The Mouse Guard boxed set is a fancy version of the base Mouse Guard roleplaying game, based on David Petersen’s Mouse Guard comics. The comics portray a fairly grim feudal fantasy society… of intelligent mice. They live in the “Mouse Territories”, surrounded by yet more wilderness and dangerous, large predators like snakes, badgers, owls and such. No humans exist here, the only other intelligent civilization are the weasels, a warlike race the mice recently had a major war against. It’s a somewhat unusual (but good!) comic, and the game models the comics extremely well; at least in the sense that it is tuned to tell stories like in the comics.
The game is designed by Luke Crane, of Burning Wheel fame, and the game mechanism is a version of that system. It’s not “Burning Wheel Lite”, like some people assume; while it is slightly streamlined in places, it is still complex and there are lots of new subsystems to model the storytelling tropes in the comics. As a result, this is not a roleplaying game for children, unlike you might (also) assume. It’s mechanically much too complex for that. That’s not to say that you couldn’t run this for kids, but you would need to hide lots of the crunch unless the children in question were exceptionally interested in that sort of complexity – most don’t have the attention spans for it. Of course, that depends vastly on age and personality.
It’s an awesome game, at least based on a read-through. I like Burning Wheel as a system, and this variant has tons of nice tweaks and throws out a lot of complexity which is not needed here (for example, there is no magic of any sort here). It’s extremely character-driver, though there is a framing device here: each game is presumed to be a “mission”, where the guard team (which the PCs are assumed to be) gets orders from the Mouse Guard leader, and then goes off to do their thing. Each PC gets to choose a main goal for that game, which may or may not align with the given mission goal (it’s always interesting if there is some personal goal conflict, even if it’s not intended that there’s vast amounts of intra-group conflict; this isn’t intended to model Paranoia, after all). All of this is termed the “GM’s Turn”, where the GM sets the pace and presents conflicts. After that is done (i.e. the mission is resolved (or failed) in some manner, we switch to the “Players’ Turn”, where each player gets one (by default) conflict or scene. This may be whatever; for example, a PC may decide to use his/her allocation to visit his mentor. Or he may decide to challenge someone else to a duel. While this sort of framing and limiting of allowed actions may be alien to some players, I’d be willing to give it a try. it’s there for a reason: force the players to decide what’s really important to them. Of course, smart GMs will also allow “color” scenes and other stuff, in addition.
In the framing department, the game also has the concept of “seasons” (again, to model the comics). Each mission takes place on a specific season (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter), and that choice has potentially huge consequences. The game recommends that beginners start with spring or summer missions: things are easier, in general, at least with regards to weather. Winter is the most difficult, by default nobody (sane) wanders the countryside during winter, instead they just hole up with stores of food and try to stay warm. In Winter, you’ll either be given an important emergency mission, or Winter may be used for an annual gathering of the Mouse Guard, where “tenderpaws” are perhaps promoted to full guard status, etc. The whole ruleset for season effects is really nice, and makes them really matter – unlike in all too many fantasy games, where winter just means that cross-country travel is a bit slower.
The box set is quite nice. It contains the rulebook (softcover edition), and a small supplement with extra rules tweaks and some more example missions. You also get a map of the Mouse Territories, cards for combat actions, equipment and suchlike (very nice!), character sheets, pre-printed GM tracking sheets, dice, plastic mouse tokens (to model the wood(?) ones seen in the comic and used by the Mouse Guard leader to track patrols) and a GM screen.
This is a really impressive game. You don’t need to have read the comics beforehand (but it does help, of course). Since the core rules are based on Burning Wheel it’s a very robust and tested ruleset, and the additions (season rules, mission framing, etc) sound interesting – of course, final say on how fun they are rests on actual playtest, stuff like that is hard to evaluate just based on reading.