Introducing Mystery Rummy #1: Jack the Ripper

One of my most-played 2 player games that I've enjoyed with my wife is a little card game called Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper. A married couple liking a Jack the Ripper themed game? I know, I'm probably just as surprised as you about that! After all, with a title and a macabre theme like that, what are the chances of even getting this to the table, let alone playing it often? But on the strength of many positive recommendations that this was a terrific two-player card game great for a couple to enjoy, we did get it to the table that first time, and many times since. I checked my records, and they go back to at least 2006, which is when we started keeping track of our scores for this game, as part of a friendly competition and ongoing rivalry.

So why might such a macrabre sounding game prove to be such a hit? Well it's basically a rummy variant - but better. Rummy exists in many forms, and is usually played with a standard deck of cards or equivalent tiles. Typically, players are trying to form sets of the same number or sets of consecutive numbers, and a turn mostly consists of drawing a card, playing sets if you can, and discarding a card. That doesn't exactly sound thrilling to most modern gamers, but Mike Fitzgerald, designer of Jack the Ripper, has found a way to popularize this style of game by welding it together with a mystery theme, and adding some appropriate and thematic twists to the traditional mechanics. In fact, he's made a whole series of such games, which are marketed as part of his "Mystery Rummy" series; Jack the Ripper is the first and arguably the best in this series.

The title "Mystery Rummy series" is actually owned by US Games System, so officially it consists of five titles: #1 Jack the Ripper, #2 Murders in the Rue Morgue, #3 Jekyll & Hyde, #4 Al Capone & the Chicago Underworld, and the newest release: #5 Escape from Alcatraz. Mike Fitzgerald's Bonnie & Clyde was not published by US Games System, and thus is not officially part of the Mystery Rummy series, and nor is Wyatt Earp, which was first published by Alea and more recently by Eagle-Gryphon Games. But all these games have much in common, and can be considered together - they are all Mike Fitzgerald rummy games after all!

As token of the enormous success of these games, if you arrange by ranking all the games in the BGG database with a rummy mechanic, you'll find that of all the modern games, Jack the Ripper comes in the number one spot, with several of the other Mystery Rummy titles closely on its heels. That's pretty good evidence that if you want a modern rummy game, they don't get much better than what Mike Fitzgerald's Mystery Rummy series has to offer!

If I've had the game for so long, then why this review? Well first of all, because I like the game, and the fact that I'm still playing it after all those years proves that it has some serious staying power. And secondly, because it has recently been released in a new edition. The first editions of the Mystery Rummy games were published by US Game Systems Inc. But now US Game Systems has teamed up with Eagle-Gryphon Games, and the result of this partnership has seen the 2014 publication of a new edition of all the games in this series, with an improved box, improved card quality, and in some cases updated/clarified rules. So let's show you what the new edition of this clever two player card game looks like!



COMPONENTS

Game box

The box is cleverly designed to look like a book, with the spine showing the "pages" of the book. Here's the cover:



The back of the box promises "a different ending every game", and states its suitability for 2-4 players (especially good for 2 players), ages 10 to adult, with this overview:

"The case of Jack the Ripper is reopened in this innovative card game that combines the strategies of traditional rummy with the elements of an exciting mystery."



Component list

Here's all the components that you get inside the box:
● 25 Gavel cards
● 36 Evidence cards
● 1 Ripper Escapes card
● Rulebook



Note how the box insert even includes ribbons to help remove the cards easily!

Evidence cards

Ripper suspects

These cards, marked with a magnifying glass in the top corner, are the heart of the game. They are played in melds of three or more cards (and can also be played individually if your opponent already has played a matching meld), and that's where the rummy mechanic comes in. They correspond to each of the six main Ripper suspects:

5x Dr Pedachenko, 5x Sir Gull, 5x Prince Eddy

5x Jill the Ripper, 5x Montague Druitt, 5x George Chapman



Here's an example of a meld, featuring all five evidence cards for one of the suspects.



Wild card & Letters

The two Wild cards can be used in lieu of another evidence card for a suspect.

