Friday, March 4, 2011

Review: Mansions of Madness

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I'm also a huge fan of the Cthulhu mythos and am able to look past many of Lovecraft's open flaws to really enjoy the stories he tells. I'm also a big fan of Arkham Horror because, despite the bloat and clunkiness of that behemoth, the game manages to tell a good story, even if arguably not Lovecraftian in its telling.

The Overview:

The box cover artwork. Creeping tentacles have sort of become the creepy flagship standard on FFG's Cthulhu artwork interpretations.

Mansions of Madness is a cooperative/team game where one player takes on the role of the Keeper and sets the game's story and encounters based on a predetermined scenario that has numerous variables within it. The other players take on the role of the Investigators, who are the individual characters which are entering the area to investigate the mystery. Win conditions vary depending upon the scenario and choices made in seeding it and it is revealed to the Investigators as the game progresses.

The game is for 2-5 players and plays in about two hours, although number of players may increase or decrease that amount. There is some potential variation in playtime based on the scenario chosen as well. For example, Scenario 1 plays the quickest, while the latter scenarios are much closer in length.

The board is modular and it is built in a specific manner depending on the scenario chosen. The Keeper then chooses between 3-6 plot choices in the story. Based on these decisions the game board is seeded in a very specific manner with cards dictated by the scenario set-up. These cards are seeded onto specific rooms face-down, so that the Investigators do not know where key items are located. The Keeper also gets specific actions that are available to him based on the scenario chosen. This set-up will eventually come down to about 20 minutes, but may be almost twice that time in the Keeper's first game or two.

Each other player, meanwhile, chooses the Investigator character that they will play in the scenario. Each Investigator has 2 Strength Trait cards and 2 Intellect Trait cards and the player must choose one of each for their character in the scenario. The trait cards affect their stats in the game as well as what starting equipment they receive. The stats vary from card to card and determine what is needed to pass a Skill Check. For example, if an Investigator has a Strength of 5, they must roll a 5 or less on a 10-sided die to pass the Skill Check.

Jenny Barnes' character options. The top two are the Strength Trait cards and the bottom two are the Intellect Trait cards. As you can see, the choices vary stats, abilities and equipment and offer variation in character builds. 

The Investigators each begin on the location designated as the Start space for the scenario and play begins. Each turn is broken into the Investigators' turn followed by the Keeper's turn and each has specific steps within it.

INVESTIGATOR TURN: Each Investigator's turn consists of two Movement Steps and one Action Step. They can be taken in any order.

Movement Step: This step simply allows the player to move his investigator to an adjacent space. Some of the rooms will be "Locked" as determined in the set up. If an Investigator attempts to move into a locked room, he must flip over and reveal the Lock Card. The Lock Card may call for a Skill Check to open it (for example, a Strength Check to open a jammed door), it may adjust the setting of the room (such as instructing you to place a Darkness token on the room), it may require a specific item to open (generally requiring the Investigators to find a specific key) or it may have a Puzzle lock on it, which requires the Investigator to immediately start a puzzle mini-game in order to open the lock.

Puzzles are set according to the card and the Investigator has a number of actions that they can use to move the pieces to "solve" it based off of their Investigator's Intellect rating. The mini-games are not exceptionally difficult, but may be time-consuming for Investigators with lower Intellect stats who do not have enough actions to solve it. If a puzzle lock is unsolved, it remains in place and an Investigator may return to it later to try to complete it.

Action Step: The Investigator may perform a single action step during his turn. It may consist of any one of the following:

