Designer: Nikki Valens
Published by: Fantasy Flight Games
Playtime: 2-3 hours
(Single-Player is a series designed to review tabletop games that can be played solo, as well as with friends. While I do talk about playing the games with friends, these reviews will primarily focus on the single-player experience.)
I don’t think H.P. Lovecraft could have predicted that his beloved short-stories would become entrenched in the world of boardgames, acting as the inspiration for countless hundreds of titles that purport to be inspired by the works of someone with an intense imagination and propensity for horror. It seems like every other day a new videogame, boardgame or book arrives, taking its theme and story ideas from Lovecraft and bending them to their own will. Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition is one such game, residing in FFG’s Arkham Horror lineup of games where the emphasis is on supernatural monsters, investigators and pulp fiction. But this one….this one is special.
There are already plenty of great reviews out there of Mansions of Madness, but I just have to add my own two-cents, and chat about its potential as a very strong solo game, too. So let’s get cracking and chat about this immersive game that seeks to bring technology into the world of dice and cards from the perspective of someone who is still very much a tabletop noob.
Let me tell you in the story of Innsmouth. Ex-gravedigger and aspiring actor William Yorrick, Parapsychologist Agatha Crane, the agile and strong Rita Young and butler Carson Sinclair head to Innsmouth to investigate the Marsh family and a series of strange occurrences within the small town that all seem to stem from them. Each investigator has their own backstory, their own reason for chasing the supernatural. They check in to a hotel in Innsmouth with the intent of snooping around for some evidence that might point to the Marsh family, but things quickly go wrong.
I begin with my investigators holed up inside their hotel room when a knock at the door startles them out of their revelry. What stands outside isn’t human, though, so I opt to barricade the door and head out the side door instead in order to begin gather evidence as soon as possible. We quickly come across a storefront looking out on the mainstreet, discovering a radio in the process that we use to contact a shipping vessel moored just outside of town. Talking to the captain we arrange a pick-up, but only if we manage to find one Agent Craven. Seems like we aren’t the only ones investigating Innsmouth. All we have to do is grab the evidence we need and then make it to the pier, light the lantern and sound the fog-horn. Seems easy enough, except there’s a problem; a mob has formed outside on the street and begins to march around the block, spawning monsters as it goes that want to do nothing less than render us limb from limb. That would be a problem, then. We begin backing away from the storefront and instead kick down the door to the bathroom where we can then get out the window to the beach and the connected piers, buying us some breathing room. Out on the pier we quickly locate the lantern needed to signal the ship, but not the fog horn. Still, some quick searching does net William Yorrick a Tommy Gun, which is handy because the mob has dispatched a Deep One Hybrid to get us and it has teamed up with the other Hybrid that was originally knocking on the hotel door. While William battles those two creatures Rita and Agatha go exploring, discovering the library where they gather yet more evidence of the Marsh family’s nefarious dealings. They then circle back around to where we began, using a key we found earlier to open up the room next to ours where Rita finds herself a pistol, and Agatha begins working on a locked briefcase that can only be opened by figuring out the combination via a mini-game. Having raided the library and then managed to solve the lock on Agent Craven’s briefcase I finally have all the evidence needed to prove the Marsh family’s involvement in Innsmouths strange goings-ons and thus make a break for the pier, sending William Yorrick off to locate the fog horn needed to finish signalling the fishing vessel. As the mob closes in William rings the bell and high-tails it for the pier where the boat is now coming on. But my stupidity has gotten the best of me and I’ve forgotten that the boat won’t leave until I locate Agent Craven and drag his sorry hide with me. Glancing down at the board I realise there’s only one unexplored location left, so Agent Craven must be hiding out there. Problematically, though, a second mob has appeared in the intervening time and is making its way around the hotel complex in the opposite direction from the other mob, and this one isn’t politely sticking to the streets. So I make the decision to only send Rita Young, because as an athlete her special ability grants an extra movement point per action, allowing her to cross the board much faster. I hoped her .45mm pistol would be enough to fend off any foe while she made a break for Craven. Rushing across the board Rita narrowly avoids horrible Deep Ones which are now crawling out from the ocean, summoned forth by the chanting of the mob. Rita finds Craven and quickly explains the situation to him, persuading him to move his butt toward the boat. He darts off to the library, and believing myself to be home free I begin moving Rita back toward the pier where Yorrick is currently holding off some foes with his Tommy Gun, but the mob is closing in and time is short. My investigators are hurting, and their sanity is starting to splinter. Agatha has become paranoid, struggling to be around the rest of the team so I back her away for now. Meanwhile Sinclair has gone insane, and is acting suspiciously. William is struggling now to hold off the enemy. Rita runs to the pier, but Agent Craven hasn’t budged from the library. Growing increasingly panicy I send Rita scampering back to Craven where he attempts to explain that he is seeking evidence to incriminate the Marsh family. Rita hastily points out that we’ve already got the evidence from there and several other sources and that we need to get the hell out of dodge before things get any worse. With that done Rita again moves back to the pier and onto the safety of the boat. Sadly, though, Agent Craven doesn’t make it, literally beaten to death by the mob a mere one space away from my investigators, his dying screams inflicting yet more damage to my team’s sanity. A single turn from losing with mobs closing in and Deep Ones slithering along the pier they all escape on the boat, leaving the horrors of Innsmouth far behind them. But it wasn’t without a price.
