Mansions of Madness Review

I am a big fan of 1vG games (1 vs. group).  I love being the 1 big, bad juggernaut that everyone else has to team up to destroy.  When I played Magic, Archenemy was a massive gift for me, even if I never really had the cards to make a solid deck to abuse it.  I really enjoy playing Pandemic as the bio-terrorist, even though he becomes more of an after-thought in that game.  In Heroclix, I'm forcing myself to figure out how to manage large swarms myself, but I find a particular glee in bringing a giant beast against the horde.  It is for this reason that I feel I would really enjoy being a DM.  I understand that the DM's job in D&D is simply to operate the story, and should be expected to adjust the difficulty in whatever direction is necessary for a good story, victory be damned.  That would diminish it for me a bit, but I still feel I'd have a lot of fun with the role.  Recently, I've had the opportunity to play a game that puts one player in charge of the story and expects that player to win against everyone else.  Needless to say, the concept makes me giddy.  Witness now my experiences in the Mansions of Madness.
Mansions of Madness is among the Arkham Horror style of games, very well-known for the presence of Cthulhu.  While Cthulhu himself never makes an appearance in this game (I imagine he does in the expansions), much of the other H.P. Lovecraft lore is very present here.  The game comes with 5 different stories, and the players choose which story they want going in.  Each story is a big mystery the players are expected to solve.  You get a big chunk of backstory that gives you a sense of what your mission is, but you don't necessarily know how to accomplish it right away.  Now, the only other mystery game I know (I don't count Clue) is Time Looper.  I've never gotten to play it because I'm told you really need people who are fresh to the mystery, or it all falls apart.  What sets this apart from Time Looper is that, even though the map remains constant each time for the same story, there is one player acting as the "Keeper," who makes key choices on the story while setting it up.  These choices will dictate the game's objective, what's actually in each of the rooms, and what happens at key timed events.  The game will always play differently even as it looks perfectly identical each time, ensuring that every game is a real mystery.  Even if players have seen every iteration of a story, there is enough variety in the choices that they will have to actually investigate to figure out what's going on.

Be careful what books you read.
This game is incredibly story-driven.  Almost literally every card in the game has flavor text to it, and it's strongly advised the Keeper reads them.  The flavor text is done so amazingly well that it really keeps players engrossed in the story, and start to think of it much less as a game.  For example, when you want to attack a monster, you don't just pick a weapon, pick a target, and roll dice.  Instead, each monster type (humanoid, beast, & abomination) has a deck of cards for combat.  Depending on your weapon & target, any variety of techniques could occur, and there is a bit of story for each result.  For a game that lasts 2-3 hours, this focus on narrative is a HUGE boost that keeps players interested all throughout!  I've actually lost track of time every time I played, as did the investigator players.

Now remember, my friend bought the game and lent it to me so I can teach him how it works.  As is typical for Fantasy Flight, this game is incredibly complicated for all the little workings, but because it is so heavily focused on theme, these interactions are pretty much all what you'd expect to happen.  Darkness makes it harder to explore a room & fight in it.  Corpses can be burned up before they become zombies.  You get the idea quickly, so it's incredibly easy to teach.  However, because of all those little pieces, you really need to have someone good at managing the board state playing as the Keeper.  I'm ok at it, but I've still been known to overlook things sometimes (even to the extent of forgetting my own cards).  I can't exactly say how it is on the investigator side, but in the 6 games I've played, investigators have only won once (and even that once is just because I screwed up rules so hard I just had to award the victory).  I'm told Cthulhu games are typically crazy difficult on the humans, so if the players are into that setting, they shouldn't mind too much.  Still, it's very important to stress that they will lose going in.  If anything, this actually makes me feel guilty playing as the supreme overlord in a game.  I really feel for the players, especially if they fail a lot of rolls.  Between the board management & difficulty, you could be forgiven for getting the second edition, which puts the Keeper control in an app.  I don't know how this works, but personally, even with the radical imbalance toward the Keeper, I'd still rather have a human in charge than an AI just based off my experience with gaming AI.  Then again, this game is still so great that I probably won't be able to convince anyone to try Hero Quest so I can maybe have another sample of 1vG.

