Welcome back to the Demo Corner. This month we’re trying something a little different and bringing you two reviews! Alex will offer his take on this month’s game followed by my own, kind of a Siskel and Ebert thing. Without further ado, our reviews of Mansions of Madness!
My first introduction to the Chthulhu mythos was the game Arkham Horror. Sure. I’d heard of H.P. Lovecraft mostly through the movies and TV shows his works were loosely based upon (Some more loosely than others). Arkham Horror has become the pinnacle of Chthulhu based board games and should be a staple to any game store. In time, Mansions of Madness will be viewed in the same light.
Like all Fantasy Flight Games, before I break into their products, I’ve learned taking a deep breath of patience is a sound idea that may keep me and my players from going absolutely bonkers. No one in the entire gaming industry writes worse instructions to a game than FFG. No one. Absolutely no one. Yes, there are exceptions. I cite our previous review of Dust: Tactics which had surprisingly well-written and laid out instructions. But then again, Dust: Tactics was not developed in the house of FFG. It was originally, as I understand it, an AEG property. However, with that said Mansions of Madness is not the exception but rather fits the FFG rule.
As expected, the first time you set up a game it is usually the slowest. The first time I set out to play this game was with a group of gaming friends on a Saturday. I hadn’t read the instructions beforehand. Shame on me. So we knew this would be a slow process. We started out at around 7:30pm and didn’t get start playing until nearly 11 o’ clock! Why so long you ask? Well, Players set up is pretty easy. Grab a character card that consists of the character’s portrait, stats, and the items and skill cards chosen by the player along with skill tokens; little cardboard magnifying glasses that when used allow a player to boost a character’s ability. Getting the mansion set up is scenario based. Each scenario played re-arranges what the mansion looks like—which is pretty intuitive in the process and gives the player a good replaying experience.
The Keeper(the player who runs the bad guys against the investigators) has a more daunting task ahead of himself. Answer questions as to the story elements. Who did what? Where did it happen? Each question asked and answered requires specific item cards and a multitude of scenario cards to be sorted out from a plethora of 350 cards! This alone can be discouraging from a first-time player. And nothing is more discouraging than to go through all of the set-up; select the scenario, make the mansion, answer the questions to resolve the scenario, find the cards corresponding to the scenario, all to find out there’s a card missing! Which is exactly what happened in my first go-round? So, now we have to decide what scenario we’re going to play that doesn’t require that one card and then go through that process again.
Keep in mind; anytime I get into a new game, I always try to view it through the prism of a new player. How are the instructions laid out? Do they make sense? Are the parts and components understandable to a virgin of gaming? Could someone who’s never played a contemporary strategy board game get into this? If not, why? Is this a fair way to analyze a game? I don’t know. But, it’s the only way I know how to approach a game for the first time.
When breaking into this game, I’m awed, to barrow a term from a friend, by the goober of this game. For a list of all the components go here. The playing pieces are amazing. Being a hobby painter, I’m impressed by the level of detail of the investigator figures or the monsters like mammoth Cthonians, axe wielding maniacs and heart stopping Shaggoths. While these aren’t to the level of detail that one gets from a Games-Workshop or Privateer Press figure – both the pinnacle producers of hobby miniatures, painted or not, you will be happy to see these figs sitting on your table.
The puzzles! Oh my! The puzzles are a fantastically novel mechanic. At first, I have to admit, I was little intimidated by the thought of having to figure out a wiring puzzle by making sure all the red wires make a contiguous link. Or, before I could open a treasure chest I had to arrange a set of six runed tiles to make up a larger picture within one turn. This was just simply the most fun I’ve had in a game for very long time. The mechanic behind the puzzles is a player can only make so many moves on a puzzle based upon the character’s intellect skill. If your character only has a 4 intellect, then he or she may make 4 moves to solve the puzzle. The more complicated the puzzle, the more turns it takes to solve a puzzle and thus slows down the progress a character can make in the game. You, the player may look at the puzzle and solve it 7 moves, but sorry, your character is moron and can only work on it 4 moves at a time. There are in-game ways to adjust this number such as burning your skill tokens but, essentially this is the mechanic. This is the crown jewel of the game.
Aside from the as-expected failings of the setup, once you get rolling this game almost plays itself. Mechanics are fluid. The events feel natural. And have I mentioned the puzzles? The puzzles add so much to the replayabilty of the game. The price can be considered a little steep. But all-in-all this is a solid game and should be expected to be found on all game store shelves for the foreseeable future.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Several months ago, when we first started hearing about Fantasy Flight’s upcoming Mansion’s of Madness title, I was leery of the game. At first it just seemed like a knock-off of Betrayal at House on the Hill (which you may remember I thought quite highly of.) However, when I finally got the game in my hands and got my first chance to play it I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised.
