Mansions of Madness - Board Game Box Shot

Mansions of Madness

Mansions of Madness title

Horrific monsters and spectral presences lurk in manors, crypts, schools, monasteries, and derelict buildings near Arkham, Massachusetts. Some spin dark conspiracies while others wait for hapless victims to devour or drive insane. It’s up to a handful of brave investigators to explore these cursed places and uncover the truth about the living nightmares within.

Designed by Corey Konieczka, Mansions of Madness is a macabre game of horror, insanity, and mystery for two to five players. Each game takes place within a pre-designed story that provides players with a unique map and several combinations of plot threads. These threads affect the monsters that investigators may encounter, the clues they need to find, and which climactic story ending they will ultimately experience.

Mansions of Madness in play
image © Fantasy Flight Games

One player takes on the role of the keeper, controlling the monsters and other malicious powers within the story. The other players take on the role of investigators, searching for answers while struggling to survive with their minds intact.

Do you dare enter the Mansions of Madness?

User Reviews (24)

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5
Platinum Supporter
Thunderstone Fan
10
71 of 73 gamers found this helpful | Medals x 2
“Brilliant, Imaginative, Crazy Fun.”

I’ve played this game twice so far, and it has opened my eyes to the world of role-playing. It isn’t really necessary to role play, but the game just seems to bring that out. I haven’t laughed this much playing a game in a very long time.

Today, we ended with an epic battle against a seemingly impossible foe. The room was on fire, there were zombies all around us, and we were all acting out various Matrix-style moves. The Keeper broke my leg (in the game) and I found myself falling to the floor (for real), firing my duel .45′s. The win came down to a single die role. Our final possible turn led to one lady landing a sweep kick, and my character who was laying on the floor with a broken leg (and also deaf) firing the final shot that took out “Uncle Artie”.

I’ve played Arkham Horror a couple times (which by the way, uses the same core characters), but I find it much easier to get immersed in Mansions of Madness, and for the players (i.e. investigators) it is actually a very simple game to learn and play. Most of the fun seems to come from the stories and the players’ reaction to the story as it unfolds. You learn your objective as you go, you get to explore rooms, hide from monsters in chests, drag corpses into fires, and whack monsters with crowbars and fire extinguishers. The players don’t need to know all the rules at first, because the story tells you what to do.

I mark this as “Easy To Learn” from the point of view of a new player being taught. The first time playing the Keeper is actually a pretty steep learning curve.

Oh … and the puzzles are great … to unlock some doors and chests you have to solve real puzzles (tiles that you need to arrange in various patterns using a limited number of moves based on your character’s intellect).

This is an absolutely brilliant game to play. I have yet to see what is like to play with non-avid gamers, but it is definitely going to be among my top choices when I want to have some real fun.

 
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2
Amateur Reviewer
9
36 of 37 gamers found this helpful
“Mansions of Madness is a Hit!”

I’ve always been a fan of horror themed anything. Give me a terrible horror movie and I’ll almost certainly enjoy it more than a romance or action film. With that in the open, take my review with a grain of salt.

Mansions of Madness is a game set in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu universe. You and your friends play a group of investigators, with one player playing the Keeper, who runs the Mansion. The game plays like many thematic/Ameri-trash games, so I will avoid giving an overview of the basic game play.

What makes me love this game more than almost any other game I own is the amount of story in it; each of the investigator’s has an interesting story, and each of the scenarios (there are 5 in the base game) is engrossing and slightly variable.

The combat is innovative, and fun. Instead of having a dice-based combat system, depending on what type of enemy you are attacking, you will draw different cards, and the cards themselves are then split in to types of attack. The cards often have an encounter on them, a la Arkham Horror, and the player must try to pass the encounter.

There are puzzles that the player can (and sometimes must) overcome in order to uncover the secrets of the Mansion and escape alive. This mechanic alone makes this game very interesting and exciting to play.

All in all, this is a game that is dripping with theme. If you’re looking for a heavy euro game, then you already know you won’t like this game. But if you and your are into games for the experience of playing them, then this is the game for you. It’s a staple of my collection, and I firmly believe everyone should try it.

 
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6
Gamer - Level 6
Paladin
10
17 of 17 gamers found this helpful
“Absolutely LOVED it.”

INTRO:
I was both fascinated and terrified by this game at first. I love Elder Sign, and Fantasy Flight has a lot of games in the Arkham Horror universe. The concept of building out an ever-changing mansion and manipulating miniature creatures really appealed to me, but when I felt the box and looked at the sheer number of things involved I was intimidated. I ended up buying it for a friend of mine who loves all things miniature as a test.

GAMEPLAY:
The setup is daunting the first time, but once you’ve played through it the subsequent rounds go a lot faster. One player is the Keeper, and they control the creatures and weird stuff that happens to the other players (the Investigators). If you’re a D&D player, think of the Keeper as your GM. He tells the story and manipulates the situation to try and kill all the adventurers.

The basic gameplay has the investigators moving around the mansion, which is set up differently depending on what scenario you all agree to play. Most of the game is about uncovering clues and solving puzzles. There are actual physical puzzles, like picking a lock or rewiring a room that’s gone dark. They’re a neat added feature and a welcome skill-based challenge rather than just rolling dice.

Combat is something you do have to deal with in the game, but it’s definitely not the main focus. You might encounter lots of monsters (depending on your Keeper’s play style) or none at all. You can usually escape the room they’re in and there are items that let you block the door behind you (also a neat concept), so you’re never just stuck fighting turn after turn.

BUILD QUALITY
Fantasy Flight makes great, sturdy games with beautiful artwork. The details on the miniatures were quite nice. Everything had a solid feel to it. Overall it’s quite well made, but I did have a few minor complaints:

1. The miniatures didn’t really “snap” into their bases – they just sat on them with little pegs. This is necessary to fit them all back in the box…but it still bothered me.

2. The artwork was a little *too* dark in places, which made it hard to tell where a room was divided for movement.

3. Some of the cards are really tiny, and the print can be hard to read.

4. Once you punch out all the cardboard widgets it’s a real challenge to fit everything back in the box.

FUN FACTOR:
The first time we opened the game there were three of us, and we played two scenarios back to back. It took us roughly 5 hours, but a lot of that was learning the game. Still, we all agreed that it was a LOT of fun and we’d definitely sit down and play more scenarios as time permitted.

I had a lot of fun roaming around the mansion and solving puzzles. We (the Investigators) lost both times, but it was still really cool just to explore. It’s not one you can just pick up and play, but if you have a dedicated group you can invite them over and have it set up when they get there to streamline the process. I think it would be even more fun with the maximum 5 players (1 keeper, 4 investigators).

 
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1
10
79 of 84 gamers found this helpful
“Kill Your Friends, Or Better Yet Get Them to Kill Each Other!”

