I’ve played stacks of table top games over the past few years, ranging from the simplest piss-around to the most mind-bendingly complex time-sinks. 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 some fundamental boundaries to the medium that relegate 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 being drawn into the world of a board game. The genius of its design is in the sheer scope created by its modular design. There are 5 stories to play through in the main game, the map tiles can be laid out to form a broad selection of locations, while alternative plot-trees within the base stories will keep play fresh even when revisiting familiar ground.
MoM is produced by Fantasy Flight Games, delving deeper – and more evocatively – into the Lovecraftian mythos than with their earlier releases: The Arkham Horror and Elder Sign. (I have yet to try my hand at Unfathomable.) 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 directs the evil forces within the mansion.
As 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, and the contents do not disappoint.
I shan’t bore you with a painstaking written description, but here’s a brief rundown of what you’ll find: 15 map tiles (double-sided for variety), 8 player-character figures with accompanying cards, 24 enemy figures ranging from cultists to tentacled abominations, 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 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: 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 tries to figure 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. The rule book suggests getting the players to help out, but this is a game where atmosphere is everything. The last thing I wanted to do was bog them down with all the fiddly bits, so I got absolutely everything set up before they walked through the door.
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 or weapons for the team to use. There are various decks of cards in front of the Keeper – me, grinning evilly – with a handful of nasty-looking monsters and maniacs near to hand, ready to lay on the board. A short introductory passage is read out to the players to give them the gist of the mystery, and 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 and the forces of darkness are revealed, they can be battled via a simple card-based combat system which gives an impressive array of outcomes. Investigators are encouraged to discuss plans of action, working as a team to maximise the search area while remaining close enough (hopefully) to protect one another. Once everybody has had a turn, the Keeper gets their chance to torment them.
‘Threat tokens’ are amassed and spent in order to use the Keeper 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 turning up the tension. I really love this aspect because it forces the players to take risks, splitting up the party according to need (or bravery). Ultimately, the players must discover all of the clues scattered around the board before the time runs out, learning from these how to defeat the evil and win the game.
This is by far the most fun I’ve had with a table-top game, and I’ve been trying to parse out why, so you can hopefully have a similar experience. Part of it was undoubtedly the extra mile I went in creating the right atmosphere for my players. We started the game 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 tile, so the players could only see what the next room was (and what awaited them there) when their characters opened the door. Played mechanically, this could feel like a generic dungeon-crawler set in a haunted-house, but it quickly became clear to me that a dash of narrative flair could really kick it into the stratosphere. 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.
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 and tedium of flicking constantly through 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. It was a rousing success and an utterly enthralling game.
I can’t recommend it enough.
(I originally wrote this for Geek Syndicate and have since tweaked it a little. Many thanks, Barry.)
* More stories are available to purchase for the game via several expansion sets, featuring additional figures, map tiles, cards, tokens and the like.
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Those of you with some experience (or who are willing to take the plunge into a side-hobby) can derive a great deal of pleasure in painting the Mansions of Madness figures. I discussed my own entry into that hobby in last week’s blog post, Just… so. I also talked through my experience painting up my MoM figures on Kehaar’s blog if you’re interested.