First Impressions: Mansions of Madness

First Impression: Mansions of Madness
By Patrick Korner

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Designer: Corey Konieczka
Players: 2-5
Ages: 13 and up
Playing Time: 120 Minutes

Introduction

One vs. many games have a long gaming history. From the venerable Scotland Yard (a game I played to death as a kid) and Fury of Dracula through HeroQuest, Garibaldi, Descent and beyond, these types of games offer lots of interesting gaming. Some are simple, like Scotland Yard – apart from the hidden movement, there isn’t all that much different about what Mister X does compared to the detectives, and some are rather more complex (like HeroQuest or Descent, where one player essentially acts as a Dungon Master in a fairly simple RPG-ish dungeon crawl).

For some reason (probably the RPG influence), many of these games have a fantasy / dungeon crawl type feel to them. Move about and find stuff. Use stuff to battle monsters. Find treasure / objectives. Win! The complexity and the interesting stuff comes from how the game handles the chrome, and the chrome plays a huge role in how engaged people get while playing. What kind of monsters are they? What kind of equipment do you have? How is combat resolved? How well does the game draw you into its theme?

The latest entry into the genre is Fantasy Flight Games’ Mansions of Madness (2010), which puts players into the shoes of various Investigators sent out to see what’s going on in various mansions around the town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Arkham, eh? Yup – this game is full-on Cthulu enabled, so don’t be surprised if a Shoggoth suddenly comes into being down in the basement…

Components

FFG games have a deserved reputation as being gorgeously produced, and Mansions of Madness (MoM) is, for the most part, no exception. The artwork is nice, the cards are decent size, the cardboard bits and such are good. Overall, the game looks pretty cool set up on your dining room table. Even nicer, you don’t need to buy a new jumbo-sized dining room table to play the game on.

One thing that’s annoying is that the cardboard tiles that make up the rooms in the various mansions you’re exploring have a tendency to warp. I hope it’s not a big issue, since the warp isn’t that big, but considering how badly Games Workshop got raked over the coals when the tiles in Space Hulk started warping, it’ll be interesting to see how much excitement this warping creates.

One more thing: The minis that come with the game are, well, fine. They’re made of the relatively hard unpainted grey plastic (i.e. not the really soft stuff that games Memoir ’44 come with, but also not the stiff plastic the Space Hulk minis are made of) and are fairly nice. They’re not nearly as finely detailed as, say, the Space Hulk minis, but that’s to be expected – no minis are as amazing as those (at least, none I’ve seen). The biggest complaint I have about the minis is that the pegs intended to keep them attached to their black plastic bases aren’t quite big enough. The minis stay upright just fine during gameplay, but pick one up by the body instead of the base and you’re likely to have to reattach it. Gluing the minis down is recommended. So is painting them, but then I suck at painting so maybe the best recommendation is to find a painter who’s willing to paint ‘em for cheap – maybe pizza or something.

Gameplay

The game comes with five ‘Stories’ that each let you set up a mansion or other setting (i.e. arrange the various tiles to put certain rooms next to each other) in a certain fashion. From there, you have some options as to how to actually build the scenario you’ll be playing (which means that each of the 5 stories has some replay value – this is good since otherwise the game would feel like you don’t get nearly enough out of it). Each room gets some ‘things’ put in it – some of them are equipment items, some of them are puzzles, some are clues, some of them are, well, other things (cue ominous organ music).

So how do the Investigators avoid knowing what’s where? Simple: it’s the Keeper’s job to set the game up. The Keeper is the one player who plays against the Investigators and generally tries to make their life a living hell, driving them insane and eventually killing them. Only the Keeper knows everything about the scenario (including its objectives!), the Investigators have to explore to figure out what’s going on.

