Mansions of Madness: Missing the Absurd
I was around 6 or 7 when I first witnessed Indiana Jones running from a large boulder and narrowly avoiding death, getting beat up by Nazi henchmen and narrowly avoiding death, and witnessing the power of God while narrowly avoiding death, all the while, searching for long lost relics, discovering and deciphering ancient codes and riddles, and interacting with exotic locations and civilizations thought lost. He was cool. He was rugged. He was the James Bond of my generation. No longer did children want to dress in a suit, drive an Aston Martin, or sip martinis. We wanted dirt, grime, revolvers, supernatural relics, and whips. Most boys grow out of their childhood dreams at a pretty young age, somehow becoming content with a future career as a Chartered Professional Accountant, but my dreams faltered much later in life. It took 4 years of studying anthropological archaeology before I realized there were no more Nazis to fight, no large boulders to run from, and Indiana Jones would've been arrested for murder long ago if it weren’t for Hollywood magic.
Even though my choice of profession changed to the much more rewarding job of Healthcare Security (eyes fully rolled back and sarcasm in full swing), my interest in archaeology and its make-believe adventures remain. I continue to read as many books on history as I can, my geeky side continues to watch Indiana Jones several times a year, and I began to idolized more nerdy men who held on to their dusty tomes while being shot at, found in the Librarian films and TV series, and the 3D rendered worlds of video games like Tomb Raider and the Uncharted series. I may go to work and spend 12 hours trying to remain awake, but when I get home I live out my dreams of adventures, ancient riches, and long-forgotten curses, through movies, television, books, and video games.
About 9 months ago, I discovered this obsession could be further enjoyed through the medium of board games. Fantasy Flight games brought to life the beautifully written world of H.P. Lovecraft in the game Mansions of Madness, where adventures, discoveries, dangers, and investigations could be enjoyed by anyone.
Before Mansions of Madness, I had my first experiences with the occult, rituals, and heroism, in the other Arkham Files games, such as Arkham Horror Second Edition, Eldritch Horror, and Elder Sign. In these games, you were told of a coming apocalypse and return of an ancient god due to a dark ritual. You and the other investigators, possibly a waitress at a diner, a frail professor, a drunk ex-cop, or a lounge singer from New Orleans, are the questionable heroes the world is getting, and you are thrust into this Lovecraftian world, responsible for saving it. You must travel from location to location fighting enemies, researching clues, finding a disturbing amount of dead bodies, weapons, and oddly powerful nick-nacks, and discover a method to end the ritual, thwarting whatever god that’s threatening to destroy the world that week.
But after a few turns, you’ll quickly discover your character isn’t the hero you thought they might be. They are weak, easily prone to losing their insanity, and frequently find themselves locked in a sanitarium for a turn or two, where you’re likely to find a magic artifact under your hospital bed. You never have the time needed to get anything done, always running short of turns and actions, and for some reason, you cannot fire your gun at the oncoming enemy more than once in a turn. Don’t worry though, by now you’re probably cursed, and unlikely to ever hit them. And without warning, often with no way to mitigate it, you will find yourself injured by the floor opening up as some tentacles attempt to take you somewhere dark and oppressive, or as you trip over a chair leg and skin your knee.
While these games are highly thematic through the encounters and flavor text provided by the cards, they ultimately run into problems with a complete lack of storytelling, absurdly difficult gameplay requiring multiple attempts, a broken immersion caused by the flat cardboard character and monster components, and gameplay that’s too simple, consisting of moving around a map and rolling some dice.
Don’t get me wrong, I like these games. I still have all three in my collection, and they still find their way to my table. I love them for the puzzle and trying to figure out the most efficient way to achieve your goal. But I most love them for the same reason I enjoy watching B films. The absurd encounters, and the ludicrous places your characters find themselves are hilarious. Why is the librarian fighting a cultist in an underground bunker in Antarctica, and how the hell did she come across a Tommy gun? It’s brilliant. But it's not believable, and it never will be, as these games rely on random card draws to tell you what you’re encountering at any specific location. The story is non-existent, slapped on, and nothing more than a set of random things happening that are likely to kill your character. But I was okay with this because I thought that was my only option for a game in the Lovecraft universe.
I was very late to the party when I was introduced to this $120 box filled with cardboard and plastic which also requires an expensive phone, tablet, or computer. Mansions of Madness promised an intricately built world in the Lovecraft mythos, with a cohesive story and game board that changed based on the scenario, while still holding on to some of the absurdity that I loved in the other games. I didn’t wait long before I bought the game and got my whip and dagger ready.
The first thing you’re going to notice when opening this massive box is the plethora of plastic miniatures for the investigators and enemies. Gone are the flat cardboard pieces that only show your characters grimacing faces. They are replaced with fully sculpted characters, which drives home how large and dangerous of a gun the drunk ex-cop is carrying. This is repeated with the monsters, where you can see how much larger Cthulhu is compared to a cultist, instead of relying on cardboard pieces missing their corners to denote you should fear this enemy. Plenty of cardboard squares and rectangles are also included that will be used to create the scene the story is describing. You won’t be gallivanting to different circles on a map that represents New York, or Istanbul, or Bangkok. Nor will you be visiting numerous businesses and sights on a static map of Arkham. The stories in Mansions of Madness are tight, concise, and to a point. And to achieve this level of narrative, your character will be searching for a murderer through the halls and rooms of a mansion, or investigating cursed relics in the Arkham Museum, or choosing a side in a gang war throughout the streets of Arkham.
