Mansions of Madness Review

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 So, there is this new game ya'll have certainly heard of. It is either the second coming, a game that people can safely skip, or something else entirely. In some ways, it ends up being all three at the same time, and my relationship with it is notably complex.

I'm not the biggest fan of Arkham Horror. This may sound unusual at first because I have copies of pretty much everything Lovecraft ever wrote (even the poems. You really have not truly suffered until you've read the poems.) I also consider Call of Cthulhu far and away my favorite RPG, and ran various campaigns roughly weekly for perhaps 12 years.

Call of Cthulhu itself is a more pulp form of Lovecrafts writings. Lovecraft's proagonists are alone, haunted, and typically writing their last words before committing suicide or going irrevocably insane after their first encounter with the alien horrors hidden from the world at large. CoC takes this in a new direction by allowing for episodic campaigns, greatly slowing the slide into insanity, including a greater emphasis on cultist activity, and introducing the idea of actually fighting the evil stuff. Very rarely are these ideas encountered in Lovecraft proper, perhaps mostly in the Herbert West: Reanimator series of short stories, as well as the iconic Call of Cthulhu.

Call of Cthulhu adventures still come from a classic "onion skin" form. There is an initial hook, then the invesitgators peel away the mysteries to find new levels of horrors until they get to the central mystery. Then there is either a fight, or a frantic escape, or brief and terrifying encounter with THE THING.

Arkham Horror...posits a scenario where all of the critters in Coc's Monster Manual rampage throughout a small New England town with gates opening everywhere. There is no central mystery, no attempt to explain anything. The end result more resembles a Toho monster movie than Call of Cthulhu, and has only names and time period in common with Lovecraft proper. The new FFG reworking is actually an impressive game where the crew working on it took great pains to modernize it. It plays a little too much like an Adventure board game, but without the character advancement aspect I like in my games (Prophecy, Runebound).

Now we have this new thing...Mansions of Madness. It claims to be story-driven, and with a Keeper (I could not find the proper CoC term "Keeper of Arcane Lore" anywhere in the rules.) And it has the typical FFG production with nice art, 30 gazilion cards and tiles, minis, and a pretty hefty price tag.

Bits:

Tiles:

The cardboard bits consist of double-sided room tiles which are used in the various scenarios to build the house and grounds. The art is quite nice, with a great mixture of old house, underground cave, and outside tiles. The scenario maps make good use of the ways of laying out these tiles to build creepy estates, grounds, and an old monastary.

The other bits are large tiles for the 3 different puzzle types, and a number of spot counters for additional board elements and statuses, and some markers for players to track health, sanity, and skill points.

For once, this isn't an FFG game that completely sprawls all over the table.

Cards:

Here we start getting slightly spare. There are 8 characters, each with about 6 cards representing options and starting equipment, a thin deck of 20 spell cards representing 4 different spells, thin decks of equipment, door locks, obstacles for the Search cards, clue cards, "Take That" cards played by the Keeper on players, event cards, Trauma cards played by the Keeper on wounded players, Keeper Actions, Scenario objectives.

The largest decks are are given over to clue cards, which provide the thin storyline hooks in each scenario. Each map has three primary variants, which provides its own objective, events, and trail of clues.

The problem here is that there are so many decks that repetition is a concern, in the same way that the tiny Search Decks hampers an unexpanded copy of Arkham Horror.

Minis:

I have spent some quality time with the 32 miniatures, and have finally completed basic paint jobs on the lot. There are some interesting choices here.

Investigator figures are from the AH painted line. They are uniformly gray, and a bit of a pain to play with unpainted. It is a little difficult to distinguish the actual characters without squinting a bit, as all seem to merge into gray human-shaped blobs from the typical 3-4 feet table distance. The sculpts themselves seem almost pedestrian. The miniatures are a little smaller than 28mm (1/72?), and lack the equipment, accessories and extra bits I normally associate with miniatures...

While I was painting, I began to realize how much I REALLY like this set of minis. The people are actually properly proportioned, and not crazy gigantic-headed things layered with bags and potions and crap. There isn't a ton of detailed equipment, because there wouldn't be. The clothing is typically baggy and bland 30's era clothing because that's what they are supposed to be wearing. They seem actually some of the best CoC investigator figures I've ever seen. I want a full unpainted set. Now.

Monsters:

The monsters, however, are a mixed bag. The zombies are pedestrian dead guys in loincloths with no signs of decay. Here, this might be a good choice, as they can sub for pre-transformation Deep Ones, Tcho-Tcho men, ghouls...

The basic cultists are very flat and cheap-looking in a spectacularly silly pose. The High Priest is a nice sculpt, but seems out of place. Both sculpts are dressed in completely cliche-ridden robes that seem slightly out of place. I would hope for something, ANYTHING with some personality. How about some freaky beast masks or something a little Wicker Man? 30's ragged suits to give them a bit of period? Carnival?

