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Board Game: Mansions of Madness Review

I’ve been on a bit of a board game kick recently, ever since visiting Card Kingdom in Seattle this past June, and decided to purchase Mansions of Madness because:

Mansions of Madness box art1) HORROR!

2) The structure of one person playing the game/monster “keeper” (which seems comparable to the Dungeon Master role in D&D), while the other players take on the investigator role, was appealing.

3) The game can be played with as few as two people, which is nice for nights when getting a group together just isn’t going to happen.

Mansions of Madness is a game for two to five players, in which there is one keeper who controls the events and as many investigators as there are remaining players. Both the keeper and investigators have their own goals, but at its core the game is about exploring the various rooms of the game board. There are five different stories you can choose to play through, each with plot choices that are made by the keeper during setup.

mansions of madness investigatorPlaying Mansions of Madness for the first time – for me, someone who does not frequently play complex board games – was intimidating as hell. When all the pieces and cards were new and unfamiliar, it seemed like the game had about 1,000 different elements. Now that I’ve played through several full games, it’s clear that after the initial learning curve, the game is not all that complicated. The game components are as follows:

  • Monster figures and their stat cards
  • Investigator figures and their character cards, trait cards, item cards and skill points
  • 15 map tiles, which are arranged differently for each story. For example, sometimes they fit together to form a school, for another they may form a house. Not all tiles are used for every storyline.
  • Counters and tokens that are simply used to keep track of effects or actions: threat, horror, damage, time, samples and story choice markers
  • Puzzle pieces
  • One objective card per game
  • Five event cards per game (in conjunction with the time tokens, the event cards track your progression through the story’s major events)
  • Spell cards, which may be acquired during the game by exploring rooms, events, etc.
  • Feature markers: fire, darkness, blockade, ladder, vent and altar
  • Keeper action cards: the keeper gets five of these per game as assigned for the particular story. The keeper can use any number of these actions per turn if they have the threat to pay for it.
  • Mythos and trauma cards, which the keeper can play. These usually cause the inspector to take horror or damage of some sort.
  • Combat cards, one deck per monster type: humanoid, beast and Eldritch

In writing out all the pieces it still sounds like a lot, but I promise, it’s not that complicated.

mansions of madness game boardThe first storyline that my game partner and I played was Story III: Blood Ties, a plot involving the heir to a mysterious uncle’s estate and grounds full of zombies. We started playing around 10 p.m., and since this was our first time playing the game, setup took about an hour. My game partner, the investigator, made the mistake of not following the instructions alluded to in the clues and did not make much progress in exploring rooms. Playing as the keeper, my goal was to obtain “samples” (the tokens have an image of a tooth on them…) off the investigator and deliver them to an altar in the mansion. I was able to get two samples relatively early on, but I needed a third to win. By this point, it was nearing 2 a.m. and we called it quits for the night, leaving the game board in place and pleading with my cat not to swat everything off the table. The next day we returned to the game and picked up where we left off. The investigator had battled and killed several of my zombie horde, but my Lovecraftian “mi-gos” collected the third sample. I was one turn away from reaching the altar when the last event card went off. Spoiler:
To our disappointment and surprise, we both lost the game.

mansions of madness cardsThe second game we played was Story IV: Classroom Curses, a plot involving a boarding school plagued by inexplicable utility malfunctions, like exploding furnaces and lukewarm freezers. The options I chose as the keeper dictated that the odd occurrences were caused by two students dabbling in witchcraft.

End-game spoiler:
The investigator was much more on-track for this game, but he could not catch my Hound of Tindalos before it escaped, thereby winning me the game. It was close – if he’d been able to attack the hound once more, he could have killed it.

The third game we played was Story V: Green-Eyed Boy. I thought this story was the weakest of the three, but the gameplay had the potential to be a lot of fun. Potential… I say that because this storyline DOES NOT work well with only two players, even with my game partner controlling two investigators to try to make the game more balanced. We had a laugh when we reached the point in the game where it became apparent that this particular scenario required more than two players (explained below), but the game was more or less over at that juncture. If you don’t want to read the spoiler, just take my word that this one is best played with four or more people. Spoiler:

The core mechanic of Green-Eyed Boy, which is not revealed until later in the game, is that the keeper forces investigators to turn against one another. For obvious reasons, only having one person play the investigator simply did not work.

mansions of madness mi-go

If you’re looking for a full explanation of the setup and gameplay, Fantasy Flight Games, the creator of Mansions of Madness, has posted a PDF of the Rules of Play Guide.

This is where I whine:

  • The game didn’t come with any boxes or holders to store all the tiny, easily lost pieces
  • Setup can take half an hour or more, although I imagine this goes quicker once you are familiar with the process
  • This is totally superficial, but I wish the miniatures were colored instead of plain gray
  • There were moments when the story felt disjointed
  • Not balanced for two players

Criticisms aside, the stories were spooky and the art was fantastically creepy. Overall, if you are a Lovecraft fan, enjoy the horror genre, and don’t mind a fairly steep learning curve, you would probably like Mansions of Madness.

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