Mansions of Madness

Mansions of Madness

From: Fantasy Flight Games

Reviewed by: Sitting Duck

As a horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft was no stranger to the ‘Creepy Old House’ premise. Admittedly, the stories he wrote which featured them usually weren’t among his better works (you’d be hard pressed to find a Lovecraft fanboy willing to couch The Lurking Fear in terms more favorable than a guilty pleasure). Still, many Call of Cthulhu adventures have prominently featured such structures. Mansions of Madness intends to convert such scenarios into board game form.

From the back of the box:
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.”

As implied in my introduction, Mansions of Madness takes an RPG-like approach. One player takes on the role as keeper, directing the monsters and hindering the investigators controlled by the other players. The base game includes five scenarios from which to choose. Each in turn has three possible objectives which determine victory and defeat conditions, effectively providing fifteen different scenarios. Add in the various ways the keeper can set up the clue trail and there’s quite a bit of replay value provided.

The eight investigators included with the game have similar modularity to them. The base character card lists the starting Stamina and Sanity of the investigator as well as starting skill points. Opportunities to replenish these stats when they’re expended are few and far between, so players should avoid such situations when possible. Each character has two sets of two trait cards to choose from, one for physical attributes and one for mental attributes. The trait cards selected also determine the investigator’s starting item as well as a one-use ability.

Gameplay consists of each investigator taking a turn followed by the keeper’s turn. An investigator’s turn consists of two Movement steps and one Action step, which may be taken in any order. A Movement step allows a player to move the investigator one space. An action step can be used to run (in effect treating it as a Movement step), drop items, use a card with an Action ability, attack a monster, or explore a room. Some actions require an attribute test. This consists of applying any described modifiers to the named attribute and rolling the ten-sided die. Before the roll, a skill point may be spent to apply the investigator’s Luck as a positive modifier. A result that is equal to or less than the modified attribute counts as success, while a result greater than the modified attribute counts as a failure. A one is always a success and a ten is always a failure, so neither result is guaranteed regardless of modifiers. Once all investigators have completed their turns, any sharing the same space may trade items.

The keeper turn starts with drawing threat tokens equal to the number of investigators. These then get spent on keeper actions. The available actions will largely depend on which scenario is being run. If there are any tokens left, they can carry over to the next turn. Should any monsters on the board share a space with an investigator, they can perform an attack. The keeper turn is ended by placing a time token on top of the Event deck.

Even when it’s not the keeper’s turn, he can still cause the investigators grief with mythos and trauma cards. Mythos cards are highly restricted in when they can be used, usually requiring the expenditure of threat tokens and/or that the target investigator be in a certain room. The reason for these strictures is that the effects of most mythos cards are really nasty. Luckily for the investigators, a mythos card gets discarded after being used. Trauma cards come in physical and mental varieties and can be played on an investigator when Stamina or Sanity damage are taken as appropriate. These usually stick an investigator with an attribute penalty that can be either temporary or last through the game.

The Event deck regulates the pace of the game. When there are a number of time tokens equal to the number printed on the back of the top card of the Event deck, the tokens are removed and the card is drawn and resolved. While the effects of an event card can vary, they’re rarely to the benefit of the investigators. When the final event card is drawn, the game is over and usually (but not always) results in the defeat of the investigator players.

Exploring rooms is necessary for advancing the scenario. Each room starts the game with at least one exploration card. Many will provide a useful item, while others will be blanks. The most pivotal cards are those which provide clues as to where to investigate next, with the final clue revealing the scenario objective. Often, all it takes is to spend an Action step to draw the card(s) in the same room as the investigator. But it’s not always that simple. The most critical exploration cards (including the clues) are hidden under obstacle and lock cards. Obstacles require that the investigator pass the requirements described on the card, which usually involves possessing a specific exploration card, passing an attribute test, or solving a puzzle. Once passed, the rest of the exploration cards may be collected. Locks are similar, but the room in question cannot be entered until its requirements are met. This means a Movement step must be held in reserve when resolving a lock card.

