Chris Maslanka reveals the shocking truth about no-holds-barred, murder mystery, fancy-dress dinner parties
Fictional crime is, if anything, more popular than real crime, and it is clear that detective novels and murder mystery fulfil a basic human need. Games and crime fiction let us escape the humdrum conundrums of the everyday. Our lives are already cluttered with half-started projects and half-finished problems. We want problems with a definite solution that can be demolished in a safe environment and restricted time-frame. We want fantasy.

This is the haven afforded by crime fiction: the promise of adventure safely packaged to enjoy at leisure. But crime novels are essentially solitary and passive pursuits. Murder mystery games, on the other hand, are not only sociable but have the added dimension of allowing active participation, even to the extent of being the murderer.

For a murder mystery game to work well, the designer has to be even more meticulous than the crime novelist. The characters are no longer pinned to a page but are played by one's acquaintances, dressed up as outrageous characters. A successful game has not only to supply a plot, but also to guide the participants through a welter of detail at the same time as scouring such practical problems as what to do if one of the characters fails to turn up at the last minute because of a baby-sitter problem.

The best that I have tested so far are the A La Carte range - "Vintage Murder" (Bepuzzled, 6 players, pounds 17.99) and "Pasta, Passion & Pistols" (Bepuzzled, 6-8 players, pounds 17.99). They have worked hard to identify the key ingredients that make for a successful murder mystery evening, foreseen the difficulties that could arise and made provisions for them.

First there is extremely detailed preparation. The host sends out invitations to each of the guests explaining not only the characters that they will adopt but also advising on dress and play. While guests are struggling with their characters and dress in such roles as Desiree de Bouze "elegant, self-possessed chatelaine of Chateau de Reims", or Rocco Scarfazzi, rumoured to be in the "laundering" business, the host is busy arranging the ambience and the food. Here the attention to detail was excellent: there is advice on lighting, music, place settings and, most importantly, sustenance. Full dinner menus are provided, drawn up by expert cookery writers.

At the same time as recognising that having the right food is as important to crime mystery as it is to seduction, A La Carte recognises that it is your evening and is flexible enough to include easier and cheaper alternatives for the less expansive host.

Even if you skimp on the details, the game will still work, but the inclusion of the detailed notes helps to stress an important fact: a key element in murder mystery is fantasy: people are given the opportunity to be exhibitionists. A safe and well-prepared arena is provided for you to act like a Mafioso or to don a black leather dress and be a tart for the evening.

A La Carte gives full weight to the importance of the fantasy element and they include something that, from my survey of other available games on the market, seems unique to them: preceding and separating the three question and answer rounds are sections of dialogue which are "to be acted out with as much expression and accent as you can muster for your character." These dialogue sections contain information but also serve to break the ice and, crucially, to model the behaviour appropriate to the characters.

In "Pasta, Passion & Pistols" there are also two 'floating characters' whose function is to encourage re-enactment of scenes, to "get people off their chairs and demonstrate what really happened" - adding charaderie to the camaraderie. These "floating characters" also solve the problem of what to do if someone fails to turn up as they can simply slot into one of the six key roles without thereby affecting the smooth running of the plot.

Although in games such as "Pasta, Passion & Pistols" and "Vintage Murder", the planning has been done for you, that does not mean that the players can just sit back and pig out all evening. There is, after all, a murder to be solved. As the drama unfolds, a certain amount of information has not only somehow to be got across to the players: it also has to be absorbed by them no matter how carried away they are getting in being Marco Roni or Clair Voyant, or how good the food is or how intoxicating the wine.

The necessary information is imparted in many ways, partly by reading the booklets and by questioning other characters and assessing their replies. You are given very structured guidance on the questions to ask, what you are trying to elicit and what to hide. There are the dialogues and the re-enactment of scenarios prompted by the floating characters. There are also Cluedo-esque and tangible clues such as letters which add further authenticity. And, in case you have drifted off, the cassette brings even the most distractable up to speed at the end of each round by providing a timely and humorous resume of what people should have gleaned of the investigation. (Again, this feature is unique to A La Carte and reflects their awareness of things which could hamper the flow of the game). This approach makes the assimilation of the key facts easy and does away with the need for making notes on napkins.

Finally, of course, there is the solution to the mystery, the moment to which all the preparations have been directed. Although the mystery contains an element of competition, it is essentially sociable: there are no winners or losers. Just as much fun is had from acting out a character and bantering as in guessing how the crime was committed. No-one is left feeling a failure or left out but ready to return to the everyday less soluble problems with renewed vigour.

What A La Carte provides is a spectacle. An evening's entertainment to splash out on in which what is important is not just the solution to the puzzle but something played out like a fully-blown drama.

We enjoyed the plot of "Death in St James (sic) Park", (Murder Mystery Parties, University games, 6 players, pounds 19.99) however the support material was flimsy: there were no clues to speak of apart from a crossword which distracted from, rather than added to, the proceedings. The tape gave only the briefest outline of the scenario in a grating American accent hardly compatible with the atmosphere of 1940s War Cabinet, London. ("This tape will self-destruct in five seconds!"). The costume and role suggestions are in the host's booklet but not on the invitations and the characters are underdeveloped.

"The Watersdown Affair" (Decipher Inc, 8 players, pounds 21.99) from the "How to Host a Murder" series is another American import and as such some of the details are a bit off (Sir Roger Watersdown invites you to be his weekend guest at Watersdown Mansion, Yorkshire "Friday through Sunday"). The English Inspector on the tape is actually an American speaking in his idea of an English accent; only one menu is suggested: Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (with Roast beef cooked on a spit?). These details are small but somehow make the game less convincing.

Although it has nicely turned-out clues, there are no dialogue sections nor any taped resumes of the action so far - which is a pity because there is a great deal of circumstantial and geographical information to absorb and this made it more difficult to keep up with the action. Moreover it is the most expensive game in the range.