Sunday, 11 September 2011

Review: Mansions of Madness


Well I've finally got through enough games of Mansions of Madness to finally feel able to say what I fairly think of the H.P. Lovecraft inspired game of adult Cluedo. I think it is fair to say my initial thoughts aren't too far off of the mark: Mansions of Madness first play. Phnglui mglw nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah nagl fhtagn...

Product description

Its a game in a box, wahoo!!! Yep its another one of those board games I've been playing and although you have pretty much everything you need within the core game box Fantasy Flight Games are set to release expansion packs for the game. The first of which, the 'Season of the witch' has already been released (and is already in this reviewers possession). In the core box though you get a large number of double sided floor tiles, a veritable bucket load of card tokens and game pieces, loads of playing cards for various tasks and some quite nice Cthulu / Lovecraft inspired plastic miniatures for playing with.

Game play 7 out of 10 (8 for Lovecraft fans)

Poppy tries her best to look like a furry 'Old One'

I think the game mechanics on the whole are actually quite good, its not a very fussy game in terms of special rules or complex without needing to be, and after our first game the rules seemed to 'click' in place. The inclusion of a Games Master to play the 'bad guy' does add a nice level of tension to the game for the intrepid adventurers, something that I feel was missing from the D&D Adventure System Games. However I think its fair to say that the games we've played have been easier on the Games Master than it has the intrepid adventurers and maybe its ever so slightly unbalanced, but again I actually feel this is almost certainly deliberate and it does feel like a design decision.

I think the issue is that although the Games Master has limited resources they know from the outset what it is both sides have to do to win. They know where everything is and can actually start planning for victory right from the off in a purposeful manner that's just not available to the adventurers. Taking my second game as an example, the good guys had to escape from a temple (a dark one full of tentacles, obviously) with some female professor type who was in a coma or something. It was my job to kill only one of them before they could. Now I pulled a card at the start of the game that said if I'd reduced one of them to sanity 0 they'd commit suicide. So yeah I was mean and set about driving the hobo nuts. My opponents saw nothing wrong with this because when you die you just get a new character... right? Wrong! Even though that's what their previous experience had told them.

An investigator heroically runs to their doom!!!

They felt robbed of victory that day, and I can see why, even though it took a monumental effort to drive one of them nuts as they'd all chosen characters with really high sanity. So rather than being a straight up adversarial relationship I think its actually quite incumbent on the Games Master to ensure that all of the players have a fun and entertaining time. Well that's how I see it anyway, perhaps some of you more competitive types might see it very differently. It does however create quite a tense atmosphere with a very strong hint of H.P. Lovecraft inspired insanity, and the games that I have played have certainly been very entertaining. There is no question that if you are a H.P. Lovecraft and Cthulu fan you'll get more out of the experience than most, but even if you're not its a fun and engaging game with a good level of challenge and replayability. However if you are a member of the Esoteric Order of the Old Ones and Cthulu Cultists bump the score up to an 8 because you'll 'get it'.

Speaking of replayability I have to be honest and say I was initially concerned about the number of missions in the starter box as there are only 5 missions out of the box, my cynical head told me it was a move by Fantasy Flight to try and sell us all expensive add on missions... and to a point I think that's possibly true. However each mission has a number of elements to the story where the Games Master has to make story choices, which determines how the game plays out for all concerned and it does add a fair degree of replay value to some of the missions. I'm sure though that if you're playing it an awful lot (2 or 3 games a week) then the knowledge the adventurers get from the built up 'recent' experience will start to tip things in their favour as they become familiar with the layouts of the Mansions. However there is the added value offered by different adventurers who all have different skills and different roles and I really think there is enough in the box to keep people engaged for a fair amount of time, I'll certainly be coming back to it again and again.

Detail 9 out of 10

As you can see both the floor tiles and miniatures are 
characterful and highly detailed

I think the detailing on all the components is of a very high quality and the floor tiles in particular ooze character and charm. There is a definite element of 1920's and Cluedo about them and they fit perfectly to the universe created by H.P. Lovecraft and really help to set the tone and feel of the game. I think that's what board game floor tiles should do though, as so much character and atmosphere for any board game comes from the board that I can never quite fully understand some of the bland game boards companies put out. They should take a look at these and learn to ADD A BIT OF COLOUR!!! The card puzzle pieces, tokens and counters all have a completely consistent feel in terms of art work as well and it all really adds to the ambiance of the game. It is all very well art directed and thought through, with a sort of 'sepia' tone to everything.