As is appropriate for a Cthulhu Mythos adventure, combat is not a tactic of the first resort (at least not if you want to win). However, there are circumstances where violence may be necessary. Cards are drawn from one of three decks (depending on the monster’s sub-type) until you get one that matches the investigator’s attack type (unarmed, melee, or ranged). Along with a bit of flavor text, the card will indicate the attribute test needed for the attack as well as the result of both success and failure on the top half of the card. While certain attributes are used more frequently (for instance, ranged attacks tend to use Marksmanship), just about any of them can be employed depending on the flavor text. Monster attacks are handled in a similar way, except they use the text on the bottom half of the card.

From the rulebook:
Investigators should also be careful to stay fairly close to one another. It is quite easy for the keeper to pick out and overwhelm lone investigators. If you’ve ever seen a horror movie, you know what happens when the characters say, ‘Let’s split up!‘”

An aspect I particularly enjoy are the puzzles. Many of the lock and obstacle cards require that a tile puzzle be solved to resolve them. The tiles are rotated and/or shifted until they form the appropriate pattern based on its sub-type. Now puzzle solving in RPGs tends to suffer from a disconnect between character abilities and player abilities. In a worst case scenario, a lazy smart-aleck will proclaim that his character solves the puzzle thanks to his high Intelligence stat. The GM then counters by telling him to roleplay it. Meanwhile, the puzzle fiend player roleplays his dull-witted brick character by not helping with the puzzle. Harsh words are exchanged, dice are shoved up inappropriate places, and Game Night ends in tears. Mansions of Madness features a compromise where a player gets a number of actions per turn equal to the character’s Intellect. So while it’s ultimately up to the player to solve the puzzle, the character stats matter. The only issue comes from the fact that the tiles are randomly dealt and can potentially result in a puzzle impossible to solve as is. Though tiles can be discarded and replaced, such a move costs two actions. This is presumably to discourage excessive tile discarding by lazy puzzle solvers, but can also be a rather harsh penalty for what might just be an unlucky draw.

Though the game can theoretically be run with only two players, this is less than ideal. Under such circumstances, the keeper is unable to accumulate much in the way of threat tokens. This results in most of the really good keeper actions and mythos cards becoming effectively unusable. On the investigator side, having only one investigator leaves little time for a thorough exploration of the house, forcing him to concentrate solely on following the trail of clues. While many games can become cumbersome when the maximum number of players participate, Mansions of Madness works a lot better by doing that.

In conclusion, despite some awkward aspects, the game does a reasonably competent job of translating RPG scenarios into a board game. The way the mechanics all but guarantee that a charging in guns blazing approach will end in disaster help encourage a proper frame of mind for a Cthulhu Mythos-style investigation.

Rating: 15

Product Summary

Mansions of Madness

From: Fantasy Flight Games

Type of Game: Board Game

Game Design by: Corey Konieczka and Tim Uren

Cover Art by: Anders Finer

Additional Art by: Henning Ludvigsen

Game Components Included: Rulebook, Keeper Guide, 8 Investigator figures, 24 Monster figures, 1 ten-sided die, 83 Exploration cards, 20 Spell cards, 14 Starting Item cards, 32 Trait cards, 12 Lock cards, 7 Obstacle cards, 35 Mythos cards, 21 Trauma cards, 65 Combat cards, 8 Investigator Character cards, 25 Event cards, 13 Keeper Action cards, 15 Objective cards, 15 Map tiles, 72 Damage tokens, 24 Horror tokens, 18 Room Feature markers, 4 Sample tokens, 12 Sealed Door markers, 24 Skill Point tokens, 24 Status Effect tokens, 13 Story Choice markers, 12 Threat tokens, 6 Time tokens, 3 Lock Puzzle Setup tiles, 15 Lock Puzzle pieces, 23 Rune Puzzle pieces, 3 Wiring Puzzle Setup tiles, 15 Wiring Puzzle pieces

Retail Price: $79.99

Number of Players: 2-5

Player Ages: 13+

Play Time: 2-3 hours


Reviewed by: Sitting Duck