That was just the second of four scenarios, and I left out a lot of details, such as a raging fire spreading across one section of the map and numerous close-calls. This is what the game does best; deliver compelling stories and a strong sense of atmosphere that never dissipates. Rarely have I been so sucked into the theme and narrative of a boardgame, or felt so engaged from the first minute to the last. In the first edition of Mansions of Madness all of this would have stemmed from one player acting as a games master of sorts who sets up the board, seeds it with all the needed tokens and helps tell the story as everybody else plays. The problem is that not only is setting up a time-consuming process but being a GM is an acquired taste, and acting as the controller separates one player from everyone else. While they’re exploring and investigating you aren’t. Knowing this FFG have handed over control to a well-designed app that can be run on a tablet, phone or PC. You pick from one of the four available scenarios and then the app will handle the rest, telling the story as it goes. To begin with it’ll set the scene with a voice-over introduction to the task at hand before giving you your starting items to be distributed among however many investigators you opt to take. Then it will tell you which modular tiles to place to create the starting area, and where to put down interaction tokens, exploration tokens and any other things that are important. And then off you go. As you explore the app will build the level, spawn beasts that will hunt you and much, much more to create something genuinely engrossing and captivating.
So let’s talk about how you actually play this thing, huh? Each turn every investigator under your control will be allowed two actions; move up to two spaces, attack an enemy, explore an undiscovered section of the map or interact with something, plus a few others such as using an item. Moving is pretty self-explanatory so I don’t think we need to tackle that, so suffice to say in a single turn you can traverse four spaces because actions can be repeated if you wish. Exploring involves moving to the appropriate token on the board and then tapping its digital counterpart in the app, whereupon it will tell you what new tiles need to be put out, whether there are any monsters lurking etc. It will describe other things, to, such as a pile of papers that look hastily gone through (place a search token) or a pile of furniture that could be used to barricade a door or a bookcase or anything else of interest. Maybe you’ll come across a hunting rifle strapped to the wall, or raid some boxes for supplies like bandages. These little descriptions of all the things you can search and interact with help bump up the game’s already strong atmosphere, giving every new room, street or alley a sense of place. You might also encounter characters with whom you can have conversations using the app. Indeed, in the third scenario the game introduces a brilliant idea which involves having to constantly move a family around a mansion so as to keep them safe from something that can appear from the shadows. It’s brilliantly tense stuff as you desperately juggle trying to gather everything you need to bring the creature properly into our realm and keep the entire family safe.
When it comes to using the search tokens or interacting or indeed doing many things within Mansions of Madness you’ll need to toss some dice to make a skill test. To do this you just quickly check the investigator’s stats on the side of his or her card and then roll that many dice, with the aim being to get as many successes as the app indicates. Magnifying glass symbols mean you can trade in a clue token to turn it into a success, and you may also come across various items or effects that increase or decrease the amount of dice you can roll. You consult the app and it tells you what happens if you pass or fail. It’s as simple as that. You may, for example, have to make a lore roll when studying an arcane book, or a strength roll to break into a drawer, or an agility roll to dodge something. The more interesting tests come when the app doesn’t tell you how many successes you need, instead it lets you input how many you roll and will then tell you if its enough. It’s a great little mechanic because you have to pause for a moment and consider whether you want to spend a clue token or two to bolster the successes, or if you don’t have clues or didn’t roll magnifying glasses then there’s just a second of tension as you wait for the result.
