Darkness lurks and insanity creeps in this great storytelling game.
Arkham Horror may have taken the Lovecraftian ideal into the whole "nun with whiskey on a motorcycle vanquishes Cthulhu with a shotgun" thing, but Mythos Tales brings the Lovecraft genre back to the more austere, measured investigative gameplay that made Call of Cthulhu such an innovative and unique game. Recently reprinted with numerous corrections and applied errata by Grey Fox Games, Mythos Tales opens with a foreword by gaming folk hero and Arkham Horror designer Richard Launius. In it, he describes first encountering the worlds of HP Lovecraft through the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. That classic Sandy Petersen design was, I suspect, the primary infection vector for those of us who grew up gaming in the 1980s. A great Call of Cthulhu campaign was often more of a detective story than a pulp orgy of magic weapons and flailing tentacles.
Throughout the course of eight entertaining and dutifully reverent Mythos stories, there is barely a shot fired and the horrors of the Mythos are relegated back to the fringes of reality. When the supernatural appears, there's an impact greater than leaky gates spilling monsters galore into the streets can manage. It's no monster bash. Indeed, Mythos Tales succeeds greatly as a narrative, storytelling game because it centers its action around the exploration of Arkham, its citizens, and the dark rumors of malign forces just beyond our understanding. It's a game about discovery and detection, gradual revelations and unsolved mysteries lingering even as the story concludes. Many resolutions quite thematically capture that "It's Chinatown, Jake" feeling of resignation that the good guys don't always solve the crime.
Players who have experience with the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective games or vintage paragraph game titles such as Gumshoe will feel immediately at home with Mythos Tales, right down to the estimable Dr. Henry Armitage filling Holmes' brogues. The format is almost exactly the same, with players tasked with reading through numbered paragraphs and following up on leads revealed in them to determine where to pursue more information. At the end of a proscribed time period, with each new explored location ticking one toward the terminal point, players are presented with a quiz that asks questions about various aspects of the investigation. Points are awarded if the players can answer correctly by compare notes and observations or sometimes making educated inferences or wild guesses. Points are deducted for various story-based elements such as witnessing sanity-draining entities or monsters, and the score determines a win or loss. And then you get a little epilogue, which includes how infuriatingly easy it was for Armitage to solve the case. In other words, the optimal solution that required the least time.
You will not beat Armitage, even if you are playing with a full complement of eight players who are all forensic scientists, occultists, private investigators, profilers, and generally smart people. The "best" solutions are not really possible without making unlikely leaps of logic or shot-in-the-dark guesses. After you've played a couple of cases, you may start to look for where you can make those kinds of jumps, and sometimes they do pay off. But many times you wind up advancing the time marker with no more information than you had before you thought that maybe some clue or detail was leading you to the Witch House or the ice cream shop.
But you don't play Mythos Tales to win- if you do, great! Everybody high-five. If you don't, everybody groans a little, laughs, and shrugs it off. Armitage will sometimes grant you a minor advantage on the next case if you lose, but it's really kind of irrelevant. Because this game is about the story, the way the story reveals itself, and the effort to pull together information to uncover hidden elements. And this means that the writing needs to be good to ensure that the stories and their mysteries are compelling and interesting.
The good news is that designer Hal Eccles and his team of writers acquit themselves well; all eight of the stories are excellent, but fairly predictable if you are familiar with the ritualistic template of most Mythos fiction. That said, there were a couple of neat surprises and plenty of references to other Mythos stories. I especially liked a gruesome revelation in the first story, some Dreamlands shenanigans in another, and a cool suggestion of a change in scope well beyond Arkham at the climax of the last one. But above all, I really loved the story "The Vanished Girl" because it was essentially an extended homage to Nicholas Roeg's classic film Don't Look Now. Of course, with a Lovecraftian twist. Indeed, being familiar with Lovecraft is going to greatly increase enjoyment and engagement with Mythos Tales but even un-indoctrinated players who get roped into an investigation on game night will appreciate the quality horror on display.
It's an excellent game for a mixed group because it's extremely rules-light and it encourages plenty of socialization and discussion. It also has a tactile appeal, with maps, newspapers, and a little directory for players to paw over and analyze for clues- this is a lot more interesting to a lot of folks than clever mechanics are-I found myself wishing there were more fun props. But if you can't get a group together for it, Mythos Tales also plays great as a solitaire design, with one player relying on their own wits and instinct to come up with the solutions without the help of others. A case will take you about an hour to an hour and a half either way. I know you are asking about replayability, the answer there is "some". You won't see or do everything in a story in one pass - it's up to you if it's worth playing through it again knowing the outcomes and basic pathways. I was satisfied with one play of each story. But you can pull this game out again in a couple of years and it is going to feel just as fresh and engaging then because it isn't going to age like the flavor-of-the-week worker placement offering will.
Mythos Tales is a great example of the kind of lo-fi gaming that I believe (and hope) is making a comeback in the face of $500 Kickstarter campaigns and overwrought, repetitive designs focused more on "wow" factor than timeless gameplay. You don't have to buy into a product line to get it all, you don't need to put the wings in the table to set it up, and you don't need bring anything into it other than a pencil, a piece of paper, and your wits. Like a great Call of Cthulhu campaign, the action, storytelling and gameplay goes on in your mind and in conversation with other players- not in the flavor text or haphazardly applied mechanical concepts straining to describe a narrative.
As a final note, I played the 2nd edition offered by Grey Fox Games and it is worth noting that there are still numerous typos, misspellings, and other textual errors. However, I did not encounter anything game-breaking, confusing, or otherwise detrimental to gameplay so I would regard the lingering mistakes as an unfortunate but ineffectual grievance. Those concerned about the earlier 8th Summit edition's poor quality control should feel assured that this printing is completely playable.