Mansions of Madness is a game of investigation and horror based in the Cthulhu Mythos. Mansions of Madness shares the theme of Arkham Horror and Elder Sign, which are also based upon the works of H.P. Lovecraft. This highly thematic game is a semi-cooperative game for 2-5 players and plays in 2-3 hours.
Appearance: The box for Mansions of Madness is the standard 12” X 12” square, but is 4” deep, which is to provide enough room for the large monster models. The cardboard components are a very good quality and include 15 double sided map tiles that are used to construct the modular board. There have been some reports of some warping of these tiles, but nothing to the extreme of the problems that faced House on Haunted Hill. Overall, the cardboard components are of the quality one expects from Fantasy Flight Games. The art is enjoyable and invokes the setting, but if you’ve played Arkham Horror, there’s plenty of recycled art (but, it’s still good).
Rules/Ease of Learning: Mansions of Madness is of moderate difficulty, but most of this difficulty can be carried by the player who takes on the role of Keeper. The Keeper role is that of the antagonist – they make decisions that affect how the story plays out and how the Unnameable Horrors try to keep the Investigators from preventing their escape into Arkham proper.
Investigators have the job of exploring the Mansion and trying to unravel the mysteries that it hides. As an Investigator, your turn is comprised of two movement steps and an action step. An action step involves one of a number of actions, including, using card abilities, investigating a location, and attacking monsters.
The Keeper’s available actions vary in each scenario. The actions the Keeper may perform in a turn are printed on Action cards, which have a point cost. The game automatically balances for the number of players by providing the Keeper with a number of Threat tokens equal to the number of investigators, so in a two investigator game, the Keeper must ‘save’ threat up to unleash a powerful action that costs 3 threat, but in a four investigator game, they can perform that action each turn, if so desired.
There are several situations that have specific rules on how to handle specific tests (such as Horror and Evade tests) which overall, are not complex rules, but because there are a fair number of these situations to recall. A Keeper who is well versed in the rules can shoulder much of this burden without changing the pace of the game signifigantly.
Gameplay: Mansions of Madness has five scenarios to play though. Each of these scenarios involve a different mansion setup and also contains a number of choices for the Keeper to make that influences how the plot cards are seeded within the Mansion. This process is rather time consuming and is probably one of the biggest drawbacks for the game. There could also be concern for replayability, but as there are roughly three choices with two-three options, one could conceivably play the same scenario around 9 times before returning to the ‘original’ solution. The plot doesn’t change massively, just where major clues are found. However, Fantasy Flight has already released 3 single-scenario expansions for the base game, plus a large expansion that will add investigators, scenarios, rules, and locations.
Once the board is setup, the theme starts to ramp itself up. The keeper reads a short story aloud to set the scene. This story includes clues on where to begin the investigation. As investigators explore, they’ll encounter locks and puzzles which must be opened or solved. Mansions of Madness has an unique puzzle mechanic which adds to the theme of the game. Puzzles are setup as per card instructions and investigators must solve the puzzle by creating an image, completing an electrical circuit or matching symbols. There are components that the investigators can move/rotate/swap, but the investigator can only do so many actions on his turn, which is driven by the intellect score. This helps to model the skill of the investigator very well and adds to the immersion.
As time passes, the Keeper will reveal Event cards, which result in effects related to the choices made by the Keeper and add to atmosphere of the story read at the beginning of the game. While playing, it feels like you’re exploring a creepy haunted house, and as the eldritch horrors begin to reveal themselves, the race against time becomes more apparent.
There are some mechanics that might take a few plays to really solidify, simply because there are several little things to remember. Of those minor things, there isn’t anything that really makes the game less enjoyable.
Overall, the theme really shines, perhaps giving an even better thematic experience than Arkham Horror. It feels like you’re approaching the Whateley home, with some unknowable horror waiting within. The game mechanics work to reinforce the theme. There’s opportunity within Mansions to take your board gaming a step further and treat it as a mini-roleplaying game, which would only add more immersion within the game.
Conclusion: Mansions of Madness is an enjoyable game. If it’s the only game you play, sure, the replayability could go down due to fixed nature of the scenarios. While it’s firmly a boardgame, the story-driven play could allow those who want to give roleplaying a try could probably have a good time using Mansions as a trial run. There’s some interesting puzzle mechanics and lots of theme to go around.
If you’re a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos, you’ll get a healthy dose here, even if Cthulhu doesn’t make an appearance.