Cardboard Children: Mansions Of Madness

By Robert Florence on March 6th, 2011 at 4:00 pm.

Kieron is doing this too. YOU JUST CAN'T STOP ME!

Hello youse.

Did you miss me? I’m back today to put three little words to you. Well, one little word and two big ones.

True. Lovecraftian. Experience.

You’ll remember me telling you about the Arkham Horror board game a few months ago. If you don’t remember, you can read about it here. In that article, I said that any Lovecraftian element in Arkham Horror comes through mainly because of how complex and intimidating and overwhelming the game’s mechanics are. The theme, strangely, hits you through abstract means.

This isn’t the case with Fantasy Flight Games’ new board game Mansions Of Madness. The Lovecraft theme is there front and centre, and is wonderfully rich. The game’s mechanics are simple, letting the players get on with telling a story. And the story this game lets you tell is a rich one, dripping with flavour text and gameplay drama. This is the board game that Call of Cthulhu RPG gamers have been wishing for.

Mansions Of Madness is a game for 2-5 players, with one of those players taking the role of the “Keeper”. The Keeper is in control of the Mythos itself. He moves the monsters, attacks the player investigators, and takes responsibility for the vile intellect of the house. This is a haunted house game, you see. The game comes with five stories, set in five different mansions, and the investigators have to unlock each building’s mysteries.

The game comes with modular floor tiles, that can be laid out in the shape of whatever building the story requires. The tiles are double-sided, so there’s a good amount of potential variety in the layout of the rooms.

The art is lovely too. You can check out the board art here.

For each story, the Keeper player makes some narrative choices. These narrative choices inform how the building is constructed. In one scenario, for example, the Keeper will choose one of three reasons why cultists are gathering in a monastery. This choice will change the locations of items, and the placement of clue cards. So, while there are only five different scenarios, the stories can play out a number of different ways.

(Here’s where I will point out the only negative of this game. Set-up takes a long time. Seriously. The mansion has to be built from the floor tiles, and then cards need to be “seeded” in all the rooms. These seed locations are decided by the Keeper story choices, and you can’t risk fucking up the placement of any of the cards. You fuck THAT up, the game falls apart. It speaks for how beautifully the stories are put together that one misplaced card can make a mess of the whole show.)

Players choose their investigators and two of four trait cards. The trait cards list attributes that are used in skill checks, and also outline any starting equipment or special abilities. Skill checks are beautifully simple. If you need to make a Dexterity check, you roll a D10 and try to roll equal to or under your Dexterity attribute. A roll of 10 is an automatic fail, while a roll of 1 is an automatic success. No hassle. No problem.

Before the game starts, the investigators are read a wee story that explains why they’re at this particular hellhole. The stories fit the Lovecraft thang very well. If anything, it proves that we all know how to write in that Lovecraft style.

“My friend, if you are reading this letter, then it is clear that I have failed in my doomed mission. Only last year, at Miskatonic University, I promised you that I would buy no more board games until I had cleared my backlog. Yes, I even intended to play that train game where you draw on a map of the moon with some crayons. But here I sit, my hand cramped from popping chits from sheets of cardboard, writing this letter. The game, once removed from its packaging, simply does not go back into its box. There is something wrong, very wrong, with the geometry of the thing. I tried to do find some assistance with the storage issues, by visiting a place of board game learning (that BoardGameGeek site the professor told us about) but my foolish curiosities led me to other forbidden websites that asked me for my age and then maddened my very eyes and trousers with images of the most impossible practices.”

The little story at the start will suggest where in the building the investigators should be heading first. And then they pile in, and it all begins. In an investigator’s turn, they can take two movement steps and one action. So they can move two spaces, and then explore a room or attack a monster or maybe barricade a door in a panic. Sometimes an investigator might want to move into a room that has a locked door. This will mean they need to find a key first, or maybe a password, or maybe – get this – SOLVE A PUZZLE.

Solve a puzzle? What?

SOLVE A PUZZLE.

Puzzles. This game is full of puzzles. Actual puzzles. Maybe a door is runelocked. That means you do a rune puzzle. The Keeper gives you a handful of runes, and you lay them out randomly, picture side up. It looks like one big jumbled up picture. Then you have as many moves as your intellect attribute allows. So, say you have an intellect of 5. That means you have 5 moves, sliding puzzle style, to make the picture complete. That’s brilliant isn’t it? You solve the puzzle, the door opens. That is brilliant. Come on.