Although monsters will roam the map Mansions of Madness isn’t really about fighting, rather it’s more about picking your battles while trying to achieve the objectives. Still, there are going to be times when you’ll need to battle the supernatural forces encroaching on our all-to fragile dimension, and it couldn’t be easier; you bring up the monster drawer in the app, select the monster to attack and then choose what you’re attacking with, be it a heavy weapon, a firearm, a blade, unarmed or with a spell. The app will then give you a detailed description of how your investigator attempts to attack, perhaps taking a fly leap or aiming for the knees, and then ask you to make a skill test, typically based on your strength, agility or observation. Succeed and you do damage, sometimes solely based on the dice result or on the weapon, and sometimes a combination of both. Then you just take the amount of damage done and input it into the app which will remember how wounded every monster is, which is pretty handy, really. What I love about this system is each attack is different, and while naturally you’ll quickly see repeats of the same text it still helps bring a little more believability to the world.
And that brings us to another set of systems I love; health and sanity, both very important attributes, naturally. Whenever you take damage you’ll draw cards from the red deck. Facedown ones just represent generic scrapes, cuts and bruises that you might accrue while battling the supernatural, and if you build up enough damage equal to your investigator’s max health then they’ll have to take a Wounded card before then discard all facedown damage and starting over. Hit the limit again and they’re dead, which means you lose the game. So far so dull, but often you’ll need to take face-up damage cards and these carry all sorts of nasty effects. An investigator may break a leg, for example, which forces them to either move at a mere on space at a time or flip-up another damage card if they want to go quicker. A broken arm means an investigator can’t carry more than two items at a time. A muscle tear which reduce strength, while a burst ear drum means agility will suffer. Others still might stun a character, or you could just draw a minor injury that gets flipped down straight away. It’s brilliant because it humanizes the investigators. They aren’t just taking damage, they’re being beaten to a pulp and having intense pain inflicted upon them.
Their sanity works much the same way. Facedown Horror cards represent the toll that dealing with these hideous monsters is taking, but face-up cards are them beginning to crack under pressure. An investigator can become paranoid, taking another Horror card whenever they finish a turn in the same space as a fellow investigator, becoming unwilling to trust even their own companions. They can develop claustrophobia, or even become a kleptomaniac who’ll steal items from other investigators. Like the wounds suffered from damage cards these effects make characters so much more than just pieces of card with stats and pieces of plastic that must be moved around a board. The physical and mental trauma they go through helps tell the story, turning them into heroes. But things get cooler then they reach their max sanity level, because then all face-down Horror cards are discarded and the investigator goes insane, taking one the Insane cards and reading the back. These cards list things that alter victory and defeat conditions, but that must be kept secret from other players, making them eye up the insane investigator with a weary eye. One in a Thousand, for example, describes how in your warped mind you must make a sacrifice to the Black Goat of the Woods, and will only win if you start your turn with a bladed weapon in a space with exactly one other investigator. Cards like these introduce a traitor element to the game that I adore. Sadly for solo play this mechanic is less interesting as only four out of the twelve Insane cards are marked as being for 1+ player, and one of those is the Suspicious card which does nothing. The other three aren’t all that interesting. Hopefully more will be introduced in time for solo play as well.
The designers obviously knew, though, that taking even a few face-up Horror cards or Damage cards can be a sizable penalty, so the game often grants a chance to negate them by performing a dice test, perhaps rolling on willpower or physical strength.
Once every investigator has taken their turns you go to the app and advance to the Mythos phase, which is where the game gets to have its fun, too. To begin with weird events can befall investigators, like hearing voices that will damage their sanity, seeing things and much, much more. Mansions of Madness uses this opportunity to bring out a bit more of its horror toolbox, and while some players will dislike the way the game will just slap you with things others, myself included, will appreciate the extra thematic touch. Mansions of Madness is part of the Arkham Horror universe, which is in turn based upon the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and a big theme in his stories was a lack of control. Sometimes bad things just happen. That isn’t to say it can’t be annoying from time to time; at one point I lost a scenario because one space from winning the Mythos phase decided to inflict two Horror on an investigator because the investigation had been going on to long. It’s also during this stage that new monsters will be spawned into the board and moved around. Most of them move two spaces toward the nearest investigator, but others will target those with specific attributes, and then launch an attack. If nothing is in range they may even move again. This phase closes with every investigator having to make a Horror Check against any nearby monsters, potentially damaging their sanity further as the creature performs some horrid act described in detail by the app.
