As I speak to you now, I am about to crack open Mansions of Madness Second Edition. The original was a game I loved. But it was a difficult game to get to the table. It took a fair bit of time to set up, a lot of maintenance, and so that great, ambitious game didn’t get the plays that it deserved. It also had a troubled roll-out of its companion expansions, and the game seemed to lose some lustre. But now it’s a do-over, and all that hard work will be dealt with by the game’s companion app. This is an exciting game release. If this works, we might have something very special on our hands.
Read on, and I’ll give you my first impressions.
Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition
As I write this, it is 2am, and I just finished my first session of Mansions of Madness Second Edition. To be accurate, I just finished my second session. In my first play of the first scenario, one of my investigators went completely insane, and that was soon to be that. And to be completely, entirely accurate, I didn’t finish the scenario the second go-round either – I decided to save and quit, so that I can resume later.
Yep. My session now has a save state, and I can pick it up later.
Before I get to the Wow, let’s look at some negatives. Or, at least the one negative I can think of at the moment – the monster miniatures. The monster minis in Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition are much like those in 1st edition. Plastic monsters snap onto plastic tiles, and cardboard Monster Tokens are slipped into the base. But I found the monsters in this box a bit of a bear to attach to their bases. They’re made from soft plastic, and the little pegs that are supposed to allow them to attach to the bases are not dependable at all. The monster tokens were also a tight fit into some of the bases, and a little bit of that initial set-up disappointed me. We’ve been spoiled recently with the quality of components from some other companies (Cool Mini Or Not and Games Workshop, for example) and these pieces felt like a real step down from those.
But hey. The rest of this piece is going to be about that Wow. That stuff I just mentioned is purely here for balance. Who cares about the toys when the game is this good?
The rest of the components? Beautiful. The cards, the artwork – superb. The map tiles are absolutely gorgeous, and come in only two tile sizes, making them easy to handle and easy to organise. And there’s not a huge amount of clutter in this box. No fiddly stuff, just lots of cool shit – monsters and maps and cards and spells and weapons and excellent status effects.
The central component of the game is the app. The app is available for iOS, Android and your PC. In fact, you can download it from Steam right now and take a look if you want. It’s a slick, beautifully designed app that is essentially a Gamesmaster in a Box. This app runs the game, and it’s the best use of an app in board gaming yet.
Let me talk a little bit about board games and apps. It’s a tricky thing to get right, isn’t it? And that’s because board gamers want to play board games. We never want to feel like the app is the game, and that the board and pieces are extraneous. Golem Arcana, a game that used an app to assist with tactical battles in board gaming, couldn’t shake that niggling feeling that you might just as well have been playing the entire game through the app. Once that feeling sets in, your game starts to suffer. But there’s no fear of anything like that happening with Mansions of Madness, and here is why – the app brings the world alive, but it has no agency over your characters.
Here’s how it works. First, you choose a scenario in the app, and choose the investigators that will face that scenario. The app tells you which items your chosen characters will start with, hits you with some introductory story (voiced and illustrated), and then tells you which map tiles to set up on your table. You’ll be told which areas of the visible map can be interacted with, searched or explored, and you’ll place tokens to signify these places – these tokens will also be tracked on the app. Then, you’re told where to place your investigators, and the game begins.
Each turn, an investigator can make two actions. They can move, search, interact, explore, attack, whatever. But here’s the crucial thing – the app doesn’t know where your characters are. The Mansion of Madness is alive, doing its own thing, marking its own time. It doesn’t give a damn about you. You’re just a rat caught in its maze. As you move around the world, performing actions, you notify the app where necessary. If you search a specific area, you tap that search icon on the app, and it reveals a bit of story. You’ll usually be given some kind of skill test to pass (very simple, rolling dice according to your attributes) and you’ll tell the app how many successes you rolled. Then the app will reveal more story. The app tracks the state of the house, which monsters are present, where you are in the story. But it doesn’t know where the players are, or even where the monsters are. Most of the actual mechanics of the game are still in the player’s hands – the app is just providing colour and surprises, and creating an incredible sense of life.