Or maybe, like, you walk into a room and all the lights are off. And the Keeper has spawned a maniac. And the maniac is coming your way. And you’re in pitch black. And there’s a wiring puzzle for you to solve, to turn the lights back on. So you get the little wiring puzzle pieces and you need to slide, swap and rotate them to connect the wires. A puzzle. To turn on the lights. Before a maniac comes. Come on. Fucksake. Come on. That’s BRILLIANT.

As you work your way through the mansion, solving puzzles and running away from Shoggoths, the Keeper is trying to fuck you up. He has Mythos cards that he can play on the investigators in their turn, making them suffer from vertigo on staircases, or shit themselves from voices in the dark. This starts to take a toll on their sanity. And it’s GOOD to have some insane investigators in this game. Insane investigators are like putty in the keeper’s hands. They like to turn their guns on other players, and themselves. Even seeing a monster has a risk of sending you loopy. Firing multiple Hounds of Tindalos into a room full of investigators will have players making Horror Checks like crazy, and sanity pouring away like my money down a board game shop’s money chute.

Combat’s hard as nails. As it should be in any Lovecraft game. (One of my problems with Arkham Horror is that many players can just go around Arkham hammering through Mythos creatures with tommy guns – too easy.) While it might be simple enough to get rid of a cultist or a maniac, once the zombies and Chthonians and Hounds start pouring forth, the investigators need to get their running spikes on. There’s risk involved in EVERY attack, you see. Even if you do have a machine gun, and you feel confident about an attack, you might draw a combat card that tells you you fumble your gun as you shoot. A failed attack in that case isn’t just a miss, it’s also your weapon falling at a green bastard’s tentacled toes.

(I have to mention maniacs here. They’re amazing. Whenever the Keeper spends his threat tokens to spawn a maniac attack, the maniac just smashes through a door or wall into the same space as an investigator. Oh how I love them.)

There are different combat cards for different classes of creature, so one attack might find you trying to stare down a Hound of Tindalos, and another attack might find you throwing an axe across a room at a witch’s head. Variety and unpredictability everywhere. Story everywhere. And all resolved through the drawing of a card and a simple attribute check with one die. BEAUTIFUL. Come on. You know it is.

(More brackets. Listen. The miniatures in this game are AMAZING, by the way. Maybe the best sculpts I’ve seen from Fantasy Flight. All the information for the monsters is held in the BASE of the miniature. What? EXACTLY. Amazing.)

Anyway, the ultimate objective for the investigators is to move from clue to clue inside the house. Each clue will hint to the location of the next, so it’s important to keep your focus on the mission at hand, because time is constantly ticking away. At the end of every Keeper’s turn, a little time token is placed on an event card, and these start to resolve one by one. The events develop the story and can punish or help the players out, depending on how far along they are in their investigation. Once the last event card is resolved, it’s all over. And depending on the secret story objective, either the investigators will lose, the Keeper will lose, or everybody will lose and the house will fall into the earth and the stars will wink out and Porky Pig will be like this: “Th-th-th-that’s Ia! Ia! Cthulhu! Folks!”

Oh God. It’s a brilliant game. No. Hold. It’s a b-e-uh-rhu-hull-ee-ya-n-tuh game. Is it better than Arkham Horror? Yes. Is it the best Lovecraft-influenced board game you can play? Yes. Is it the best horror board game you can play? Yes. Well, certainly one of the two best. That other one I’ll talk about soon.

Oh, the moments. In the most recent game I played, it all came down to the very last turn. Only one investigator could win the game for the good guys, and he was dashing to the objective room. He had a sanity of 6, and already had 5 horror tokens against him. One more horror token and he would go insane. And I, as the Keeper, wanted him to go insane. Because I had a card that would force him to turn a gun on himself and blow his brains out if he did. So I started flinging monsters at him. THE CULTIST SACRIFICES HIMSELF! A ZOMBIE RISES! MAKE A HORROR CHECK! He passes. THE SHOGGOTH CRASHES INTO THE ROOM! MAKE A HORROR CHECK! He passes. YOU HEAR VOICES BABLING FROM THE DARK! TEST WILLPOWER! LOSE YOUR MIND!!! He passes. Then, last turn, THE ZOMBIE ATTACKS! CHOMP! His health down to 1. His sanity at 1. And he uncovers the final clue. Success for the investigators. Failure for the Keeper. Insane, breathless excitement for everyone at the table.

