A quiet noise, then a hush. In the darkness, something moves. Or is it your imagination?
Around the corner, what will you find? Perhaps an innocent person, injured or afraid, that needs your help. Perhaps in unimaginable monster ready to use its razor-sharp claws. Will you put yourself at risk to solve the mystery of what is happening in this place? Or will you succumb to the darkness and lose your mind forever?
Welcome to Mansions of Madness.
How It Plays
Mansions of Madness is an adventure game based in Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Files universe. You know, the one with all the horror and the Cthulhu. The game is scenario-driven, but each scenario is self contained and there is no overarching campaign.
Most of the scenarios take place in a mansion. Players are given a brief introduction to the story and then placed in a room. From there, it’s up to them to explore and interact with various pieces of the game to discover the ultimate goal and attempt to complete it before everyone dies or goes completely insane.
While the first edition utilized one player as the “Keeper” to manage the puzzles, enemies, and unfolding narrative, the second edition replaces this person with a digital app. The app facilitates player actions, provides descriptions of items, events, and points of interest, handles conversations with NPCs, and assists in combat.
Over the course of the game, players will explore the mansion, revealing new tiles, plot developments, characters, and items. They’ll search drawers, converse with NPCs, solve puzzles, fight monsters, and roll lots of dice. Ultimately, players will need to dig into the mystery to discover what the problem is, figure out how to solve it, and then undertake the necessary tasks. Along the way they’ll get hurt or mentally scarred, possibly even becoming permanently wounded or going insane.
The game is won by completing the goal of the scenario, at which point the app provides a short epilogue. The game is lost if a player is killed or goes permanently insane, or a specific scenario-based loss condition is met.
What’s That Scratching Noise?
My gaming group has always been into the Arkham Files series of board games. Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign – we’ve gotten hours of enjoyment out of trying to solve horrifying mysteries and fight unspeakable evil (and usually failing in the process). While Mansions of Madness always looked interesting, I never got into it because I’d heard how fiddly and cumbersome it was, not to mention the requirement that one player plays as the “Keeper” trying to manage all the behind-the-scenes stuff. Then I heard about thee “refrigerator incident” which soured me toward the game.
But when the 2nd edition was announced with a huge overhaul and an app-driven experience, I was intrigued. Was it possible that they’d solved the problems of the original to make a much more enjoyable experience?
I wish I could compare the two more directly, but as I never played the original, I’ll have to stick with reviewing the second edition in a vacuum. A cold, dark, mind-bending vacuum.
I know some people aren’t a fan of mixing digital tech and cardboard at the table. Maybe those people and the audience for this game don’t really overlap anyway, but in case they do; rest easy, friends. This is a board game, through and through, heart and soul.
What the app does is remove a ton of clutter from your table. All of those events and monsters and NPCs that would need to have some kind of component tied to them to function are instead tracked digitally, and it’s a huge boon. But, and this is important, the app doesn’t take the place of the board, or really much of the game at all. It could easily be built so that the game could be nearly fully played without the physical components, but it is not. It’s treated very much like another component.
By that I mean, the app doesn’t track player movement around the board. It has no idea where you are. It doesn’t even track where monsters move. It doesn’t roll dice for you. It doesn’t hold your hand through the game – you have to track your actions and items and everything you do. It’s like a really smart deck of cards.
Apprehensions assuaged yet? Let’s talk about the game.
At it’s heart, Mansions of Madness is an adventure game with a touch of horror. Whichever role you play, you’re in over your head, but the fun is in exploration and discovery. Though you may become wounded or lose your mind along the way, it is possible to win.
The excitement begins the moment you set up the game. For such a huge box and a boatload of components, setup is pretty quick. All you have to do is sort out the tokens and start up the app. You are given an into and told which room tile to start on, and then you’re off. See, because the app keeps track of stuff for you, you don’t need to gather specific components for a scenario, or build the whole map beforehand. You’re told which tiles to add when you explore. You’re informed when monsters appear on the map, and the app provides the information you need when you encounter the monster – how to fight it, which skills to roll, etc. – without needing special decks or lookup tables or anything like that.
As a result of not setting anything up, you also don’t know anything. You have no idea how big the mansion will be or what you’ll encounter, at all, and that’s exciting. It’s thrilling! It’s where this game really shines.
It’s a tabletop experience like no other, watching as the story slowly unfolds with each door you open and each NPC you encounter. It’s crazy and bizarre and brilliant to have no idea how you are even supposed to win, and then have the picture slowly build as you play.
The app can keep track of things going on outside your purview as well. NPCs can die in rooms you haven’t found yet. Monsters can wreak havoc. Potential clues can zip by because you were too slow. This is probably the best part of how the horror plays in. We’ve seen more than a few messages in the Mythos phase informing us that nothing happens… that we know about. Sometimes there’s no indication of anything, sometimes you hear creaks and groans, or distant screams, or unintelligible shouts. It’s all a little creepy, sometimes terrifying, and always exciting.
The biggest downside is that these scenarios are mostly pre-determined. In playing the same scenario more than once, I found the actual map layout to stay the same, although specific items and clues can move around. This means the second time you play a scenario, the thrill of the unknown is lost. You can still have fun trying to accomplish the scenario goals with different characters or in a different way, but something is lost.
That being said, it is my understanding that components from expansions (including if you have the first edition) can be incorporated into the original scenarios, which should allow for new map layouts and new surprises. Theoretically, each new expansion would not only provide a new scenario or two, but mix up the old scenarios and make them replayable once more. I can’t confirm that at this point, but it’s what I’ve heard. I do know for sure that new scenarios will be available for purchase as Downloadable Content – there’s already one available for a few bucks.
You know what would be cool? A Scenario builder so people can create their own stories. Yeah.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Fantasy Flight Games managed something smart and kind to their fans. Although the first edition had its issues, it also had its fans, and it hasn’t been a terribly long time since it was released. However, the 2nd edition includes a conversion kit in the box which allows you to use characters, map tiles, and monsters from the original edition in this new version, so it’s like a massive expansion pack. That’s a decent thing to do to support your fans who’ve already invested a lot of time and money in your product.
For those that didn’t own the first edition, the components that transfer are available in expansion packs – not the full first edition game, but the important stuff.
Speaking of components, this box comes with the good stuff. The art on the map tiles is haunting and detailed. It’s got the full Fantasy Flight design treatment from tokens to item cards, and of course the miniatures. The monster minis are cool, although the bases are a headache. I do wish the Investigator miniatures had better silhouettes. We always have trouble figuring out who is who, and it’s not always easy to find your character on the board at a glance. Other than that, though, the components are gorgeous. The app is equally nice-looking, has a nice clear design, and quality voiceover to draw you in.
In case it wasn’t clear, I really enjoy this game. I wish there were more scenarios in the box, but I have to admit there’s a lot of content to go through. It’s as fun with 2 players as it is with 5, and it’s got pounds and pounds of flavor.
Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition is a great example of how to update a board game, fix huge issues with the inclusion of an app, and treat your fans right. If you love the concept, you’ll love the execution here. It’s an immersive game that is quite challenging but a lot of fun to play, and I highly recommend it.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee and Fantasy Flight Games for providing a review copy of Mansions of Madness, 2nd Edition.