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Monday, April 25, 2011

Session Report: Mansions of Madness

After a very long yet unfinished first play of Arkham Horror at a game gathering in Providence I was excited to get Mansions of Madness to the table.

I would not say Ameritrashy, theme-heavy games are my thing.  It's not that I don't want heavy theme in my games.  I do.  It's just that it seems you can't have heavy theme without a ton of rules, a very long game and some clunky mechanics with a lot of luck thrown in for good measure.  I don't want to get too far down the road exploring my feelings on the subject.  Let's just say that if somehow we could have a 90-120 minute game dripping with theme and great mechanics without too much luck I would be completely on board.

With that background in place let me say that Mansions of Madness is a bit of a stretch for me.  I am not a huge Lovecraft fan but I do like the fiction.  The game is big and expensive.  And, most importantly, the game has not been as well-received by reviewers as I had hoped.

Then along came my first Arkham Horror experience.  I actually really liked it despite having to sort of muddle through a never-ending first game with 6 players.  I wished that I could have that sort of experience in a shorter amount of time with some modern mechanics.  So it was that I somewhat hesitantly ordered MoM.

It showed up.  I punched out the pieces... for a long time.  I assembled the monsters with their bases and inserted the monster tokens.  Question for FFG:  why have such nice art on the monster counters when they are hidden inside the monster base for their entire lives?  I read the rules.  They were long but not too bad.  Actually, they were rather well organized for FFG rules.  I read them again.  I read the Investigators guide and Keeper's Guide introductions and first story setup guidelines.

Then the night came for me to try the game.  We had 4 players including myself which I think is a good number for the game.  We setup for the first story with me as Keeper.  I made my story choices.  I setup the board.  I told the players how to select their characters and promised them that I would teach the game pretty much as we went.  I think this is one of the strong points to this game.  There's no reason to have a 20 minute rules explanation.  You can pause the game the first time each situation arises and teach the game in parts as needed.

I took it a bit easy on the investigators because I wanted them to not feel like the Keeper is oppressive and has all the fun in the game.  In hind sight and now that I know the rules of the game and some of the cards better I would have been a bit rougher on them.

I quite liked the game.  Alex who is a fan of theme in games liked it as well.  Jake who is more of a strategy gamer complimented it on its merits and said it was nice for a change.  Geoff wasn't into it at all but he was also falling asleep having returned from China not many days before.

Here are some of the highlights for me.

1) I liked the combat system.  For combat you draw cards from a pile appropriate to the monster you are dealing with, until you find one that matches the attack an investigator is making.  The top half of the card tells the investigator what skill to test and/or what happens.  I thought this was very clean.  All tests are resolved with the roll of a single d10.  The bottom half of the card is for the keeper for when the monster is the attacker rather than the defender and has some fun flavor and the effect of the attack.

Also the monsters themselves are randomized.  The keeper selects a random monster of the appropriate type but they may have very different health and damage ratings.  Neither the keeper nor the investigators know this until they damage the monster in combat.

2) I really liked the spell system.  There are only a few spells in the game and there are several copies of each.  When you gain a spell you are not allowed to see what the spell does until you cast it.  The back of the spell card has the test and pass/fail effects of the spell and you don't get to look at the card back until you decide to cast it.  Once you have cast it you discard the card and draw another of the same spell.  So now you still don't know what the spell will do.  Cool.  Of course playing the game several times you will come to know what the possibilities are but this is still a neat idea.

3) Mansion Board and Exploration system.  The mansion board is modular and offers good variety.  Each room is pre-loaded with exploration cards including lock cards and obstacles.  You can explore the entire pile of cards for a single explore action assuming you can get past any locks and obstacles.  The story dictates the setup of these cards on the board and some of them contain clues that drive the story.

4) The plastic monsters and investigators.  They are some of the nicest figures I have seen in an FFG game.

5) The story flavor.  The mysteries are cool and choosing the story points as the keeper is very interesting.  As you watch the investigators go through the story you see how the choices you made are carried out in the game.  And they are which is interesting in and of itself.

Some of the not-so-good.

1) The investigators don't really develop.  I'm not looking for RPG level character buildup here.  I don't even play RPGs but I think it would be more fun for the investigators if they had some additional choice either before or during the game with respect to picking up additional weapons and skills.  The only upgrades in the game are those planted in the rooms by the keeper as instructed by the setup manual.  In the initial story the things the investigators could find in the rooms were pretty limited and not that exciting so they were basically stuck with what they started the game with which wasn't tons of fun.  I still think following the clues to the story is fun but it would be more fun if you could power up with more neat stuff along the way.

