Designed by Corey Konieczka (Battlestar Galactica, Runewars, Middle-earth Quest), Mansions of Madness, the latest blockbuster hit from Fantasy Flight Games, takes H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos into a living, creepy, haunted mansion located in Arkham, Massachusetts. Filled with macabre, Mansions attempts to engross the player in mystery, terror, insanity, and pain as they endeavor to unlock the secrets of the house. Will the walls run red with blood or crumble under the pressure?
Mansions of Madness is a very thematic driven, one versus many game where one player takes the role of the Keeper and the remaining players make up the investigators. The investigator's main responsibility is to transverse and explore the mansion for clues leading to the hidden objective of the Keeper, all while the Keeper is attempting to thwart the progress of the investigators with whatever means are available. In addition to thwarting the investigators, the Keeper is working to achieve his/her hidden objective that is determined by the scenario in play. Mansions is meant for 2-5 players and takes about 2 hours to play with about 30-45 minutes of setup time, which should be done by the Keeper in advance of the investigators participation to mitigate exposing the clues and objectives.
Fantasy Flight Games is known for high quality production values in their titles and Mansions of Madness is no exception. As usual, the art is absolutely fantastic, from the modular mansion tiles to the details of the miniatures. The miniatures can be painted and there are some excellent examples and how-to's out there on Board Game Geek (here) and on the Games Paradise Blog (here).
However, there are a few nagging problems with the game. First, the mansion tiles tend to warp after opening the package. This has happened to my copy and many others, but seems to decrease or disappear with time. The warping is most likely attributed to the pieces getting used to the humidity levels in the air, but it is annoying when setting up the mansion and the pieces are bowed and don't line up. Also, the warped tiles will be prone to spinning on the table during player interactions, which leads me to my next issue.
Because the game board is modular, the pieces tend to shift and rotate (especially on a smooth surface) during play. This can be distracting and take away from the overall game experience. There are ways around this, however, such as placing a rough textured textile on the table before playing. While it's not a deal breaker in any way, it can be a nuisance.
Another minor issue with the game pieces are the miniatures. They tend to fall off their bases as some of the pegs are not tight enough in the slot to hold it together. So half of the time I would grab a mini to place it on the board, the base would fall off. A solution would be to glue the figures to their bases, but that would increase the chances of the figures bending or snapping at a weak point if too much pressures occurs. Again, while a minor issue, it can be one of those little annoying things that constantly appear during play.
My final gripe with Mansions of Madness pieces is the box (well the divider more specifically). It seems like the only purpose of the divider is to get in the way when trying to pack the game up. One thing that I seem to notice in most of the games that I get is how do the pieces fit back into the box when the night of gaming is over? Mansions of Madness cannot be put back into the box without some effort required if you wish to keep the divider inside the box. I had managed to put the game back together twice with the divider, but had to detach all the figures to accomplish it. On the third attempt, I got frustrated with it and threw it away. Some gamers like to use Plano fishing tackle boxes to organize their game pieces, but for gamers like me who cannot afford that luxury, it would be nice if the publishers included dividers that were created for their game pieces in mind. Many publishers do this, but this is not the case with Mansions.
The Keeper chooses one of the five scenarios and sets up the board according to the sub-options that help drive the story and theme for that particular setup. This is what determines how the clues and items are placed throughout the board, thus giving many different options to the story and experience. Unfortunately for me, I have not been able to take the role of the investigators in my plays, so my review from this point on will be mostly focused on the game play aspects from the Keepers point of view, but I will do my best to cover both sides of the game.
From my experience thus far, the Keeper is the most important part of the game as they can make or break the experience for the other players. If you have a Keeper who enjoys toying with the investigators and does their best to immerse the players in the mysteries of the house, then most everyone will enjoy the game. However, if the Keeper wants only to prove their power and try to destroy the investigators, then it can ruin their experience. There are some checks and balances to help prevent the Keeper from having too much power, but it is possible to have a bad game from poor Keeper play. That said, if the investigators get into the suspense, horror and feel of the game, then the experience will also be heightened. It only takes one investigator to ruin the game for everyone too.
I think the Trauma and Mythos cards are a great way to mess with the investigators; I only wish there were more of them. Most of the Trauma cards I could only play on the investigators if they were at extremely low Sanity levels, which I found to be cumbersome to get them to. I would love to see some Trauma cards that the Keeper could play at higher Sanity levels that had a weaker detriment to the player, such as a -2 to the next attribute roll or something similar. I think this would help keep the investigators on their toes and add to the suspense of the game.
Another mechanic that Mansions does well are the Event cards. These really help drive the story along and occasionally require the investigators to change up their strategies. The flavor text also adds additional immersion into the theme and in conjunction with the clue cards, the story will be steadily revealed throughout the game. I find it important to make sure that the investigators read off the clue text to the other players to keep everyone involved.
Then there are the Obstacle Cards. While not a bad idea, they are just too easy and slow down the game. The puzzles don't seem to be challenging enough to provide the deterrence that they should have. I would like to see these either expanded to be a challenge to justify the time or simplified to be an attribute check to help keep a quick game flow.
Finally, there is the meat of the game: exploration. It is frequent and plentiful (too plentiful if you ask me). Having Exploration cards in every room of the house can be a bit much after playing a few times. I would like to see the purpose of some scenarios to hinder more on the different major mechanics and less on exploration. For example, make a scenario that isn't run by clues; the objective could be revealed from the start, like a group of cultists are gathered around an altar summoning a Shoggoth and the investigators need to interrupt them but have to fight through the mansion. Adding another mission type that doesn't require constant exploring would give Mansions of Madness another layer of depth which would really help make this game stand out.
Mansions of Madness is a great game with high quality production that is typical of Fantasy Flight Games. There are a few nagging issues with the game pieces which can be solved with a little bit of extra work and love. If the board warping eventually fixes itself, then this is just a temporary issue, but if they warping stays, then this is a big problem.
I have the same sentiment for the game mechanics. They are solid and make for a fun experience, but there are a few issues that could be cleared up to provide a deeper and more immersive experience. Adding more Trauma cards that can be on higher sanity levels and expanding the narrative text would be a few ways to do this. Also adding scenarios that require something more than just exploring for clue cards would help add depth to the title.
With Mansions of Madness, Fantasy Flight has produced yet another quality title and there is plenty of opportunity to expand and refine the mechanics through expansions. If you enjoy the H.P. Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos or enjoy a highly thematic style game, then Mansions of Madness would be a worthwhile purchase. If you are still on the fence about purchasing it, then I would suggest that you find a way to try it out with some friends. I am enjoying playing it with new friends as the initial intrigue makes for a great play experience. I give Mansions of Madness a 4 out of 5 and with a little bit of expanding, this game could be a favorite for me.