As you'd expect I suppose from a Fantasy Flight Games all the cards for characters, attacks, items etc. are of a very high quality as well. With a clear unified design aesthetic that makes it easy to see what each card is and who or what its for distictly, while retaining a unified look. The final components, the miniatures aren't bad either. In fact for a board game they're actually quite good, they have plenty of character and although made out of that same rubbery plastic so beloved of board game manufacturers they do feel stiffer, firmer and closer to the plastic used by wargames companies than say the D&D Adventure System Games I've played recently. The sculpts themselves really add a Lovecraftian feel to proceedings as well, because the characters are some typical Arkham staples.

Quality 8 out of 10

As I've come to expect from Fantasy Flight Games products over the years all the components are of a very high quality. The cards are all very vibrant and clear to read and are on great card and the overall print quality is pretty damn good. The thicker card stock components are all durable enough and have a nice weighty sturdy feel to them too. We also know that some of the components are vodka and coke proof... don't ask. Most of the card components have a shiny surface, either a plastic of some sort or as one of my test subjects said 'an amazing magical barrier'... I prefer the magical barrier explanation personally, although the plastic coating is almost certainly more likely.

The miniatures aren't the greatest quality pieces I've ever seen It has to be said. However they are a step up on most board game fair. I think the issue I have with board game mini's is that because most people will just chuck all the crap back in the box they seem to be made of a bendy plastic rubber stuff so they don't break. I hate miniatures that flex while painting, it also means the paint is liable to crack if flexing happens. However the miniatures in Mansions of madness seem firmer than normal and less likely to flex, they still have give in them but they don't bend wildly or as easily as most. The detail on them isn't too bad either and the adventures are actually quite characterful and are nicely detailed. I like them, some of the bad guys and gribblies could be better but to be fair they are in keeping with Lovecraftian staples.

Service 10 out of 10

Its not as easy as it looks... and it looks hard!!!

Well here is an example of when things go horribly wrong and how good customer service can actually be about putting the wrong to right. You see the first copy of Mansions of Madness arrived and I did my normal girlish squeal of delight at having news toys, I mean its new toys right? Any way it arrived wrapped in all its packaging and was covered in shrink wrap. After tearing all that off and opening it my joy was somewhat short lived, the inner box was torn in a few of the corners and in one corner really, really badly torn, I grumbled a bit but hey these things happen right? So I carried on, I tried to pick up the plastic bag with the floor tiles in it and it had already been neatly sliced open with what looked like a craft knife slice. My 6th and maybe even my 7th senses were now starting to tell me something was not right. So it turned out to be, other things had be opened and some of the bad guys had even been clipped into bases... this product had been opened.

Its a very weird situation I grant you, because how the hell could a product that was clearly still in its original shrink wrap be in effect already opened? I have to be honest with you, I thought selling that one to OG Games might have been a bit of a problem, I mean it was sealed... but had been used *makes confused face* . However Olaf was really great. I explained what happened and he suggested we send for Moulder and Scully but in the meantime advised me to send it back to him and he'd reimburse the cost of delivery and send me out a new copy. That is exactly what he did, with an apology for the inconvenience to boot. I know it might seem odd to give a 10 out of 10 service score for something that was less than perfect the first time round but OG Games got the initial and replacement orders out to me in double quick time and they put the problem right without any fuss in the best way they could, it wasn't their fault either. They in short did all they could've done.

Price 8 out of 10

Well given I really like the game and the components are of such a good quality I'm going to say that the price of £59.99 isn't too bad. Sure it can be looked at as quite steep for a board game, its RRP is £64.99. However it has given me and my friends plenty of fun and I know we'll be playing it probably for years to come, even if it does only have 5 missions in it, although to be fair each mission has multiple options and endings. I can't grumble really because at the moment its my favourite board game as its the one my friends want to play when an evening of board gaming is suggested. So yeah I think its worth the asking price. Also it got me wanting to read the Necronomicon again, so it's got to be good, right?