Mansions of Madness is an exploration game, much in the same way that Betrayal is. In fact, there are numerous similarities between the two games but after playing Mansions twice now I believe it is the superior of the two. The game begins with a rather lengthy setup (more on that later). The first setup choice you face is which player will be the “Keeper”. Essentially, the Keeper is a kind of game master; he or she pilots all the monsters in the house, places hidden clues, and generally is the antagonist the other players must try to foil. So, after you’ve determined which of you will be the Keeper then he or she must set up the mansion, determine which plot you will be facing, and place all the relevant counters.
From there the game begins with a small written intro that the Keeper reads aloud. This evokes a very pen-and-paper RPG kind of feel and there are several other places in the game where the Keeper will read aloud small bits of story to the players. All of this helps to make the game feel more like RPG and less like your everyday strategy game. Personally, I found this to be a refreshing change of pace from games that often offer very little context to your actions and it helps to establish a running narrative for the game you’re about to play.
Once you get properly started the gameplay is smooth and quick. Player turns never took much more than 5 or 10 minutes and the Keeper’s turns can be even faster at times. The actions available to the Keeper vary wildly from those available to the players. This Keeper/Player dichotomy creates an extreme level of replay value; if you’ve been a player five times but never been the Keeper than you haven’t really experienced the other half of the game! There are also many different ways the Keeper can choose to play their role. Through managing a resource pool of Threat Tokens the Keeper can choose what level of danger to put the explorers in. If the Keeper so chooses they could swamp the explorers with axe-wielding madmen every turn they are able. Or they could hoard their Threat Tokens, waiting for the right time to spend a boat-load of them and bury the explorers under a pile of monsters and mental trauma.
As for the players, the investigation of the mansion actually requires some amount of deductive reasoning. I found that just blindly poking our heads in to whichever rooms were closest rarely yielded the desired results because the Keeper’s evil plot is on a timer, and when time runs out things start to get worse and worse for the explorers. To combat this I found we actually had to pay attention to the clues present in the narrative. If we heard screams coming from the basement landing when we arrived then it would behoove us to make a B-line for that room instead of just exploring haphazardly. The game isn’t a linear one though and so a fair amount of exploration was still required of us to find all the right clues. Striking the balance between following our current leads and searching for new ones was the trick.
Both times I played the game have been a blast; my favorite part being that each time a natural narrative evolved. This really helps make it feel like you’re playing through a story with real characters rather than simply moving tokens around a board trying to earn enough victory points to win. My personal highlight came in my first playthrough. I was playing Ashcan Pete, the drifter with one tough dog. My fellow explorers and I had bumbled through the mansion, discovering little of the clues we should have and eventually the Keeper’s evil plot came to fruition and the whole house shook with eldritch energy. Suddenly, all the cultists were replaced with shoggoths who began lurching towards us. At that point it was revealed to us that we had done so badly that the only way to achieve victory was to run for our lives and escape the house. We bolted away from the shoggoth as it pursued us, stopping only briefly so I could attempt to throw a knife at it. To my joy I hit the creature with the blade, to my horror it did almost nothing. Now fully aware that this was not a foe we could combat we met up with the rest of the party and nearly escaped. Just before our fourth explorer could escape, the Keeper emptied the rest of his Threat Tokens to force the broken mind of our last explorer to give up all hope and commit suicide. Three of the four of us had escaped but that was not enough. I could imagine our three survivors stumbling, breathless, out of the mansion and into the driving rain only to look around, wondering where the last of us was.
Overall, this game is a complete homerun. In fact the only negative aspect of the game to me is the setup. Remember that lengthy setup I mentioned? Lengthy doesn’t even begin to cover it. I have scarcely seen games with this much setup time and involvement. Each time I’ve played setup took easily an hour or more. Not only does setup take a long time but the Keeper is the one who does it all. Despite this one demerit the game is otherwise a masterpiece, a game you will want to play over and over due to its entertaining gameplay and immense replay value. Just don’t try to fight the shoggoths.
Score: 4.5 out of 5
Our previous “comment and win” raffle was such a huge success, as before, we are running the same raffle for the entire month. Leave a comment and you may win the demo copy! Rules can be found here.
To view the complete collection of photos taken during the demo, check these out.