Overview: Fantasy Flight has created a dark and thematic storytelling board game with echoes of Arkham Horror and Betrayal at House on the Hill. In spite of the high production value and (mostly) high quality components — and, seriously, who hasn’t wanted a set of shoggoth miniatures? — Mansions of Madness has some big flaws.
Ages: 13 and up
Playing Time: 180 minutes
Rating: Could’ve been a contender, but it really seems like Mansions of Madness was rushed into production. It’s rarely a good sign when a game ships with an errata sheet. There are interesting ideas in the design of the game, but many of them fall just short of their objectives. With a price point this high, I can’t really recommend it. Unless you get it at a bargain…
Who Will Like It? Diehard Lovecraft fans… who may have already lost their sanity.
Miniatures. Tons and gads and scores of gray plastic miniatures. Shoggoths and cultists and cthonians, oh my! Each has a slotted base where a monster card fits. Very cool, if not a bit flashy. There’s a reason why the game is $80.
In addition to all the fun plastic, there’s a ton of good quality cardboard. Double-sided room tiles that fit together to form the titular structure, lots of tokens and puzzles, and hundreds of cards in two different sizes. Most of it is high quality, though we had some major issues with the color selection on many of the puzzle boards. Some puzzles use eldritch sigils that you have to match. They’re all really hard to read, which would be fine, because they’re color coded, except the colors are all really muddy and easy to mistake. There are arrows that indicate placement for some of the puzzles, but they’re roughly the size of a pinhead so it’s easy to miss them.
Component storage is non-existent. I’m not sure if Fantasy Flight intended the included cardboard insert to serve as an organizer, but I certainly couldn’t figure out how it could organize anything other than a deck of Uno cards. I threw mine out almost immediately and picked up a bead organizer from my local crafts store.
If you can’t get behind a game with a hefty setup time, then Mansions of Madness isn’t the game for you. If you’re playing for the first time, you’re looking at about an hour. And this is mostly for the Keeper. The Players set up the board. And then they wait for the Keeper to finish. They play some Xbox. Maybe some Zombie Dice. They make dinner. And eat. And then they go home and come back a little while later to finally play.
Ok, it’s not really that bad. But here’s the thing: setup will make or break this game. It’s really important. The Keeper picks a scenario which indicates which map to use: a mansion, a university, a church. Then the Keeper takes a little multiple choice quiz to fill in the gaps. Each answer informs where certain items, puzzles, or events are placed on the board. If the butler was murdered in the closet and not the pantry, then his murder weapon is found in the closet and… not the pantry. Make sense?
These variables help to push the players in the right directions during their investigations. If one of the key items or clues is not in the right place, then it’s going to screw up the progression of the game. Instead of the investigators knowing that they need to head to a certain room, the game will turn into a mad dash to explore every room in the mansion. And the players probably won’t survive this strategy. In fact, there’s a situation with the fifth scenario where they may very well lose within four rounds of starting the game. And with the setup time, you really don’t want this to happen. Trust me. (For more information on what I’m talking about here, check out my appearance on the awesome board game podcast The State of Games. Just a warning: there are spoilers!)
Each of the players chooses a character to play. They have one choice when it comes to their stats and another choice with their starting equipment, but that’s about it. Each player can move around the house, exploring and uncovering the decks of cards that the Keeper places face down in specific rooms. Some of these cards are locked doors and puzzles, which prevent the players from exploring further down in the room deck.
The locks require keys found elsewhere on the map and the puzzles require the investigators to move little tiles around until they match up in a specific order. I liked the idea of the puzzles, but the execution seemed a little jarring. Everyone sits around, waiting for one player to fiddle around with the tiles. And no helping! That’s against the rules. I took an hourglass and my Taboo buzzer so that I could enforce a time limit as Keeper. That seemed to make it a little more fun. At least for me. And to make it even more challenging, Fantasy Flight got their puzzles printed with the world’s muddiest inks. If you’re playing in anything but a brightly lit bathroom, you’re going to have some issues with matching up colors.
Combat is handled with a deck of cards and a ten-sided die. Whenever an investigator or a monster attacks something, the Keeper grabs a card and reads. Each card has a unique description, which means that just because you’re firing your gun and you have a high Marksmanship skill, you don’t get to use it every time you attack. Sometimes the card reveals that you stumble and instead you are forced to test your Dexterity skill with the die. It’s an interesting idea, but I found that all it did was annoy the hell out of the players. Eventually, the flavor text gets old and repetitive, and the rulebook specifically states that the Keeper should read it every time. My wife expressed frustration when, during her fifth attack, I started reading. She blurted out, “So… you always read them? I don’t feel like I’m doing anything!”
Each turn, the Keeper is able to perform a set of actions depending on the chosen scenario, including summoning and moving monsters. During the investigators’ turns, they may also be targeted by the Keeper with trauma cards, which exploit injuries taken to their bodies and minds, and mythos cards, which just screw with them and force them to make tests with the die or face additional injury.
There is a secret win condition for the Keeper. The investigators must figure it out, or let a countdown finish before it is revealed. Until then, they must race against the clock to find all of the clues and discover their own win condition. Only then can they win the game.
Mansions of Madness has theme to spare, but it doesn’t feel like it was planned terribly well. The game shipped with errata, which I suppose is better than shipping it without. But within weeks there were two pages of new rules changes. Many of them were obvious to everyone I played the game with, which makes me wonder what happened during playtesting.
What Mansions of Madness is trying to achieve is admirable. Most exploration games are completely random (Betrayal at House on the Hill, Castle Ravenloft) and they don’t even try to tell a coherent story. Storytelling games, on the other hand, are static and don’t offer a lot in the way of replayability. The classic Heroquest and Descent both have a map that the gamemaster consults. There aren’t a lot of moving parts and the story can be as complex as the writers choose, but once the players go through it once, that’s it.
Mansions of Madness is trying to do both. And it comes close. But there are times where the zipper shows through. Random items appear in very odd places. Plot elements are addressed to a single character, except there are four players present. Bodies disappear inside rooms without explanation. It feels stilted and clumsy. And, in the end, the players are seeking out clues that move them from room A to room B to room C. In spite of all those moving parts, the game is still extremely linear.
If you have a good Keeper and a good group of investigators and you don’t take it too seriously, Mansions of Madness can be a lot of fun. You just have to close your eyes and ignore the big ugly shoggoth in the room: the game itself.
Wired: Fun theme, awesome miniatures.
Tired: Puzzle components are hard to read, game mechanics don’t always tell a good story, flavor text gets boring.
Disclosure: Fantasy Flight Games provided a review copy of this game.