the story) and Edgar Allen Poe- neither of which bonus with any other evidence.
Another interesting and powerful rule difference from Jack is that when a meld is played, the player of the meld looks at the top card of the deck. They then must place either this card or the top card from the discard pile face down under the orang. Knowing what your opponent is drawing can be important in determining what exactly they are collecting. At the same time, however, it is very important to keep in mind what you are loading the orang with. There will be times when you absolutely cannot afford to let your opponent have that next card. The balance of knowing what your opponent will draw versus letting him or her have it can be agonizing.
There are a much smaller number of Gavel cards in Rue Morgue. Dupin's Help cards are the main deck manipulation cards of the game, allowing a player to grab any card from the discard pile, or draw two cards from the deck (with 2-3 players) or draw one and exchange one with a partner (with 4 players). The draw function of these cards makes them especially important to hold onto for use in conjunction with the deck peek from a meld. If you see something you want, the Dupin's Help card can be your chance to get it. There is one Dupin Gavel card that allows you to look in the orang and remove one card. Four Brilliant Deduction cards, one for each pair of bonusing sets of Evidence cards, can be played to increase the bonus if the corresponding bonus melds are already in play.
The Brilliant Deduction Gavel cards bring up yet another of the rules that is different from Jack. If only one player/team gets a bonusing pair of melds in play with the matching Brilliant Deduction and goes out before the orang escapes (the deck runs out), they score their full points but their opponent(s) score zero. If multiple players/teams have bonus melds with matching Brilliant Deductions in play, the shutout is prevented.
The hand ends when one player goes out. If the deck hasn't been exhausted once, the player/team that goes out gets the cards under the orang and can play any into their area that are valid melds, layoffs or Gavels. A Brilliant Deduction played to a bonused pair of melds at this point causes a shutout, so it is kind of important to be careful about what exactly you put in the orang when given the opportunity. In some cases you will put in good stuff (finishing off a meld of three, for example) because you are confident you will be going out first. Of course, if you are wrong you will be handing an awful lot of points to the your opponent(s).
If the deck is exhausted during the course of the round, the orang escapes. The cards from the orang and the discard pile are shuffled to form a new deck and shutouts are no longer possible. As in Jack, the game is played in successive rounds until one player or team reaches 100 points.
So, how do the two games compare to one another? I feel that Jack is definitely the stronger of the two. It is a much deeper game than Rue Morgue and is definitely more of a gamer's game. The price tag for this is that it has a moderately steep learning curve as noted by things like knowing when to not play anymore Victims, mentioned earlier. Getting past this shouldn't take very long, even with less experienced gamers. Once you get past this learning curve, I feel that Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper is one of the strongest American game releases in quite some time. My personal view is that it was the best game of 1998 (including German titles). I feel that Jack plays best with two players. This is not all that surprising given that Mike Fitzgerald designed it as a two-player game first. Jack handles three players reasonably well also, although players should be warned that Ripper Escapes rounds will be more common in three-player games. I don't feel the game works with four.
Rue Morgue is more of an introductory game that will probably be much easier for the non-gamer to grasp. I don't find it quite as deep as Jack. The four-player partnership game is definitely the best version of Rue Morgue. I wasn't very fond of two-player Rue Morgue until fairly recently. There is actually a little more than I had thought going on in the game in that you have to watch and manage the orang and your hand very carefully. You are definitely more dependent upon the luck of the draw with two-player Rue Morgue in comparison to two-player Jack. I would strongly advise ignoring three players with this game.
I find that a large amount of the play skill in these games is in two main areas. First is good defensive discarding. In Jack this is much easier due to the higher concentration of Gavel cards. Discarding a Gavel is a fairly safe play in Jack in that players probably already have a number in their hand and drawing a new one will add to the number of turns it will take them to go out. As a result, a Gavel discard is usually a safe thing to do (depending upon which type of Gavel card, of course). Given the lack of Gavels in Rue Morgue, you are going to eventually have to discard evidence. As a result, I feel that skill of card counting or tracking is much more important in Rue Morgue. This is important in Jack as well but failure to pay attention can be a death sentence in Rue Morgue. As an example, in one tournament of Rue Morgue I was in where we were playing partnership games, I was fortunate enough to be paired with someone who was also a Bridge player. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to memorize the discard pile as well as I was and, in what was to be the last round of the semi-finals, used a Dupin's Help to dig for a card that wasn't in the discard pile. It was in my hand and if he had exchanged instead, he would have gone out and we probably would have advanced to the finals.
To sum up, I feel that Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper is an outstanding two-player game that handles three players reasonably well. If you want to play a four player Mystery Rummy game, then Rue Morgue is definitely the way to go. Two-player Rue Morgue is nice for an occasional change of pace from Jack but is much more draw dependent than Jack. Both are fresh variations on the rummy theme and worth looking into, even if you’re not a fan of the standard game. And there’s more where these came from. Tentatively scheduled for release next year is Mystery Rummy: Jekyll & Hyde, and the designer has already got a few more variations in the can should the early ones prove successful.
Nick Sauer has playtested all the games in the Mystery Rummy series.