Before starting to play, each other player chooses an Investigator to be. Each Investigator has cards with their various important statistics on them (Strength, Willpower, Intellect, etc.), and each card comes in two flavours for replayability – you can mix and match the cards as long as you have a full complement of attributes. You also choose what equipment your Investigator starts off with. ‘Ashcan’ Pete, for example, starts with either his trusty Guitar (which he can use to whack things with) or his even more trusty sidekick Duke, a dog which bumps up some of his stats. Note: The fact that you can have a dog at your side in this game is Pure Awesome and goes a long way in my books. More games should feature dogs. Finally, each Investigator has a basic character card that indicates health and sanity (each Investigator’s numbers will total up to 20 but their individual numbers are differenet).

Each round, the Investigators get to do two things: move twice and take an action. Moving is simple: Just move from one space to the next. Each room is split into two or more spaces via white lines on them, so moving from the entrance portion of the foyer over to the stairway leading upstairs would take one move, for example, even though both are on the same board. Moving from one board to another is done via (surprise, surprise) doorways. I haven’t found any dimensional portals yet…

Taking an action usually consists of doing one of four things: move an extra space (running), give a fellow Investigator an item (you must be in the same space to do that, throwing things is frowned upon in this game), attack a monster or explore the room.

Exploring and attacking are the heart of the game. I’ll go over exploring first since it’s probably the most important. Exploring means you get to look at the cards in the room you’re in, one at a time, starting at the top. Occasionally you’ll run into an obstacle, like a lock that you need a specific piece of equipment to open or a puzzle. You’ll also find more equipment to use, and, most importantly, clue cards.

Clue cards are the key to the Investigator’s success. As you find them, you start to put a picture together of just what the heck you’re trying to do here. You also get info on where to maybe explore next, which can be very important since you don’t have all the time in the world – each scenario puts distinct time pressure on the Investigators. It is usually a good idea to not putz about in the kitchen, for example, when the real objectives lie out in the garden…

I should mention a little more about puzzles. The game features a few different tile-based puzzles that force you to temporarily abandon your forward progress while you muddle about fixing the wiring, or unjumbling a Cthulan rune, or unlocking a safe. They’re not hard puzzles (and being good a spatial visualization is a plus), but they waste time and that’s not usually a good thing.

If you don’t have the key you need, or fail a puzzle, your turn ends. You don’t get to look at any other cards in the pile, just put them back and either try again next turn or abandon the room and head elsewhere.

Finally, monsters and attacking. When you encounter a monster, you must first check whether you’re strong-willed enough to handle it. Roll the d10 the game comes with and compare the result to your Willpower level. If you rolled low, you’re fine. Roll too high and you take a ‘horror’ chip that means your sanity just went down one notch. Note: I didn’t like the horror chips. Why didn’t FFG just include a sanity track for each player instead? The chips are fiddly and it’s annoying to have to keep recounting how many you have as the stack on your attribute cards starts rising. I predict it’ll be a very short while before fan-made sanity tracks show up on Boardgamegeek.

Anyways, once you’ve checked your Willpower, you attack the monster. Pick which of your equipment you want to use and then draw cards from the attack deck (there are three, depending on whether you’re attacking a humanoid, a beast or a Big Nasty) until you find one that matches your situation (e.g. melee attack or ranged attack, etc.). Each card will usually make you do another check, on things like Marksmanship or Dexterity, and depending on how you do you’ll either cause the monster to take damage or lose your equipment. Yeah, die rolls can be swingy… Fun fact: Yes, you can attach somthing like a Shoggoth with your bare hands. No, it is not the recommended course of action.

If you manage to hurt the monster, you stick a little cardboard chit into the monster’s base that shows how much damage it took. You also get to look at the cardboard counter on the underside of the monster’s base – it tells you many things, including how many hit points the monster can handle, how much damage it does, etc. You are NOT allowed to look at that info ahead of time! And that matters, since each monster has slightly different stats. Of course, if you did enough damage to kill the monster dead, then you just remove him from the board. Victory dance optional.

