Mansions of Madness Second Edition – The Review

Introduction

I have a long standing relationship with Fantasy Flight Games and their H.P. Lovecraft based products. We had a store copy of the Arkham Horror board game which saw a lot of play, and I picked up the Call of Cthulhu Living Card Game late 2008. Playing those games naturally led me to wonder more about H.P. Lovecraft and it wasn’t long before I was reading the man’s life works and losing myself in his prose of madness.

I was a big fan of FFG’s Descent: Journeys in the Dark, a ‘rogue like’ board game that saw players plundering dungeons and fighting monsters. My friends and I spent entire weekends playing the game.

It was with some surprise then that when I got my hands on the original Mansions of Madness in 2012 that I didn’t really like it. It’s hard for me to explain why – just like Descent, the game was slow, brutal and complicated. Perhaps I simply didn’t feel the theme was suitable for the rules, but to be fair it was years ago and the specifics allude me. The rules definitely didn’t feel tight though and I recall a particular exploit as the ‘Overlord’ or ‘Keeper’ allowing me to drive the players insane fairly quickly.

Fast forward to present day and my enthusiasm for all things Lovecraft and Cthulhu is cemented. I still play the Call of Cthulhu LCG (despite it being discontinued) and I run the (unofficial) Lovecraft Association of Australia. My collection of Lovecraft written works is steadily growing as well.

So with all that being said, I had heard that a number of rules fixes had been made to Mansions of Madness over the years and what FFG hadn’t fixed up the fans had. So I thought to myself that I might go on a quest to purchase the game and collect its expansions. A check of prices on eBay promptly ended that quest. The game has been discontinued and prices have gone up and up.

And then an answer to my prayers: Fantasy Flight Games announce Mansions of Madness Second Edition, all new and improved, with an application to take the role of ‘Overlord’. Take my money!

Unboxing

I have learnt since that the large figures are Starspawn and not Cthulhu. No Cthulhu for you.

Premise

Mansions of Madness Second Edition sees players take on the role of ‘Investigators’, each with their own unique abilities and reason for exploring the horrifying world of the supernatural. Some are parapsychologists seeking the truth, others practitioners craving more power, some wield faith for a greater good and still some seek adventure, fame and wealth. Whatever their reasons, Mansions of Madness will send these investigators on a horrific journey that will likely end their lives or drive them insane with only the slimmest hope of success.

Using a modular board, dice, plastic figures (for both investigators and creatures) and a free application (available for just about every electronic platform except Linux) you’ll work together to solve mysteries and defeat horrors.

A modular board is revealed as the investigators move through both interior and exterior locations, speaking with other characters, searching for clues and fighting horrific creatures, typically with a time limit forcing them ever onwards.

Differences

I won’t dally too long here as my experiences with the original game were years ago and I certainly haven’t played it with any of the updated rules, whether they be official or fan made. What I can tell you though is the game certainly plays smoother and faster. The rules have been tidied up greatly and unlike Fantasy Flight Games’ games of the past, the game is quick to learn (I’m looking at you Android). After a quick flick through the ‘Learn to Play’ book provided I sat down to the game with my wife who is very much not a board game player, and we moved through the game with very little stopping to check rules. The biggest addition (and improvement in my opinion) is the App controlling the action. Not only does this speed the game up, with the App taking care of a lot of end-of-turn mechanics, this eliminates the need for one player to be ‘the bad guy’ thus creating a true co-operative experience.

The original Mansions of Madness had two ‘deluxe’ expansions which included board tiles and plastic figures. It also saw six smaller expansions that only included cards and more scenarios.  Speaking of scenarios, the original MoM included five, while the Second Edition only ships with four, although if you own the original game and its deluxe expansions you get two more.

The original game still has a strong following with active forums on Fantasy Flight Games and Board Game Geek. Their reaction to the new game appears to be mostly positive, many though will continue to play the original game as well, some even looking to use the second edition components in the original game.

