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A Board Game of Gibbering Madness

Note: This blog is a bit late, it seemed to get a bit lost in the workflow.

I played two board games over the Christmas holidays, one was Star Wars Rebellion and I wrote about it on a previous blog post. The the second game was Mansions of Madness. It’s a game that simulates the works of HP Lovecraft, which has normal folks investigating things that man was not meant to know and inevitably going insane.

If they are lucky they might stop the nefarious plans of cultists who are usually raising some sort of unspeakable evil.

Call of Cthulhu, The Only Way

I’m not a big fan of the Cthulhu Mythos. I’ve tried reading some of the books but they are not what I’d call a fun read. I’ve played the role-playing game, Call of Cthulhu, numerous times but each time has left me unsatisfied. I believe the the Call of Cthulhu tabletop experience is one of those games that promises so much but rarely delivers.

I feel Mansions of Madness is the ONLY way to experience a Cthulhu Mythos ‘sort of’ narrative experience. The elements of the Cthulhu Mythos experience that sort of eat away at the tabletop role-playing game, the fact going mad often seems humorous rather than scary, or an exercise in ‘shoulder shrugging inevitability’, works fine within the framework of the board game.

The board game encapsulates the experience: you investigate a mystery, you uncover clues, unpredictable things happen (quite often really random), you will slowly get hurt and go insane but with a bit of luck and teamwork you might solve the mystery before you die or have your sanity blasted.

The App Is Genius

Key to the success of Mansions of Madness is the fact the whole experience is controlled via an App. It does not follow the typical model of having either one person controlling the scenario and adversaries while everyone else plays the heroes. Neither does it use the option of having the enemies controlled via a set of rules and moved on that basis.

The App does all that.

This makes the game much more satisfying as it’s always a pain having one person having to play the ‘bad guys’, I know it is in Imperial Assault and Descent (though it now has an App). The ‘bad guy’ role is basically a barrier to entry. It also raises the problem of one player in a group of friends, while everyone else plays a cooperative game, having to aggressively take down the players to make the game work. You can play the adversarial role like a fun fostering GM, like you would in a tabletop role-playing game, but this does sort of defeat the point.

The App Makes Everything Richer

It creates an express setup time. Normally these games take a long time to set-up, because there are so many components and card decks because a lot of the game is embedded in the decks. While this is still true a large proportion is taken away as the components are reduced as any that would be needed to control the enemies or to be used by the adversarial player are just part of the App.

This means the game is a lot quicker to set-up.

It makes the experience very unpredictable. As not only does the App change things dependent on the heroes chosen and the actions of those heroes at the macro level it various things up at the micro level as well. As an example, the investigators with the more physical skills can be caught out by the App describing the narrative of a conflict so a less physical skill has to be used.

The Mythos Phase, which is when the App does the actions of the creatures and the scenarios, is really tense. Especially as the scenario moves forward and you know it’s getting more oppressive. You can argue it’s not that different to the creatures following a set of principles for their actions and drawing cards, but it doesn’t feel like that. It feels more tense and exciting.

The App Could Generate Atmosphere. This is where I think the Mansions of Madness App tries but doesn’t reach its full potential. It tries to make things atmospheric, but the voice overs only seem to exist for the opening and closing moments and while the music doesn’t get irritating you do just start to filter it out. I certainly don’t get a sense the music keys to events, but maybe it does and it’s not that noticeable which is then another problem. It could also be said the App occasionally suffers from clicking through the text of World of Warcraft quests. While you can’t do this and you don’t overly want to there is a small part of you that’s like ‘okay, I know the deal’ let’s get on with it.

I don’t think this has to be the case. I believe the App could be amazing atmospheric, but for that to perform better they’d have to do a better job of integrating mechanics, music and narrative than they currently do. Note, I’m not saying the App detracts or that it doesn’t add to the experience, it does, I’m just always left feeling it could add more!

The Map Changes. The App seems to change the tiles quite significantly. In one game we played at our Cottage Con mini-convention the same scenario was played twice with different players. I came over and looked at the tiles being used and I couldn’t recognise them from my playthrough. I’m not 100% sure the scenario differs enough to make them something you’d want to do repeatedly once you’ve beaten it but it certainly changes it up enough that repeated attempts to beat a scenario may well be different enough (I think the stuff behind the clues, etc, remain the same).

The Cult of Sentinel Hill

We played Cult of Sentinel Hill which brings scenarios and components from the first edition of the game (which didn’t use an App and someone had to play the adversaries). I enjoyed this one much better than the first one we played some months ago.

The whole thing almost started in media res, in that the opening segment on the App has us attacked when we arrived and put into a prison-like cellar. It was dark. We were captives. It was a great start to the scenario and things just rolled on from there. We had to deal with darkness, dark druids, strange goat women an ever spreading fire and the beast that was summoned on the hill.

Well, we didn’t deal with the last one so much as some of us had been damaged, others unhinged mentally and the damn monster on the hill had forty hit points which is astronomically high. Ultimately, the lose condition was triggered because one of us went completely insane. We even had dynamite which we thought might allow us to clinch it.

It was an incredibly fun experience.

The scenario did potentially raise one problem with the game, it is possible for some players to be more involved than others. I guess due to the nature of the events unfolding and how things pan out it can feel like some of the investigators are more involved. I’m not sure the nature of the game smooths this issue. It does in Imperial Assault for example, I’ve never had a play through in which every rebel hero on the board wasn’t critical to success.

An App For Imperial Assault, Stat!

They have already made an App for Descent which works with the second edition version of the game. They need to make one for Imperial Assault as soon as possible. This will transform the game. Not only that, the fact it’s Star Wars makes the App an even more exciting prospect as they can mix it up with the sound and visuals of the films and some great artwork (and FFG is already has an eye for using it well).

The App could really enhance the atmosphere of the game by using all the media associated with Star Wars.

It would have to be slightly different, but the fact they’ve achieved it for Descent means they should be able to do it for Imperial Assault. The reason for this difference is Imperial Assault, like Descent, is more of a game of tactical movements with multiple enemies in the field at any time, while Mansions of Madness has less granular movement and less enemies.

I’d really like to see it though, as at the moment the fact I have to play the Imperials is a real barrier to playing it.

And, Finally…

I really enjoyed Mansions of Madness. It’s certainly the best Mythos game I’ve played and substantially better than Arkham Horror, a game I played some time ago that was a hard slog. The App is an interesting element and essential to its success, but you are left with the feeling it could just be a little bit of a better App. That’s a sign of its success, your mind runs away with how it could be better.

If there is any faults with it, it’s that you can’t help but feel the game just couldn’t be that little bit more exciting, atmospheric and tense. In both plays it’s never managed to duplicate the excitement and tension of Imperial Assault, for instance. This last point may well be a genre preference on my part.

If you want a near perfect Mythos investigation experience in board game form, Mansions of Madness is it.

About Ian O'Rourke

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