On Thursday, a brand new copy of Fantasy Flight Games’ Mansions of Madness arrived in the mail. My joy was something to behold: I was nearly glowing with excitement as I lifted the heavy package, tearing into it while I should have been paying a little more attention to Project Runway.
As usual for FFG, the quality is impressive. There are several detailed miniatures, oodles of little cardboard tokens, a modular map, more cards than you can shake a stick at, and two thick booklets filled with rules. The last two articles gave me pause: I really wanted to play the game, but there are a LOT of rules. Since I’ve played D&D, I put on my gamer pants and dove in. I invited some friends over for a game today and we played our hearts out.
The premise of the game is fairly simple: a group of people play as investigators unraveling a mystery in and around a mansion. An additional player is the Keeper, who knows all the secrets, controls the monsters, and is the master of the game. For those that play D&D, the Keeper is basically the DM. The game itself is like a pre-made module, but with a Lovecraftian horror theme rather than one of high fantasy.
The Keeper is given a set of questions to answer, and these questions will determine how the story evolves. The questions also determine what the Keeper’s (and investigators’) Objectives are. The Keeper is given a set of actions he can perform by spending Threat points which he gains at the start of each turn. These points allow the Keeper to do terrible things to the investigators.
Each player’s investigator has a few different options for starting equipment and abilities. There are some that seem highly specialized, and others seem like an obvious choice. Either way, the options do a fine job of defining the investigator and giving each one a different flavor. I WOULD have liked if one investigator had enhanced movement of some sort.
It took about a half-hour or so to set-up. This process would have been expedited if we had played before: the players could have set about assembling the map and choosing their investigators while I gathered all my cards. The whole process is a little arduous, as the Keeper must make sure that he places all the cards correctly, or else the entire session could be a waste: a mislaid clue will destroy the players’ chance to solve the mystery.
The game features a host of puzzles. Certain characters (those with high intelligence) have an easier time of solving them; it is important to have these intellectual characters solve the puzzles, as much of player’s ability to succeed comes down to one thing: uncovering clues as quickly as possible. Managing the characters’ time is paramount, for every wasted turn is a turn which can keep the players from succeeding. The same goes for the Keeper: if you aren’t building up your threat points, you best be making progress towards your objective.
Like most Lovecraftian games, the players run the risk of hitting a wall: suddenly they are crushed as they realize that they cannot possibly complete their goals. In the game I ran, this was around the 16th round. The objectives had been revealed: as Keeper, I failed miserably. I began generating zombies too late (and in the wrong location) and started playing defensively: if I wasn’t going to win, I would keep them from winning.
I had a host of powers to hinder their movement and lots of zombies protecting the ultimate location of the players’ objective; what made them lose wasn’t my defense: it was because they didn’t have a chance of getting close to their goal location before the final event card was turned. Logistically, they just couldn’t do it.
It all ended in a draw, and most people enjoyed it despite the anti-climax.
Afterwards, I examined what they could have done and figured a convoluted way that could have allowed them to succeed (disregarding the fact that I had lots of Threat points to keep them from succeeding). As I did so, I began to notice that I missed a couple things in the rules.
I THOUGHT I had read that diagonal movement wasn’t allowed. It is. I must have been reading about another game at some point. This would have changed a few things, but not everything.
In my haste to read the rules, I missed the two lines that would have told me that Mythos cards (cards the Keeper spends threat on to do horrible things like cause guns to jam) should be discarded after use. This is something I would have put in bold if I designed the instruction book. It didn’t seem right, so I quickly checked mid game, but didn’t see it.
One character had an item that I concluded was one-time use, but it was not.This was because I read more into the ability than I should have.
That said, I did a so-so, bordering on terrible, job of running the game. I’ve found that I don’t always do well when it comes to remembering rules, especially when I don’t review them frequently. With D&D, I’ve read and re-read Player’s Handbooks and Dungeon Master’s Guides until my head was swimming. After playing for a while, the rules sink in. The combination of reading and then applying the rules is a winner.
However, with a game like Mansions, I won’t usually pull it out more than once every three months.
Additionally, running something the first time means that I’m going to go through a learning process. Unfortunately, it means that some (or all) of the people I’m playing with are being exposed to a game for the first time with me still learning. The game is then presented somewhat unfairly, because it is painted with a veneer of my own inadequate understanding of what is going on.
That said, I’m happy to report that almost everyone had a good time.
I’d definitely recommend the game, but caution first-time Keepers that there’s quite a bit to digest in the manuals, so maybe give yourself more than two days to review them. Usually, I run a game like this against myself at least once before I play with someone else, but I was just so enthusiastic about playing.
The price tag is hefty, so be sure to grab it on sale. I’m not saying that it isn’t worth the money, but if I didn’t have a giftcard, I probably wouldn’t have been able to convince myself that buying this game was a good decision.
It has a lot of re-playability. 5 scenarios with about 3 variations on each isn’t bad. There are additional scenarios that can be purchased, but I’m thinking that I want to play through all the included ones before I even consider investing in expansions.
I enjoyed this game a little more than Arkham Horror and about as much as Flying Frog’s Last Night on Earth. Maybe I’d give LNoE the edge because it is (usually) a faster game to play, but then again, taking five minutes to set up a game that takes ten minutes to play (it has happened) can be a let down.
I’m starting to think I should have waited to write this until tomorrow, ’cause this is pretty skatter-shot for a review. Oh well. Either do it now, or I’ll never do it.