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Contents & Quality

Mansions of Madness Second Edition carries a $160 recommended retail price in Australia ($99.95 USD on the Fantasy Flight Website). For your money the box contains –

24 Map Tiles, 8 Investigator Cards & Matching Figures, 40 Common Item Cards, 24 Unique Item Cards, 16 Search / Interact Tokens, 16 Explore / Sight Tokens, 22 Person Tokens, 30 Spell Cards, 37 Condition Cards, 40 Damage Cards, 40 Horror Cards, 24 Monster Tokens & Matching Figures, 4 Barricade Tokens, 4 Secret Passage Tokens, 18 Fire / Darkness Tokens, 8 Wall Tokens, 4 Door Tokens, 6 ID Tokens, 26 Clue Tokens, 5 Dice, a Rules Reference Booklet, a Learn to Play Booklet and a First Edition Conversion Kit (which contains 16 Investigator Cards, 34 Monster Tokens and 4 Person Tokens).

$160 might seem a little steep at this point although I would figure this cost also covers the initial and ongoing development costs of the application (which is a free download). $160 also seems like a bit when I cast my mind back to paying $120 for the original Descent. Having said that, we were trading at parity or better with the US dollar at the time. I personally paid closer to $140 for my copy of the game and at that price I felt it was a worthy purchase. As always, hunt around.

The card stock is thick with vibrant colours and well detailed scenes, absolutely no complaints from me here whatsoever. Likewise the playing cards are of solid quality and with excellent art, although I did notice some of it was recycled from other Arkham games which is a little disappointing.

The miniatures are a mixed bag and overall I give them an ‘Okay’. I’ve seen a number of images on the forums where those with far more time and talent than I have tidied up the figures and given them a paint and they scrub up pretty good. I felt the investigator miniatures were of better quality overall than the creatures. For those not fussed on the miniatures, or simply looking to make the game more portable, you can very easily play the game without the creatures and simply use the card stock that would typically insert into the base of the model.

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How it Plays

Players each take control of an Investigator, fire up the ‘App’ and choose a mission they wish to tackle. After a well voiced introduction with some suitable imagery the screen will show you what floor tiles to place where and the objects that fill the room.

Each turn players may perform up to two actions, these can include –

  • Move – Move up to two spaces. Movement can be interrupted to perform other actions.
  • Search – Investigate a Search token in your space by using the app.
  • Explore – Investigate an Explore token in your space by using the app.
  • Interact – Interact with a person or Interact token in your space by using the app.
  • Attack – Attack a monster in your space with a melee weapon or a monster within range of a ranged weapon by using the app.
  • Trade – Trade possessions with other investigators in your space. Pick up and drop possessions in your space.
  • Push – Push a monster or carry another investigator.
  • Set Fire – Set fire to your space or adjacent space (requires a light source).
  • Steal – Steal possessions from another investigator.
  • Barricade a Door – Block a door to prevent monsters or investigators from moving through.
  • Extinguish Fire – Discard a fire in your space and a space you move into during your turn.

Why would you push another investigator? Steal their belongings? Barricade them in a room? Well sometimes when an Investigator goes insane you’re required to do some pretty weird things, or have these things done to you.

I’m fairly certain it isn’t just a Fantasy Flight Games ‘thing’, I’m pretty sure it’s a Lovecraft ‘thing’. Lovecraft based games are typically damn hard. Arkham Horror can be an extremely brutal and unforgiving game. The original Mansions of Madness just as much, if not more so. The Call of Cthulhu role-playing game from Chaosium is also typically pretty brutal with investigators often going completely insane or swiftly killed. Even the ‘Dark Corners of the Earth’ video game did little to hold your hand with a high game difficulty. You certainly don’t have to be a masochist to play these games but I suspect it helps.

I’ve played the game single player, with my wife (two players) and with a couple of friends (four players). In my experiences, even though the game is more nasty in the mythos round, we got more done and had a better time of it with more players. It’s great that the game supports single player, but when possible it’s definitely a game to play with friends.

A game in progress

I’m the sort of guy who likes to explore every crevice, thoroughly explore a map, pickup every item, kill every monster. Mansions of Madness doesn’t allow for that. It very much pushes you forward, the pace depending on the mission you have selected.  As such I found myself frustrated at times with how quick the game moves you forward, especially with some pretty heavy handed Mythos events at the end of turn (Take damage / horror then regardless if you mitigate it or not, take some more damage / horror).

My salvation came in the forums for the game, where some players had similar problems with ‘winning’ or simply getting obliterated in the first couple of turns. Introducing House Rules. House Rules allow you to slide the difficulty of this game up and down as desired. For myself I simply gave investigators three actions per turn rather than two. This meant I was able to get a lot more done, satisfying my desire to explore all of everything before the Mythos Events began raining down destruction.