From the moment I saw this game demoed by Rodney Smith on Watch It Played (that’s on Youtube), I knew I wanted this game. It has creepy pieces, complicated rules, a ridiculous number of cards, puzzles and items, as well as great storytelling. At least…2 times out of 3.

The game setup time is massive. It is critically important that everything is done correctly, as the entire game falls practically on its face if setup is not PERFECT. Only once you’ve run a few games, will you be able to quickly recover any mistakes you might make with minor oopses and apologies all around. Your gaming group will lose faith in you if you mess up enough though. So make sure you either have a forgiving group or you are confident that you understand the rules FULLY before playing.

I’d have to say my favorite thing about the game is that no one really knows by and large what their objective is. Or, to put it more correctly, no one knows how to ACHIEVE their objectives. The investigators are set loose in one of five possible game storylines and pushed towards the first of a series of clues. But they don’t know if they need to stay alive, stay sane, or prevent something sinister from happening.

The keeper is actually a player, whose main job is to stop the investigators from achieving their goals. Even though the keeper is aware of his objective at the beginning of the game, it is often a challenge to determine how to bring his or her evil plans to fruition. It is also very difficult to keep track of the whats and when and whyfors of all the various impediments you can generate as keeper to foil the investigators.

All players can get frustrated when they realize that they can’t do the things they think they need to in this game, but I’ve realized that the game stays interesting when playing with a group of players that create their own subobjectives. For instance : I must help this character with a broken leg escape certain death even if it means not discovering the mystery, or this zombie may be killing me, but I’m taking it with me for the sake of the others.

Also, let someone else play Keeper once in a while you twisted monster! Friends do hold grudges when you try to kill them enough times. Let them savor the sadistic glee that comes with being an evil overlord from time to time. It will help you to understand what it’s like to be a puny -I mean- courageous investigator as well.

Another thing that is satisfying to me is that although there is a lot of possibility for combat within the game, you never know as investigators whether or not you should potentially waste time confronting a monster or whether you need to get as far from them as possible to uncover more clues. That goes the same for the keeper. Your objectives are not always best met by bashing an investigator’s skull in. Sometimes you can actually create tension by NOT taking opportunities to cause harm to your players. It’s really much more fun to make them stark raving mad.

Some of the storylines included in the box are better than others, and more entertaining, at least to our group. The enclosed storylines do have diverging story arcs that make playthroughs of the same map lead to a different outcome/objectives. I would say that playing with a full house is a much better way to play…and if you ever play with just two make sure your player runs two investigators. It really doesn’t play well otherwise. In fact, it may even be impossible for a lone investigator to do all the things that would need to be done on some of the “larger” maps.

It is pricey. But as each play through lasts a long amount of time(2-3 hours) and the basic game includes 5 different stories, 15 hours for 4 people is about the same as attending 7 movies, and the price of this game is definitely less than 28 movie tickets. OK…so I guess you don’t pay for movies for your friends very often(cheapskate), but you probably have more than 4 friends that you could try playing this game with. If you don’t, then I would steer you away from this game since you can probably find 2 or more cheaper games that might be more compelling.

I’ve played this game with several different groups. And to date, even with bad playthroughs, I’d still say it’s the best game I’ve ever purchased.

 
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5
Viscount / Viscountess
Novice Reviewer
Junior
BoardGaming.com Beta 1.0 Tester
10
58 of 62 gamers found this helpful | Medals x 1
“Choose Your Own Adventure meets Clue meets Arkham”

Basic Idea: Your team of investigators has been brought to a mysterious location to try and solve a mystery. You’re given a story and a prologue and thrown into the depths of Lovcraftian horror. You work with your team mates to explore the location, solve the mystery and survive the horror. All the while the evil “Keeper” is throwing obstacles, monsters and insanity your way at every step. It’s everything you always wanted Clue to be, but didn’t know it until right now.

Game Play: This game is mostly cooperative. The whole team of investigators work together to solve the mystery set before you. There is, however, the element of the Keeper (or as I like to call it, “The Evil DM”). While your group together can pick the story, the Keeper sets up the scenario and has his/her own turn at game play where they can add monsters, make investigators crazy and basically stir up the plot. An investigator’s turn is simple: you may move two spaces and do an action. Your action can include exploring the room (picking up the cards placed there by the keeper), working on a puzzle, attacking a monster, using a unique item or moving an extra spot (running). On the Keeper’s turn, he/she gain “threat” (points they can spend on actions), play action cards, attack players with monsters and move the clock forward in the game. While the play itself is simple, there are A LOT of components to this game. Each room has cards that the Keeper has placed at the beginning of the game. Some rooms are locked and the appropriate keys must be found before you can enter. Some rooms have locked suitcases and fried electrical circuits that translate into logic puzzles that players must solve to continue exploring. There are monsters, items, spells, clues and a series of time cards that create an air of suspense and will end the game if the investigators aren’t fast enough.

Thoughts: Start setting up this game AT LEAST 30 minutes prior to when you plan on playing. The set up is intense and the Keeper must do almost all of it by him/herself. While there is already an expansion out (Season of the Witch), there’s still only a limited number of scenarios available right now, so your gaming group might go through the available plot rather quickly. But I LOVE this game. I’m a huge mystery and role-playing fan and this game satisfies both of those parts of me perfectly. I love the puzzles and the locked rooms and the cooperative play. And if you’re a horror game fan, this game really manages to bring on the suspense and over all creepiness. With the exception of the set up time, I love every aspect of this game and can’t wait for more expansions!

 
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7
Knight-errant
Cooperative Game Explorer
Amateur Advisor
Gamer - Level 6
7
66 of 71 gamers found this helpful
“Lovecraftian storytelling game with a twist”

What to say about Mansions of Madness? I like the game, I really do. I want to like the game. I like Arkham Horror, and I like Elder Sign. Mansions of Madness was a game of a different format that I feel absolutely HAD to be made. But while I do like the game, there are some parts of it that leave me disappointed. This is not to say that I’m not game for Mansions of Madness at any point, but having played the game as both a player and the antagonist, I can see both sides of the coin with clarity.

To start, all of the familiar characters from Arkham Horror are here, and they are ready to investigate. Unlike Arkham Horror, your characters attributes and skills are determined by the starting item and talent that you give them. This makes for a very dynamic way to play all the characters in the game, and some of the abilities and items are very powerful indeed. They need to be, because the players will be at the mercy of the Keeper, a player representing the malicious force behind every awful event in the game. The Keeper is trying to accomplish some hidden goal in the game, and if successful, the Keeper wins and the adventurers lose. It can be as simple as driving a character insane, or by the investigators making one crucial wrong choice.

