I love Lovecraft. If there was an atomic moment in my love for horror, it can be found in my first readings of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. I specify first, because I have indeed read them multiple times. Reading those tales as a youth I was carried away by the overwhelming sense of the sublime, of slimy, tentacled things writhing in the dark, and the vast, incomprehensible, alien and uncaring universe. Academics and scientists, poets and artists stumbling about, uncovering horrors that should have remained buried. Paradoxically, perhaps imparted by the powerful sense of the sublime that Lovecraft’s stories generate, I also want to take part in these stories. Well, maybe participate at a distance is a better way to put it – I like my sanity and health just the way they are, thank you very much. I guess I’m not alone in this desire, as there are countless video games, board games, and pen and paper roleplaying games that aim to provide exactly this experience. Mansions of Madness Second Edition from Fantasy Flight games is the latest attempt at immersing players in a world of arcane and eldritch horrors, and what a fine game it is.
The setup is pretty much what you’d expect – you and your friends (or, go it solo if you’d like – the game nicely supports solo play for those of us with limited time and access to big game nights) choose one of a set of characters, and then you choose a scenario to play through where you’ll be creeping about, running away from monsters, uncovering the terrible secrets of the universe, and hopefully thwarting apocalyptic plots. More likely, you’ll all go mad and die. Uniquely, Mansions of Madness Second Edition is controlled by an app (there are versions for Android, iOS, Mac and PC, so if you have a computing device, most likely you’re covered unless you’re a Linux person). While the first edition had one player functioning as a game master, reading out sections of story, moving monsters around, as the other players explored and cooperated, in this new version, that role has been taken over by the app.
You’re probably thinking, “Well, that sounds sort of neat, but it’s probably janky and doesn’t feel very boardgamey,” That’s what I thought, too. As it turns out, the app is totally awesome. As you explore, the app makes it feel like things are going on without you, making it all feel dynamic and alive in a unique way. Monsters will barge into rooms, characters move around, and things happen whether you are there or not. Initially, I was confused about how much or little the app would track – I assumed it would track more than it does, such as tracking player actions, or locations – but after a couple of turns, I think Fantasy Flight definitely made the right choice. Less need to input things into the app means a faster, smoother game that still feels like a boardgame. Once you have the rules down, the game moves quite fast, as everything the player needs to do is handled via dice rolls or drawing cards, while the app handles the rest – what’s in the next room, what was in that locked box, or what does this person have to say, for example. The voice acting, writing, and music are all top notch, although there’s not enough music here for it not to get repetitive. Luckily, you can turn it off and provide musical ambiance of your own choosing.
If there’s anything that feels like Mansions of Madness, it would be a combination of a PC adventure game, Resident Evil, and Chaosium’s classic pen and paper RPG, Call of Cthulhu – survival, puzzles, bursts of action, and light roleplaying elements. Each player takes a turn performing up to two actions such as move, fight, or interact. Search a pile of papers and find a clue, for example, or stumble upon an indescribable horror that wants you dead. You gain clues which can help when performing tests, various helpful items, journals that you can read in the app, or talk to non-player characters in the game via the app, if they’re the talkative sort. Once the player’s round is done, you inform the app, and then the mythos round begins. In the mythos round, the app will keep track of monsters, scenario events, and other non-player characters, as well as conjuring up arcane terrors to challenge your characters. As the adventure progresses, your characters will suffer both mental and physical damage, both of which are tracked via cards – face down indicates a point of mental or physical damage, face up and you must suffer whatever the card tells you to do. It all moves slickly, and outside of a few confusing rule descriptions (barricades, I’m looking at you), it’s very clean and clear and simple to play.
Mansions of Madness Second Edition is something of a triumph. It presents a complex, branching, storytelling game in an easy to digest, approachable, fun, and spooky package. While I’d hesitate to introduce most board games of this type to non-boardgamey people, Mansions of Madness Second Edition is so relatively effortless to play that it could be introduced to practically anyone. Game time runs from 60 to 90 minutes for the shorter scenarios to much longer for the more epic scenarios. The biggest concern, of course, is longevity – there are only 4 scenarios in the box, but in my two playthroughs of the first, things have happened in different ways, and the layout was slightly different as well. With more content coming soon in the form of republished first edition tiles and content, and inevitable expansions, as well as considering the flexibility of the app and game system, I’m confident this game will have a lasting place on anyone’s table. If you’re looking for a more complex game, then this might not be what you’re looking for – Eldritch Horror or Arkham Horror might be worth a look instead, or a game less focused on theme and storytelling – but for a narrative experience, Mansions of Madness Second Edition is tough to beat.
Keep in mind I’ve only run through the first scenario a couple of times, so the other scenarios might be a real bust. Barring that, this game comes highly recommended. Horror board gaming doesn’t get much better than this.