If you’re still struggling and want to dumb it down to ‘Very Easy’ then simply don’t ever flip up Horror or Damage cards. Nobody is judging you, it’s your game. You just paid ~$160 for it, you can play with it how you please. Just remember that if you find yourself getting frustrated, like any role-playing game, the rules are simply guidelines, and you can change them to suit your temperament and play style. Heck, want to go ‘Ultra Easy’? Just ignore all Mythos Events completely unless they specifically move the story forward. The great thing with these house rules as well is that they won’t interfere or impact the App in any way. It doesn’t keep track of the amount of actions you take or how much damage / horror an Investigator has taken. While simply flipping on ‘God Mode’ is an option, without the possible risk of defeat it removes all enjoyment from the game and I’d recommend avoiding it. Satisfaction will come from defeating a mission while adhering to pre-established rules.

Toby’s Mansions of Madness Second Edition Difficulty Modes
Easy – Each Investigator has three actions per turn
Very Easy – Each Investigator has three actions per turn. All Horror and Damage cards are drawn and remain face down, no exceptions.
Ultra Easy – Each Investigator has three actions per turn. All Horror and Damage cards are drawn and remain face down, no exceptions. Ignore ‘non story’ Mythos Events.

Meta play is absolutely encouraged here; knowing the mission and what needs to be done in advance is a huge plus. I’d suggest playing through any given mission on my above easy modes and once you have a feel for it you can dial the difficulty back up to ‘Normal’ and take another crack at it.

Of course, if you aren’t coming this from the ‘role-playing / adventure’ background and are an avid board game player, then you can just as easily disregard my difficulty modes and enjoy the default difficulty of the game.

Overall Mansions of Madness is a fantastic game. It carries all the trademark qualities of an adventure game with role-playing elements, while maintaining plenty of tension and action sequences. Some of the investigations are shorter affairs with plenty of combat, others are lengthier with more emphasis on research, clue hunting and interviewing suspects. In short, it feels as though Fantasy Flight Games have taken the essence of the role-playing game, distilled it down to a board game and applied a ticking clock so that you don’t end up with 12 hour RPG marathons.

And I’m totally down with that, because if I want to go back up a level I simply crack out the RPG books and away we go. It’s also highly likely that this game will serve as a gateway for introducing friends to the world of Lovecraft and Call of Cthulhu role-playing.

Currently the core game has only four missions, with two more available if you own the original Mansions of Madness and its deluxe expansions. Alternatively you’ll be able to play those extra missions once the first two expansion packs are released in November. Between them these expansions will include all the relevant miniatures and floor tiles from the original game and those two deluxe expansions. Each mission though has a number of board layouts and variations to the story so multiple playthroughs of the same mission offer plenty of replayability.

Three of the games included scenarios are the more traditional board game variety with a good blend of investigation and combat throughout the entire mission. The fourth is interestingly more of a nod towards the role-playing game with the bulk of the scenario having no combat at all and slowly building tension over a period of days as the investigators seek to discover what is wrong with the town of Innsmouth.  It’s a nice change of pace and I hope Fantasy Flight Games dole out new scenarios for both playstyles, allowing gamers to choose whichever suits them best.

No doubt more expansions will be coming soon, likely including more floor tiles and card stock, possibly miniatures as well. Ideally I’d like to see Fantasy Flight Games also release free packs for the App now and again that use existing tiles but tell new stories. The ability to create your own investigations would be a nice touch as well and I know from reading the forums that a number of talented programmers have begun working on this already. Still, it’d be really nice if FFG included this ability themselves.

Summary

If you are a fan of Lovecraft and his work or any of the Lovecraft inspired games from Fantasy Flight Games then this is a no brainer and a must buy.  If on the other hand you have no experience with Lovecraft or FFG’s other games based on his Mythos, then Mansions of Madness Second Edition is still a good game in its own right.

Pros –

  • True co-operative experience.
  • Great balance of investigation and combat.
  • Easy to learn rules.
  • First Edition conversion kit included in the box.
  • Well polished App with thematic music and voice acting available on multiple devices.
  • Plenty of replayability with random maps and scenario variation.

Cons –

  • Average Miniatures.
  • No official scenario maker.
  • Brutally difficult out of the box.
  • App doesn’t work with Linux or Windows Phones.

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