#898 – Mystery at Magnolia Gardens [Spoiler-Free]

Base price: $32.
1+ players.
Play time: 60 – 90 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 1

So I unfortunately got hammered with allergies for a couple weeks and am only just now recovering. Stupid weather. Thankfully, I had a few games in my review buffer that I could schedule out, so I’m not entirely underwater, and I ended up cancelling a trip I was planning because travel was stressing me out, so I am back on that grind, so to speak. In the meantime, games! This is a game that, weirdly, one of my housemates bought, but they’re letting me borrow for photography reasons and such. Kind of them, and I figured might as well write it up since we played it. It’s a mystery game from the Hunt a Killer series, but now Nancy Drew-themed. So that’s fun.

In Mystery at Magnolia Gardens, there’s been a poisoning! Normally, Nancy Drew would be the go-to for sleuthing this one, but unfortunately, she was one of the people who got poisoned. While she recovers, she’s tasked you with solving this one in her stead. Each of the five suspects might have done the crime, but why, how, and when are going to be the most important questions that you can answer. Can you solve the case and prevent crime from blossoming at these gardens?

Contents

Setup

Not a ton, here! To avoid spoilers, I won’t be showing much of it. Essentially, there’s a box with a variety of items, ranging from a letter from Nancy Drew to maps and postcards to profiles of the various characters to seed packets and more! There’s a full inventory list inside the game, so check and make sure you have everything before you get started!

The one thing worth noting is that there’s a solution envelope that WILL reveal the answer, so don’t open that until you’re ready. Otherwise, you’re good to start! Begin by reading Nancy’s letter.

Gameplay

So, Mystery at Magnolia Gardens puts you in the role of a sleuth helping out the recently-poisoned Nancy Drew (don’t worry; she’s fine) as she tries to determine who poisoned her and Florence North. To do so, you’ve got a lot of data and documents to pour through and a few puzzles to solve if you want to crack the case.

Primarily, you’ve got five potential suspects, each with their own secrets that you’ll have to discover. But only one of these people had the motive, the means, and the opportunity to do that poisoning. Figuring out who will naturally eliminate the other suspects. You should, by the end of the game, be able to answer the following questions:

  • How was Florence poisoned?
  • Why was Florence poisoned?
  • When was Florence poisoned?

If you get stuck or need help, hints are available online, as well. Once you’ve figured it out and you / your group feels confident, open the Solution Envelope and see how you did!

Player Count Differences

Not a ton, here. Mystery at Magnolia Gardens seems designed to be fairly nonlinear; as you investigate folks and solve puzzles / read through documents, you uncover different pieces of information about them. Since it’s pretty nonlinear, it scales nicely with player count. By yourself, you just read through everything; with more players, they read through and summarize (and you can have other players double-check each other). I’m personally a bit opposed to trusting myself fully, so I tend not to play these games as solo experiences, but that’s just me. I’d worry a bit about the scale if you were playing with, say, more than four players, but up to that seems fine for most groups. Beyond that, I wouldn’t say I noticed anything in particular that made me lean towards or away from a particular player count; I appreciated that there are a lot of different things that can be solved simultaneously.

