Cardboard Children: Mansions Of Madness
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!