Murder mystery party games have brought roleplaying to the masses. How to Host a Murder, Murder in a Box, Host a Murder Mystery, A Party to Murder, An Evening of Murder, Dinner and a Murder, and two dozen other series give your mundane friends, and even your aged Aunt Ethel, a respectable excuse to dress in costume and play let’s-pretend.

For hardcore tabletop roleplayers who spend 45 minutes reciting their drow elf’s career in Menzobarranzan whether or not you asked, these party games, in themselves, offer little interest. Their design techniques are, to put it politely, well understood. Murder games exist entirely outside the gamer subculture, like roleplaying games from some mirror universe that never invented a 20-sided die. Just as Agatha Christie mysteries don’t focus on character development, these games don’t aim for a roleplaying challenge. You might call them “outsider” games, but to Aunt Ethel, murder games are mainstream, and we’re the outsiders.

But surprise! These party games can, after all, offer unexpected design lessons. They may even hint at an unfilled market.

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For many players, their favorite murder party game was their first. Raymond Chandler wrote a line that could easily apply: “Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine.”

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In case Ethel isn’t around to tell you, it works like this: The party organizer sends her an invitation announcing it’s 1928 and old, unlovable Uncle Frederick has been slaughtered. She and the other guests – suspects, investigators or both – must meet at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (that is, the host’s home) to uncover the murderer. Her particular invitation assigns the role of carefree flapper Sally Danforth and offers costume suggestions and rudimentary roleplaying tips. At the party, the host gives her either a read-aloud script or a handout with clues and secrets, reads a script or plays a CD with background info, and sets her mixing with other guests before and during dinner. Maybe Sally Danforth finds out she’s the murderer; maybe she doesn’t even know. The game seldom requires “investigation” as in real murder mysteries; it’s a pretext to let guests mingle in a safe, structured way. The game may present a sequence of scandalous revelations, with new handouts for each dinner course. At evening’s end, the host polls everyone for final accusations and guesses, and then either plays a CD, reads a script or otherwise reveals the murderer.

Obviously, the mysteries vary in quality. Some dangle too many red herrings or contrive inane solutions. But as with tabletop roleplaying campaigns, the event’s success or failure seldom depends on the game proper. Novelty is a big factor, and even more important is chemistry among the guests. Murder games succeed less through writing than through event planning.

Each murder game publisher offers a dozen or more cases, differing only in character roles (movie stars, business tycoons, aristocrats, heiresses), periods (modern, Roaring ’20s, rock ‘n’ roll, Summer of Love, disco) and settings (estates, resorts, restaurants, luaus, yachts, cruise ships, golf courses). The series vary by target audience (adults, teens, corporate functions) and degree of risque content. They all include party invitations, name tags, seating cards and sometimes even thematically pertinent cookbooks. If you provide a list of guests, some publishers will customize your game.

You can buy How to Host a Murder or other series in gift stores for $20-30. For big events with big budgets, high-end companies run mysteries for up to 200 guests, using actors as guides. But most publishers, such as the long-running Mysteries by Vincent, are one-writer operations, a cottage industry selling low-end .PDF packages as web downloads or by mail order. Mary Lee, who runs Dinner and a Murder, is a work-at-home mom in Tennessee. It beats stuffing envelopes.

It seems few of these people belong to our gaming culture, though famed German boardgame designer Reiner Knizia tried a “movie-making party game,” Hollywood Lives. Another exception is Freeform Games, founded by Steve Hatherley, who used to write for Call of Cthulhu. And How to Host a Murder produced one backward connection. Decipher founded the line (and the entire category) in 1984, and its success prompted the company to try a licensed Star Trek How to Host a Mystery game. By most accounts, the game turned out lame, but it did open a connection to Paramount’s licensing department, which eventually led to Decipher’s Star Trek Customizable Card Game. Decipher later produced a popular Star Wars card game and Lord of the Rings card and roleplaying games.

But many of these designers started as mystery fans who never once played D&D or Warhammer. They’re gamers by convergent evolution, outwardly similar but with weird alien innards. Where did these Pod Gamers arise?

