The great house seems to stare at you with hostility, but despite the growing fear gnawing at your soul, you press on. You must. This madness has to end, and by God, it will end tonight… even if it kills you. What Fantasy Flight has done with H.P. Lovecraft is remarkable. Arkham Horror is a flagbearer of the psuedo-RPG board game genre, and I can’t think of a game that is more richly or densely crafted. Mansions of Madness takes the essence of Arkham Horror and distills it to a less-tedious and no less entertaining board game.
Where Arkham has epic feel, with players battling against monsters and time across multiple planes of existence to stop the Great Old One from awakening to destroy the world, Mansions places investigators into smaller confines to reveal the secrets of the evil presence that has corrupted the house and the people inside. If anything, Arkham plays like a straight up board game, with clear objectives. Mansions is more roleplaying than board game – an important distinction! Gamers who crave the old days of storytelling and imagination will get a lot more out of Mansions. The more the keeper and investigators allow themselves to be creeped out by the scenario and all the horrid things inside the locations, the more enjoyment will be had by all.
The game itself can be frustrating for the players. But keep this in mind: Lovecraftian horror pits god-like monsters against mere mortals. The investigators are supposed to either 1) Die, or 2) Go Insane. Although technically each scenario can be “won,” usually by getting out alive, I’ve played this game five times as an investigator and have yet to get back to the front door before the evil closes in. If you go into the game remembering this is storytelling and the goal is to discover the terrible truth of the place, you’ll love the adventure. If you want to win, then play something else.
Two to five players can sit down for a game of Mansions of Madness. One person is the keeper (fancy word for GM) who guards the awful truth about the scenario and plays to keep the story building while thwarting the investigators at every door. The keeper receives “threat,” a kind of currency that allows him to summon monsters, puzzles and traps. Threat scales with the number of investigators, as do the Event cards, a kind of built-in game clock the players must be mindful of. Events trigger evil developments in the scenario and generally raise the intensity level for all players. The first couple times new players sit down for this they will invariably lose focus while battling monsters and solving puzzles. Event cards are an opportunity for the keeper to heighten dramatic tension and remind novice investigators that certain death awaits if they don’t get moving. By the final scenario we had the cadence figured out, and if I had rolled better on one last fight we would have all made it out of the mansion alive. No such luck.
Not all the mechanics play smoothly. The puzzles are not complicated and slow down gameplay, frustrating players without contributing to the story. I give FF points for trying to build an intersting mini-game, but these could have better plot integration. Perhaps a combination of the puzzle with a card to tie the event back to the scenario… And while beautifully rendered in the same color palette and style as Arkham, the scale of the artwork is undersized for the effect, again placing importance on the keeper to enhance all the gruesome details. It would help to paint the gray plastic figures but I realize that’s a talent few have patience for, even among hardcore old-school gamers.
The most significant drawback of this game is the limited replayability of scenarios. Once you know what the secret is the creepy horror factor is lost. Fantasy Flight is working to remedy this situation with spendy expansions – Call of the Wild and Forbidden Alchemy are now available – and since our gaming group likes Mansions of Madness so darn much one of us will certainly break down and buy. FF also has several one-off expansions and even print-on-demand scenarios for the thrifty who have access to a decent color printer. More creative gamers who don’t mind manufacturing their own clues out of paper can use the game’s modular board pieces to craft their own deadly domiciles. I recommend looking online for the “Call of Cthulhu” RPG adventures by the same name.