As you’ve probably surmised Mansions of Madness is not a difficult game to play. Nor, indeed, is it deep or even skill-based game. If you’re the kind of person who wants tight mechanics that place the emphasis on strategy, planning and intelligent play then Mansions of Madness is not for you. It puts all of its efforts into creating stories dripping in theme. It’s like being taken for a ride rather than being the driver; if you can let go of your need to be in control then it’s a lot of fun to soak in the sights and sounds, or in this case the tentacles, screams and blood. No one of this is to say that the player has no agency whatsoever. No, you’ll still have to make sensible choices such as when to split the group up, who should be doing what and other things, but luck of the dice and the malign intentions of the app itself play a massive part in whether you make it out alive, insane or possibly in a small plastic container.
Speaking of the app, let’s circle back around and talk about it for a moment or two. It’s a pleasingly polished piece of software that obviously tends to work best on something with a reasonable chunk of screen estate, so I’d recommend a tablet, but a phone will still work. The longer scenarios can run a few hours, although playing solo I generally managed to finish up each one far faster. Still, having an app running that long does tend to consume a reasonable chunk of battery, so on the bigger scenarios getting the ol’ charger out would be a good plan. Not once did I run into a crash, although others have encountered some. Nothing could be worse than the idea of getting a few hours into a session and the app ditching. Thankfully you can actually save your progress. What a world we live in, eh?
The idea of marrying apps and boardgames is still relatively new and therefore does have its doubters, with good reason. On occasion it can feel like you maybe spend a bit too much time using the app rather than the physical pieces sitting on the table, but for the most part the balance feels right. The original Mansions of Madness proves you can do the same thing without an app and therefore it isn’t strictly needed, I suppose, but quite frankly the app makes the entire experience so much better and more immersive. It guides the player/s through the journey, creating the sensation of a sometimes benevolent, sometimes malign narrator.
The game also nicely includes a conversion kit for original Mansions of Madness material, letting you add in monsters and investigators. You can swap out what extra content you want included via the app, too, so you don’t have to play with it included if you don’t want to.
There are two problems with Mansions of Madness, and both stem from its monstrous price-tag. The first one is that the four scenarios available simply don’t feel like enough content. Sure, the app will randomize the layouts so that you can replay scenarios with a pleasing amount of changes, but four scenarios feels rather lazy for a game with such a big RRP. More are going to be introduced with expansions that are essentially reprints of first edition add-ons, so there’s plenty to look forward to. Still, I think FFG could have been much more generous with what comes in the box. Even another two scenarios could have really helped the game feel much more complete.
The second problem is that the components aren’t as good as one might hope when splashing out so much cash. The quality of the miniatures themselves isn’t exactly top-notch, easily out-done by something like Zombicide: Black Plague’s beautiful collection of monsters, but they look pretty good on the table and will doubtless look even better with a lick of paint delivered by people with far more delicate hands than I. However, the cardboard tokens that slide into the monster bases don’t fit very well at all, requiring me to dig out a flat file to push them all in correctly. Even then not all of them slotted in correctly. The monsters themselves don’t fit well onto the bases either, secured with nothing more than little pegs that are either too small and therefore don’t hold the model or are too big and won’t fit. Some trimming and a bit of glue will solve the problem, but again it’s a lack of quality that you shouldn’t expect when emptying a bank account to purchase a board game.
Let’s get back to some praise, though, shall we? Playing games solo can be a very hit or miss and is more often than not a weaker experience than getting some friends round the time with you. However, Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition is one of those rare cases that feels brilliant either way, offering a different feeling. If you play with friends you’ve naturally got the joy of laughing and discussing what’s going on, but as a solo journey you can become so much more absorbed in the story, setting and action. You can almost liken it to watching a movie; with friends it’s a fun time but the details can get lost, and on your own you have the opportunity to focus and really appreciate everything. Both are great, and neither is a less attractive or enjoyable proposition. In other words this is one game I can whole-heartedly recommend purely as a solo game, and as something to bust out when friends come around, especially since the setup only takes a few minutes.
But let’s bring this whole thing to a close. Like always I won’t be factoring price into my final opinions because value for money is something that can differ wildly from person to person. Suffice to say that personally I think Mansions of Madness is too damn expensive for its own good. With that out of the way I freaking love this game with my whole heart. This magical mixture of technology, cardboard, dice and plastic oozes atmosphere and draws you in like so many boardgames try to do but fail at. It tells compelling stories using pretty solid writing and a great eye for detail, and then leaves enough space for you to forge your own part of the tale. There’ll be narrow escapes, anguish, howls of frustration and yells of joy in every scenario, but far more importantly is that it’s just a lot of fun from start to finish. It’s superb both solo (you could even play by candlelight for extra effect) and with a group of friends with which to share the madness. It might just be my favorite boardgame experience of this year so far, which admittedly in my limited experience isn’t say too much, but I honestly think it’s fantastic.