The game comes with a booklet that has four main set-ups featured for the game, and several branching paths within that set-up to determine what the actual story for the game is. Each scenario provides some brilliant set-up prose for the players to listen to, and you can easily tell that whoever designed the story had a gift for writing; it draws you in and sets up the mood nicely, as well as giving you an idea of what you’re supposed to be doing. Once the board is set up and the story is told, the game begins, with the investigators starting in the designated starting location for the scenario.

Right away, the investigators are under the gun. There is a time counter that is constantly moving. If the investigators don’t accomplish a certain task in a certain amount of time, bad things can happen. Not only that, but the Keeper gains threat tokens each turn, and with that threat, he or she can draw cards to play on the investigators, or summon monsters with the power cards he has at the start of the game. The investigators are going to be harried almost constantly, so actions must be chosen carefully. It should be noted that the investigators cannot affect the Keeper in any way; all they can really do is defend themselves as best they can from the Keeper’s influences.

This is not to say that the investigators are completely helpless. There are items that can be found all around the playing board of the scenario. These can be discovered by investigating certain areas where there are item cards face down. Some are nothing, but others can yield valuable resources. There are also obstacles to overcome, and locks to be undone. Obstacles are usually a puzzle or a restriction of some sort, and must be overcome before the items underneath can be revealed. Locks are more difficult, and often require a crucial item to overcome, but are often the staging area for the next crucial clue.

What are clues, you ask? Clues are indicators for the investigators as to what action or goal they should accomplish next. The clues often hold the key to the investigators winning the scenario, and failure to find these clues will more often than not doom the investigators to a grisly fate (or just the loss of the game, but this is Lovecraft we’re talking about).

So that roughly explains what the game is about. Now, let me explain what I feel gives this game a bit of a disappointing turn. There is a considerable amount of replay factor in how one plays the players, and how one plays the Keeper. Whether or not you have a lenient or a brutal Keeper can make all the difference in the world as to how the endgame turns out. However, where this gameplay is dynamic, the board set-ups and the stories are not. All of the key items for a scenario are located in one place for a given scenario, and if you know the scenario, you know exactly where to go and what to avoid. This can be circumvented by the creative gamer of changing key item locations over time, but only if one is advanced and knows how to tool the game.

Here is an example of what I speak, and those that have played the game know this scenario well. In set-up four, there is one scenario in which there is a certain room. In order to avoid spoilers, I will not say which scenario and which room, but if the investigators go to that room, they LOSE THE GAME. Period, end of story. Again, creative gamers can work around that little twist, but from that point on, you know that if you can recognize the scenario, you know not to go to that room, ever. That little bit of information takes a lot of the surprise and thrill out of things once you know it.

Now, most of the game is pretty fair and balanced. But it still doesn’t get around the fact that if you decide to play a game of Mansions of Madness with new players and you happen to recognize the scenario, you’re going to have to show some creative ignorance in order to avoid metagaming and ruining the experience for everyone else. However, this is a fun game, and if both the investigators and the Keeper are playing to win, it becomes more of a game of good versus evil, and that can be thrilling in itself.

 
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6
Novice Reviewer
Champion
Old Bones
3
20 of 21 gamers found this helpful
“Amazing Potential Falls Short in Arkham-land”

The first time I saw Mansions of Madness on a game store shelf, I drooled. Set in the Cthulhu mythos-drenched world of Arkham Horror and even using a handful of the exact same protagonist player characters, it looked amazing. I didn’t purchase it that day, though, opting for a game with a lower price tag.

About a year later I eagerly sat down to play with some friends and discovered that this wasn’t quite the game I was expecting.

Setup Time

The first thing to note in this massive game is that there are a finite number of scenarios, and one of the players becomes the storyteller, game master, or whatever moniker this game uses to describe the player that controls the monsters and non-player actions in this game (The Keeper, apparently). This, to me, is a black mark on Mansions of Madness–I have a score of roleplaying games on my shelf that allow that, and I sit down to play board games for the shared player experience, whether it’s cooperative or competitive.

That said, there are cards and tiles and tokens to be set up in a specific arrangement for each game scenario, and the storyteller is burdened with 100% of this work. In our single play-through, it took over 45 minutes.

Learning the Rules

It’s a Fantasy Flight Games game. I love FFG, but what can I say? Their rule books are absurdly long and detailed. We passed the rules around from turn to turn, stumbling through the storyteller’s chosen scenario and backpedaling several times when we discovered we’d done something very, very wrong. And this was with two experienced players out of five people sitting at the table.

I don’t want to sound like I’m burying this game–there were moments of fun sandwiched in the complexity, and I believe that, much like Arkham Horror, if this game is played often enough the rules will come much more naturally. Unfortunately, I believe the difference is that Arkham Horror is a fun, cooperative game with completely random elements throughout and has infinite replayability–especially with all of the expansions available! As far as I know there are no Mansions of Madness expansions, and the booklet of scenarios included is all she wrote.

Components

The game is beautiful. The miniatures, mansion tiles, cards, etc. are all of the incredible quality that many FFG fans take for granted these days. Certainly worth the price tag on the product.

A number of actual, physical puzzles are included with the game and must be solved during the scenarios. However: if your group is the kind that groans when the game master breaks out a puzzle during any other roleplaying game and spends an hour or two complaining about it, they are not going to like this element.

Ultimately, I suppose I was hoping for Betrayal At House On the Hill with the Arkham Horror characters and elements, and with FFG quality. That expectation, much like a highly anticipated horror film, probably contributed to my disappointment in this game.

Should You Try It?

If you’re looking for a game in the horror genre or Cthulhu mythos, especially if you like Arkham Horror, Elder Sign, and the whole slew of games in that franchise, and you’re down with having one of your group run the game and everyone else playing through a storyline RPG style–then yes, you’ll totally dig this game!

But if you’re looking for the unified group play style (rather than having an adversary in The Keeper) that comes with other games in this franchise, there’s a few other dungeon crawl board games I’d steer you in the direction of first.

 
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3
I'm a Real Player!
9
75 of 82 gamers found this helpful
“1st Session Review: Amazing Theme, Long Setup Time”

Mansions of Madness is an intimidating game to unbox and to set up. There are a million chits, plenty of obscure, conditional rules, and a confusing array of choices that the Keeper (aka dungeon master) must make before play begins.

But the game is also awesome.

When we first started setting it up for our “learn the rules as we play” sessions last weekend, I was pretty overwhelmed. I was the Keeper, I bought the game, but suddenly was getting dizzy with set up. The various decks aren’t labeled very well, and I continuously had to refer back to the contents pages of the rule book to see what I had to grab next. Thankfully, my veteran Arkham Horror friend, @Jason P, was there to walk me through the confusing parts of the setup process.

