Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Side-Show Arcade: Mansions of Madness

A while back, I reviewed the excellent board game, Arkham Horror.  Its sister game—Mansions of Madness—is the subject of today’s investigation.

At first glance—maybe two glances—Mansions of Madness is intimidating.  Even for someone who considers himself seasoned in imageboard games.  There are a zillion little bits and pieces to lose; there are (I am not kidding) 13 different card stacks.  AND there are two rulebooks: one for players, and one for the guy playing against the players.  Not to mention that the game is made by Fantasy Flight, and it’s in their Arkham line—so the gameplay has a good chance of being complicated, and the night is likely destined to end in your character’s demise.

BUT—you can still have a good time with it.

Mansions of Madness dangles board-gaming closer to role-playing with a slew of pre-generated characters  and a number of unconnected scenarios to choose from.  The premise is that you are a group of investigators who have stumbled on a creepy, malign plot.  Together, you explore the board, searching for clues to untangle the mystery and fighting terrifying cultists and their otherworldly imageoverseers.  One player (the Keeper) takes the role of all the monsters and the evil forces that control the board; all the others play characters opposing him (the Investigators).  Each group has a specific goal that they must accomplish in order to win the game, but only the Keeper knows his goal at the start.  The players only find out their ultimate goal in the final act, right before the clock strikes midnight.

Where game mechanics enhance the devastating pace of the game, Mansions of Madness is an absolute blast to play.  However, there are so many fiddly bits, and so many cards to shuffle through, and so much to take into consideration, the game can be a bit of a slog at times.  Especially at the beginning—there’s no way around it, getting the game set up is a beast.  The rules state that the players decide amongst themselves which scenario to play; *I* maintain that’s a good way to waste an hour or so of game time.   Whoever is host, SHE should decide on the game, and have it set up before everyone gets there.  The host should also be Keeper, so she can pick what storyline within the scenario she wants to play.  (Yep—each scenario is replayable because they have different story options to choose from.  So, the first time you play, you may have to find the abducted heiress in the basement; the second time you play, you find her corpse in the chapel, and then pursue her killer.)

Setup consists of deciding what scenario, and what scenario elements to play, and then setting up the board.  Mansions of Madness comes imagewith 15 map tiles, with room details printed on both sides.  These are used to construct the board, using the scenario to determine what tiles go where.  After the board is built, characters are chosen, and the Keeper builds the deck to best help her accomplish her own goal.  Investigators are given a clue to start out with, which points them where to go; as they explore the board, the Keeper gets terror points to use against them.  Terror points allow the keeper to buy up all sorts of nasty effects, from declaring that a monster’s attack broke a character’s arm (giving that character a negative modifier on combat checks for the rest of the game), to making monsters appear out of the walls. 

The game is meant to be tense, right from the beginning; that’s how the pace is maintained.  Mansions of Madness has no low gear—it puts itself into “STARK TERROR” mode and stays there until the finish of the game.  A system of time-keeping dissuades the characters from doing anything but running from clue, to clue, to clue; although leisurely exploration is possible, the effects of not staying on task are such that it becomes deadly to dally.

Like other role-playing games, I think that much of the fun of the game exists not in the game itself, but in the way the players integrate into it.  With one group, the game is lively, and fun; with another, it gets bogged down in arguing or confusion over the rules.

I recommend the game with that caveat: know your gaming group.  The insistent rules lawyer has killed more game nights than Cthullhu has devoured planets.

-- Scott M. Roberts

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