The four Letters cards don't apply to any suspect, but make up their own meld, with cards worth three points each because it's a harder meld to pull off.



Gavel cards

The Gavel cards are marked with a gavel in the top corner. Players can only play one Gavel card on a turn, because these give players opportunity to do special actions.

Suspect & Alibi

With one for each of the suspects, the six Suspect cards are higher scoring cards that can be played on an existing meld of evidence cards.

With one for each suspect (Prince Eddy/Sir Gull are combined), the five Alibi cards can be played on an existing meld of evidence cards to prevent that suspect being identified as the Ripper. Only one can be in play at once, so playing a new Alibi card causes an existing one in play to be discarded.



Victims & Scenes

The five Victim cards correspond to five victims: Mary Nichols, "Long Liz" Stride, Kate Eddowes, Annie Chapman, and Mary Jane Kelly. One must be in play to start melding Evidence cards, which makes sense thematically. When played, these also let you draw two cards from the deck.

The five Scene cards match the colours of the Victim cards and correspond to five scenes: Buck's Row, Mitre Square, Hanbury Street, 13 Miller's Court, Berner Street. Playing a Scene card lets you take a card of your choice from the discard pile. When playing a Victim or Scene card, if your opponent has the corresponding card in play you take it and it becomes your own.



Commissioner Resigns & Ripper Strikes

Playing one of the two Commissioner Resigns cards forces all players to put victim cards in hand into play (without getting the benefit of drawing cards).

Playing one of the two Ripper Strikes cards lets you turn over the top five cards from the deck one at a time, trying to find a Victim card which can then immediately be played.



Ripper Escapes

This single card is one of the fun parts of this game, and makes Jack the Ripper stand out from the other titles in the Mystery Rummy series. It's worth 35 points and can be played when all five Victims are in play, and immediately ends the round. But it's a risky strategy, because if you are caught holding the Ripper Escapes card in hand when your opponent ends the game, it causes you to lose two points for each Victim in play.



Instructions

The rule book consists of 14 pages, and folds open into a long double-sided sheet.



COMPARISON BETWEEN EDITIONS

Box

There's been some stylistic changes to the game box, including a change to the artwork from the very first edition, but it's basically the same insert, although the newer edition does seem to be more solid and of better quality. In the photo below the old edition is pictured on the left and the new edition on the right.



Cards

The cards of the original edition (card on the left in the image below) were too thick, with many people finding them almost impossible to shuffle, especially given that they had a high gloss finish which made them very slippery to use. The cards of the new edition (card on the right in the image below) don't seem to be any thinner than the cards of the original edition. However they are no longer glossy, and the new matte finish makes them far less slippery, more pleasant to play with, and of course much easier to view in bright light with reduced glare.



While they don't have the linen finish preferred by many gamers, they do have a lacquer finish that make them nice to handle. They are still perhaps a little thicker than I would like, but they are an improvement, and of good quality. I'm told that US Game Systems is a leading producer of tarot cards, and since these wouldn't usually get as intensely shuffled as a card game, perhaps that accounts for the increased thickness. Dan King reports (link) that Mike Fitzgerald told him that the thickness makes them ideal for fanning. The newer edition cards can also easily be identified by the fact that they have the most recent year of publication on the back.



Instructions

The rulebook has also had a makeover, with some adjustments to the presentation and formatting, and an increased font size - which is very welcome - it now consists of 14 pages instead of 10. The original glossary of terms and a section with a sample voting strategy are no longer included, but in their place there are more illustrations, and of course a larger, easier-to-read print. For the most part there are no significant changes to the rules themselves, except from some minor clarifications here or there. Given that the rulebook of the original edition has received criticism for being somewhat unintuitive in its organization and explanation, it seems that an opportunity was missed by not reorganizing the rules entirely to make the game easier to learn. Jack the Ripper is considered notoriously difficult to learn, not because it's a hard game, but mostly because of the way the rules are organized. Fortunately there are some helpful player aids in the BGG file section, including one that I made myself several years ago (link), and new players would benefit from watching a video review or two to help learn the game. A digital copy of the new rulebook is available from the publisher here.