Once everyone chose their characters, and I made the various story choices for the first mission, everything settled down. Fantasy Flight’s mechanics work extremely well, taking a lot of the events out of the hands of the keeper and placing them in the various decks of cards used in the game. Unlike HeroQuest or something, where the keeper is guiding characters through a story, Mansions has the keeper actively playing along as well. He doesn’t hold THAT many secrets, or know of very many traps. They all come out in the cards, and the events that play out as time progresses (it’s especially fun if you didn’t read the event cards ahead of time).

The investigator characters are propelled forward by the story and the clock. It’s a much more linear game than Arkham, requiring everyone to keep moving, and keep discussing the clues they discover, in order to win before the game destroys itself. Everyone spends the first act wandering around the mansion, armed mainly with the various clues tucked into the story read at the beginning of the game. As turns progress, time markers are placed on event cards, and usually after 3-4 turns, the next card is flipped and a new “chapter,” of sorts, begins. Eventually you discover your game-winning objective (along with the keeper’s objective) and it’s a race to get it done.

Combat is a big part of the game, as investigators are fighting off various monsters controlled and summoned by the keeper. I loved that the combat is driven by a deck of cards, with flavor text and conditions on how each fight plays out. If you’re using a shotgun, for example, you keep drawing cards until you find one with “Ranged weapon” on it. You read what it says, you roll for whatever skill check it asks, and then you read the pass or fail text. It’s a lot of fun. There’s also a good bit of strategy involved in regards to the weapons you use, and also the attack order (each round, the investigators decide who goes first).

Another important aspect of the game are the puzzles. Similar to the videogame Bioshock, in order to search some rooms or open specific doors, players have to complete a simple tile puzzle. Everyone we were playing with really enjoying figuring out the puzzles, which involve spinning and swapping tiles to match symbols or to connect colored lines. They are a good side-project in the game, and can encourage teamwork (but not cheating) as various players use the “action” phase of their turn to take a crack at completing the thing.

Okay, so this game is probably too big to review like this, and with only one play sessions under my belt I’m sure there will be more to say later. As far as playtime went, setup took unusually long: over an hour. This was mainly because of all the learning involved with the various decks, chits, and occasional vague rule (like how to position item cards in rooms). The game itself took close to three hours, which was shorter than expected.

Overall, everyone seemed to really enjoy the game and we look forward to more sessions. It was a very detailed, realistic game with lots of rules and conditions to sort through. It’s also very satisfying from a theme perspective, and even though I (the keeper) won, it never felt unbalanced.

 
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5
Went to Gen Con 2012
Sentinels of the Multiverse fan
9
68 of 79 gamers found this helpful
“Don't go into the cemetery alone!”

My entire gaming group love playing Mansions of Madness.

Let me talk about the negatives before I move on to why everyone loves the game.
First, there is a long set up time. My advice, if you know you are going to play set it up prior to people arriving. Check the set up. During one of our recent playing, it became clear that I had not set up the board correctly and the group was in a no win situation. (I forgot to add a door)
Not everyone in my group enjoys the puzzles – they feel stressed to make the correct decision.
It may be possible to have a situation where no one wins.

The positives
With the different scenario choices, and expansions, it is possible to play the game frequently and have a different experience every time.

The pieces are fun to work with- and if you purchase some of the pre-painted miniatures (or paint them yourself) from Fantasy Flight, you can have the “main” fight include a painted miniature.

Since the characters are not forced to go in one direction, it can be pure joy to watch what trouble people can get into. There is usually at least one person in the group who is sure they should go check out something (the cemetery) while the rest of the group “Goes on ahead. They will catch up.”

The theme is easy to understand- everyone enjoys a haunted house story.

Even though this is not a “press your luck” game most players feel like they should stay as close to the door and explore at the same time. This isn’t possible and leads to a lot of fun group discussion.

If you have 2-3 hours and want to have a fun time, turn down the lights, turn up the scary music and kill off the investigators one at a time. After all everyone knows you shouldn’t go into a cemetery alone.

 
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3
Rated 10 Games
Intermediate Grader
Tinkerer
9
64 of 75 gamers found this helpful
“Into The Mouth Of Madness”

In this foray into H.P. Lovecraft’s universe, all the players except one play as a party against a Keeper, who is the other player. The Keeper chooses from one of 5 scenarios, and then makes several story choices about that scenario.

Each choice affects victory conditions or the layout of the house or items or monsters in play and so on. What is fascinating is that the players (other than the Keeper) do not know what the victory conditions are at first.

They learn the conditions by finding clues, solving puzzles and defeating monsters thrown at them. The Keeper can also trigger random events that can hurt players and can inflict injured players with physical or mental maladies.

The game components are excellent and colorful. Game play is simple once you understand the rules (which does take some doing), and the game is typically well balanced. I have had several games come right down to the wire. It is not unusual for all players (keeper included) to lose.

This is a boardgame that feels like an RPG, and the mysteries within it make it very satisfying.

It does take a while to set up, and it could use more scenarios, but otherwise this is an excellent game.

 
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1
8
61 of 73 gamers found this helpful
“Fantastic atmosphere”

While the initial set-up time of this game is one of the longest I’ve seen, it is well worth it. The scenarios that come with the game are suspenseful and lend themselves to a degree of light role-play for those that are into that sort of thing.

Mechanically the game is simple, with checks being resolved using a standard ‘roll under X on a d10′. Combat is resolved using a deck of cards which determine the flavor and mechanics of the attack – this is a nice mechanic in theory, however there are many types of attack and the deck is sufficiently small that you find yourself repeating the same attack cards over and over.

The puzzles are an interesting twist and there are sufficient distinct puzzles, pieces and configurations to prevent repetition.

The game comes with only 5 scenarios, though each has several variable options that mean you can play the same one more than once and have a different experience.

The best tip I can give for enjoyment of this game is that the most experienced player be the Keeper. It will be their job to enforce the rules, and having someone who knows how to take advantage of the mechanics will really make the players work to eke out a win, just like Cthulhu games should always be.

 
Player Avatar
3
Critic - Level 2
6
60 of 80 gamers found this helpful | Medals x 1
“Mansions of Madness and Story in Games”

This review and all of its nifty images can be found at http://www.nerdbloggers.com

Mansions of Madness is fairly unique in the board game space, where it positions itself as a storytelling game. This started me thinking about story in board games, and how it impacts the play experience. Because Mansions of Madness is so closely tied to the concept of story, I want to give my take on story in games before I start in on my review of the game.

