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Top Of The Table – Mansions Of Madness

by Matt Miller on Oct 14, 2016 at 10:00 AM

A slithering monstrosity that defies imagination is clawing its bulbous mass up the attic stairs, even as you and your friends desperately shout out the words that might dispel the portal from which it emerged. Your fellow investigator charges down the stairs, 2x4 raised high, in a hopeless dash to slow its advance. In the corner, another companion cowers, already driven insane by the night’s horrors. The once majestic house is coming apart around you, even as you face the terrible truth of what lies within the void beyond the world. 

That’s the sort of emergent narrative that arises in a game of Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition, a dramatic reworking of an already excellent game from the folks at Fantasy Flight Games. Drawing on the themes and the Cthulhu Mythos established by H.P. Lovecraft, the original release in 2011 (designed by Corey Konieczka) established the fun potential inherent to a narrative-focused adventure game built around individual encounter scenarios and a branching, guided narrative. That first release used a one-versus-many structure, in which one player takes on the role of the “Keeper” of the mansion, while all the other players work together to try and overcome the Keeper’s machinations. 

The new second edition (designed by Nikki Valens) maintains the focus on storytelling, but dramatically realigns the game’s structure to be fully cooperative. Instead of a player taking on the role of an antagonist, a new free digital app is used to handle much of the behind-the-scenes action. The digital app provides opening narrative dialogue for the chosen story, and the option for moody background music to accompany your session. A simple touch-interface clearly communicates elements of board setup and where components should be placed. It also pumps out a refreshing mix of individual encounters and challenges, whether those are fights, NPC conversations, clever puzzles, or sudden dramatic events. That offloading of tasks streamlines your game session, making setup and moment-to-moment play move far faster than it did in the first edition. Moreover, the app has a smart and simple UI, and even features the option to save a scenario partway through for completion later.

The digital app clearly shows the tiles in play and where you should place particular tokens

The app integration continues a trend that Fantasy Flight has been exploring in recent years, and the new version of Mansions of Madness is an ideal example of how to do the process right. For all its streamlining, in every instance the app stops short of stealing control from the players, and always remains a tool to keep the focus on the social and physical enjoyment of an actual board game. While the app is necessary for the game to play, all the real actions are completed in the real world. You move your character’s figure and keep track of his or her actions. You roll real dice and eagerly wait for the way that they settle. You talk with your friends about whether to split up or stay together as you journey deeper into the haunted house. When a horrific beasts crawls forth onto the dining room table, you deploy the intricate miniature onto the board.

Beyond the adroit mixing of physical and digital elements, Mansions of Madness is engaging and deeply rooted in its storytelling. Your board is made up of individual tiles that interconnect to form a house map that is specific to the story scenario at hand, and the board art is both detailed and beautiful. Each player chooses one of several distinct investigators, ranging from a canny gravedigger to a curious parapsychologist, and they each bring their mix of talents, helpful possessions, and mystical spells into the adventure. Characters are represented by unpainted minis which are only outshone by the even more elaborate monster minis they confront. 

Play bounces back and forth between two phases. An Investigator Phase sees players explore, solve environmental puzzles, and do battle against the mind-numbing creatures that have found their way into this forbidding house. A Mythos Phase then allows the monsters to move and new events to unfold that change the current flow of the game; much of that Mythos Phase unfolds through declarations that appear in the app, necessitating a response from one or more of the players. Play moves quickly, and the straightforward dice-based conflict resolution system is easy to grasp. What the game lacks in strategic depth, it makes up for in cooperative communication and genuinely gripping (often amusingly frightening) narrative twists.

Like most of Fantasy Flight’s Lovecraftian games, Mansions of Madness succeeds through an oppressive sense of hopelessness that pervades every turn. The encounters faced make you feel like there’s no possible way you’re going to survive, and yet somehow you frequently do – even if devastating injury or insanity are the prices you pay for coming so close to perceiving the awful truth of existence. 

Up to five players can tackle any of the game’s distinct storylines (four distinct arcs in the base game), but the game also allows for solo players to go it alone – a feature that is great for new owners who want to familiarize themselves with the game before sharing with friends. Given the short five-year stretch between the original release and this second edition, I was also very pleased to see that the game comes with a dedicated pack of cards and other components to transition content from the first edition into the new game, making it backwards compatible. There’s even a setting in the app to explain which expansions from the original game you might have on hand, expanding the replayability and fun of this new version and offering additional storylines. 

I have very few complaints to level at Fantasy Flight’s second attempt at this Mansions of Madness formula. While subsequent game setup is relatively short, initial box opening and game prep does take some time, due to monster minis that require some stand assembly. And while I adore the app’s new functionality, I would love to see Fantasy Flight evolve toward a networked option that allowed multiple players to see and interact with their screens at the same time, if desired. These are minor concerns set beside a host of great reasons that suggest many gaming groups will adore this new edition, especially if you and your friends have a penchant for supernatural horror.

It’s no coincidence that I’m writing about Mansions of Madness right now. With Halloween coming up, it’s an ideal choice for an evening of spooky fun with friends. I’ll be continuing the trend later this month just before the holiday, with a collection of other great games to play at Halloween. If you have a favorite horror or monster-themed board, card, or role-playing game to recommend, drop me a line via Twitter or email.