• Run Action: This action simply lets the Investigator take an additional Movement Step. It is specifically useful when fleeing from monsters, since most of them have a movement of 2.
• Card Ability Action: Certain cards, including items and spells, may be used as actions. The Investigator merely resolves the action listed on the card.
• Drop Action: This action allows the Investigator to drop cards in his room (face-up). Another Investigator can later pick up the items if in the room they were left in.
• Attack Action: An Investigator can use their action to attack a monster in the same space that they are in, or within their weapon's range if they have a ranged weapon and are in line-of-sight. I'll get into combat later.
• Explore Action: The Investigator can use this action to turn over and collect any of the seeded Exploration Cards in the room. If the top card is an Obstacle Card, then it must be resolved in a similar manner as the Lock Cards before the cards under it may be claimed. Exploration Cards are usually Equipment, Weapons, Tomes (which can be used to learn spells), scenario Clues or Items. There are also a number of "You Find Nothing of Interest" Cards as well, which are used to mask which locations have the more important items in them.
• Use a Room Feature Action: Though not listed under available actions for an Investigator, it is still an option for them. If an Investigator is in a room with a Feature Marker, they can use it with their action. Barrier Features represent furniture or other items which can be used to barricade a door. This potentially stops a Keeper's Monster from entering through the doorway. Hiding Space Features are places where an Investigator may try to hide from pursuing Keeper Monsters and avoid attack. Ladder Features mark special movement areas and movement between two spaces containing a ladder marker are considered adjacent.

After each Investigator takes 2 Movement Steps and 1 Action step, it is then the Keeper's Turn.

KEEPER'S TURN: The Keeper performs the following steps in order:

Investigator Trading Step: Here any Investigators in the same space as another Investigator may freely trade items to one another. Any Investigator who is stunned may now discard one of his Stun markers.

Gain Threat Step: During this step the Keeper gains a number of Threat Tokens equal to the number of Investigator players. These tokens are spent to perform Keeper Actions in the next step.

Keeper Action Step: Each scenario dictates which Keeper Action Cards the Keeper has access to. Each of the Actions has a specific "Threat Cost". If the Keeper has enough Threat Tokens to play for the cost, he may take the action on the card. These actions are usually very scenario specific, but usually contain general actions such as being able to move Minions or Monsters on the board, spawning new monsters or drawing Mythos and Trauma Cards to later play against the Investigators (more on them later). A Keeper does not have to spend all of his Threat Tokens and may stockpile them to pay for higher costing actions or to plan larger moves later.

Monster Attack Step: During this step, the Keeper may have each of his monsters attack one Investigator in its space. Combat will be described later. If the Monster has a Stun Token on it, it cannot attack or move and instead can only remove the token this turn.

Event Step: The Keeper then places one Time Token on top of the specific Event Deck for the chosen scenario. Each scenario has 5 events which are played out in order. Each Event Card has a specific number of Time Tokens that may be placed on it before it is flipped over and resolved. Event Cards usually take 3-6 Time Tokens before they are resolved. Once enough tokens have been placed on the card, it is flipped over and read and resolved and it will press the story forward. If it is the last card in the Event Deck, the scenario is ended if the win conditions have not already been met by one side or another.

After this is performed, the Investigators start their turn once again and play proceeds.

There are a few subjects which should be looked at in more detail as they pertain to the gameplay.

Skill Points: Each Investigator begins with a number of Skill Points as instructed by their character card. A Skill Point can be spent before making a Skill Check and the Investigator adds their Luck score to the Attribute they are making the check for, giving an increased chance to make a check. Alternatively, a Skill Point can be spent to add a number of puzzle actions equal to their Luck score to an Investigator's puzzle turn.

Combat: When either an Investigator attacks a Monster or a Monster attacks an Investigator, a Combat Card is drawn matching the Keeper's creature type (either Beast, Eldrich or Humanoid). Each card is broken down to incorporate the Investigator attack and the Monster attack and the proper portion of the card is read. If the Investigator is attacking, the cards are drawn and discarded until a card matching the attack type that the Investigator is using is drawn. If a Keeper's Monster is attempting to get through a barricade or find an Investigator in a Hiding Space, the cards are discarded and drawn until a matching Monster resolution is found. The card generally dictates what Skill Check is resolved. Now, monster attacks do not make the Keeper resolve a Skill Check for the monster to see if its attack is successful or not, but rather their attack forces a "defensive" Skill Check on the part of the Investigator to avoid or minimize the attack.

Each of the Keeper's monster's health and special attacks are different. This includes for monsters and minions of a specific type. So each of the Keeper's Cultists may have a different attack effect and a different health than the last one. This is actually very good for creating levels of uncertainty for the Investigators.

Combat Card example. 