They got the Witch right. Half-naked woman with a 30's bob haircut. Very Isadora Duncan.

Unfortunately, the sculptor saved creativity for the monsters. The Hound of Tindalos is nice. Sort of a crazed mixture of swirling boney phantasm with claws and tongue. The Migo replaces the classic faceless brain look with a goofy helmet face and sprawling pose.

The Shoggoth is cute with legs and claws and a definite head with a hint of face in the dominance of eyes on the front of the head. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Monster minis are provided with gigantic bases to hold 1.5" tiles with cutouts for a couple of stats, and an open back. This allows them to include unique stats for each mini, including a lengthy bit of text describing the special attack. The only problem is that there are only two copies of most of these. (You do get 6 cultists and 4 zombies). This also makes the bases huge, which gets to be a bit crowded with a lot of cultists crowding one space.

The minis also are not glued in. Gluing them in requires that you have to lose the internal box divider, and the witches and zombies are a little fragile and bendy in the resulting loose box.

Rules and Game:

This is where things get interesting. Mansions of Madness is a game which consists almost entirely of chrome rules. This is GREAT for teaching people how to play. We had one game with a girl who was fluent in Russian, but whose english was extremely flimsy. She got most of it.

Investigators get two moves, and one action. Taken in any order. An action is mostly hit something or search a room or do something on a card which says "Action". Investigators can go in any order. When something tells you to make a check, roll a D10 and hope it is below the matching skill name on your character stuff. The pass/fail results will be specified in the following text.

Congrats, you are now ready to start playing as an investigator. Seriously. That is about all you need to know. There are some details: moves allow you to turn up lock cards which may require you to solve a puzzle or have the Club Key to progress.

The Keeper has more detail to learn. He gets Threat Tokens which he can spend on a set list of actions (unique to each scenario) on his turn. He has Mythos cards from a deck which is created by each scenario which he can pay Threat to play on investigator's turns, and he has to flip up an event at the end of his turn every now and then. He also gets Trauma cards which provide lasting effects to an investigator when he is hurt or loses sanity.

The Trauma cards are pretty much from Warhammer 3rd edition. These are nastier, and chosen by the Keeper instead of drawn randomly.

These are nice, and provide some level of impact to wounds beyond just the threat of death. This is one of the standout bits of the design, and is even extremely rare to see in a full RPG.

 

Combat:

Combat is similarly simple, flavorful and clever. There are decks of combat cards matching monster "flavors". Flip through the deck until you find the investigator attack weapon or the specific circumstances of the monster's attack. This gives you a skill test and a pass/fail result, all based on invenstigator skills. You also get a bit of flavor text that explains the attack.

This system seems extremely old, familiar, and simple. And yet, I cannot think of anything that compares. The test can be any skill on your sheet. Typically, attacking with a gun means you roll on marksmanship. But occasionally the decks mix things up a bit and have you roll on Dexterity (your hand is shaking from fear), or Smarts (it isn't human. I don't know where the heart is.)

 

Comparison to Descent:

Structurally, the Keeper side of the game owes a lot to Descent. The Keeper can spawn monsters (not more than 1/turn usually), play Mythos (Trap) cards, and is the only one who really knows what is going on.

There are some structural differences:

1. It costs Threat to move monsters. Attacks are still free and happen at the end of the Keeper's turn.

2. The entire house is in play from the start as far as the Keeper is concerned. Monsters can spawn in unexplored areas.

3. Drawing cards costs threat. But there does not appear to be a hand limit.

The 5 scenarios are a lot like quests in Descent, save that the variability allows a level of replayability. Keeper actions and Mythos Decks stay the same, while Events, Clues, and Objectives all change, as well as the importance of locations. This means that if you play Scenario 1, you will be spending a lot of quality time dealing with the dude with an axe, but the finale will be quite different.

 

Scenarios and Call of Cthulhu (kept vague and spoiler-free):

The game really revolves around the scenario design and exploration and uncertainty of the game. Each of the 5 scenarios really features one monster in the Keeper spawn action cards, and a particular set of fire, equipment, spooky stuff, movement, and ? mythos cards that go into the scenario.

The basic course of a game is investigators follow a riddle trail of clues, peeling back layers of the onion until they get to the end of the trail, realize the final horror and their objective, and then try to deal with it. If you were paying attention, you will realize that this is my exact description of a Call of Cthulhu idealized scenario.

There are obstacles. There is more combat than in a CoC game, and the basic structure of a scenario is completely cribbed from Survival Horror games. FFG owes Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark great debts. The opening bulk of the game consists of moderately linear paths to gain keys to open doors elsewhere. There are some side trips that allow you to pick up useful items to help you. You can practically see little white glints on the board as you pick up items. All it needs are silly little lock puzzles.