And wow. Wow.
There is so much mystery and excitement in this game. Playing alone, just now, with two investigators creeping around that mansion – already I can see the massive potential. Without even having completed the first scenario, I can see why this game is worth getting hugely excited about. I love how much of the story is a complete mystery to the player. I love how the app remembers how many successes are generated on each interaction, allowing other characters to assist in later turns, lending a real feel of organic co-operation. I love how there’s a sense of stuff going on in unrevealed rooms while your characters are goofing off elsewhere. I love that everything, and I mean everything, is rooted in story.
I love that the simple decision to attack a monster opens up a world of story possibilities. You decide which monster you’re attacking, tap it in the app, and select the form of attack you are making. The app then generates some story to match your situation. So if you’re unarmed, your character might swing a punch. But he might also just get really angry and hurl some heavy object at it. The skill checks will be different for both these things, so there’s this constant unpredicability about each conflict. It’s wonderful. The monsters, too, attack in different ways, and attack different characters at different times, building a thrilling story that can’t be second-guessed. You can’t ever switch into autopilot.
I love how horror works. When you are affected by horror, you take cards from the Horror deck, face-up. Sometimes these have minimal effects, and are then turned face down. But sometimes they stay face-up, as lingering fragments of psychosis. (One of my characters became paranoid and had negative status effects every time he shared an area with another investigator.) And the Horror cards are brilliantly realised, honestly. Flashback, for example, is a card that turns one of your earlier face-down Horror cards face-up so that you have to relive that nightmare all over again. Even in these cards, ostensibly there to track mental damage, there is a focus on story above all else.
Oh, and that mental damage? You can go insane. And if you do, your specific type of insanity remains unknown to fellow players. And it can affect how you play the game – by directly affecting your own win conditions. It’s like this game has it all.
And how much more can the game have? Well, that’s the most exciting thing – the potential is here for a game that can be constantly telling new stories. It struck me hard the moment my character found a journal, and I took the card that represented that item. On the table, in your hand, it is a card with an illustration of a journal. But you read that journal on the app. So this journal can represent a hundred journals, right? Every one saying different things. Every one the key to a different story. Maybe, at some point, we’ll get the chance to write our own stories on the app, or share them with the community. The possibilities are genuinely – genuinely – endless.
For those of us who have the Mansions of Madness 1st Edition stuff – some good news. There is a Conversion Kit free inside this box, and it converts your 1st Edition monsters and characters so that they can be used in 2nd edition. All those map tiles you had can be used too. You simply tell the app that you have access to all this stuff and it gets piled into the big generator, making your toybox much bigger. Now there’s even less chance of guessing which monster is behind that door.
These are just first impressions, remember. But my first impressions are “Wow.” I can’t believe that big, unwieldy Mansions of Madness has been transformed into this lovely, elegant, progressive thing. And there’s still so much more for me to uncover. I’m still not entirely sure how much of a difference there is when replaying scenarios, but I can tell you that I had a sneaky peek at another New Game of that first scenario and the Mansion layout was completely different. There is definitely cool stuff going on under the hood of this thing that I haven’t quite got my head around just yet. I haven’t played one of the famous Mansions of Madness puzzles on the app, and I’m excited to see how well those are executed. I look forward to unpeeling more and more of this game over the months ahead, and I don’t doubt that we’ll talk about it again a little bit further down the line.
Be aware, too, that there’s stuff I haven’t told you about because COOL STUFF SHOULDN’T BE SPOILED.
As a guy who grew up playing pen and paper RPGs, and almost always as the Gamesmaster, I can’t tell you how delighted I am to see an app get this role so right. It’s the kind of thing I used to dream about when I was a little guy. “Imagine one day a computer could be the GM, and I could play too.”
Folks, I just sat in my kitchen, on my own, and played a beautiful HP Lovecraft-themed story-heavy RPG/board game hybrid with a robot as a Gamesmaster. It had sound effects and a brilliant soundtrack too. Oh, and then I saved it so I could play again later.
Am I dreaming?
Don’t wake me up.