That Lovecraft game I wanted is finally here. It’s a Lovecraft game that I can recommend to everyone. It’s not just for the hardcore, like Arkham Horror. It’s for everyone who’s ever wanted a board game that lets your run around a spooky house, hiding in chests while psychopaths stalk you with an axe. It’s a game for anyone who’s ever played that wonderful Fighting Fantasy gamebook House of Hell. It’s a game easily taught, and easily played, and easily one of my favourite games of all time ALREADY. I love it.

I fucking love it. That’s pretty much it. Am I allowed to sum it up so crudely?

I fucking love it.

Now watch this, for more

Before I go, the bold Ben Hogg at Esdevium passed this along, and it’s pretty sweet. Days of Wonder have a competition on the go – design a winning map for their board game Ticket To Ride and you’ll get $10000 and the map will get printed up. That’s pretty nice, no? You guys are clever guys. Give it a go. You can check it out here.

Later! Here’s to Ol’ Brown Sauce!

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54 Comments »

  1. Curvespace says:

    I desire this grouping of related objects.

  2. McDan says:

    I missed paper-based kids.

  3. Quintin Smith says:

    Picked this up on Friday, and totally agree about the combat cards- they definitely do seem like an eerie bit of genius. I was having a quick browse, and one of the Melee Weapon Vs. Beast ones is something along the lines of “In a moment of panic, you throw your weapon at the creature! Make an attack with Dexterity, then drop your weapon afterwards.” The whole deck is chomping at the bit to add some drama and cinema to your game, at absolutely no cost to the game itself.

    • BaronWR says:

      How long does it take? Much as I love FFG’s games, they do tend to take most of an afternoon/evening to play.

      Also, I notice that they’re quite keen on clues: do these not get spoilt after the first use? Or is there some ambiguity?

    • Quintin Smith says:

      A game might run 2 hours or so. And yeah, to some extent the clue cards do get spoiled on first use, although there are lots of combinations of them. The game’s kind of an experiment in what developers can achieve when they make that sacrifice.

  4. Ushao says:

    Definitely going to the top of my “To Buy” list!

  5. Nick says:

    Welcome back Rab. This game.. I want this game. I will have this game.

  6. Jon says:

    That video told me that to work in board games you need facial hair.

  7. Daiv says:

    Superb. The views as to the utility of this product expressed so ably by Mr. Florence have convinced me that my collection of such items is lacking unless I purchase it at my next convenience.

  8. Gothnak says:

    So, that looks awesome.. Two questions…

    1. How replayable are the five stories?
    2. How replayable are the puzzles? Surely once you have solved them once, you can’t do them again?

    • Quintin Smith says:

      Each of the five stories starts with the Keeper player choosing an objective for the bad guys, which could be anything from murdering all the players, to getting them to enter a particular room, to something more convoluted. Each of the five stories has three of these objectives, and then the Keeper also makes a couple of smaller choices.

      So, 5 stories with 3 objectives each means 15 fairly different games and dozens more slightly reshuffled ones. Of course, just because /you’ve/ played through a scenario before doesn’t stop you from playing Keeper and enjoying it again with a different group of friends who don’t know what’s coming.

      (Fantasy Flight being the expansionophiles they are, though, makes me think that this beautiful baby’s going to be drowning in scenarios within the next couple of years.)

    • Quintin Smith says:

      Oh- puzzles! Yeah, they’re 100% replayable too. They’re all tile-swapping puzzles with various twists, and when you set one up your draw tiles at random. So, it’s a different puzzle every time.

    • Gothnak says:

      Cool, thanks for the details… This goes onto the want list :)…

    • Pantsman says:

      The puzzles are randomly designed, eh? That sounds good but does raise the question – are they always solvable, or is it possible to choose a set of tiles for which there will be no solution?

    • Quintin Smith says:

      So, they’re always solvable, but the randomisation might happen to make them easy or a real pain in the ass.

      The way it works is that on each turn that your character attempts to solve the puzzle, you get moves equal to your character’s intellect. So, if you’re playing some professor with intelligence 7, you get 7 moves. Each of those moves can be you rotating a tile, swapping two tiles, or taking one tile out of the puzzle and adding a new one at random.

  9. Chunga says:

    Looks fantastic, that’s for sure!

  10. TheTourist314 says:

    Glad to have you back. Your article on Deathwatch was very convincing, I was itching for some more 40k mania because Retribution hadn’t come out yet, so I started a Deathwatch campaign with my 40k friends.

