12th Oct2017

‘Mansions of Madness: 2nd Edition’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

mansion-madness-v2-box

For most people, the introduction to modern board games comes by way of Settlers of CatanTicket to Ride or maybe Carcassonne. For me, it was the original edition of Mansions of Madness. I’ve always loved board games, but for several years in my twenties, I had no one to play them with and MoM was the game that I decided I would use to change that. I knew that Mansions of Madness was a deep, complex game with lots of different rule interactions, but I felt certain that the strong story and occult theme would shine through if I could act dynamically in my role as a fair and reasonable Dungeon Master.

Some two hours into the most elaborate setup that I’d ever encountered (either before or since) we were ready to start, but my then girlfriend (now fiancée – yes, she stuck it out) and three of our friends had been sat idle for over an hour. I had not only drastically miscalculated how long it would take to place stacks of equipment into rooms and timed event cards beside the board, but I hadn’t even begun to appreciate the complexity in the rules. A few turns in and things were beginning to improve, but through the bad luck of the investigating team or bad judgement on my part (as the DM one must take full responsibility) the mansion we were playing in caught fire. The blaze raged through the middle of the map, separating my friends into two pairs without any realistic way of completing the story.

Whilst I never played Mansions of Madness again with that group, I did reignite my own passion for tabletop gaming and that, in turn, led me to the dedicated groups I play in today. The intensity of setup, the weight of the rules and the possibilities that MoM offered were staggering compared to the games from the eighties and nineties that I was used to and now, playing Mansions of Madness Second Edition, I have to say that the formula has been refined to near perfection by retaining all of this potency, but with literally none of the complexity. Powered by an app [pictured below] that runs beautifully on Android, Windows (via Steam in my case) and on Apple devices, setting up and managing the game is a breeze, whilst playing it is greatly enhanced.

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Created, I believe, by a team that is as passionate about the original game as I am, Second Edition comes across as a true labour of love. There are four core scenarios included in the base app, but each is somewhat procedurally generated based on the location of board pieces and items that make up the world, as well as some of the events that occur throughout each investigation. Many of the monsters and board pieces are different in the Second Edition, so the app includes a feature that allows players to indicate which of the base game components they own and the box also contains a conversion kit. For owners of the original games and several of the available add on packs, this leads to a vast wealth of potential variations.

The app completely replaces the need for a Dungeon Master, making the Second Edition an entirely cooperative experience for up to four players. There is no longer a setup at all to speak of, with players simply choosing a character, stacking the cards and tokens in logical piles and then booting up the app. The board is built piece by piece as players explore, which actually enhances the sense of mystery immeasurably in comparison to the original game. The app also works in conjunction with the physical components to ooze thematic promise, with quality narration over key sequences and high quality writing for others.

Because the app drastically streamlines the way the game plays, I found that I was able to immerse myself into the story and the characters in a way that I never did with the original game. One of the strengths of the game is that players must balance their strengths and weaknesses to form an effective team and there really are no useless skills, but in Second Edition, this just feels both functional and thematic. It’s hard to provide an actual example without risking spoilers, but I can think of a number of occasions where a tough character is desperately fighting to hold an increasing number of enemies at bay with a plank of wood, whilst another character shoots at them from cover. Meanwhile as the crash, bang and wallop of the fight continues, a plucky and evasive urchin searches for a key to open a door that may save their lives whilst an honours student interrogates an ancient manuscript.

Mansions of Madness was always about teamwork for the team of investigators, but in Second Edition, it’s only about teamwork until someone goes insane. Yes, the game features wounds of both the mental and physical kind, with a system for turning them face up and face down depending on instructions within the app or other cards. Face down cards simply add up to the total your character can take before becoming either wounded or insane. Insane characters remove all their horror cards (the in game term for mental wounds) and draw an insanity card, which can include modifiers like “you win the game if you kill another player” or “you cannot speak.” I’m not keen on those which break the barrier between game and reality (such as the second one) but the main function the insane status bestows is to sow a seed of distrust. Much like any good betrayer mechanic, the other players can never be quite sure what to expect from an insane player – which may even include absolutely no change in behaviour whatsoever.

Some elements of combat such as creature health and damage, events in the game world (known as Mythos) and other features such as how the terror of being in such a bizarre environment manifests are all handled in the app, as are conversations with certain NPC’s, which adds a kind of choose-your-own-adventure feel to the proceedings. Even so, the app doesn’t track where players are or hold your hand in an annoying way. It doesn’t dictate who does what and when, it simply provides a straightforward, context sensitive framework in which to play and as a result, it is neither intrusive nor overbearing.

Whilst the app, board pieces, cards and investigator models are all fantastic, I was a little disappointed with the miniatures in Second Edition, much as I was in the original. Each bad guy is moulded in grey plastic which must then be pushed into a black plastic base, into which a cardboard stat card is also placed. In the original game, these cards served a purpose by providing different stats for monsters of the same kind, adding an element of interest. The app now handles all such variance (although there is none in base stats per monster type) so I wish Fantasy Flight had reverted to minis of the standard they achieved in games like Imperial AssaultDOOM and so on. To put this in perspective, three of my Second Edition models wont actually slot into their bases due to manufacturing issues and one of the bases has had holes punched through it so haphazardly that the card wouldn’t slot in until I had modified it quite extensively.

I don’t really care about such a minor issue though, because Mansions of Madness: Second Edition is fantastic. I’ve had a few “new” favourite games this year so far, but this is certainly the latest among them and I am disappointed with myself for not buying it much sooner. I can’t actually see how another game can top it for theme, intrigue and cooperative excitement if I’m honest. The use of a companion app is perfectly judged, removing all of the ridiculous complexity and clutter of the original and replacing it with a loose structure, a faster pace and a much higher level of potential for immersion.

With the colder months of winter looming ahead (not to mention a certain silly season during which buying expensive board games is completely acceptable) you could do a lot, lot worse than to bring a game like this to your family table. The shortest scenario is perhaps one to two hours in length depending on experience, whilst the longest mission is closer to two hours minimum with the potential to be much longer. The app includes a few extra investigations available as paid DLC based on the existing components and there are ten in all available if you buy all the extras currently available. I can’t wait for further opportunities to drag people into the world of Mansions of Madness, because if nothing else, the Second Edition delivers exactly the vision I had for the original game back in late 2011, only unlike its predecessor, this version is streamlined and honed to near perfection.

***** 5/5

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