Overall 8.5 out of 10

You do need a quite large play area

Yep I think it's fair to say I find Mansions of Madness really good fun the play. Its a really good way to waste an evening with some friend, a bottle of Absinthe, laudanum, sugar cubes and fresh spring water (Health warning DO NOT ABUSE LAUDANUM!!! It was a joke). If you love Cthulu and all things H.P. Lovecraft then this game will be worth a point or two extra on that overall score, certainly when I'm in that 'mood' its a definite 9 out of 10. I think the Games Master though has to be very, very careful about how you play the game because you can totally ruin the game for your friends, by getting lucky and cheesy with cards. Maybe it only played out the way it did because I'm an awesome gamer... yeah...and no, I don't buy that either! I think it does ever so slightly favour the Games Master, not that its a problem as I think that because of this imbalance, it retains a sort of desperate air that permeates much of Lovecraft's own literature for the adventurers. I mean lets be honest, most of Lovecrafts 'hero's' and 'heroin's' are doomed from the start, so the fatalistic air generated is entirely in keeping. It is great fun if your familiar with that vibe, maybe not so if you're not. So I love it. So the question coming will be why doesn't it get an Approved by Cats seal? Well not all my friends are H.P. Lovecraft fans, and the imbalance irks them, plus it can take an age to set up and play so you really have to plan an evening around it. That's not necessarily a bad thing but it will almost certainly limit the time spent playing it. Peace out!


  1. Really, really good review, Frontline.

    I love Lovecraft, myself (it's the Tentacles...), but yeah, there are people that 'don't get it.'

    I think 'resistance to adult beverages' should be considered for every product, though :)

    Absinthe isn't technically alcohol though, right?
    I wish it wasn't so expensive...heh...

    Now that I think of it...I prolly don't wanna spill Absinthe on my stuffs...

  2. I thought you might like the tentacles!!! Its what my friends like about it... Mr Chaos Space Marine in particular!!! Our group of Lovecraftian nut jobs really enjoyed the game and felt the fact that at times when they'd got so desperately close to winning and failed just added to the narrative the game created.

    Those that don't know of or enjoy Lovecraft just felt it was unbalanced and felt the game had cheated them somehow. I do think for those that don't read or like the desperate and doomed feel of the game for the adventurers then its really not going to be an enjoyable experience. If all your group of friends wants to do is win then honestly its not the game for them!!!

    Oh and Absinthe is definitely alcohol... in some cases almost 90% of the damn stuff is sodding alcohol!!! Laudanum however is an opiate, and wasn't always added to the drink, it was however rumoured to be a quite popular method of drinking the stuff in the Victorian opium dens of London. I would never CONDONE or advise drinking Absinthe with Laudanum!!! its a recipe for disaster and I mean it, don't do it.

  3. Good review indeed! And I think you're right in that this is a game for the people who are into HPL. As it stands right now (things might change with expansions) I don't think it works as well as a pure competative game like, say, Descent does.

    As it happens we'll be playing this tomorrow. Only two investigators though. Do you have any scenario to recommend? So far we've tried the first two.

  4. @Martin firstly sorry its taken me a little while to get back to you but we've been playing Gears and Dust all day. Yeah I think we're on the same page. Its an 'experience' game that develops a narrative and if you enjoy these sorts of narrative you'll enjoy it as a group. Its good to mix up who the GM is as well!!! As for mission I actually really enjoy mission 2, even though its quite easy to 'screw' the investigators always generates tense games that have great stories. All our best stories have come from either mission 2 or 4. But if you only have 2 investigators mission 3 should prove doable or close for them as most of the decisions seem to cluster the objectives nearby and if they take peeps with high sanity and intelligence they should run the GM close in my experience!!! Have fun.

  5. Haha! Less than an hour? I wouldn't say that's especially slow. :)

    Yeah, the last time we played we had loads of fun with scenario two. We'll give Blood Ties a go today and see what happens.

    Cool to hear about Gears and Dust Tactics (do you like it?). I'm still waiting for Maelstrom to even ship my GoW even though they got it in stock on Friday last week! What's the holdup I wonder... :(

  6. @Martin, good choice on the mission!!!

    Dust Tactics... hmmm... don't want to go too far into explaining my current thoughts on that game simply because, I don't think I've played anywhere near enough games of it to judge fairly. However it appears to be exceedingly basic and there is no risk a reward mechanic and it seems if a unit steps out into the open it dies. So the game looks like its about baiting people but as fair as I can see the player that sits tight or wins the initiative roll more often will win.

    Gears of War... well I've already played more than enough games of it with people to actually get a really good grasp of how it plays and I'm pretty certain I can now start writing a fair review of the game. But a quick summery would be that the game is simply bloody brilliant. Its kinda what I wanted the D&D Adventure System Games to be like, in terms of challenge and group dynamic. Its all very clever and oddly enough plays very much like the computer game. Review will be up shortly I'm sure.