TABLE GAMES REVIEW: Mansions Of Madness

MasionsofmadnessBoxartI’ve played stacks of table top games over the last year or so, ranging from the simplest of time-burners to the most mind-bendingly obtuse. I’ve enjoyed a hell of a lot of them, but the experience is almost always intellectual rather than visceral. Like video games, most table-tops employ a narrative structure of some kind, but there are fundamental boundaries to the medium (length of game, repetitiveness and replayability) that relegates story to little more than a decorative backdrop to the strategic challenge. It wasn’t until I got a solid group together to play Mansions of Madness (MoM) that I felt the electric thrill of actually being drawn into the world of a board game. The genius of its design is in the sheer scope made available by being modular. There are 5 stories to play through in the main game (with more available via expansion sets), the map tiles can combine to form a broad selection of locations, while alternative plot options within the stories will keep play fresh even when revisiting familiar ground.  MoM is produced by Fantasy Flight Games, delving deeper into the Lovecraftian horror they have made a name with though their previous releases The Arkham Horror and The Elder Sign. It is a game for 2-5 people in which a team of investigators unravel a mystery in a creepy old building. They will need to use their wits as much as their strength to win the day against the Keeper – a final player who acts as the evil force within the mansion.

MoMcontentsAs ever, Fantasy Flight have put together an absolutely stunning package. The artwork is atmospheric and nicely sets the tone for the measured horror within the excitingly heavy box. Opening it up does not disappoint. I won’t painstakingly list all the contents, but here’s a brief rundown of what you get: 15 double-sided map tiles, 8 character figures with accompanying cards, 24 enemy figures of varying types, several decks of cards, several sets of puzzle tiles, a plethora of tokens, a rule book and a Keeper’s Guide. The typical reaction will of course be one of utter delight followed by mild-to-overwhelming panic.  There is an awful lot to take in, so let me reassure you of one thing, here and now. It may be a horribly overwrought system to set up, but once you’ve done it, the game play is simple, straight-forward and thoroughly engrossing. Now, there’s nothing more apt to kill a game for newbies than hanging around while the host figures out how to play the damned thing, so it is critical that you take the time to get to know the basics in advance. I recommend a few test rounds on your own to see how it works in practice. Setting up the board can be a time-consuming process in itself so I went one step further. Instead of getting the players to help out (as suggested in the rule-book), I got absolutely everything set up before they even arrived. In a game where the atmosphere is everything, the last thing I wanted to do was bog them down in the fiddly bits at the start.

Picture the scene: a mansion is laid out on the table for the team to explore. It is ‘seeded’ with exploration cards in each room. Some of these will be clues, others will be items for the team to use. There are various decks of cards in front of the evilly grinning Keeper, with a handful of nasty looking monsters and maniacs near to hand as well! A short introductory passage is read out to the players to give them the gist of the mystery, then the game begins. Each investigator has two lots of movement and one action they can take on their turn – enabling them to gradually explore the mansion and make use of certain items. As the game progresses they can also battle the forces of darkness via a simple card-based combat system, which gives an impressive array of outcomes. They are encouraged to discuss plans of action, working as a team to maximise the search area while remaining close enough to protect one another. Once everybody has had a turn, the Keeper has a chance to torment them. ‘Threat tokens’ are amassed and spent in order to use various cards which represent the supernatural events and unfolding horror of whatever story is being played through. Impetus is added to the exploration by use of time tokens, which accrue each round. Build up enough and a plot card is turned over, revealing new twists and ratcheting up the tension. I love this aspect because it forces the players to take risks, splitting up the party according to need (or bravery). The players must discover all of the clues scattered around the board before the time runs out in order to discover how to defeat the evil and win the game.

MoMKeeperguideThis is by far the most fun I’ve had with a table-top game, period. I’ve been trying to figure out the reasons why, so you can hopefully have a similar experience. Part of it is undoubtedly the extra mile I went in creating the right atmosphere for my players. The game started at dusk, with lit candles all around. I had a spooky soundtrack playing in the background. I had even gone so far as to make little black cardboard covers for each room, so the players could only see what was in the next room when their characters opened the door. As Keeper I let my threats build slowly, unnerving the players instead of just attacking them (saving the bigger stuff for later). I did my best to engage the players with cinematic descriptions and psychological choices. Played mechanically, this could be seen as a convoluted dungeon-crawler in a haunted-house, but it quickly became clear to me that a dash of narrative flair could really kick it into the stratosphere. The rule books are more user friendly than most of the Fantasy Flight ones I’ve encountered (hallelujah!), but there is still a hell of lot to take in. I realised there was no way I was going to learn it all first time round, so I just made sure I had the basics down pat, then played fast and loose with the rest. The point of playing any game is to have fun (as hard as it may be for people of a certain mind-set to understand), so I kept my focus on pace and narrative. The result was a gaming experience that avoided the paralysis of constantly referring to rule-books; that favoured story over mechanics; and that got a bunch of newbies so hooked that they came back the very next day for more. A rousing success with an enthralling game. I can’t recommend it enough.

GS Rating: 5/5

GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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MoMminiaturesIncidentally, those of you with experience or willing to take the plunge into a side-hobby can derive a great deal of pleasure in painting the beautifully moulded figures to bring them to life. A while back I detailed some of what I’ve done for my MoM game on Kehaar’s blog if you’re interested. Further figures are available in the various expansion packs, and if you want to really broaden out your gaming there’s no reason why you can’t develop your own stories for Mansions of Madness using home-made plot cards and any number of additional figures from model shops and wargaming outlets. The fun’s just beginning…

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