Once each Investigator has taken their turn (and the order each round is up the players, it’s not set in stone), it’s the Keeper’s turn. First, the Keeper gets Threat tokens equal to the number of Investigators taking part. Then, s/he can spend them summoning monsters and generally wreaking havoc. The Investigators can be forced to split up, which can really suck since some monsters will only spawn next to lone Investigators (remember that old horror movie adage about never going down to the basement alone?). The Keeper can also draw from two different decks of cards – these cards can be used on the Investigator’s turns to make things tougher. Mythos cards feature various effects (like making doorways impassable, for example), while Trauma cards can be played during combat to inflict additional damage and such. Generally, Trauma cards’ abilities become useful / worse for the Investigators when said Investigators’ health and sanity start dipping too low. So try not to go insane, okay?

Once the Keeper’s turn is over, one time counter is added on top of the current Time card. If the number of counters on the card matches the number on the card, then the card is revealed and any instructions on it carried out. That usually means more horror for the Investigators, but sometimes other things happen – new monsters, objectives revealed, etc. Revealing the last card is another way the game can end – although exactly who wins at that point depends on the Story…

Comments

I’m not a ‘typical’ Ameritrash gamer. I can’t stand Twilight Imperium (too long, too fiddly) and far too many of FFG’s games seem tailored for someone other than me. I’m also not a huge fan of any game that depends too much on its theme and chrome to paper over the flaws in its design. Yes, sometimes it’s fun to just roll gobs of dice, or whatever, but flawed games are flawed games no matter the genre. And yes, MoM is a flawed game. Some of the things you do in the game just don’t quite make sense (I see a monster, so I do a Willpower check. Then I run away. Next turn I move back to attack and I have to do the same check again. Huh? It’s the same monster, why do I have to keep re-checking? Yup, still scared…). And sometimes the logic of the clue cards vs. the events don’t quite mesh. And yes there are way too many typos and errata, which makes me think FFG might have rushed this one out the door a little.

But, all that being said, I had a very good time with MoM (oh, that sounds bad). It’s just plain fun, warts and all. The way the game is put together is good – most things make instinctive sense, and Investigators always seem to have some difficult choices to make. Chief among them is when to split up out of necessity (since you don’t have all the time in the world) – you know it’s gonna hurt if you get cornered alone, but if you time it for when the Keeper is short on Threat, maybe you can get by. Oddly enough, I really like the way combat is handled in the game as it’s very non-deterministic. Sure you might attack with an axe that does 4 damage, but clumsy you, you bobbled it because you were freaked out by the wee beastie and dropped it. On your foot. So now not only do you not have said axe, it’s actually hurt you. Better hope you didn’t attack alone…

Basically, what I like is how the game takes the overall ruleset and uses it to establish basic thematic and structural ‘rules’, and then uses the various cards, equipment, puzzles, etc. to add another ‘micro’ level of small problems and events that really add to the game’s narrative. Taking the same action doesn’t always provide the same result, and the variety adds a lot of fun to the game. Which is funny because I don’t usually like that much randomness in my games, for some reason here I find it more than tolerable, it’s essential.

My biggest fear? Replay value. 5 stories is still 5 stories, no matter how many ways you can refresh them. For a game with a pretty hefty MSRP (US$80), it would be nice to have gotten a few more. Although I suppose that will be rectified soon via fan-made expansions, since this is a game that I can easily see having fun creating new scenarios for.

Conclusions

MoM is fun. MoM is pretty. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great game. You can find it online for just over $50, which is a great deal for what you get. I look forward to testing my wits and sanity many more times as I tread across the creaking floorboards…

Comments from other Opinionated Gamers

Frank Branham (Like It…maybe. Might Love It, Might Hate It). I’m torn on this, because I’m still not sure what it is. It makes a very nice RPG, but a seriously wonky and fragile game that shares many of the problems which Betrayal: House on the Hill has. The one aspect that CAN make Mansions of Madness work is that the Keeper knows how everything works. The problem with this Keeper role is that the game presents it as a strictly adversarial role. And the best Keeper strategies tend to create the most boring and tedious plays of Mansions. So it is a game I think is just this side of broken, but I really actively want to play it. Except that the game I’m playing possibly isn’t really the game the designer intended.