  11. bob_d says:

    If I had friends to play this with, I’d definitely buy it. Heck, I might anyways.
    It really sounds like they’ve very cleverly managed to simulate the functioning of a computer game to a large degree using cardboard and keeper.

    • Demonbooker says:

      Yeah, if I had more people I knew that were interested in Board games on a regular basis, I would be all over it, but as it is, the one person I could play these kinds of games with gets stressed playing competitive games just me and her.

      Also, with the mention of this being a good simulation of a computer game, I instantly thought of Amnesia on a group scale. Going through the rooms of a haunted house, solving puzzles, and getting the piss scared out of you one too many times.

    • bob_d says:

      The randomized elements, some of the basic mechanics and especially the use of a sliding picture puzzle scream computer game to me. I was recently playing “Cogs” which is entirely based on the sliding picture puzzle mechanic, so that in particular (especially modified, as it is, by a limited number of moves) seemed like a clever way to introduce a computer game dynamic into a board game.
      At first I was thinking, “This sounds like something that would translate well to a computer game,” but then I realized it didn’t need translating.

  12. GraveyardJimmy says:

    How would this play with just two players?

    Many of the elements (controlling insane investigators, discussing how to move forwards) sound like they would play well with 1V3 or 1V2, so how does 1v1 play?

    Also, would it be possible for one player to play two investigators?

    • Rab says:

      Jimmy, it’s entirely possible for a two player game to work with one player taking control of more than one investigator. It’s the kind of game that works best with at least three though.

      Roberto

  13. Warth0g says:

    Wow… I am so, so very jealous of those of you with like-minded friends that will actually play these sorts of things with you. No-one I know is remotely interested :-( I have a copy of Arkham Horror gathering dust, although I did give it a go solo the other day which was surprisingly OK.

    This looks great, but given the need for a DM it’s even more in need of a decent group of people I guess, not to mention someone who’s willing to play the DM (sorry, Keeper).. wouldn’t want that to be me every time..

    Great review though, thanks Rab

    • Rab says:

      The Keeper is very much just another player role though. It’s a competitive role. It’s a much easier game to get people into than Arkham Horror would be. All you really have to explain up front is how an investigator’s turn plays out – you can be up and running in a learning game in ten minutes.

    • Choca says:

      “Wow… I am so, so very jealous of those of you with like-minded friends that will actually play these sorts of things with you. No-one I know is remotely interested ”

      Ditto.

      EDIT : Screw it, I’ll buy it anyway

  14. Rab says:

    I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise for the typos as I excitedly banged this one out. Accept them as further proof of my enthusiasm for the game.

  15. JayTee says:

    Excellent review that has convinced me to grab a copy.

    Since all my friends are nearly as geeky as me, I can’t see it requiring too much convincing to play this. Bribing them with my wine collection usually works too.

  16. xesharpx says:

    This looks really good… I’ll definitely be getting it to go on the nerd night rotation along with Arkham Horror and Warhammer Quest :)

  17. Renzatic says:

    Wow. I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore boardgame geek (never really had the opportunity to try one), but this looks too fun to pass up. I’ll have to get this, and browbeat a few friends into playing a couple of games.

  18. Scroll says:

    This sounds incredibly delightful, I was tempted to delve into Arkham horror but I thought it would probably be too overwhelming for my poor friends. This game however sounds like a perfect choice for me and my group of friends. My local game store will be delighted as I’ve already given him several hundred pounds so far, I just can’t seem to keep my wallet away from that place.

  19. phuzz says:

    A game where the GM has to spend a while setting everything up, is much preferable to one where everyone has to sit there during the setup phase. After all, it’s usually the GM who’s been banging on at everyone to play the game for weeks.

    (ps Rab, since you started these collumns, myself and my geeky and less than geeky mates have graduated from Carcasson to Illuminati, so thanks :)

  20. Justin Keverne says:

    The character’s are the same as those from Arkham Horror which is amusing. Certainly going to be picking this up when I can afford it.

  21. KaputtChino says:

    So this is, at it’s core, a slightly more complex and detective style version of Descent?
    Which is kinda awesome, cause descent already sucked up most of our gaming nights, but it always felt like Descent was missing something.

  22. Pantsman says:

    Yay, Rab’s back! I’ve missed your excited board-game-related gibberings on the weekends! Great review, I’ll definitely have to check this out some time (just like I’ll have to try Civilization, and Chaos in the Old World, and all the other games that you make look so wonderful, damn you.)