Horror Test and Evade Test: Each Keeper Monster has a Horror Rating listed on it. Whenever an Investigator enters a room with a Monster in it or whenever a Monster enters a room with an Investigator, they must make a Horror Test, which is a Willpower Skill Check modified by the Monster's Horror Rating. If it is failed, the Investigator gains a Horror Token. Each Horror Token gained lowers the Investigator's Sanity Rating by 1.

Each Monster also has an Awareness Rating as well, and any Investigator in the same space as a Monster must make an Evade Test (Dexterity Skill Check modified by the Awareness Rating) in order to move out of the space or to take any non-attack action. If the Investigator fails the Evade Test, they can still take their action, but the Keeper may allow the monster to do its base damage to the Investigator.

Mythos and Trauma Cards: Mythos and Trauma Cards are gained by the Keeper through actions on his turn and he may play them on an Investigator on the Investigator's Turn. Mythos Cards usually cost a Threat Token amount to play and also have specific conditions that also need to be met to play. For example, a Mythos card might require the Investigator to be in a room affected by Darkness, or in a Basement location or so on.

Example Mythos Card. The icon and number in the upper left corner means that it costs 0 Threat Tokens for the Keeper to play.

Trauma Cards are broken into either mental or physical trauma and can be played on an Investigator when either their Sanity or Health levels are lowered to meet the requirement of the card to be played. They represent lasting effects to hinder and stymie the Investigators. Effects are usually lasting as long as the card remains before the Investigator, though they may only have one of each type affecting them at a time.

Example of a Trauma Card. The 4 in the brain means that an Investigator must have 4 or less Sanity for this to be played on them. 

The Theme:

This is a story-telling thematic game which brings the "global" threat of Arkham Horror's universe closer to the more intimate horror stories of Lovecraft's Cthulhu universe. Since much of the board is seeded with specific items and clues before play begins, the game is very tight in presenting a narrative between these cards and the timed Events occurring. Because of this planned and direct set-up, you are much less likely to encounter certain oddities that occur in Arkham Horror, such as having Sister Mary racing around on a Motorcycle with a Tommy Gun.

The narrative is set very well and the story unfolds naturally with specific things occurring because of the set story. However, it is really only the Keeper who fully understands what and why things are occurring. This isn't necessarily bad, as in playing the Call of Cthulhu RPG, the Investigators rarely have the full story. However, at the end of most every game, the Investigators will, even if they thoroughly enjoyed the game and experience, will ask, "So what was happening?"

This is, at least, until the scenarios are played a few times each and then the actions become more clear through experience rather than necessarily observation and deduction of in game clues. That isn't to say that the scenarios are not replayable, since there are plot points that can be changed up. But even when the clues are found by the Investigators, they rarely piece the entire story together unless they are familiar with the elements from previous plays.

However, for a story-telling game that brings in more of an intimate Cthulhu feel, Mansions of Madness is probably the most thematic experience that you will find short of playing the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

Learning the Game:

The game's rules are not very complex. However, in typical FFG rulebook format, they have taken efforts to make things seem more complex than they really are. A number of rules are not in the most intuitive location to reference (for example, it takes an Investigator action to use a Feature Marker, but this is not listed under actions that an Investigator may take).

Scenario set-up is also rather daunting for a first time Keeper as the game may be broken and not play out correctly if things are seeded incorrectly, plus the Keeper book does not do well in informing the Keeper of things that will unfold in the scenario (for example, Scenario 2 instructs only one ladder segment to be placed on the board with no indication that the other half of it will be revealed later in the scenario based on the Investigator's discoveries. Nor does it indicate how to treat the one ladder half in the interim).

However, once understood, the game flows incredibly smoothly. After a game or two, there is little reason to stop to reference the rules because there is a smoothness in play that is not well illustrated with the clunkiness of the rules.

There is one reference sheet on the back page of the Keeper's Guide. I would normally say that more should be included for each player, but really the game flows well enough after a single play that they really are not necessary.

The Components:

Game board set up for the first scenario with a game in progress. 

Sister Mary hiding from a Maniac.

Jenny vs. the Shoggoth. 

The monster figures are beautifully sculpted. 

This lock puzzle is brightened by the flash. However, without it, the runes are dark and are kind of hard to see, which is important since you need to solve the puzzle by matching runes. I would not suggest opening locks by candlelight no matter how thematic it may seem.  