...There are silly little lock puzzles. These are in three flavors with fairly consistent and simple enough rules that you can teach in a few seconds. These are variants on swapping and rotating tiles, and are randomly generated. A couple of comments:

1. The printing on the lock puzzle SUCKS. The tiles are dark and it is impossible for humans to distinguish the tiny green and blue runes even in bright light.

2. The rules require that the player in front of the puzzle must be the one solving the puzzle. I sometimes drop this rule, depending on the group. My theory is that this is to keep from having one player boss the others around regarding the puzzles. But in practice, the game can just temporarily grind to a halt as someone starts solving a puzzle. And the puzzles are just kind of cool, and cooperatively solving them is...cooperation.

And it all mostly works in theory. And rather less so in practice...The whole story and exploration angle, and the idea of an antagonistic Keeper sort of work in Descent. In MoM, they fail miserably. Spectacularly miserably. Let's set this game on fire and never speak of it again miserably.

The problem is that so very much of the game is hidden from the players in MoM. They mostly haven't a clue about the Objective, and there are a ton of instant screw cards in the Mythos deck. Some of the Objective cards seem to allow the Keeper to suddenly reveal the objective, completely subverting the entire Clue story element aspect to the game. Usually this is going to happen shortly before the Keeper reveals victory.

This is truly awful. Imagine me saying: "Let's play this game, but only I know all of the rules." Halfway through, I say: "Here's one of the rules I didn't tell you about. I win. Yay me!" MoM completely encourages this prick-ish behavior. Descent gets away with this because a lot more things are open and known. In MoM, even when a scenario is replayed, there can be significant variations in the actual content. And who would WANT to play the exact same scenario knowing everything.

The balance does kind of match the whole Keeper-as-prick attitude as well. There are a lot of tiny rules hidden in the Objective cards, and at the rate which FFG has been putting out errata for this game, you are never entirely certain if the rules you understand are correct, a misinterpretation, or something that will be changed in the next errata.

So, yeah, terrible game. Doesn't work. Flaws everywhere. Don't know why I bother. I'm going to try and play it again tomorrow night.

 

WTF?:

The scenarios are still a little too messy to actually have fun when played as written. You simply invoke a sort of overarching metarule where the Keeper must ask himself "Is that right?" and "Am I just being a prick if I do this?" (Hint: if you have to ask yourself if an action is correct in context, it isn't.) Suddenly, the game works as intended. In my case, I've learned to take off the brakes once the players have found out the objective.

Of course at that point, the game loses the completely antagonistic GM, and basically becomes a light tabletop RPG. Except that it is a really good one. The consistent and simple rules make it approachable. The package is appealing, and the variability and sense of exploration is worlds ahead of the Heroscapes of the realm. (Exception: Warhammer Quest using the GM's guide is still awesome.)

If anything FFG did their best to chain and hold back this aspect of the game. A lot of the crucial events and elements are on cards which are rarely used. And hard to update. The way the game is packaged requires no access to books once the game has begun. Like FFG's curious anti-dice policy, there has been an anti-book policy. Warhammer 3rd Edition is the worst sufferer of this malady. The relaunch of that line produced a superb product, combining a proper reference rulebook and details alongside seperate boxes of bits.

In MoM, the card-specific elements are very sparsely used, which makes me wonder why they could not have been included as text. That would also allow the lengthy clue, objective and event card decks to be used for more game elements, equipment, and variability in those elements.

 

And?

So what we have is a terrible game with a bag of masterfully clever ideas that are being slowly ripped apart by being pulled in two different directions.  We have a sort of vague, ill-defined, hand-waving sort of fix that works, and makes it a stellar and addictive experience. Not really so much a game anymore.

The last question is: Why would I play this over Call of Cthulhu? As a horror, investigatory thing, Mansions of Madness isn't as complete.

I can think of some pretty valid reasons.

1. I don't have to prep or deal with creating characters, rereading the story, or the usual stuff.

2. It LOOKS like a boardgame. There is still a weird social stigma associated with playing the wrong type of game. No CCG's at boardgame cons. No wargames at CCG cons. Playing card games that aren't Tichu is wrong. RPGs are shunned and played only in private homes and dark back alleys.

3. Call of Cthulhu has really clunky combat. CoC adventures that center around combat are very tedious. MoM actually makes a reasonably compelling case for combat in horror games. And handles it better than any of them.

4. There is a board. This provides a visual reference that does work for the most part. The room-by-room mansion crawl is actually a staple Call of Cthulhu adventure. (There was one as the included adventure is practically every edition of the RPG.) MoM actually breathes a bit of new life into this form.

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