Story in games:

I enjoy a wide gamut of game genres, but when it comes down to it, I have a special affinity with those that are story driven. The game sessions that I fondly remember, and excitedly describe to my friends, always have a strong and compelling emotional element. This makes sense, because without an emotional component there would be no story to tell. When the human element is removed, what remains is no longer a story, but a series of empty machinations. People innately realize that there is a difference between abstract movement and meaningful movement – between description and story. This idea often manifests itself in discussion of board games as “Mechanics vs. Theme”. Mechanics are the movement of the pieces, and the rules that must be followed during play, whereas the theme consists of the art, player motivations, and the real or imaginary ideas that the pieces in the game represent. Many abstract games are accused of having a “pasted on” theme, which is often used as a thinly veiled way of saying the game does not deliver a story. This is where my opinion of story may differ from the mainstream.

Story can appear under many different guises outside of the typical cut-scenes in video games, or back-story narrative in board games, and is much more pervasive than may be immediately apparent. Even games like the epitomic abstract “Chess” can tell a compelling story through the give and take of positional advantage. In these instances, however, the story isn’t found on the board, or in the pieces, but instead manifests from the interaction between the players, and is facilitated by the mechanics of the game. Even when completely devoid of theme, games can tell stories of loss and victory; clever cunning and missed opportunity; and can hide within their simple interactions the gamut of human emotion. After all, most sports are abstract games that are watched and loved by millions, not for their mechanics, but for the inherent story that is created through the interaction of the players.

When refined into its essence, a game’s story comes from its ability to elicit this emotional response. Theme is often a key ingredient in facilitating these feelings, and does so by enhancing the player’s immersion in the game world, but in the end, theme is still only a tool to help develop the story. The players themselves fill the role of characters within the story of a game, and the emotion that makes the game’s mechanics meaningful must come from within the players. With this in mind, story becomes a non-corporeal concept that rises above simple mechanics and theme, and lives on its own as a separate idea. Story is the brass ring that game designers are reaching to grab, because story is synonymous with player engagement.

There is an ongoing discussion about what makes a good game. The term “Balance” is bandied about a lot in these dialogues. Balance is the perceived fairness in a game; the potential for all players to achieve victory, given the same amount of effort. Some go so far as to say that a game which is unbalanced is fundamentally broken. Unbalanced gameplay can elicit strong emotional response just like a good story, but in many contexts this response can be negative, and directed towards the game itself. The player who experiences this will still relate his gameplay story to others, but this story may very well consist of a string of colorful expletives, and end with the words “never playing again”.

It’s in this situation, however, that theme can actually turn a negative game experience into a positive one. An unbalanced abstract game gives the player no frame of reference as to why the game is unbalanced, and as a result, the player has nowhere to channel his emotional response. But when theme is added to the same game, the player gains a frame of reference which allows him to justify the difference in difficulty; and what was a negative aspect of the abstract game, can become a positive aspect of a themed game. If one player is representing a ragtag band of rebels, and another controlling an oppressive dictatorship, it would make little sense for both sides to be equally balanced from a theme perspective. In fact, by adding that element of skewed odds, the game experience is often made much more emotionally compelling for the players involved.

That’s not to say that theme fixes everything, though. The theme of a game is still just a tool to justify the game mechanics. The choices that the player makes must be interesting, and empower him to feel that he is driving the direction of his play experience. There is a term used in film study: “Suspension of Disbelief”. This describes the ability of a film to immerse the viewer so much that he doesn’t notice the limitations of the medium, or discontinuities in the story. This idea can be applied to games as well: A player has a very limited number of decisions that he can make during most games, and he must play within the confines of the game rules and components offered. What amounts to moving bits around a board, and generating random numbers transforms into something much more engrossing during play, because the player looks past the limitations of the cardboard and plastic that make up the game components, and instead becomes immersed within the confines of the game mechanics and theme. If those mechanics become too dull, or are overly complicated, that suspension of disbelief is broken, the game components revert back to being bits of cardboard and plastic, and the player can no longer justify his emotional reaction within the confines of the game.

Getting that perfect mixture of theme and mechanics can be a difficult proposition. There is no magical formula for creating a good game, yet there are a multitude of different paths to achieve compelling gameplay. Not every game hits that mark, but when a game does hit that sweet spot, the experience is sublime.

The Game:

Mansions of Madness is a game designed by Corey Konieczka, and published by Fantasy Flight Games. When it comes to theme, Mansions of Madness has it in spades, even more so than the typical Fantasy Flight fare – and that is saying a lot. Its story-driven design aspires to take that step beyond pure theme, and strives to deliver a marriage of balanced mechanics and story through a uniquely focused gameplay experience.

In Mansions of Madness, players take on the role of individuals who find themselves investigating strange, supernatural events in a creepy mansion. The investigators must struggle to combat creatures, explore the mansion, search for clues, and solve puzzles to ultimately put an end to the unspeakable horror that confronts them. Like several other Fantasy Flight games, Mansions of Madness takes place in the world of the Cthulu Mythos, modeled after writer H.P. Lovecraft’s early 20th century short stories and novels.

Mansions of Madness shares many similarities with some other popular games on the market; most notable are Fantasy Flight’s own Arkham Horror, and Wizards of the Coast’s Betrayal at House on the Hill. Despite these similarities, however, Mansions of Madness manages to find its own unique identity, and any does not feel derivative. Like some other games in the genre, Mansions of Madness uses modular tiles to build its vivid game board, but unlike most games with tile based boards, the tiles are not arranged randomly. In fact, the random elements found in Mansions of Madness are mostly relegated to combat, and skill tests alone. The majority of the game is tightly moderated, and in some ways resembles a roleplaying module more than a board game.

Like a role-playing game, Mansions of Madness is mostly a cooperative experience. All the players, except for a single player called the “Keeper” are working together towards a common goal. The “Keeper” is a bit different; he fills a role similar to the Game Master in a roleplaying game. Unlike roleplaying games, however, this “Keeper” player is actually in competition with the other players, and has his own set of conditions to win the game. Before the game even starts, one of the 5 possible scenarios in the rulebook is chosen, and the modular game board is arranged as indicated by that particular scenario. Although there are only 5 scenarios, each scenario contains a handful of different possible variations from which the keeper can choose. Each scenario has detailed instructions about which of the game’s many cards will be used, as well as how they are arranged and placed. These cards contain clues, puzzles, and items that the investigators will encounter, and also act as a way to control the tempo of the game.

Although this merging of role-playing concepts with board games is unique and refreshing, I did find that there were some implementation issues that lessened the experience for me. Because the game relies so much on its back story and theme to drive the game forward, it is paramount that the story itself is compelling. Unfortunately, if that story never really coalesces, the game can feel flat. The first scenario in Mansions of Madness never really clicked for my group, and as a result, created some apathy towards the game. Much of the problem revolved around the fact that this introductory scenario didn’t build on what players were familiar with. When confronted with monsters, the players sought combat, instead of the strategic exploration and evasion which is really at the core of Mansions of Madness. The first scenario really doesn’t do much to anticipate this behavior, or guide the players back on track. A bit more direct instruction in the first scenario would have properly set the stage for more subtlety in later scenarios, and solved the issue of new players wandering around aimlessly.

