Mansions of Madness was one of my terrifying introductions to the board gaming hobby, resulting in tentacles that gripped deep inside my subconscious mind. A Keeper player would sit alone at the head of the table and after a period of time that had you wishing for an elder god to swallow you whole, we would begin a carefully woven tale of terror. The Keeper would have all the secrets of what terror was afoot, what nightmarish horrors lurked inside of each corner of the map and what plans he or she had placed in order for the investigators to solve the scenario. While each of the three scenarios I had personally played ran fairly smoothly, I’d heard horrific murmurings in the community of games foiled by mistaken rules interpretations by Keepers, incorrect setups that could make scenarios impossible to accomplish and a wealth of bookkeeping issues for a single player that would make an accountant doing 4 year back taxes feel like he was on vacation. These issues made one of board gaming’s most terrifying titles become simply terrible with the wrong mastermind and thus it saw less and less play time and fewer expansions.
Well after four years the team at Fantasy Flight Games has answered the prayers in the heart of many a cultist. Now fully cooperative with 4 brand new scenarios each controlled and curated by an app, Mansions of Madness: Second Edition (MoM) offers an Arkham Files adventure that creates the most cohesive storytelling dynamic in the series. The app is free to download on iOS or Android, with a PC version being available through Steam to download for those who want the bigger screen size at the gaming table. For setup, players will lay out all the necessary monster miniatures, map tiles, investigator figures, tokens and item, condition, health, sanity and spell cards on the table and begin at the apps ominous menu screen.
In each game of MoM, players will select one of four different scenarios included in the Core Set each ranging from a play time of 45-90 mins through to the possible full day daunting investigation of 240-360 minutes and with varying difficulty levels attributed to them. After selecting the chosen scenario in the apps interface, you’ll notify the app of which investigators you’ll be using and then follow the instructions provided as to what starting equipment cards you should place in the investigator pool, from which players will divide items and spells among themselves.
From the moment players click the “Begin Scenario” button, they are thematically immersed in a rich stop motion narrative delivered with chilling voice overs from the app. Setting the tone with ambient noises and the husky detective voiced tale of how you came to start the investigation, this app creates a presentation of a mystery unfolding that game groups without a theatrical personality at the table would miss before being ushered to start their adventure to thwart evil. After a genre defining fade to black screen, the app begins to work its magic by transferring the digitally orchestrated bookkeeping onto your table for you to simply revel in the unfolding story.
Initially the app will give the players instructions on how to place the starting map tiles for where players will begin their adventure. Not only will it guide players through the board placement, but will also explain in detail points of interest around the initial starting area that players can interact with, exit points for investigators to explore, corners leading to new areas that players can reveal as new areas of the location, items that can be collected as well as persons of interest that players can talk to. Players will mirror the placement of the tokens in accordance with the app screen and once completed will signal the app to start the investigator phase.
Each round is divided into two phases, the investigator phase and the mythos phase. In the investigator phase, players will take turns in any order completing two actions with their investigator. As an action, Players can move two spaces through the explored areas, interact with search tokens on the map in their space, pick up items in their space, explore new areas by opening closed doors, take unique character or item actions, attack any monsters within range, interact with other people (even steal from them or push them around) and even barricade off certain areas in your surroundings. Interacting with the environment means using the app with players clicking on the token icon displayed on the app in their occupied area. All tokens will show an action symbol which players will click on to use one of their actions and then following the on screen instructions which may simply show you the result of your actions or require you to test one of your investigator attributes.
For tests, players will roll a number of d8s equal to their character’s value in that attribute plus any modifiers, for example 4 die for the character who has 4 strength. Each die has 3 possible outcomes; blanks causing groans of failure around the table, elder sign symbols equaling success and clue symbols offering a success should you spend 1 clue token. Players will then check their success against the required number indicated by the app, or simply put input the number of successes achieved, then follow the outcome provided. In some cases, players will be instructed to roll dice to negate horrific situations, with each success lessening the burden of evil’s wrath upon the investigator.
After players have all taken their actions, you’ll notify the app to start the Mythos Phase where the Keeper reveals its ill intentions to the investigators. Firstly a mythos event will affect one or more of the investigators, requiring them to roll a skill check to avoid penalties or outright just unleashing a dose of demonic reckoning upon players. After which monsters may spawn in areas and existing monsters will be given instructions on movement and possible attacks on investigators within range and the threat of mortal physical injuries that accompany them. Lastly investigators within range of horrific creatures of the night will need to overcome the horror that the encounters place on their sanity through tests of will, suffering psychological trauma should they not be able to rationalise the terror that they are perceiving.
