|Components & Design
What those games often forget is Lovecraft’s stories are not primarily the giant monster kind of horror. Much of Lovecraft’s writing is more intimate than that. It’s the horror of insanity that you may find, for instance, in the New England countryside. Or in a luxurious mansion anywhere in the world.
Fantasy Flight Games have in their catalog the biggest names of the former kind of game: Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror. But they also have the other side of Lovecraftian horror with Mansions of Madness.
Leave your shoes by the door – how to play Mansions of Madness
When I say Mansions of Madness, what I mean is the second edition. That means there is a whole new type of horror for some players. The game has an app. It not only has an app, it’s controlled by an app. The app takes the role of the dungeon master, or whatever you call him in this game, and turns the game from an asymmetric one-against-all, as it was in the first edition, into a fully cooperative game.
Mansions of Madness is a scenario based game, and together with the app that means you have exactly the scenarios the app offers. For the base game that means four. Not three, and not five. Six is right out. Unless you want to spend a bit more money, but more on that later. You pick a scenario, you pick the investigators to participate, the app tells you what starting equipment to find and you’re ready to go.
The scenarios offer a variety of stories and challenges, from a nice, cozy dinner party with monsters to a relaxing stay in picturesque, if rainy, Innsmouth. Very different stories, very different goals. In fact, you don’t even always know what your goal will be in the end. You’ll be thrown into a mystery and have to find out what’s going on and how to stop it. All those different stories fit nicely in the framework of the game. The most basic outline of this framework is familiar from most cooperative games ever: first the players take their turns, then the game strikes back. Repeat until deceased.
Players take their turns in any order they choose, and each player has two actions on their turn. Some of those work without the app, others are resolved on your digital device. The more straightforward things you do without the app: Take actions from your equipment cards, trade equipment with another investigator, move up to two spaces. Moving two spaces doesn’t sound much, but a room in Mansions of Madness has from two to four spaces. One move action roughly takes you to the next room.
The more interesting actions, meaning the ones that move the story forward, happen in the app. To start with, the app tells you what you find when you explore. At the start of a scenario you only have one room tile in play, but there’ll be a number of Exploration Tokens representing doors to open, corners to sneak around, and the like. Tap one of them in the app and you may move deeper into the mystery. The app will tell you which room tile to add and what tokens and cards to put on it.
Searching and interacting work the same way: You tap a token in the app and things happen. You’ll find Search Tokens on bookshelves to investigate, desks to rifle through, locked cabinets and the like. They often reward you with useful items. Tokens to interact with are objects for you to use instead of searching through them, and people. You’ll encounter all sorts of NPCs in Mansions of Madness, and the app lets you decide how to interact with them. Some will give you useful information, others just waste your actions… and yet others will turn into flesh-eating monsters and attack.
Searching and interacting with things will often prompt you to roll a skill test. The app tells you which skill to test, you check your investigator card to see how many dice you get, and then you roll. Dice showing elder signs are successes, dice showing a magnifying glass become a success if you spend a Clue Token on them. Because of course there would be Clue Tokens! Depending on your result, the app will tell you what happens next.
There is another type of obstacle the app will throw at you once or twice per scenario: Puzzles. Where skill checks test your characters abilities, puzzles test yours. You’ll encounter slide puzzles where you have to move tiles around until they make a picture, code puzzles similar to Mastermind, and lock puzzles where you move pieces until you can free the puzzle key piece and open the lock. Those puzzles tend to protect key elements of the scenario, so you better buff up your skills. However, your investigator is not completely irrelevant for puzzle solving. Their relevant ability score tells you how many moves you may make per action. Sending a big bruiser to solve a code puzzle may mean you’re there a while.
Those guys are much better suited for the last thing you do in the app: Attack monsters. While monsters in all shapes and sizes – mostly bigger than your investigator – hang around on the board, the app is where you punch, stab, shoot, and explode them. Select the monster and the type of weapon you attack with (Unarmed, Bladed, Ranged, Spell,…) and the app tells you what skill check to roll. If you make the check you do damage to the monster. If you don’t make it the app tells you what happens. Sometimes you just miss, other times bad things happen to you. Mostly in the form of wounds.
Wounds in Mansions of Madness are more interesting than just having points count down to death. For every wound you draw a card. Sometimes you keep that card face down and that’s it. Other times you take your damage face up and things get interesting. Face-up damage leaves you with all sorts of interesting problems. You might have sprained an ankle to permanently reduce your movement speed. Or you fall over and gain the Constrained condition for the next turn. And for extra fun, sometimes a card will tell you to flip face-down damage cards face-up and the whole fun starts again. If you take as many cards of damage as your health total you gain the Wounded condition and become permanently slowed down. Take too many wounds again and you die.
