Mansions of Madness Will Drive You Deliciously Insane

mansionsLet’s make it short : GeekDad Michael Harrison didn’t like Mansions of Madness. I did.

If you haven’t heard about it, Mansions of Madness is the newest board game by Fantasy Flight Games. It’s a mix between Arkham Horror (for the Cthulhu-verse and the Investigators characters) and Descent (for the modular tile map-building and the Keeper’s role in putting obstacles on the way of the other players) but adds a lot more.

Mansions of Madness is a semi-cooperative board game meant for two to five players, one of whom being the Keeper. The other players are Investigators exploring an area and trying to stop some evil plot (and to survive). It’s set in the world of The Call of Cthulhu RPG, inspired by H.P. Lovecraft‘s stories.

Here’s a few of the game’s qualities:


1. The art is beautiful and really contributes to the game’s ambiance.
Almost everyone agrees about the beautiful material provided in the box. The map tiles are especially beautiful, deliciously gloomy, perfect to create a Lovecraftian atmosphere. From Nursery to Master’s Bedroom, from the great stairs of the Foyer to the Graveyard’s stones, they offer very diverse settings for the game’s horror stories. And the monster miniatures are a lot of fun, of course.

2. The game offers real scenarios and many storytelling elements.
If you’ve ever played Descent (a good and funny game anyway), you know that the “scenarios” are mainly pretence, only useful for the map and monsters they provide. MoM’s scenarios are closer to actual RPG scenarios. Prologues read aloud to players are well written and successfully create the ambiance to enter a Lovecraftian tale. When reading his/her part, the Keeper is asked to make a few choices that will lead to different stories. That is of course a way to increase re-playability, as the same scenario will then have various settings and various endings, but that’s also a way to create different atmospheres, depending of the type of horror stories you want to tell. Are the evil forces controlled by some Shoggoth inadvertently invoked? Or are they mostly human, revealing the darkest parts of men’s hearts?

The variety in the winning conditions (for both Keeper and Investigators) is also very interesting and very Lovecraftian — which means very different from most games. The fact that Investigators don’t know how to win at the beginning of a game makes sense: you never know the Villain’s plan (or the depth of the Horror) before gathering the clues. Sometimes, the only possible victory for the Investigators will be to escape with the horrible knowledge they uncovered and to testify in front of the world. How many games offer such winning conditions?

3. The game offers many elements of surprise. That’s probably its greatest and rarest quality.
Let’s take an example: the spells. As in Arkham Horror, Investigators may be able to cast spells. But when they receive a Spell card, they aren’t allowed to look at its back side (listing the precise effects of a passed or failed spell) before actually casting it. So what? you say, the surprise will only last until each spell is cast once. That’s where the game is clever: each Spell comes in five variations, and the player draws a new one each time he casts one. So an Investigator never knows exactly what will happen when he chooses to cast a Spell. We’re in the Cthulhu universe: knowledge and magic are dangerous tools to play with.

The same principle is used for monsters: each monster miniature gets a monster token in its base. The Investigator players aren’t allowed to look at the back of the monsters before damaging them. Until then, they don’t know the monster’s special attack, nor the amount of its health points. That makes sense: when you first encounter an antagonist, how would you know such things ? And as for the Spells, each monster type comes with variations: not every Cultist has the same special attack (some are a lot of fun!) and, believe it or not, some Zombies are healthier than others. This way, you can never be sure of a monster’s abilities when you confront it.

But if you read other reviews of Mansions of Madness, you may have heard about some “major flaws” of the game.

Let’s summarize the complaints I read about :

  • Sometimes the Investigators are asked to decrypt puzzles before exploring further. Some reviewers thought the puzzles were too long, breaking the game’s rythm, and some of them were too darkly printed. We actually enjoyed the puzzles. That’s an original idea, and one of its purposes is to make use of the “Intellect” character attribute, often underused in games and RPGs as well. To solve puzzles, you are allowed as many moves per turn as your character’s Intellect. So both your own ability (in choosing the right moves) and your character’s are useful. If you see very clearly how to solve a Wiring Puzzle in four moves but you’re playing an Investigator with Intellect 3… well, he’s quite dumb, too bad for him, so you have to wait for another turn to finish it (or another Investigator). That’s adding suspense and good characterization. Oh, and about the arguably too-hard-to-read color codes of some puzzles? We were playing at night, in a room quite poorly lighted, and one of us color-blind ! We managed it. So please…
  • Many reviewers found the set-up too long. Well, it’s long, about twenty minutes. Mansions of Madness is clearly not a quick game you can improvise. It’s an immersive game, perfect for an evening with friends. Is that a problem? We didn’t think so. All gamers own different types of games for different situations.
  • The errata issue: yes, Mansions of Madness comes with a few errata. Most of them are wording problems which common sense and experience alone could have solved. It’s a complex game, and by complex I mean “involving many elements” rather than “difficult,” so I suppose the errata were unavoidable. Of course, everyone would have preferred a “perfect” game. But that’s no big deal, and never spoiled our gaming experience.
  • The game is “extremely linear” (GeekDad). It’s far less linear than any game except for (good) RPGs. Of course, Investigator players are prompted to go from room A to room G and so on, but most of time, they can’t achieve it linearly since the Keeper puts obstacles in their way. What’s more, the hints about which rooms to explore contribute to replayability, since they change according to the scenario’s options. What’s (even) more, they’re an element of suspense since they’re associated with a countdown. Predetermined Events will bring the story to its (dark) end if the Investigators are too slow. Without the hints contained in the Clues they discover, they would risk wandering randomly and would always lose the game. “We shall reach in the Crypt before the ceremony’s over!” is far better to play than “We shall probably do something somewhere before the ceremony’s over!”

In the end, the only flaws I completely agree with are the ones listed in the wonderfully extensive and precise review on Boardgame Geek, mostly these:

*Minimal supplied scenarios with the foreknowledge that none will be forthcoming for “free” making replayability an issue.

*Certain elements seem limited to be saved for inevitable expansions. Expansions are not bad at all, but when a game is released and feels light in some areas because things are intentionally held back for expansions, then it is a problem.

Plus one detail: the secret explanation of the plot is often known only by the Keeper (from his/her chosen answers to the scenario’s questions). If the Keepers plays his/her game well, the Investigators may guess his/her Objective but not the complete story. The Clue Cards may be more explicit about it. Or one could add Clue Cards to that purpose only.

So, who will like Mansions of Madness? Many people among you, I think, such as :

  • People who like Arkham Horror and Descent
  • Frustrated RPG players (and parents)
  • People looking for atmosphere and storytelling in a game
  • Lovecraft fans
  • People who’re not afraid to read long rules. (At least one of you needs to do that: the rules take a long time to read but not to understand nor to explain to the other players. If you’re reading this blog, I’m quite confident at least one person in your players’ team is geek enough to read and assimilate long rules. I suggest the one reading the rules be the Keeper for your first game. You’ll be able to switch roles quite easily for the following games. That’s what we did. Oh, and I’m the one reading the rules.)
  • Experienced players : I’m not sure MoM would be appreciated by complete beginners in boardgames/RPGs.
  • People who appreciate some suspense in a game

Mansions of Madness is designed by Corey Konieczka and published by Fantasy Flight Games. You’ll find it on Amazon at less than $60. Recommended age: 13 years and up according to the publisher, and I agree; younger players wouldn’t appreciate the game and may find it too dark.

My rating: 9/10

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