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The ancestral spawning ground of murder party designers, the antecedent they invoke repeatedly on their websites, is, yes, Clue.

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Invented during World War II by British law clerk Anthony Pratt and republished by Parker Brothers in 1949, Clue (or, in the U.K., Cluedo) has sold over 150 million copies. Many mystery games predate Clue; for instance, The Jury Box, from 1935, is one of several “dossier” games from that era, though these are technically deductive puzzles. But Clue is the most pervasive embodiment of the British Teacup style of mystery favored by murder party games, as opposed to Hard-Boiled Noir. Hasbro, owner of Parker Brothers, has aggressively prodded the Clue property in many directions, including rebrandings (The Simpsons, Dungeons & Dragons, Scooby Doo) and over a dozen spinoffs: VCR Mystery Game, DVD Game, Jr., Master Detective, Mysteries, Card Game, Great Museum Caper, Pirate Treasure Hunt and Little Detective Color Matching Mystery.

In our hobby, Clue is (after Risk and possibly Stratego) the best regarded – rather, the least badly regarded – of the Parker Brothers/Milton Bradley classics. But gamers favor a wider range of board, card and pick-a-path detective games: Scotland Yard, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective / Gumshoe, Mystery of the Abbey, Orient Express and many more. Boardgamegeek has tagged 400 games “murder mystery,” though this includes weakly themed “detective” games like Mystery Rummy and – hey! – four dozen murder party games.

None of these alternatives will ever replace Clue, obviously. Never mind its 150-million copy head start; aside from their complexity, these mystery games have design problems inherent in games of deduction: repetitive strategy, limited replayability and contrived interaction between players. They have another feature in common: Aunt Ethel won’t play them. Ever.

But she played Clue, and she’s watched 5,000 movies and TV shows. Ethel knows the murder-mystery arc: discovery, investigation, revelation. That’s why she attends murder parties – and theatrical whodunits like Shear Madness (the longest-running off-Broadway play in American history, where the audience gets to solve the crime eight times a week) – and mystery weekend vacations. And it’s why, sometimes, Aunt Ethel starts a web business selling murder games.

The lesson, then, these Pod Gamers can teach us: Even normal people can become gamers if they understand the script.

“Duh,” you say? Not so, your “duh”! Within this lesson lie unexploited market opportunities.

Opportunity No. 1: Find more scripts everyone knows

  • Soap operas: Everyone knows how they work, even people who have never watched The Guiding Light or Eastenders or, nowadays, a dozen Korean tearjerkers.
  • Reality shows: If you can host a murder mystery, why not Survivor or The Apprentice?
  • Fantasy: No, listen. Standard D&D/WoW/EQ/Diku MUD fantasylands are still foreign to Aunt Ethel, but she probably knows Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. The opportunity, as yet unexploited, is a script that uses exactly what she knows and no more. How to Host a Shire Birthday Party, anyone?

Opportunity No. 2: Event-driven games
Alternate reality games (ARGs) like ilovebees and Last Call Poker prove an online experience can send players into the physical world looking for payphones or cemeteries. Many games could use similar event planning.

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Party games don’t scale. They work for six to 10 guests, or up to 200 at corporate functions. But the individual event doesn’t have to scale, only the number of events. Imagine hundreds or thousands of scheduled, coordinated, time-limited events for a dozen players apiece, like high-level WoW raids, anchored in physical settings. No, players wouldn’t dress like Sally the flapper and eat a four-course dinner, but they could gather to accomplish an online task.

Suppose you could arrange a promotion with Starbucks: Have players coordinate to visit a nearby branch at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, order something and tell the barista their promotion code. Then poll the Starbucks data and coordinate their actions in the game based on their orders. Too crazy? Maybe. The point is to encourage players to arrange a shared, structured real-world experience so simple, so direct, even Aunt Ethel could do it.

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Party games will be with us always. Even if we eventually play online with Teamspeak-enabled VR headsets and full-body force-feedback haptics, we’ll still want the face time, the prana of human proximity. The insights offered by murder party games still hold their place, and can help us reach a broader audience. Possibly we want that, but maybe not. Still, like party guests, we should at least investigate the clues to see where they may lead.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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