I’ve needed some extra fun in my life lately and mystery games fit the bill. To be honest, in the past I’ve found many mystery games disappointing, because they didn’t involve evidence and clues. They were board games with mystery themes. While fun, that wasn’t what I wanted.
But soon enough Carmen Sandiego swooped onto my computer and blew my mind. And in the past few years, mystery subscription games and apps, some of which actually involve clues and evidence, came on the scene.
I learned lately about narrative structure in game design and game writing. I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me that writers wrote those stories. I guess I thought whoever created the game did. Games contain some of the richest, most captivating stories out there, some of which hold people spellbound for months and years.
I don’t know why it took mystery, one of the most popular forms of fiction, so long to up its game (pun intended). But I’m glad it did, while still holding a place in my heart for the old games. From the nostalgic delight of Carmen Sandiego to the very 21st-century Hunt a Killer boxes, here are my favorite mystery games.
Hunt A Killer
Hunt A Killer offers two different types of games: complete games to buy and play through at your own speed, and a subscription model where you receive a box per month for 1, 3, 6, or 12 months. (You can choose to have the next box shipped sooner if you solve the one you have and want to move forward sooner.)
These boxes spread a case out over six installments with a different question to be answered each time, eventually leading you to the culprit. (Your subscription does not end after the first story. They will begin sending you the next unless you pause or cancel your subscription.) Hunt A Killer also provides two genres of story games—mystery and horror.
I have played one of each type so far. Mallory Rock is a subscription box mystery and Nancy Drew is a complete mystery box.I thoroughly enjoyed each one and have a complete Agatha Christie box set based on one of her short stories waiting for me as I type.
These are the types of mystery games I wanted as a kid and that have been hard to find until the last few years. Ones where they actually give you evidence to solve a mystery, not a board game with a mystery theme or a puzzle app masquerading as a mystery. (I don’t mind some puzzles, but they need to be related to the mystery.)
Beth Ferris-Hendricks is found dead off the coast of the island of Mallory Rock, Maine. Mallory Rock was founded and developed by 12 men whose male descendants are automatically members of an exclusive group called the Navigators’ Club. Beth lived there all her life. Her death is ruled an accident, but her sister Gwen is convinced it was murder and enlists your help.
The player(s) must find out who killed Beth using materials sent in the box and shared in the Hunt A Killer app and through email. These include autopsy reports, coded messages, town publications and history, photos, screenshots of the online town forum, and so much more.
The game was interesting and just difficult enough. My husband and I played it together and got each month’s question right the first time, only resorting to the Hints and Tips on the app a few times. The resolution was satisfying and the story absorbing.
I kept this one all to myself.
Florence North, the director of Magnolia Gardens, invites family friend Nancy Drew to see the new exhibit Fatal Flora. They have a cup of tea after and Florence mentions feeling ill lately. Nancy figures out someone is trying to poison Florence with the tea, which means Nancy herself has just been poisoned. This puts Nancy out of commission and leaves it to you to find the culprit.
I was so excited about this one and it didn’t disappoint. It includes a torn message to put back together, a coded message, a locked box to open, and more. You confirm alibis, set up timelines, and examine motives.
This game is family-friendly and not based on any of the actual Nancy Drew books, so nothing will be spoiled and those who have read all the books can still enjoy the game. It was also a decent challenge to solve, but not too much. I had so much fun and wish it was replayable.
13 Dead End Drive
Aunt Agatha died and left behind a fortune. Who among her 12 employees and friends (and cat) will win the money?
My family and I played the board game this week to refresh my memory. The rules are on the complicated side, so I won’t go into them here, but you can get the hang of them fast through game play. It’s fun, employing strategizing to sabotage opponents and win rather than following clues. There are three ways to win, involving a dash of luck along with strategizing. It’s not easy to win, but not so hard it’s frustrating.
But the best part of the game is the traps! If you land on a trap spot and you either draw or possess the right trap card, you can get your opponents out of the game. They are actual operating traps including a falling statue, a staircase that catapults the pawn off the top, and a fireplace that flips backward taking the unlucky pawn with it. The only drawback is having to put together and dismantle the traps every time you play.