Each Mythos phase will take its toll on the investigators with one of my favourite damage systems seen in thematic gaming. Physical damage to players will cause them to draw health cards from a specialised deck, either face down when instructed to hide the actual injury suffered or face up, showcasing what has transpired. Each of these cards in front of the investigator, face up or down, count towards total damage to the investigator however face up cards could simply be minor wounds or they could be broken arms, legs or gashes that change the performance abilities of your character until healed. Horror cards accumulated by investigators function in much the same way as the physical damage cards, with face up cards revealing anything from minor shock to paranoia and claustrophobia which prevents your instigator from surviving in smaller rooms. Should any number of horror or damage cards exceed the health or sanity of your player, you’ll either become wounded or insane. Each allows you to discard face down cards of that type, being wounded causing you movement penalties and insanity granting you a card that changes your win condition for that scenario! Should accumulated horror or damage exceed your character totals a second time your player is eliminated. Once an investigator is eliminated, the remaining players have one more investigator phase to finish solve the mystery or they all perish.
Mansions of Madness has risen to become my favourite horror story telling game, with its seamless integration of technology that not only preserves all the elements I love about thematic gaming, but enhances them. Investigators and monsters are not tracked by the app, giving players a sense of control of the game, but with all the tracking admin of Monster health, encounter cards, mansion layouts and clues and the overburdening pressure of curating the storytelling all taken care of in the most impressive fashion. Unlike the First edition where the map would be laid out entirely for investigators to see from the start of the game, the game evolves over time, with the exploration element of the game truly feeling unique as you build out the areas as you explore. In smaller area scenarios, maps are even slightly randomised each time you play to provide replay value to players, as well as making sure critical clues are in different areas each time you play the same scenario again. The admin of the puzzles inside the game is taken care of by the app – using the touch screen interface on my iPad for example – keeping downtime to a minimum. As turns progress, the darkness grows thicker, with more damaging Mythos events, stronger creatures spawning and the sense of dread becoming more palpable, forcing investigators to face the danger and keep each other alive. Much like another favourite Time Stories, Mansions of Madness gets players around the table talking about what is happening in the scenario, how they can most effectively solve the mystery and how they can best assist each other. It’s these types of games that make board gaming the social gaming experience that creates memories.
We remember the jokes about our Butler human shield who wouldn’t break the glass to get the statue as he’d probably have to clean up the mess afterwards, we remember the priest who dropped all his items in horror and we remember the investigator who fell down and broke both his arms so he couldn’t carry all the evidence. We remember the puzzle that took us 3 turns to solve because the unobservant runner picked it up and we remember the moment that our first Star Spawn appeared, blocking our way out of the room while other investigators died in the fire.
It isn’t without fault however, with the miniatures being unimproved in regards to quality from those seen in the first edition. With the developments in technology seen in their other games it’s a bit hard to understand why we seem to have had surplus stock re boxed and sent out to new players. With simply the core set, I found the advertised new layout with each play was not entirely true in the Escape From Innsmouth and Grotesque Statues scenarios, however possibly with the inclusion of the tiles from 1st Edition we may see some variability, but I couldn’t test this theory out. ‘With a possible lack in replayability in these two scenarios, some players may find a slight issue in the number of scenarios included in the box, however with the sheer volume of play time for each scenario this is a debatable minor quibble.
To close the book on the Elder Gods incantations, Mansions of Madness Second Edition is easily the strongest curated thematic story board game set in the Cthulhu mythos available to gamers. With an included conversion set for first edition owners in the box and expansions already on the way, for those wanting to expand on the second edition there is already a wealth of mysteries for our investigators to solve on the horizon in ominous green glow. I enjoyed each delve into madness whether playing ti solo on a Sunday afternoon or with the full compliment of 5 nervous investigators around the table, with the app scaling to accommodate all player counts with ease. It’s a tense, tightly woven narrative of terror inside four cardboard walls and I for one, cannot wait to be devoured over and over and over again.
Big thanks to Solarpop Distributors for the use of their Mansions of Madness: Second Edition review copy.