I have a separate review posted here: http://fortressat.com/index.php?option=com_myblog&show=mansions-of-madness-review.html&Itemid=240

Ted Cheatham (1 play so far):  My comments come down the same line as Patrick’s.  We played the third scenario with 4 investigators.  And, although the Zombie kept popping up to pester us (no spoilers here), the movement and searching seemed pretty straight forward.  We could tell where we needed to go, we just needed to find the clues to get us into the spaces.  The puzzles were cute and just designed to slow us down.  The end of our scenario seemed to be anti-climatic.  Yes, we discovered a key time element that put some pressure on the investigators to end the game with their victory conditions before time ran out or the Keeper completed his victory conditions.  But, at its heart it was a combat slug fest for several turns.  I am definitely ready to try it again and it is a fun ride with the right group.  Over time it will be a once a year type game, I think.

Ratings

Love It! …….
Like It ……… Patrick Korner, Frank Branham, Ted Cheatham
Neutral ……..
Not for Me …

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2 Responses to First Impressions: Mansions of Madness

  1. Chris Linneman says:

    Great review Patrick, I agree almost entirely with you on this one. It’s a game we Euro-gamers shouldn’t like because it is so full of flaws that should have been caught in playtesting. The errata list is huge. The storylines are often half-baked and not justified in the slightest by the flavour text–the Keeper will have to explain in his own words what’s going on or the Investigators won’t have a clue why they need to kill that zombie (except if they don’t, they lose).

    But for some reason it is still loads of fun and I find myself wanting to play it over and over. Maybe it’s the mystery–not knowing what your objective is until it’s almost too late. Maybe it’s the theme–I’m a sucker for Cthulu and probably wouldn’t touch this game with a 10ft. crowbar if it had a dungeon crawl theme. I think a lot of it comes down to the very simple gameplay that yields unpredictable but fun results. Sure, some stories can have anti-climactic endings, but others can be a pure race against time that is a nail-biter until the end. Also, the game seems to have room for strategy, at least for the Keeper (I have yet to play as an Investigator), as you try to complete your objective without revealing too much of what it is. Which brings me to replay value. Even if you have played all 3 options for a given story, there is some skill in trying to decipher the Keeper’s actions to determine the objective before it is revealed. I think the depth of the game will become more apparent when players get to this level of experience.

    One minor rules point–you cannot trade items as an action, you can only drop items to have another investigator pick them up during an explore action. This is to prevent investigators chain-trading items to get them across the house in one turn. Investigators can trade items with others in their same space but this happens at the start of the Keeper turn so it can only be done once per turn.

  2. Donovan says:

    I’ve played the game three times so far. I played as the Keeper twice and as a player once. As Keeper, I “won” each time. As a player, we managed to get a “draw” (both sides lose). It’s an entertaining game. Although replay value is definitely limited, I might enjoy running the same scenario for different groups of friends to see how they react. I ran scenario two with my girlfriend and two other friends. Two of them were so intimidated by the monsters that THEY, not the characters, went temporarily insane, and panicked. I would like to try that scenario again with more level-headed gamers to see how they do.

    If I ever have an huge amount of surplus time on my hands, I might play the same scenario with different variations, with the same players, to see how it affects the game. It’s not fair of me to say this, but I suspect that without suspense, it will fail as a tactical board game.

    The biggest failure of the game is the setup. Perhaps it’s because I triple check everything, but setup takes me one hour. Keep in mind that if you ruin the setup, you break the game. Clean up, assuming that you’re putting things away in order, takes around 20 minutes. A lesser failing involves the dark graphics. They are beautiful, but a little hard to see.

    If you like atmospheric games, this one is for you. The art, the writing and the miniatures are all on target for the theme. Even if you only play each scenario once, you’re getting two hours of entertainment per scenario, which means you, and your friends, are getting 10 hours of entertainment for $55-$65. I’ve made worse decisions with my money.

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