Another area that could have been improved was the delivery of the backstory itself. Aside from a few detailed paragraphs setting up the scenario, all other plot based information is relayed through tiny cards that are roughly the size of business cards. This limits the amount of prose in the game, and turns the plot into a vague outline. Adding more detailed and lengthy text in the game manual, or in a small per-scenario booklet would have added some needed depth to the various plots. Normally, in less directed games, it is up to the players to create their own story, and vague flavor text is more of a snippet to spark the imagination, and in that context brief flavor text is perfectly enjoyable. Mansions of Madness however, structures it’s scenarios in a way that dissuades players from free-form movement. In fact, the placement of cards in each scenario is explicitly designed to limit player progression. Players literally cannot move into certain areas without having met specific prerequisites in the game; and there are from three to six of these chokepoints in each scenario. Players instinctually look to the theme to justify these roadblocks, and with only a smattering of text to explain each one, the story ends up feeling empty. Limiting player movement isn’t a bad thing though, it is important to maintain the pacing of the game; there is just a lot of missed opportunity regarding storytelling that could have been harnessed with this decidedly linear progression.

Mansions of Madness supports from 2-5 players, but really plays best at the high end of that range. With more players in the game, more things are happening due to the increased number of actions that the keeper can take with a higher player count. In the relative starkness of the plot, more actions mean more potential for the players to do interesting things. This dynamic turns Mansions of Madness into more of a social game, just like the roleplaying games that it loosely models. The players’ success or failure in the game really hinges on their ability to work well together, and it’s this interaction that fuels the fun-factor in the game. With a length of 2-3 hours per session, it is important that players stay engaged, or else the game can start to drag.

While Fantasy Flight suggests a minimum player age of 13, this is due more to the theme and content of the game than the mechanics. Mansions of Madness has a horror theme that takes itself very seriously, with gory illustrations on the components, some grisly descriptions on the cards, and foreign, insect-like creatures found in the box. In addition to the general horror aspects of the theme, Mansions of Madness also assumes a bit of knowledge about the Cthulu Mythos, as it gives no explanations about what the strange creatures the investigators encounter are, or where they came from. This can lead to questions from players such as “Is this a Cthulu?”, while pointing at the large Shoggoth miniature; or incredulous looks when they are told that the Shoggoth CAN fit through the narrow passage because he is an inter-dimensional being, and doesn’t have to follow the same physical laws as we do. This doesn’t mean that the players won’t enjoy the game, but it does break a bit of the suspension of disbelief that Mansions of Madness relies on.

Components:

The artwork that graces the mountain of components in Mansions of Madness is visually stunning. Cards make up a good majority of the content, and are used to depict character statistics, to represent items and obstacles, and to represent player and creature actions, among other things. The cards come in two sizes: a smaller business card size that represents items, obstacles, and other things that can be found on the game board; and a larger playing card size that represents actions the keeper can take, character sheets, combat actions, events, and anything else manipulated outside the confines of the game board.

There are a ton of tokens in the Mansions of Madness box as well. These represent different game concepts, such as threat (The keeper’s form of currency), damage, insanity, time, and various environmental and status effects. The game also contains a handful of jigsaw-puzzle-like tokens used for solving the various conundrums the investigators will encounter during the game. The tokens are nice and thick, vibrantly colored, and a pleasure to handle.

The board itself is very interesting; it is put together for each scenario, by arranging double-sided modular tiles into a predetermined configuration that is described in the investigator manual. Each tile depicts one or more rooms, and each room is further subdivided into individual spaces (usually one or two per room, but more for larger rooms and outdoor areas). While the room divisions are bold and well defined, it can be easy to forget about the individual spaces sometimes, especially when there are a large number of miniatures in the room.

The plastic figures that come with the game are truly spectacular. They look amazing and some of them are truly massive in size. Each monster has unique information about it printed on a small square token; with public information on the front, and secret information on the back. Each figure attaches to an ingenious black base that has a slot in the side which allows a monster token to slide into it. The base also has cutouts on the top to allow the public information to show through, and another on the bottom to allow easy access to the secret information. If this wasn’t cool enough, each base also has a small hook to which wound tokens can be attached, making all the required information about a creature available at a glance, during play. With so many components in the game, the ability to keep all the monster information in one place without the need to cross-reference a separate character sheet is fantastic. The only issue with these clever miniature stands is the tendency of the miniatures to fall off of the little pegs that hold them on, but a dab of glue easily solves that issue.

Mansions of Madness comes with three rulebooks (although two of these are combined into a single physical booklet): The Rules of Play, which is nicely illustrated with large, full color pictures, and describes the rules of the game in a very clear and concise manner; the investigator’s book that contains the tile placement, room layout, and a small backstory for each scenario; and the keeper’s book, which contains the placement of all of the item cards, clue cards, puzzles, and obstacles for each of the different variations of the scenarios. All of these manuals are full of theme, great artwork, and clear instructions. A better index, or reference sheet could have made looking up rules questions during the game much more streamlined, but the manual is arranged in a manner that makes it easy to flip through it and answer that pesky rules question.

Setup:

Setup in Mansions of Madness takes quite a while, and can be very confusing at first. Setup can easily take thirty minutes. The nature of the game requires that the components are meticulously sorted, ordered, and placed in very specific spots in the play area. This process is delegated between the keeper and the investigators, with the investigators setting up the game board, and the keeper collecting, sorting, and ordering the appropriate cards for the scenario. This division of labor helps cut down on the setup time, and gives the players an opportunity to better learn the components they are about to use during the game.

The investigator setup involves building the game board, by placing tiles according to the illustration in the manual. Because the investigators set up the board, they get a better idea of how rooms are laid out, and can plan routes through the mansion in their head. There is a negative side to this, however; players do not truly get that sense of exploration and discovery of the mansion during the game. From a tactical standpoint, it is really necessary for the players to know the layout of the entire game board up front, but this necessity works against the exploration theme that Mansions of Madness tries so hard to cultivate.

Setting up the board correctly is imperative. Many tiles look similar to other tiles, and can be unintentionally rotated, making it easy to accidentally place a tile in the wrong configuration. This can have significant gameplay impact, sometimes moving doors so that portions of the mansion are made inaccessible. It is worthwhile to make a second pass across the board to make sure that everything is placed correctly.

After the investigators have set up the board, they select characters. There are a handful of different characters to choose from, each with a different backstory, and different stats. The distribution of characters allows for a good variety, and the backstories are entertaining to read, and help players to get into character. Investigators further customize their characters by choosing from a selection of traits and special abilities that have been tailored for each. Some of these traits allow characters to start the game with specific items, which they receive after selecting the appropriate trait.