Rule change: Ripper At Large scoring

There is one rule change that is worth noting. In the original game, a hand ends when you go through the deck twice, and in this case "Ripper Escapes" scoring applies. However under the new rules, a hand ends when you go through the deck once, and in this case a new kind of scoring applies, denoted "Ripper Still At Large": players score face value for their cards, but no Ripper is identified, so no points are doubled and vote results are ignored. This means that if the game isn't over by the time you've gone through the Case File a single time, you no longer reshuffle and keep playing, but the ripper is considered "at large" and no points are doubled or gained by voting. This rule change isn't a major change, but it does make it harder for "Ripper Escapes" scoring to happen. Initial feedback from players about this change has questioned the need for it, but also acknowledged that it isn't very consequential and isn't a situation that happens often anyway. For more details and discussion on this point, see:

Rule change in newest edition



CONCLUSIONS

Game-play

The details of game-play are covered sufficiently in existing reviews, so I won't explain them here at length. Suffice it to say that Jack the Ripper is a very well-themed game, and although the aim is to get the most points through rummy style play, the way the mechanics have been worked to fit the theme gives it a wonderful flavour.

The main flow of play on a turn is standard rummy: draw a card from the deck or top of discard pile, play cards by melding (or a special gavel card), and end your turn by discarding a card. What makes Jack the Ripper interesting, however, is that at the end of the game, the suspect with the most points is identifed as the Ripper (unless it has an Alibi), and points played for that card are doubled. During the game, at the start of your turn you may call for a vote, which requires both players to secretly write down which of the six suspects they think will be the Ripper - which will earn you 10 points at game end if you're right. This adds excitement to the game: at what point should you call a vote? The Ripper Escapes card also works thematically, as well as adding an interesting element of tension, because there is a risk in keeping it in hand; furthermore, the longer the game goes, the more careful you must be in playing Victims in case your opponent has this card.

These elements really set Jack the Ripper apart from some of the other Mystery Rummy titles, and make it one of the best in the series.



The new edition

To summarize the changes of the new 2014 edition:
● New box
● Better quality cards
● Revised rulebook (including rule change for "Ripper at Large" scoring)

Overall the new edition hasn't changed a lot - why would you change something good? - but has just made some cosmetic improvements. Perhaps best of all, the new edition co-produced by US Game Systems Inc and Eagle-Gryphon Games helps get this delightful card game back into print.



What do others think?

The criticism

Most of the low ratings for Jack the Ripper were due to people who didn't enjoy the fact that the heart of this game is based on the rummy mechanic, or who found the added mechanics added here too complicated or fiddly. Admittedly it can take a couple of plays to get the hang of things, but it's for this reason that Jack the Ripper actually has a different feel from standard rummy. If you don't like rummy, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll hate this game. While the rulebook isn't the most intuitive and the game can be harder to learn than it should be, it is worth persevering, because in the end the game itself isn't that difficult. Once you get the hang of it things will click easily enough; definitely pick up some of the player aids here on BGG to help you along.

Another reason some disliked the game is the dark theme, and I can appreciate that a game about serial killings won't work for everyone. Personally it did take a bit for me to look past this too given how atmospheric and present the theme is, but eventually the gameplay and mechanics won me over.

A final common criticism related to the production quality, including the artwork and graphic design, but especially the card quality. While the graphic design hasn't changed, fortunately the card quality of this new edition is an improvement.

The praise

So now let's hear from some of the folks who gave the kind of ratings that make Mystery Rummy Jack the Ripper the #1 ranked modern rummy card game on BGG:

"There's luck, yes, but it matters far less than I originally thought- the interplay between suspects, alibis, and calling the vote is subtle and often brutal, not to mention the great mini-game of Jack escaping." - Benjamin Gailey
"It manages to pack a surprising amount of both tactics and strategy into each hand." - Martin Ralya
"The voting mechanic makes this game a keeper." - Eugene Tackleberry
"An atmospheric and well produced rummy variant that plays great with two." - Futsie
"Maybe my single-favorite card game. Really great for two players." - paulmond
"I love the theme and artwork in this game. I also like how the game rules are similar to the logic of an actual police investigation." - Jeremy Shelton
"A very cool rummy game that has great artwork and story telling to boot ... I definitely think this could be my two player card game winner." - Dan Cain
"I'm a sucker for rummy-style games, and this is one of the best." - Stephen Smith
"Played almost 100 games to date and it's still one of my top choice two-player games." - Kiboko Hippo
"A very clever design, breathing all kinds of new life into tired old rummy. My favorite of the Mystery Rummy games." - Mark Saya
"My favorite of the Mystery Rummy games, Jack the Ripper is a real winner. I have gotten several non-gamers excited about this as well." - Ryan Johnson
"Flat-out brilliant game and a long-time favorite. Tight, atmospheric theming and powerful dramatic arc keep it from feeling like just a rummy variant. Tense, engaging, super fun." - Alf Seegert
"Like Rummy, but with more interesting interactions and special cards that allow for clever play and risk/reward. Almost a perfect game for my wife and I." - Chris Rogers

I'll end with this great comment by Midaga:
"Since from my childhood if I hear the word 'rummy' for some reasons I instantly feel the scent of lavender and immense boredom. Fortunately Mike Fitzgerald could dismantle the game and made an excellent variant with less collecting and endless waiting for the right card to show up, and much more tools to work with, so it's much more about subtle manipulation, than set collection." - Midaga



Recommendation

So is Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper for you? There's good reason that this game is the #1 ranked modern rummy game on BGG. It feels fresh and original, despite its underlying engine, and Mike Fitzgerald has done a fantastic job in making it highly thematic, as well as including mechanics that give it real tension and fun. The fact that it especially shines as a two player game makes it particularly appealing - many couples are looking for a light and enjoyable card game that they can play together, and this fits the bill beautifully.

The new edition also features improved components that should eliminate many complaints made about the cards from the old edition, while the game play is essentially unchanged. To round off the package, it's also quite inexpensive; when I last checked, online retailers in the US were carrying it for not much more than $10. So if this kind of game appeals to you, now is the time to pick it up - highly recommended!

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mb The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596

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Mike Ricotta
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As always a nice review. My wife and I also love the mystery rummy games. I'd love to see your take on the rest of them, perhaps a ranked list of some kind? Jack is our #1 and Jekyll and Hyde is #5 or #6 (we haven't played Wyatt Earp but the rest are up in the air. We likes Alcatraz but have only played it once. We don't like murders in the rue morgue as much. A great series of games though!
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George Ramos
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A great review! Thanks for getting into so much detail. I was lucky enough to get this game from my Secret Santa a few years ago. Yay, me!
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Craig Somerton
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Thanks for the review Ender. This game never entered by sphere of vision because I always assumed it was simply another boring Rummy game - you've changed my mind to investigate it further.
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Tim Royal
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A great review of a great game.
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ozzy perez
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I really enjoy your work Ender. I almost always buy the game after reading your reviews.
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ricottma wrote:
I'd love to see your take on the rest of them, perhaps a ranked list of some kind?
Until now I've only played Jack the Ripper and Wyatt Earp (see my pictorial review here), both of which I like a great deal.

They both have different elements that I enjoy about each of them and are different enough for me to have them both and like them equally. But perhaps more importantly, Jack the Ripper is best with 2 players while Wyatt Earp is best with 3 players. So usually, the number of players will be the determining factor as to which I'll pull out.

Perhaps some day I'll get opportunity to play some of the other titles in the series.
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Matthew De Lorge
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Played both. Love Jack the Ripper. HATE Wyatt Earp! Wyatt Earp strips out the elements of rummy which mitigate the luck factor and add in mechanisms that create more luck. Theme is great, but that game is simply draw a card, play the obvious. Hard to strategize when you simply don't draw the cards needed.

On the other hand, Jack offers plenty of strategy along with a nice catch up feature if you can manipulate the deck to get all 5 victims out and play the Ripper Escapes card.

BTW, great review of Jack the Ripper.
 
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