Fantasy Flight is known for their high quality components and Mansions of Madness is no exception. The sculpted miniatures are amazingly detailed and really do add to the immersion factor of the game. The sculpts for the Investigators are unpainted versions of the prepainted Arkham Horror figures that were released previously, so, while beautiful, it does fit into FFG's motif of reusing art within their Cthulhu products.

The modular tiles used to make up the mansion board are really beautiful and set a great scene for the game to unfold onto. While you have to prearrange the board set-up, I really think that the work on these tiles helps to set theme and mood much better rather than the much more generic Castle Ravenloft tiles. You really can see where artwork can evoke more theme and feeling when comparing the two. I do have a complaint with the tiles, however: since punching them most of them have warped. Now, they haven't warped to the extent of the 2nd edition of Betrayal at House on the Hill and are fully playable, but it is annoying, especially since the tiles need to be laid out so specifically for set-up. Most of the cards from the game have also started to warp a bit as well since opening them. Again, they are playable, but it is annoying and I don't know how prevalent it may be during this print run.

While not as bad at Betrayal at House on the Hill's second printing, the warping of the tiles is a bit annoying. 

Another problem that I have with the components comes from a general sense that the game was most likely intentionally parsed for future expansions. This comes into focus with the limited number of Investigators available in the game (8, as opposed to 16 in the AH base set) and the fact that the combat decks are rather thin considering how often you need to dig through them to find a card matching the Investigator's attack type. But then again, the base AH set only had 7 cards for each Location.

Finally, the number of scenarios in the base game is light. True, elements of them can be changed during set up to keep the Investigator's guessing which set up it is. However, despite all of the variables, there is only one variable that really changes the Objective and win/lose conditions in each scenario. Each scenario has 3 different objectives that can be set. Even if the Investigators figure out what the objective is early, it doesn't necessarily mean that they will have an easy time of the game. However, since every review of mention of the game has been so very careful not to reveal any story spoilers, it kind of shows how much everyone really thinks that the surprise or unknown elements of the scenarios really adds to the story being told. Repeating them will tarnish that a bit. Now, this wouldn't even be quite so bad if FFG was the type of company that would publish free web scenarios to use in the games to offer continual support. But we all know that they are not that kind of company. Instead, any scenario ideas will be slowly distributed among future $60 expansions.

Playing the Game:

Game play is relatively easy to learn. Again, the it will probably just be the first game that is broken up with referencing the rules. After that, it will flow much more smoothly.

The story being told is really only fully known by the Keeper, but as I mentioned before, I don't necessarily see that as a problem. I think that the narrative set up in this game is very strong for the players and seems much more closer to Lovecraft's Cthulhu world (or at least the CoC RPG world, as Lovecraft's stories were generally much more personal) than the often random chaos of the battle heavy Arkham Horrow's Cthulhu world. Actions make sense and a story is being told.

What I enjoy about it is that the Keeper has a role and his actions tell part of the story as well. There may be times where he wants to drive someone insane rather than just rip them to shreds with that Shoggoth in the other room.


The game is supposed to scale from 2-5 players and, technically, it does. The Keeper gets more Threat Tokens depending on how many Investigators are in the game, which gives him more options and potential ways to hinder the Investigators.

However, with only one Investigator player, they are much more limited in the scope of what they can cover in the house before time runs out. Their character choice is also a little trickier, since those who are high Intellect characters (very useful for puzzle locks) are generally poor at combat (very useful for not dying). The inverse is also true of the combat characters. So a range of characters is better and this can be done easily by having the Investigator player play two Investigator characters. This works much better, but as anyone who has every played an RPG knows, it is so much easier to invest and care about your character's life and sanity if there is only one sheet in front of you. So a bit is lost that way.

Also, one of the five scenarios requires at least 2 Investigator players (not characters) and suggests at least 3 Investigator players due to the story elements in it. So that limits the playable scenarios to just 4 for 2-players.

The other problem that the game has in scalability is that 5 players would mean that there are 4 Investigators. This gives the Investigators too many options in exploring the house quickly to resolve the story and win. Really, the last scenario is the only one that really works best with 5 players. Every other one has a sweet spot that hovers between 3 or 4 players (with Scenarios 1 & 2 working best with 2 Investigator players, and Scenarios 3 & 4 working best with 3 Investigator players).

