Staving off Insanity: Mansions of Madness Review

We forayed into the relatively newly released second edition of Mansions of Madness (2016) to experience a Lovecraftian Horror story that caused 2 out of 4 players to go insane, but at least in resulted in a happy ending for (most of) us.  We played only the introductory scenario in a session that lasted about 2 hours.  Our experience was greatly enhanced by having extremely nicely-painted figures that were transferred from their original overly bulky bases to much more elegant bases, and we have some great photos from the experience that we can share.  It’s a cooperative game that feels more like an adventure than any sort of competition, a different board game experience than the usual fare.

Overall Feeling

In the vein of games like Arkham Horror comes a H.P. Lovecraft-style horror movie with a group of 1920s-ish investigators versus both human and non-human villains.  It’s a lot of fun, effectively creating a horror feeling as players explore an old mansion, battle creepers and specters, and try to avoid injuries to both their minds and bodies.  It’s the first game I’ve played that has a direct iPad interface — one player needs to download the app and run the game and supplement the board, dice, and cards.  In my opinion, the iPad experience wasn’t really optimized in a way that added to the overall feeling and it in fact detracted from it a bit.  It didn’t ruin the experience by any means, but I think they would have been better off without it.  Fortunately for us, we got to play with really outstanding figures that immersed us deeper into the overall experience, and are enough reason on their own to play again.  Even with the iPad detraction, it’s a solid overall game experience.  I can’t write about what it would be like without painted figures, but I think it would still be very good.

Setup Highlights

Well the main thing is that someone needs to download the app to his iPhone or iPad and get that ready.  Otherwise you separate the cards into piles, separate the cardboard chits for Clues and Doors and the like.  I would call the setup time here fairly typical, not particularly difficult, but you do have to calibrate with the iPad, which did take us a few minutes to figure out the first time.

We had already explored the mansion a bit by the time we took this picture, but you get the idea from it.

Most importantly, everyone needs to decide which character he/she wants to play, a very fun element.  The characters each have their own set of stats and each has a special ability.  For example, Carson Sinclair, the Butler’s ability is “Another investigator within range may perform 1 action. Activate this ability only once per round.”  Since characters have only two actions per turn, this is a very nice ability!  William Yorick, the Gravedigger, is a more physically strong character who can fight, but also has the special ability to gain a clue every time a monster is destroyed.

Yorick has pretty good strength and his special ability lets him pick up a clue every time a monster is defeated.
Minh Thi is weaker than Yorick but has solid agility, plus her special ability allows her to reroll one die per turn.

Interesting Mechanics and Game Play

The most interesting thing is the use of the iPad to resolve encounters with monsters and combat.  It basically replaces using tables to look things up and adds some color to the game by adding copy to dramatize what’s going on when you’re rolling dice.  For example, when you’re battling a monster, you choose which weapon you’ll use, or fight unarmed, and there are different classes of weapon like heavy weapon, bladed weapon, etc.  You select the monster on the iPad, then select the weapon type, then along with some flavor text, it tells you how to resolve it.  It almost always involves rolling dice, and sometimes it’s a “save” roll where you just have to get at least a certain number of hits, other times each hit will count as damage towards the enemy.  The iPad also tracks the damage to the enemy and tracks which are still in the game.

However, it’s a bit disruptive to the tabletop game experience to have to rely upon the iPad to resolve things, again this is just my opinion.  I’d probably rather use tables to look things up, track the monster hit points myself, and live without the flavor text, and keep everything in the full tabletop game experience.  If we’re going to to use the app at all, then it needs to add more to the experience than it currently does to offset the way using it disrupts things.  Not the end of the world and not everyone may agree, but it feels more like using the app just to use an app rather than really enhance the experience.

The map of the mansion reveals itself room by room as your characters explore, which is a very fun mechanic and a staple of this game genre.  The one-by-one room reveal and the clues provided by the iPad, like sounds heard behind doors, etc. create a feeling of mystery and investigation.  To search rooms, though, you have to pick up the iPad and interact with the ? tokens as they appear on the iPad, which tells you what happens.  I like the iPad well enough when opening a door to another room and revealing it, but in terms of interacting with the room, I’d rather just read off from an instruction manual.  Sometimes, you pick up items in the form of cards and place them under your character like any tabletop game.

Most conflicts or obstacles are resolved with dice, a custom set of 8-sided dice with “hits” and “magnifying glasses” on them.  A unique mechanic of the game is that characters can gain “clues,” which allow them to turn their magnifying glasses into hits.  It’s a mechanic I like a lot.  Overall, the game runs pretty smoothly.

The characters themselves have to manage two health tracks, one physical and one mental. When you take physical damage, you draw cards that sometimes come with conditions, such as slowing you down or lowering your attributes.  Take enough physical damage and you become “wounded” and take on a more serious condition to slow you down and/or impact your attributes.  Only one of our characters got wounded in this introductory scenario, but several of our characters struggled with the mental health track.  Same as the physical track, characters take damage in the form of cards as you react to the horrible creatures around them as they spit and hiss and emit fluid at your characters.  Some mental damage resolves in a permanent condition like claustrophobia, where you can take even more mental damage in tight spaces, others lower your attributes.  If you take enough mental damage you go “insane,” which comes with a more serious condition.  Most importantly, going insane can change your goals for the game.  For example, the Butler in our scenario went insane, and his goal changed to resolving all the explore tokens.  Since we didn’t before we ended the game, he technically “lost”.

Theme and Components

It would be hard to get into a horror-themed game like this without great components and fortunately, the components are all first rate.  The board tiles and cards are all well done, the dice are sturdy and readable.  The figures are well-sculpted and durable, and if you’re willing to take the time to paint them, they’re great.  All of this works together to help create a feeling of horror and unknown knowledge.

Do-Something-Ability

The do-something ability is strong in this one.  You explore a mansion and reveal a map.  You discover items to add to your character and sometimes contract wounds or insanity.  You battle monsters and in our case, we disrupted some kind of secret ritual that would have opened a portal to another world or something.  In our 2-hour game session, it felt like a lot happened, a lot took place, and our characters were all changed by the end of the experience.

Replay Ability

From here, we would go on to play more scenarios, that’s something I think we’re likely to do and I would be excited about it.  I suppose we could play the same scenario again but I wouldn’t be interested in that.  It was fun enough that I would be ok playing it if we had somehow lost the adventure and needed to redo it, but I’m glad we were able to solve this one and move forward to what’s to come.

Verdict

Mansions of Madness is an extremely solid game experience and a lot of fun, if you’re in the mood for investigating a mystery only to see it turn into a Lovecraftian horror.  While some of the others in the group could compare this to Arkham horror and other games, I wouldn’t be able to do that, I can only tell you that for my first experience in this type of game, this version delivered at a high clip, every bit as good as zombie games like Last Night on Earth or Zombicide.  The cards, board tiles, and figures are all of high quality and you’ll use a phone or tablet app to add some dimensions to the experience, even if constantly referring to an iPad can be a bit clunky.  Taking the extra step to paint figures can really plunge you deeper into the world of dark knowledge and non-human influences on the earth, and the feeling of battling insanity that your characters are going through.

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