At the end up setup, the players read the scenario’s backstory from the investigator’s manual. This is usually half of a page of text, setting the mood, and giving the players a motivation for being in the mansion. This text is easily the most detailed piece of fiction in the game, and it would have been nice to see this level of detail in other text found in the game.

While the players are performing their half of the setup, the keeper is tasked with setting up the plot points in the game. The keeper is able to select some variations of the story by answering questions from the keeper manual. For each answer he will place a corresponding, numbered tile onto the table. These questions usually consist of one who’s answer determines the goal of the particular scenario, and a handful of other questions that determine where in the mansion particular events will occur. While the first question can fundamentally change the scenario, the other questions just determine where particular events occur so that there is some replayability in the scenarios.

Based on the choices that the keeper made, he will refer to a table in the keeper’s manual, which will tell him what cards he will be using for the scenario, how to order them, and where to put them on the board. In order to correctly drive the game plot forward, certain cards must be placed in certain rooms. Any cards that do not belong in a specific room are randomly distributed in the remaining, empty rooms. This is a very lengthy process that is prone to error, and if the keeper accidentally looks at the card setup for answer “3a” when he answered “3b”, the game can become unwinnable. If you are easily distracted, like me, conversation during the setup process can cause it to take much longer than it normally would. In fact, for this reason, I prefer to privately set up the scenario ahead of time, before the game starts.

After the setup is complete, the keeper reads the flavor text from the keeper manual aloud. This narrative is just more than simple flavor text, and the keeper should probably reiterate this fact to new players. The text on the clue cards, and in the opening story actually tell the players where they need to explore. If it mentions incontinence (it doesn’t), then the investigators should probably make their way to the bathroom, or risk wandering around aimlessly.

Mechanics:

Mansions of Madness has quite a few rules, although some of them never come into play unless you are tackling certain scenarios. The core rules are fairly simple, however, and can be taught fairly quickly. In fact, if the keeper sets up the game ahead of time, Mansions of Madness is a good candidate for a game that can be taught while playing.

For the investigators, the core concept in Mansions of Madness is exploration. The investigators start the game without knowing their objective, and they must explore, and find clues to reveal it. This forces the player to listen to the clues, and plot points that are revealed throughout the game. These hidden objectives and secret clues add an exciting mystery to the game if you are willing to immerse yourself in the story, but players who ignore this information are at a disadvantage, and will find themselves frustrated, and feeling like they don’t know what to do next.

When exploring the mansion, there are two phases to the game: the investigator phase, and the keeper phase. During the investigator phase, each of the investigator players can take two movements, and one action, in any order. For each movement, a player can move his miniature to an adjacent or diagonal space, as long as there is not a wall in the way. Sometimes, when moving into a new room, it will contain a lock card. When this happens, all movement stops, and the player must successfully resolve the lock card before moving forward.

These lock cards are a mechanic that Mansions of Madness uses to control the tempo of the game, and ensure that the plot unfolds properly. In order to enter the room, the player has to use a specific item that is associated with the type of lock, or solve a puzzle to open the door; the requirements are printed on the card. If the player succeeds, he can continue his movement, but if he does not, he must end his movement, and cannot enter the room.

Sometimes, the player will enter a room with a monster, or other environmental effect, and will have to test for horror. Horror and insanity are prevalent in the Cthulu Mythos. The creatures in Lovecraft’s writings are so horrible, that just looking at them can cause insanity in mortal men. This idea is presented in Mansions of Madness as a player statistic called “sanity”. As the player encounters things in the mansion, he will have to test his will against the horrors that he finds. If he fails this test, he will find that his psyche takes damage in the form of horror tokens. If the investigator takes too many horror tokens, he goes insane, which allows the keeper to do some pretty nasty stuff to them.

Checking for horror is done using a simple “skill check”. This “skill check” process is performed during horror checks, combat, and in response to certain game events that require a player to test his skill. The player rolls a 10 sided die, and if the result is equal to, or less than the skill he is testing, he passes, otherwise he fails, and received a horror token. Some tasks are harder than others though, and may modify the number that the player must roll to succeed. The players also have a small number of “skill point” tokens that they can expend before rolling to add their luck statistic to the skill they are testing. These skill points are a limited resource though, and must be used wisely.

Aside from the two movements, an investigator player can take one action per turn. These actions are all very intuitive, and it isn’t difficult to remember them. The most common action used is the “Explore” action which allows a player to look at, and take the cards that are face down in the room, as long as there are no obstacles in the way. If players find themselves with nothing useful to do, they can take the “run” action, which allows for an additional movement. Players can also use items and spells as an action, pick up and drop items, as well as hide, and barricade doors. Of course, the investigators can also choose to attack as their action, and engage a monster in combat.

Sometimes, when exploring a room the investigator will come across a puzzle. This is one of the more unique aspects of Mansions of Madness, because it represents character intelligence in a very intuitive manner. It is hard to separate the player’s intelligence from the character’s intelligence in games; if a character is stupid, but the player is a genius, then giving the player a puzzle doesn’t realistically depict the character’s abilities. On the flip side, just rolling a die for an intellect test wouldn’t isn’t very interesting, and doesn’t give the player a feeling of accomplishment. Mansions of Madness addresses this dilemma by giving players actual puzzles made of tiles that must be manipulated in different ways to achieve a proper arrangement. The players must actually solve the puzzle with his own brain, but the number of times he can manipulate the puzzle is determined by his character’s intelligence. This means that a player with a character that has a high intelligence will have more than enough turns to solve a puzzle, whereas a character with a low intelligence will give a very limited number of turns, making the puzzle difficult for the player. Puzzles that haven’t been solved are left as-is in the play area, which allows a player to finish the puzzle on a later turn, or let another player to try his hand at the puzzle. Not only does this puzzle mechanic keep the game thematically solid, it engages the player at an intellectual level as well.

To complete the game, the players continue the process of searching rooms, fighting, evading monsters, and following clues until they discover and complete the objective. Of course, the investigators aren’t the only players trying to win, the keeper will try to stop them at every turn, and he has quite a deadly selection of tricks up his sleeve. The keeper has his own secret objective that will bring the game to an end in his favor. Both the keeper and the investigators are both limited by the inevitable march of time, and if neither has completed his objective before time runs out, everyone loses.

After all the investigators have taken their turns, the keeper gets his chance to terrorize the investigators. While investigators have a fixed number of actions each turn, the keeper has a kind of currency that he spends to perform actions. This currency is called “threat”, and is gained by the keeper at the start of his turn. Depending on the scenario, the keeper will have a different set of actions that he purchase with his threat. Each action is represented by an action card that the keeper player keeps in front of him. Actions can cost differing amounts of threat to use, and allow the keeper to do things like spawn monsters, move monsters, and perform other story specific deeds (such as taking tissue samples from the players). Each scenario uses a different subset of these cards, so not all actions are available in all games, which requires the keeper to stay nimble, and change his strategy from game to game.