This should be exciting, and revolutionary to any fans of the Arkham universe who have wanted a meaningful narrative to go along with the Lovecraftian theme. But how is it achieved? Well, the discerning eye will notice the absence of location and encounter cards in the box, and will quickly find a large square leaflet that mentions an app you’ll have to download. This app is the key to everything this game promises.
If you have any experience with Dungeons and Dragons, or other tabletop RPG’s, you’ll be aware of the intricate and deep worlds the Dungeon Master (DM) weaves for the other players. He or she is the cards, the encounters, the non-player characters in the story and anything else that’s required to tell an immersive story. The first edition of Mansions of Madness used a similar setup, where one player controlled the story, encounters, and monsters, while the other players adventured, and usually died in the world. The newest edition (second) of Mansions of Madness, however, has done away with the player-controlled game, promising a completely cooperative or solo game by utilizing a computer app to take over for the DM. Once you’ve installed the app on the device of your choice, you are greeted to a list of various scenarios, and once you have indicated which characters you want to play as, the app proceeds to lead you through a story. You make decisions and the app gives you consequences. You can interact with a non-player character, and he or she will respond via the app. The app builds the world, and you do what you want, limited to obvious choices and situations within the story being told.
It's beautifully done, and the best implementation of an app-driven board game I’ve seen so far. It’s easy and straightforward. It doesn’t leave anything out, allowing you to be fully immersed in the story, instead of wondering how to best interpret a rule. It has amazing voice acting through the entirety of each scenario, and it provides a great and moody soundtrack to the game. This takes a game I would have had no interest in when it was only available as a one-vs-all game, to a serious contender for my favorite game. I know some people will complain that it over-engineered, skirting the line of a video game too closely, and I can see where they are coming from. But the app never draws unnecessary attention to itself. It leaves as much as it can on the board, so you never forget you're at a table playing a board game. The app is only utilized for the storytelling, removing the tedious reading and searching for specific entries in a large book, that other narrative-driven board games rely on.
There are some problems with the game. The most obvious is the question of shelf life. As the scenarios aren’t random, and they tell a specific narrative, once you’ve completed a story there is little reason to return to it. Once you’ve played through all scenarios, what will bring you back to this box? That being said, there are plenty of stories in this app, with more available from expansions and in-app purchases, so you’re unlikely to finish them in a short time.
And while thinking of shelf life and the longevity of the game, you also have to wonder what will happen when Fantasy Flight stops supporting the game and app. Will this be playable 5 or 10 years from now? I adore this game, and I want to know I will be able to play it with my son or daughter in the future.
Set up and tear down, much like the other Arkham Files games, remains a chore. This game may have no encounter or location cards, but you still have plenty of items, conditions, spells, sanity, and damage cards, along with enough cardboard chits to bring a light gamer to their knees. And, as with any Fantasy Flight game, expansions were a major part of this game, promising enough extra content to require several boxes for storage. This can be remedied though, to some extent, with the purchase of an organizer. I will quickly promote the excellent organizer by Folded Space that I use to store the base game, two small box expansions, and one big box expansion in the core box, with the ability to fit one more big box expansion. But even with the organizer, the setup and tear down times are quite hefty. You won’t be pulling this out for a quick game.
This game also remains brutally difficult. If you’ve played Arkham or Eldritch Horror, the realization of your character's demise will occur early in the game and you’ll likely be okay with this. But if you’re new to this genre of game, the difficulty may seem excessive, difficult for the sake of being difficult, and not worth the stress and sometimes anger that comes with such an expensive game that seems like you’ll never win. Some of the more difficult scenarios will have you making several attempts before you can claim a victory. You need to be okay with this, otherwise, you’ll make it through a couple of attempts before you put the game on your shelf and never look at it again.
But I have to admit, my biggest complaint with the game is the reason most people have moved on from Arkham or Eldritch Horror to Mansions of Madness. Because of the refined storytelling and use of an app to tell the narrative, everything in the story makes sense. The game capitalizes on this by providing you a situation where you can investigate actual clues, question characters, decide if someone is lying or telling the truth, and truly feel like a detective solving a crime. You’re able to do this because every aspect of the story is thought out and meshes well. But sometimes I just want to walk through a door in a house, discover a snow-covered cave and a yeti, and ask “what the hell just happened?” I miss the absurdity and bat-shit crazy encounters. But for the times I need this head-scratching in my life, I can always play a game of Eldritch Horror.
With all that said, Mansions of Madness remains one of my favorite games in my collection. I love the feeling of being a hero, albeit a flawed hero, running around in interesting locations, researching ancient relics and curses, and fighting evil groups with a revolver and whip. It’s not for everyone, and I’m unlikely to recommend it blindly to someone because of the price, difficulty, and requirement of the app. But I think Fantasy Flight also knew that and purposely built it for those who are already a fan of their other Arkham Files games. It answers many of the complaints people had with Arkham and Eldritch Horror, by providing a cohesive and believable story, wrapped up in several scenarios that will have you and your friends discussing the stories and decisions you made for quite a while afterward.
If this sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend Mansions of Madness. Go out and become the hero the world may not want, but is stuck with. With your rifle and lucky cigarette case in hand, and the pages of a ritual tome buried deep in your pocket, you may have what it takes to defeat Cthulhu, or Hastor, or one of the other gods. But be prepared! You may want to be a hero by defeating the evil and winning the scenario, but in the end, you’re more likely to find yourself muttering to the wall in an asylum, after unsuccessfully casting a spell. But who knows, maybe you’ll find a powerful ritual dagger under your hospital bed.