Mental damage works the same way, only you draw Horror cards instead of Damage cards. If you take too much horror you go Insane, which is like being Wounded only more fun. Insanity cards change your personal victory conditions. With some kinds of Insanity you still work with your team, but you need something extra. An Obsessive character wins together with everyone, but only if there are no search tokens left on the board. Other forms of Insanity turn you against the other players. If you have Pyromania you win when there is fire in enough spaces. Everyone else wins not so much in that case. Insanity is a fun idea, it creates a bit of that good, old “trust no one” feeling.
That was a lot of talk about what the players do, and nothing about how the game strikes back. That matches what happens in game, the Mythos Phase is quick and painful. You get a random event that is rarely pleasant, then the monsters activate and pursue the investigator of their choice. Finally, all players have to resolve a Horror Check against the scariest monster in range and usually go slightly insane.
You keep playing until the app tells you that you won, or it tells you that you lost, or one of the investigators dies. The last one can happen very suddenly and early in the game. How long it takes to succeed depends on the scenario. The app tells you what to expect, and the times are pretty accurate. When the description says to charge your device while playing then you better cancel your dinner reservations, but the story is worth it.
Am I crazy for enjoying this? – Our Verdict
This is where usually I would make a list of my likes and dislikes about the game and leave it at that. Mansions of Madness has a bit more to unpack.
To start, I have few complaints about the quality of anything. Cards, room tiles, miniatures, all are well made, look good and fit the mood of the game. If I was nit-picking I’d complain that the minis don’t stay in their stands unless you glue them there – but come on, just glue them. The app is equally well made. In our test games we didn’t have any crashes or bugs we noticed. Art and soundtrack match the mood as well.
No matter how pretty the pieces are, though, we also have to talk about what they mean for the game. I never held back with my opinion that I’m not a fan of tons of plastic minis in a game: They look cool, but they don’t add anything I’m personally interested in and drive the price way up. In Mansions of Madness, they actually make the game slightly worse. It’s not even the fact that two monsters rarely fit in the same room because of their big stands, although that’s annoying. Worse is that the minis actively hide information. We took three games to figure out that Hunting Horrors have special movement rules. That information is hidden at the bottom of the monster tile that you slot into the mini’s stand. So you have to lift the mini and look below it to find it. Or you skip the mini and play with the tiles only. Why did I spend money on those minis again?
I have some similar complaints about the app. The interface between app and physical game is just odd. I can see why you don’t put the investigators’ movements into the app, people would start wondering why there even are physical components. But the app acting as a game master that doesn’t know where players are? It’s weird. Fighting monsters is similarly strange. You pick the monster in the app, the app tells you what to roll, you roll real dice and see in the app what the result is. Okay, rolling dice is satisfying, but like this they are hard to justify.
Which brings us to my favorite pet peeve with the app: when you attack it tells you what skill check to roll. Imagine you’re playing a big bruiser type of investigator, wielding a baseball bat, attacking a monster. Roll strength and you obliterate it. Roll agility and you will seriously mess it up. What does the app do? It tells you to roll Observation so you might see that the creature has a weak spot above the left nipple for you to hit. Why does the app decide how you attack? It doesn’t matter that it has a weak spot if you only have two dice to hit that, compared to five dice to bash the creature’s skull in. And it’s not because the creature is only vulnerable there. The more agile fighter with a bladed weapon might roll strength to try and grab the monster by its tail and helicopter it around the room. We’ve lost so many games because the app decided we should roll a character’s worst skill at a critical moment that it stopped being funny, and then it started being funny again. What else can you do but laugh and go quietly insane?
What the app does well, on the other hand, is tell a story. The scenarios and how they develop is fun, tense and sometimes unexpected. Some scenarios are especially fun because things are not fixed. If you play them a second time you will have a rough idea what to expect, but the floor plan will be different, you will encounter different monsters, and so on. Fun to do again. Or you do that Innsmouth thing that is as variable as a rock.
That some scenarios are variable is still a relief, however. Remember when I said there are only four of them? At least some of them change next time you play. Because you’re not getting more scenarios, which brings me to my main point against Mansions of Madness: If you want more of it you pay. Fantasy Flight brought the first bane of video games to the board. DLC. Downloadable content, for money. You can have more scenarios, but only if you buy them, for money, directly from Fantasy Flight Games. There is no way to make your own scenarios, no way to download community content, and no rules to play first edition style with a game master. All there is is spending money. That’s just greedy, especially since the game itself isn’t cheap. What’s the next step here, loot boxes?
Despite all that, I do enjoy playing Mansions of Madness. As usual, what Fantasy Flight does best with their Lovecraftian games is tell stories. Mansions of Madness tells good stories, but there aren’t enough of them to bring this game to the table regularly.