Aside from the action cards, which are always available for the keeper to purchase, there is also a small deck of “mythos” cards. These are cards that the keeper can acquire throughout the game, and activate using his threat. Unlike the keeper’s action cards, these mythos cards are discarded as soon as the keeper uses them. Mythos cards often have prerequisites for use, such as requiring investigators be in certain rooms, or be carrying weapons of a certain type. These mythos cards can be very powerful, and the keeper may find himself building strategies around these cards in order to leverage their effects.

The last type of card that the keeper utilizes is the “trauma” card. These cards can be used on a player when he takes damage (either physical or mental). The effects of these cards are usually permanent, and persist until another trauma card of the same type takes it’s place. I really like the depth of theme that these cards add; in most games the character takes damage, but has no permanent effect on the player’s abilities. The trauma cards in Mansions of Madness are different, and can simulate a potentially debilitating condition as a result of damage.

At the end of the keeper’s turn, creatures that are in the same space as an investigator character can attack. The combat system is an aspect of Mansions of Madness that really shines. This was actually very surprising to me, as I’ve never been a fan of the card driven combat in many of Fantasy Flight’s games. I may be more accepting of the combat in Mansions of Madness because there is still a die-rolling element in the combat, but it is the card driven portion of combat that elevates it. Combat is separated into several types: melee, ranged, unarmed, etc, and each monster type (humanoid, beast, and eldrich) has it’s own deck of cards used for combat. When a player attacks a creature, cards from the deck of the applicable monster type are turned over until a card with the appropriate combat type is drawn. For example, if I am unarmed, I would draw cards until I find one with the “unarmed” heading. That card will have a bit of flavor text on it about the attack being made, and then tell the player what attribute to make a skill check against. Based on the text of the card, the player may have to test against different abilities. This mechanic makes combat more interesting, because the cards don’t stand as a simple replacement for dice, but instead impart story into the game, and turn combat from a potentially dull act of number crunching, into a meaningful narrative experience.

After all investigators and the keeper have taken their turns, a time token is placed on top of the event deck. This deck is built to introduce plot events at certain intervals during the game; when the number of time tokens on the deck equals a number printed on the back of the top card, it is flipped over and the events described on the card are performed. If the last card in this deck is flipped over, it usually means global failure, both for the investigator players, and the keeper. The inclusion of this event deck serves to convey interesting plot events, limit the time a game is played, and keep all players on target. Without a ticking doomsday clock, players may feel motivated to leisurely explore the mansion; the event deck keeps impending failure breathing down everyone’s neck, and motivates them to stick to their objective.

Conclusion:

I have a generally positive impression of Mansions of Madness. It is enjoyable to play and has a nice depth to it’s mechanics, without being completely overwhelming. The rules are intuitive, and although they may seem intimidating at first, it is not hard to remember how things work, and there aren’t a lot of exceptions in the rules to be forgotten. The mechanics themselves are well-balanced, and the tempo of gameplay is moderated in a way that drives the plot forward, as long as players pay attention to the clues.

Combat is easy to understand, and the card driven, die-rolling mechanic really works to make the combat itself interesting and relevant to the theme, and should appease players who like both card driven and dice controlled combat mechanics. Because different attack types use different cards, and each monster type uses a different deck, the combat experience is really tailored to the situation at hand, which makes combat feel more cinematic. The design put into the miniature bases, are also worth noting, as they simplify what could be a complicated combat process otherwise.

Mansions of Madness is bursting with theme, and the unique, directed scenarios make for an interesting, almost episodic feeling experience. For the first few plays, the excitement of not knowing what is about to be encountered motivates replay, and keeps players coming back for more. The artwork on the components, and the detail put into the sculpted miniatures really tie everything together, and deliver an exquisitely themed package.

Despite the wonderful theme, dazzling components, and balanced gameplay, Mansions of Madness does have some drawbacks. In many ways, it appears that the game attempts to do too much in it’s marriage between theme and game balance, and may end up diluting the gameplay experience. Even though Mansions of Madness is dripping with theme, It fails to deliver a deep, compelling story. While the game is enjoyable, and the attempt to tell a story is admirable, it only really gives a taste of story, delivering what ends up being more of an outline that is never really fleshed out by gameplay. More detailed clues and events could have really helped the game in this area, and by moving fiction from the small cards to the larger manual, the delivery of story could have been fleshed out much more. This may have added a bit of complexity and made the gameplay a bit less streamlined, but I think that it would have made the game more immersive and enjoyable.

I’m sure it’s this perceived emptiness in the story that makes the game feel a bit sterile, but the theme itself adds to this feeling as well; H.P. Lovecraft’s stories often gave the feeling of isolation and desperation, and tended to be more about plot than character development. Mansions of Madness reflects this theme well, but as a social, cooperative game, it really needs to facilitate player interaction, and character development a bit more.

Although the game is well paced, and balanced, this doesn’t necessarily make for the best story. Due to the inherent balance, the players never really feel outclassed or outnumbered, which lessens the visceral horror impact. In this instance, a bit of imbalance in gameplay may have helped invest the players in the story more. There are also very few opportunities for the players to heal in game, which makes the progression towards the endgame very linear. With little opportunity to regain health, progression can feel like a slow burn towards the inevitable end. Empowering the players through success, and allowing them more opportunity to heal, or gain a leg up, would have created a game full of more ups and downs, and explored a wider range of player emotion.

It may seen like I am focusing on story a lot, and holding Mansions of Madness to a different standard than most games, but unlike most games, Mansions of Madness is built around a linear, story like progression. With only five scenarios that come with the game, story becomes even more important, because it has to hold up after multiple replays.

The final issue I have with the game is that there are “nobody wins” situations. The game can end in a draw, or more accurately, situations where everyone loses. These endings are extremely unsatisfying, and sometimes don’t really even make sense with the narrative given. Not only does this leave the players unfulfilled, it causes players to make decisions that do not make thematic sense, motivating players to behave in an uncharacteristic, suicidal manner to ensure that nobody can win the game.

Despite my criticisms, I still think that Mansions of Madness is a fun game, and worth playing, and it has a definite place in my collection. But, when it comes to the exploration based horror game, I find myself leaning more to the often grossly unbalanced, less sterile, and more interesting stories and scenarios of Betrayal at House on the Hill. I’m not sure that gameplay balance trumps theme when a game is built to tell a story. Stories are interesting due to the inherent imbalance, and in this case I think the balance of Mansions of Madness is actually a shortcoming. It has a lot of promise, though, and is built with expansion in mind, so I will certainly be bringing it to the table again. But, I hope that Fantasy Flight can bring some more personality to the game through expansions in the coming years.

 

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