Mice and Mystics (1-4 players, ages 8+, from Plaid Hat Games) is a mouse-sized sword-and-sorcery tale in a setting that will be instantly familiar to readers of the Mouse Guard and Redwall books. It's a beautifully-produced board game that creates a relatively all-ages-friendly dungeon crawl RPG experience—without the need for a dungeon master.
The game's plot and thematic trappings concern a human prince and his loyal retainers who, having been imprisoned by the evil usurping queen/witch/stepmother Vanestra while the good king is bedridden with poison, magically turn themselves into mice in order to escape the castle dungeon.
Over the course of 11 "Chapters," the mice fight their way through huge numbers of evil weapon-wielding rats (as well as non-evil-but-hungry cockroaches, spiders, centipedes, and the castle's tomcat Brodie) to save king and kingdom and defeat Vanestra. This of course requires secondary goals, optional side quests, recruiting allies, sudden-but-inevitable betrayals, and the retrieval of legendary MacGuffins along the way.
The game comes with both a rulebook and a storybook. Each chapter of the storybook contains the setup directions, special rules, event triggers, and passages of text to be read aloud during a single game session lasting 1-2 hours. Characters can (with some limitations) keep equipment they find and abilities they gain from chapter to chapter, so the mice get more powerful as they progress through the story and face increasingly difficult challenges.
The designers do a nice job of making the chapters substantially different from one another within the confines of a simple game system with a limited number of pieces to represent special items. Side quests completed in earlier chapters can affect the setup and goals in later chapters (e.g. befriend the cook in chapter 1 and she'll shoo the very powerful cat out of the kitchen for you later on). The language in the storybook is a bit flowery and heavy (it's titled *Sorrow & Remembrance*) for kids at the younger end of the age range, but it's not a big deal to edit a bit on the fly as you read aloud.
The board is cleverly designed and great to look at, and consists of 8 2-sided tiles, each of which shows a humanly-accessible area of the castle on one side and an area inside the walls (mouse tunnels, sewers, or pipes) on the other. In addition to traveling from area to area through doorways at the edge of the board, each tile also has a "flip space" which is a mouse-hole from one side of the board to the other.
Other lovely thematic touches abound. The art is great throughout, and the mice's special abilities are fueled by little cardboard pieces of cheese that they gain during combat. Every chapter is a race against time, represented by a marker that counts out "pages" until "The End," underscoring the storybook theme. The cat Brodie and a predatory crow in the courtyard are too big to be adequately represented on the board, so we see Brodie as a single cardboard pawprint, and the crow not at all; design choices that add immensely to their menace.
Mice & Mystics works by borrowing many tropes and gameplay mechanics from computer role-playing games. These include scripted triggers for read-aloud cut-scenes that advance the story, random item drops (mice can "search" to get a chance at drawing a card from a large deck of random items), limited extra lives (the page marker advances toward The End whenever a mouse is knocked out of the battle, but they reappear with full health and having lost some equipment in the next room), and even palette swaps (the same miniature serves as several different difficulties of monster).
My kids went absolutely bananas over this game in a way I haven't seen before. My 7-year old has declared Mice and Mystics to be his favorite game, and we've played through all eleven chapters together, totaling about 20 hours at the table, with occasional help from his 3-year old sister. My kids each have a favorite mouse hero, and my son was disappointed when we won the final battle in the way one gets disappointed at the end of a really good book. He's already lobbying to get the expansions (one has been published so far and another is slated for release this month) that add new chapters to the story as well as new heroes, enemies, locations, and items. When I was a kid, I got interested in role-playing games well before any of my peers did, which led to a lot of frustration trying to figure out how to have adventures without a dungeon master or other party members – this game would have been a more or less perfect answer.
I did have trouble with one aspect of the game from a parenting perspective – when I asked him what kind of kid would like this game, my son replied "Someone who likes fighting." There is a LOT of combat, and it's more or less the only way problems get solved in this story, aside from opportunities in a couple of the chapters to wear disguises or enlist the help of good humans to move through the castle. It would probably be possible to house-rule around this in a number of ways, but the game is at its heart a dungeon crawl.
There's one more caveat if you're purchasing this game to play with kids – while children are perfectly capable of handling the rules and even teaching the game to their peers once they know it, you will need to have a very firm grasp of the rules the first time you lead them through a session, and it's easy to miss important concepts. If you're flipping through the rulebook while your kids are at the table, you're toast. I *highly* recommend playing through Chapter 1 by yourself before involving any kids.