2) The keeper's monster summoning ability is very limited.  In the initial story you will summon at most 3 types of monsters (at least for the story points that I chose).  These are at most two Zombies, some Maniacs and potentially a Shoggoth.  I was not able to summon the Shoggoth until the game was almost over and the investigators were going to win (or lose.  It was up to the pre-set story at that point.).  I could only summon additional Maniacs when one was killed and the two Zombies were miles apart in their appearance.  So most of the time I was piloting a single monster around.

3) The trauma and mythos cards are where a good part of the fun for the keeper lies.  That's fine but I felt like many of the trauma cards were too punishing to impose on the investigators and would suck the fun out of the game.  The mythos cards were generally good and added to the atmosphere of the game.  Now that we have the initial play out of the way I'd like to try playing more of the trauma cards.

4) I said I liked the spell system but it really didn't come into play in the story I chose.  I think this is a negative continuation to the problems I mentioned with monsters in point 2)

5) The keeper action cards are very limiting.  As with points 2) and 4) above.  You get a small set of these cards for the story you choose and that is what you are stuck with as the keeper.  Mine were something like 

"Draw a Trauma and Mythos Card"
"Move a Monster"
"Take a Sample" (needed for me to achieve my goal)
"Summon a Maniac - If there isn't one on the board"
"Move an investigator"

Not a ton of action to be had here...

6) Horror checks SUCK.  I got so tired of having to tell the investigators to roll for horror checks every time they entered a room with a monster.  It's boring even though it only takes a second and I don't think it's very thematic to keep taking horror every time you see a monster you already saw before you moved out of its room.  I feel the same way about evade tests but at least those make thematic sense to me.

7) Setting up the board was not fun and it takes a while.  I enjoyed making the story choices but I did not enjoy finding and stocking the rooms with cards for the game.  This was also quite nerve wracking since if you do this step wrong the whole game falls apart.

8) There's only one really meaningful story choice and that is the first one you make.  The other choices just change small details in the game.

In addition there is really only about 15 plays worth of game in this box.  There are 5 stories and, I believe, only 3 choices for the major point of each story.  Once you have seen what happens in all of these cases I don't think there would be much point playing the game.  Knowing FFG this just means there is a gap to be filled by expansions but it's worth calling out that a game that costs $80 retail and $55ish online has limited plays in the box.

9) In our game the investigators were clearly doing better than me but they still could have lost if I had picked another story.  They won because the game ended and for the choices I made the result was a win for the investigators.  The weird thing is that even though they were kicking ass they might have lost exactly BECAUSE THEY WERE KICKING ASS.  This seems like a real problem.

Here's the deal:  I was not completing my objective very well.  The objective was to take two samples to an altar and summon a Shoggoth.  I kept getting killed by the investigators and not getting my samples to the altar.  This meant that the investigators could not fight the Shoggoth because I could not summon it.  The only way for the investigators to really win was to either kill the Shoggoth or keep it from escaping the foyer. Since the Shoggoth spawned so late in the game it wasn't anywhere near the exit and they could not kill it.  So I believe they won the game because the card said "If the keeper chose 2) the investigators win".  There was no way for them to achieve a true win because that would have required me to be playing better.  That seems like bug in the story to me.  Maybe I was playing this part wrong.

Even though I listed twice as many negatives as positives I liked the game a great deal and want to try more of the stories with different people playing the keeper role. 

I think MoM might be the best exploring/fighting game I have ever played.  Its mechanics make it sufficiently modern so as not to frustrate the players.  The downside is of course less choice and character development.  The game feels a bit like a role-playing game on rails as investigators race through the mansion following the clues and trying to fight their way out alive.

I personally can't wait to get it to the table again.


  1. Hey Metroburb editors!

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  2. Nice review! I think you captured a lot of good points from only one play. Having 5-6 plays in (all as keeper), it's interesting to get a fresh perspective. I think what could make this game great is player created content/revised rules or expansions that allows FFG to fix some of the flaws.

    Also I am in the Brockton area and am looking for a board gaming group. Is there anyway to get in touch with one of you? My email -