    PS: I got Cosmic Encounter for Chrimbo on your recommendation, and now my brother insists on playing it every time the family gets together. And we’re nowhere close to exhausting its possibilities. It really is a blast, so thanks for that. ;)

  23. Lars Westergren says:

    >Hello youse. Did you miss me?

    Yes!
    :)

    >I fucking love it. That’s pretty much it. Am I allowed to sum it up so crudely?

    Yes, I’m ok with that, but I think your writing has become better now when you use less swearing.

  24. kalidanthepalidan says:

    Glad you are back Mr. Florence. I was hoping you’d write about this game. :)

  25. jackflash says:

    Interesting. I played it at a demo event and actually found that it really lacked much meaningful choice in terms of what you do on your turn, but the whole thing obviously had some charm. Not sure there was enough gameplay there to really warrant a purchase, which is a shame as I’d been rabidly anticipating its release before actually playing.

  26. ScalyWg says:

    wow – that looks EXTREMELY excellent!
    Maybe I can take it along to the next family xmas…

  27. Tetragrammaton says:

    mmmmmm…unspeakably blasphemous children are the best kind of children.

  28. Wizlah says:

    Here, rab, bonus points for the mention of House Of Hell. That thing scared me shitless when I was 12 or 13.

    Also, my wife is keen that the family started playing boardgames when the kids get older. I mentioned the Battlestar Galactica one to her, and she thought it the business. Looks like my children will not be playing monopoly.

  29. JackShandy says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while- glad to hear my enthusiasm’s warranted.

    In other news, I’m finally getting together a full game of Twilight Imperium! Will be channeling your Perfect Games Night list as much as possible. Wish me luck.

  30. Hybrid says:

    Sounds amazing. There goes my money!

  31. Deano2099 says:

    It’s a comeback!

  32. TheLastBaron says:

    Fuck, it’s things like this that make me wish I had friends.

  33. Tachikoma says:

    Glad your back Rob =D

    Just ordered mansions and hope it can be a gateway game to get my boardgame friends interested in trying a pen and paper rpg one day.

  34. Ilinx says:

    My copy showed up on Thursday (and it’s even more beautiful than Rab says it is) AND I’ve got a CoC RPG game coming up next week. Given that I barely even played board games 6 months ago and had never even read any Lovecraft, I can’t help but wonder if Rab’s got some unnatural mind control thing going on.

  35. Schadenfreude says:

    Got my copy winging its way to me in the post. Then I just need to find someone to play it with. Love Arkham Horror but alas most of my plays have been solo-runs with multiple investigators.

  36. Mr_Hands says:

    This all sounds terrific. I know it’s kind of necessary for gameplay purposes, but it always bothers me when uber-Lovecraftian horrors are cast as “evil.” Ultimately, they’re not intrinsically evil. In most of the stories, they’d find the concept of morality as alien as the erstwhile investigators/crazypeople find the eldritch horrors they’re ostensibly engaged in battle with. Ah well. This still sounds amazing.

  37. Sunjammer says:

    STUPID excited about this game. I was a big big fan of Arkham Horror (which is hilariously my entry point of sorts), so a more approachable story driven jaunt into the same terrain is so damn inviting.

    I’ll echo the opinion that it’s a shame how cartoony and “simple” the modern interpretation of Lovecraftian seems to be, but I’ll take what I can get tbh. I can read The Haunter in the Dark any day after all.

  38. Bfox says:

    Can anyone suggest a good place to order this game from in the UK?

    totalwargamer.co.uk is the best price I can see so far at £52 (+£4 P&P)
    Seems pricey D:

  39. slider271 says:

    It’s pricey everywhere unfortunately…but it’s definitely worth the outlay, I feel. I’ve played the first two scenarios with both 2 and 3 players and it’s great fun (with only two, I played 2 investigators). Fantast

  40. slider271 says:

    It’s pricey everywhere unfortunately…but it’s definitely worth the outlay, I feel. I’ve played the first two scenarios with both 2 and 3 players and it’s great fun (with only two, I played 2 investigators). Fantastic, enthusiastic review of a game that I think will stand plenty of replays, even knowing the scenarios. And I’m sure FFG will have plenty of cool story expansions coming out in due course.

    Plus this has made me want the painted figures from Arkham Horror to use in the game.