 So, what exactly does the Keeper do that makes things so difficult?  Only everything!  The Keeper gets threat tokens every turn based on the number of investigators, and the Keeper uses that as basically his currency to activate everything else.  He gets a set array of actions he can use, though some of them restrict how often they can be used.  These usually consist of letting him draw from his decks and use his monsters.  Some of them will have other special effects like spreading a fire or turning out the lights.  He also gets a deck of mythos cards that is always uniquely designed to the structure of the map & story.  He can activate those at pretty much any point of an investigator's turn, often to attack at their sanity (like you'd expect in any Lovecraft game), affect the board, hinder their equipment, etc.  Again, this provides a ton of lore to the game, as you start to freak out at how freakishly long this hallway is, or the doors are jammed, or you're down to your last bullet.  Additionally, whenever someone takes mental or physical damage, the Keeper can play a trauma card on them, usually giving them a permanent disability like a broken arm or nyctophobia.  You really do not want to let an investigator go insane, as they actually become more useful to the Keeper than if they had died!

One truly unique aspect about this game is the many puzzles you'll find going through it.  Basically something will be locked, either a chest in the room or a door going into it, and you need to actually figure out how to crack the lock.  This can be a combination lock, a slide puzzle, or even wiring.  Although anyone can attempt them and genuinely make progress (vs. just failing constantly because your character is too dumb), the smarter characters will have a much easier time tackling these.  Basically, the smarter your character, the more moves you can make to solve the puzzle.  The emphasis in this game is on its exploration, as the mansion slowly wears you down.  Although the flavor text on cards goes a long way to this, these puzzles really help to add to that immersion.  What's better is that players can actually team up on it.  If a player fails to solve the puzzle, it stays in that state for the next player to continue it.  This game's combination of exploration, real-world puzzle solving, and occasional creature combat just encapsulates the perfect feel for an overall adventure!

Now, a big selling point of this game is the figures.  This game has a ton of miniatures that you just don't get in most tabletop games.  They are all very detailed and large.  Anyone who plays other miniature games like Warhammer will absolutely adore this.  These are all begging to be painted & loved.  Unfortunately, this comes with a lot of problems that make them just as much trouble as they're worth.  The investigator figures are perfectly fine.  I have absolutely no complaints about them.  The monsters though, they are absolutely riddled with problems.  For starters, they just won't stay on the base without a lot of careful balancing, which means you will have to superglue them to their bases.  That also means you'll need a better way to store them separately from the main game so that they don't break.  It's also very easy for a single space to get incredibly crowded with monsters, especially if you're playing with the larger ones that are literally the same size as each room space!  Of course, the obvious solution is to just not use the figures, but you just don't really have that option.  Each figure can have damage, stun, & sample tokens all stored on them.  Honestly, the figure bases are a great help in keeping those together as you maneuver them around, and there's no way of having character cards to note which monster has what stuff.  Additionally, each monster is actually unique.  There are little cards that go under the bases of each monster, indicating their damage, health, and special attacks they will sometimes make.  You have no idea which monster it really is until you interact with it.  I just don't see a way of playing this game without the figures while having the monsters be distinguishable.  This makes the biggest factor in the price become its biggest detriment, since you really can't even avoid using them.  Still, if you can afford a game like this, you probably can also afford the extra safe storage, too.  This ain't Uno, folks.

Figures aside, this is an absolutely great game.  If you go in expecting the challenge to be brutally difficult, you'll get a ton of enjoyment out of it.  It allows me to play that supreme overlord, though I'd say it really gives the Keeper too much power.  Although miniatures fans will love the figures, I'd say the story & roleplaying are the real key features here.  All the characters really are their own people, not just a collection of numbers.  This gives everyone an opportunity to get into their best accents & voices to really immerse themselves as characters in the story.  While I'm sure this will typically be played at standard game shop tables, I can see this having a great place at a cabin in the woods late at night with the fireplace roaring.  Despite me not actually enjoying Lovecraft, I've ended up playing a lot of games using its theme, and this is easily the most immersive experience I've had yet from them.  This is basically an interactive book.  Each time you read it, the story always seems more familiar to you, and yet there's always something new each time.  The price point is very steep, but this game easily holds well for replayability.  When you consider that mystery board games are very rare beyond social deduction games, and this game actually pulls it off well, I can see this almost being a must-have for any dedicated tabletop gaming group.  If the figures would just stay on the bases, I would call it absolutely perfect for its niche.


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