The core concept of the game is the same as Cluedo - to visit a set spot on the board and to name the culprit. Unlike Cluedo there's more than one murder to solve, in fact there are fifty cases to crack including murder, theft, hit and runs and bullying (to name a few). All of the mysteries are stored in a casebook that gives an introduction to the case, which then sets you on your way.
At first I was as stumped by the game itself as by the mysteries. Just how could a game with one board promise fifty mysteries? It seemed a tough case to crack, and one that became clear as soon as I found the instructions. The game board contains eight core locations, which contain a key witness. The witnesses are the same in every game, but what they say changes. There are multiple cards for each witness each with a unique number. So at the start of the game you place the numbered card shown in the casebook on the relevant space, giving unique answers that relate to that case.
Then the game begins and you roll the dice and travel across the eight locations to hear what each witness has to say. When you put together all the witness comments you can tell who the culprit is and then attempt to catch them. It's a clever concept, and makes it really easy for the game designers to create multiple crimes, with only a small selection of cards.
Each of the culprits are shown on a card, and have identifying marks. From scars, to glasses, facial hair to hats, you can use clues from witnesses to rule out the innocent and find the guilty. In this regard it's the same as Who's Who; a set of faces, that can be crossed off one by one depending on their attributes.
However there's a twist. A witness can be lying to you, and the only way to tell this is to visit a wise man in a temple. So you shouldn't be too quick to cross off any suspects until you have spoken to the wise man. If this sounds complicated, it's helped by a notepad that has a spot for each witness answer, and a grid you can use to strike off the suspects as you rule them out.
All of this would be relatively easy if it wasn't for one thing; Dragons.
The dragons in question are four token that can be placed anywhere on the board. Players cannot pass a dragon, which gives you the opportunity to block players from using a path that leads to a key location. You can't block a location off completely, but it's easy to close multiple routes, and force players to go the long way around to get that last clue they need.
To gain control of dragons, you need to be given the option through a fortune cookie. Almost every space on the board is a fortune cookie, and these can send you to random locations of the board, or give you dragon to control. The whole purpose of these spaces is to mess things up, either for yourself or the other players. It's this randomness that keeps things from becoming just a boring set of A to B dice rolls. Whilst the crimes set the scene it's the dragons and fortune cookies that make the game so interesting and challenging.
I also haven't mentioned the rickshaws that let you travel anywhere on the board or the decoder cards that help you decipher the clues from witnesses. Then there's a spy who reveals the location of the criminal and another decoder that finally helps you catch the crook.
Despite all of these things to remember, and all of these variables, Mysteries of Old Chinatown is a relatively simple game to play. You walk around the board and follow the instructions on cards. Other than that your fate is in the hands of chance and your own skill. It's a simple concept, but one which has clearly been thought out in order to play so well. It's a mystery I hadn't heard of it sooner.