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, she's a huge fan of Arkham Horror, she's one of the players in my Call of Cthulhu RPG and she's a big fan of the Cthulhu Live LARPs that we go to DEXCON specifically to participate in. Our first game of MoM was a bit clunky, as I usually better familiarize myself with rules before bringing a game before her. It was broken up by numerous rules references and there was minimal sense of continuity of story in it. She was disappointed. However, our next game only required one abstract rule to be referenced during the game and she enjoyed it much, much more. It may be a little early to tell, but I think that this will replace Arkham Horror for her favorite mythos related board game, provided that replayability doesn't become a huge issue. So (perhaps too) much is random in AH that we can play it again and again in a weekend and have so many different results. In MoM so much is preset and specifically seeded that we will probably have to space out our plays or risk learning too much about them.

The Pros:

*Great theme and a really unique story-telling experience that also a great game.
*Brings in an intimate feel to the Arkham Horror universe, as the other game feels much more global.
*Interesting stories which really are designed to feel personal to the Investigators involved.
*Excellent thematic writing in each of the cards as they are resolved.
*Variables throughout the game means no one can ever take anything for granted. For example, each spell has 5 different cards for it, each resolving a different unique effect if the spell passes or fails that cannot be looked at until it is cast, making sure that Investigators cannot take even their own grasp of magic for granted.
*Intuitive play that requires minimal rules references during the game.
*Good play time length for what it presents.
*Stories unfold well with the timed Event Cards.
*Great miniatures and great artwork throughout.
*Sister Mary is actually not a terrible character this time around.
*If you have a significant other who plays board games with you, but draws the line at RPGs, you can use this to blur the line and move it a little further back.

The Cons:

*Some production warping issues, though I do not know how widespread this will be.
*Minimal supplied scenarios with the foreknowledge that none will be forthcoming for "free" making replayability an issue.
*Specific pre-seeding the board is daunting in set up and a misplaced card could make the game broken.
*Some elements were too darkly printed for theme rather than practicality.
*Scaling is not fluid and certain numbers work better for certain scenarios making some games too easy or too hard based on number of players. This also hurts replayability as, for example, 2 player groups can only play 4 out of the 5 scenarios.
*Certain elements seem limited to be saved for inevitable expansions. Expansions are not bad at all, but when a game is released and feels light in some areas because things are intentionally held back for expansions, then it is a problem.
*Great miniatures and great artwork, which looked beautiful when I saw them the first time in Arkham Horror and the second time in the Call of Cthulhu LCG.
*I've waited through how many AH expansion to find out what "Ashcan" Pete does with that guitar over his shoulder only to find out that he hits people with it.
*I have to wait for a Strange Eons-type program before I can make custom characters from our Call of Cthulhu RPG to play in this game.


Mansions of Madness was going to be an easy favorite in my collection. I love theme and story-telling games and this one is set in an intimate level in the Lovecraft universe. Corey Konieczka is an excellent designer and you can see his love of the genre and game built into this game. I love this game and am really impressed with everything in the box. However, I cannot feel disappointed by what is not in the box: more characters, more scenarios, more varied Combat Cards, more items and more ability to randomize some of the scenarios to further add to replayability. As such, I have to address Mansions of Madness for what it is: a truly wonderful base game for what will be an exciting game line. However, like Arkham Horror before this, it will be loads of fun, but not truly shine until certain parts of it are filled out more, which will ultimately result in bloating of other parts. Still, for a great, thematic story-telling horror game, you will not find anything better out there at the moment.


Edit: March 8, 2011: I just wanted to add a quick update. The warping in the tiles mentioned above continued for several days throughout. I rested about 10-15 pounds of flat weight onto the tiles and left them that way through several days. Perhaps it was the weight, or perhaps the cardboard adjusted to the cold and humidity of my location, but the warping has mostly subsided. There is just a minor warp in some of the tiles and had they been like that from the beginning, it would not have warranted a mention. Anyhow, here is the updated tile picture to judge for yourselves:

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