A valuable object has been stolen by a V.I.L.E operative and it’s up to you to help Interpol find it. You use knowledge of geography and facts about countries to follow and catch them. But watch out for other V.I.L.E operatives along the way! Will you successfully solve enough cases to match wits with super villain Carmen Sandiego?
As far as the rules, I am going off memory from thirty years ago here. There were so many versions and updates of these games that it was difficult to find the description and rules for the exact version I had. But I played it enough back then and found enough online that I think this is pretty accurate.
Gather information about world (Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego), European (Where in Europe is Carmen Sandiego), and American (Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego) geography, culture, and politics then choose the destination the info is pointing to. You have to move quickly, because you only have a few days and travel can suck up a lot of your time.
There was also a version called Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego where you move through time answering the same types of questions. Each game came with a guidebook to look up answers to questions.
In the first few levels, you are after lesser operatives. You pass different levels such as Gumshoe and Super Sleuth until you are good enough to go after Carmen.
When you reach a location with one of the agents, a hand holding a gun appears from the right hand side of the computer screen and shoots. I remember being so startled the first time that happened! If you reach the bad guy in time you win.
These games were my life when I was in 5th and 6th grade. I had World and Europe. Our computer didn’t have enough memory for the other ones. I won these games so many times that pretty much every name on the leaderboard was me or me with a friend. I became so expert at Geography that I almost beat the reigning champ in the school geography bee. We went into a lot of bonus rounds!
I missed out on the PBS Carmen Sandiego show, but love the new Netflix one. There are book tie-ins with the new series and a card game. I wasn’t too impressed with the game.
There isn’t a way to play the original games anymore, but I keep hoping for an app or new version of the game. You can watch videos of the original games on YouTube. I wasn’t impressed with the Google Earth version. Way too basic. But I still dressed up as Carmen for Halloween a few years ago.
Sherlock Holmes is on the case! Can you come to the same solution?
For each case, you get a welcome letter from Holmes, three clue letters from your client, and one solution letter where Holmes outlines how he solved the case. Different packages offer a different amount of cases to be solved. The letters are mailed roughly once a week. You can also compete with players around the world for the role of Featured Detective.
My husband got me a subscription to this for Christmas a few years ago. I loved getting the letters and reading the stories, but the puzzles are hard. I never figured them out. However, my life was a lot crazier before the pandemic and I found it hard to focus on them. (I also have ADHD.) I think I would do better now and I kept them to try again.
I highly recommend this to anyone who likes a challenge and wants to match wits with the Great Detective.
The Kate Gray apps
In the Adventure Escape apps, Kate Gray is a detective solving murders. There are several different mystery apps involving this particular sleuth, all with different locations and stories. In Adventure Escapes: The Cult, Kate’s best friend Melissa disappears after a date. Kate investigates and finds out Melissa has been kidnapped by a cult. She must follow clues and solve puzzles before she can rescue Melissa.
I liked these games, because they had a mixture of puzzles and actual clues. In one of the mysteries, you could dust for fingerprints, for instance. The puzzles related to the mystery and you could move through interesting settings quickly to find the culprit. I played them all pretty quickly. They held my attention and interest very well.
Murder Mystery Detective Story
Finally a mystery app that gives you clues and evidence rather than logic and find the object puzzles! You are an investigator in London with a case to solve. Luckily, there are witnesses to interrogate and crime scenes to investigate.
There are over 60 cases to be solved, all placed on a map of London. You start with the first and they get harder as you go along.
On each screen, you have options to interview certain characters, investigate different scenes, and sometimes to use clues to answer questions to get an important piece of evidence. The options change on every screen. At any time, you can try to provide the correct solution to the mystery.
I liked to look at the question early on so I knew what I was looking for. Sometimes you have to burrow through a lot of screens to find info you might have missed, so I tried to choose an option and then do all the options it led to, then go back to the main screen.
Eventually, you realize there is a bigger conspiracy at work with a creepy supervillain at its center, one that connects all of the cases.
I recommend this app to anyone who wants a mystery app based on deduction rather than puzzles. Or anyone who wants both!
Tell us in the comments: Which of these mystery games are you going to try?
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.