Strategy

  • Read everything! Hunt a Killer’s Whole Thing is that you need to make sure you’ve read through all the documents. There’s a lot of information there, and you’re trying to tease out a suspect from all of the details that are presented to you. That means that pretty much nothing is entirely irrelevant. Additionally, if you have other players, try reading something and then passing it on to the next person so that everyone’s had a chance to participate and make sure that you’ve caught up on anything you’ve missed.
  • Remember what you’re trying to solve for. There’s a lot of information, but at the core, you need to know motive, means, and opportunity for each person. If they don’t have it, they could not have done the poisoning. Simple as that. Everything else is just fleshing out the narrative. It’s worth considering, since things may take away from the motive / means / opportunity once you’ve had a chance to inspect them, but you don’t always need to go much farther than that.
  • Generally, I’d recommend just making a chart that matches each possible suspect with Motive / Means / Opportunity. It helps! Or, at least, if you can X one of the categories, you’ve got pretty good reason to eliminate them as a suspect. Plus, making charts can be fun, right? I might be alone in this.
  • It helps to double-check. If everyone agrees, might be time to open the Solution Envelope. If not everyone agrees, time to state your cases and find contradictions, if any exist. This may mean re-reviewing a few pieces of information that you’ve previously gone through; it’s usually worth it. I wouldn’t say that the solution here is particularly ambiguous, even if all the information that you need to prove it can be tricky. So, if you’re not sure, double-check.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • My housemate, noted Nancy Drew fan, really liked the theme of this one. She’s got most of the yellow books, so, I’m pretty sure she’s like, Local Nancy Drew Expert, and her enthusiasm for the game is a pretty big endorsement of it. I enjoyed it as well, despite knowing very little about the Nancy Drew universe, so Mystery at Magnolia Gardens does a nice job of being approachable for new players while still delighting experienced fans of Nancy Drew, I’d say. Not always the easiest needle to thread, for these kinds of things.
  • I’ve done the occasional Hunt a Killer title with my housemates, and I feel like this one had more of an emphasis on puzzles. I haven’t played enough to have a super-cohesive analysis on this, but I felt like there were more puzzles to solve / things to tease out, and that was entertaining for me. I’m much more of a puzzle guy than a mystery guy, I think.
  • I did enjoy some of the puzzles, as well. There’s a pretty fun puzzle with a locked case (has an actual lock, which I appreciate), and I thought that was pretty cleverly done. Not the most challenging of puzzles, but I think that sometimes the fun of a puzzle is enjoying the solve, not just whether or not it’s tough to figure out. There were a few other fun puzzles in this one, but I’ll leave them for you to discover.
  • The game does a good job dividing up the various sources of information, so there’s plenty for each player to do, no matter the player count. I never felt like I had nothing to do, and we seemed to all finish up our tasks at about the same time, so I felt pretty good, there. I imagine there’d be some strain with 4+ players, but 1 – 3 seems like a pretty easy sweet spot.
  • The art style is quite pleasant and inviting. I like the cover art a lot? It has the classic yellow part which I’m told is a hallmark, as well, and the character art is pleasant, as well. It’s a very good-looking game, end-to-end, and I think that helps it as a product quite a bit. It’s very cohesively-designed.
  • I appreciate that the game is well-structured, as well. Telling players to specifically look for Motive / Means / Opportunity is a nice way to ground the search and make it a bit less vague. In other HaK games I’ve played in the past, I’ve struggled a bit because I wasn’t sure what to do. This nicely spells it out for the players without giving them too much.
  • The physical trinkets included in the game are also pretty delightful. My housemates particularly liked them, but they’re also pretty nice, especially given the price point of the game. I could see folks who make shadowboxes for their games really having a field day with something like this, especially since the aesthetic of the game is so seamless and pleasant.
  • I’m a big fan of these being reusable. I appreciate that we can give this to a friend if we want, or at least that we don’t necessarily have to throw it away after use. I’m always wondering a bit about like, how to properly recycle EXIT games, since they’re single-use and you actively destroy components, but I at least appreciate that this can be shopped around a bit more.
  • Also appreciate the spoiler-free hint system; it’s pretty good. Every mystery / escape room game should have a solid hint system of some kind, at this point. Ironically, the one that I think is starting to lag behind a bit is the EXIT games, but that’s a comment for a different review and a different time. This one’s pretty good about not giving you too much help, especially if you have another player filtering it out for you.

Mehs

  • It can be a bit easy to tune out with your own thing, since the various components can occasionally be a bit disconnected. I think that’s the big challenge with trying to make games where you can divide out the work. Don’t do it well enough, and you’ve got linear games where there’s not always enough for everyone to do. Do it too well, and you have a different issue, where players largely just do their own thing without necessarily communicating a ton. There’s a few different ways to solve this, either by tiering progression so that everyone does their own thing and then comes back together, or by having players collaborate on a single source of truth and update it with their own puzzle findings. I think Mystery at Magnolia Gardens attempted towards the second one (since you’re trying to eliminate suspects based on Motive / Means / Opportunity), but it charged players with keeping track of that on their own and we didn’t do the best job of that.
  • Given the amount of major paper components, I’d strongly recommend playing this in an area that’s not windy or prone to disturbances. Some of the papers are pretty thin and can be blown around accidentally (even by setting a notebook or book or pad down), so that can cause the occasional problem. Just worth keeping in mind.
  • I don’t love that you have to sign up for their email list to get the epilogue, but the epilogue itself was good. My housemate did it, so, she’ll get those promo emails. But beyond that, I enjoyed the epilogue and appreciated the updates on all the characters after the fact. It’s nice when mystery / story games like this have something that fills in the ending proper.

Cons

  • I think Hunt a Killer in general prioritizes reading and information-gathering over, say, puzzle solving, making it more of a mystery game than the escape room games I tend to prefer. It’s not really a problem with the game, as much as it is just a gap between my preferences and this one. I think that this was a step towards my preferences for the Hunt a Killer series of games, but I’d still love to see more locks and puzzles and challenges in that regard. That said, every game series needs to have its distinguishing factor, and I think the documents and challenges there are very Hunt a Killer in style and scope.

Overall: 7.5 / 10

Overall, I thought Mystery at Magnolia Gardens was a pleasant mystery game! I think it’s been my favorite of the Hunt a Killer games I’ve tried, mostly because I felt like there was a nice emphasis on the puzzle aspects of it over just reading and collating information. That seems to be more of the Hunt a Killer specialty, though, so this may be a step backwards for fans of that particular oeuvre. To each their own. That said, as someone relatively unfamiliar with Nancy Drew-style things, I found that this was still engaging for someone relatively uninitiated, and the game was nicely complemented with a very pleasant art style, great character portraits, and fun trinkets and physical items to give the game some heft. It’s always nice to see that kind of thing in a mystery game; something tangible. The purely card-based ones are fun, as well, but that’s often more me being impressed by what they can do with a limited medium. Here, fun physical trinkets are their own engaging bit of theme, and I like that quite a bit. The story was also pretty fun and engaging, right up there with some classic mystery stories, so that worked nicely. I think that this is a great introduction to the Hunt a Killer games / escape room / mystery games, for folks that are looking into getting that, and this will especially be a nice thing to pick up for Nancy Drew fans, I imagine. If you are in either (or both!) of those groups, or you’re just looking for a cool mystery to solve, you might enjoy Mystery at Magnolia Gardens! I thought it was a solidly fun time.


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