Holy hell, how have I not reviewed this yet? Have I reviewed this? I feel like I must have, but I can’t find it anywhere on the blog.
Screw it, let’s go!
Mansions of Madness is a Fantasy Flight Cthulhu game, which means it’s going to take your character’s insides and throw them all over the floor. (Also, “Cthulhu” doesn’t trigger the blog spell-checker. Awesome.) This one does it a little differently than your Horrors, Arkham and Eldritch alike. Mansions of Madness puts you in a very specific location, for a very specific reason, and you need to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it before whatever’s lurking drags you into a shadow or attic or under the sea.
The concept isn’t substantially different from the original Mansions of Madness. The difference now is that there’s an app you can put on a tablet or laptop (or phone, but the screen’s too small) that guides you through the game. You’re responsible for tracking where the characters go and making sure you follow the core rules, but when something goes bump or you want to investigate that creaky dresser in the corner, the app tells you what comes next. It takes one of the worst parts of all these games—the administration—and puts most of it on the computer. All you’re responsible for, really, is not cheating.
And good lords, you will probably be tempted to cheat, because it sure seems like the game is. Even the first mission, at a mere two-Elder Sign difficulty, doesn’t offer much room for error. I’ve played it multiple times, taking a backseat in later games so the new players can make the choices, and it’s hard to see how a group can win without knowing what’s coming. Other players have made similar statements. It’s not that we’re against hard games—I mean, right now I’m playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and I haven’t quit even though I can’t go any farther until I beat one of four bosses blocking various paths—but we have difficulty envisioning a winning strategy for a mission nobody knows that doesn’t involve stumbling across the right clue or item.
Which sounds like a crap game, right? Except… gods, it’s fun. It’s really fun. You get your butts kicked and it’s usually fun. Your friend gets turned into an acolyte of the Black Goat and stabs you to death to win while everyone else loses, it’s ludicrous and fun. You win, you go out and buy a lottery ticket. And it’s fun. The app’s music and sound effects are simple but set the atmosphere well, waiting for the app to throw another challenge at you makes it feel like the bad guys are truly out of your control, and for as hard as they are, the scenarios are well-designed. You might say, at some point, “How the hell was I supposed to know that?” But the connections generally make sense once you know what they all are. It’s just tough when you’re desperately trying to survive and you’re missing the plus sign that makes two and two equal four.
The basic FF Cthulhu stuff is all here—the same characters, oodles of tokens, and cards beyond the counting capacity of most small children and some adolescents. You only have eight characters to choose from; it’s enough to play the game, but for those of us who have been able to pick just the right character rather than one of the two who are strong or smart or whatever, it feels a little light. If you have the first edition of the game, though, you can bring those characters over to this one. (Yeah, we choose characters. Screw random drawing, this game’s hard enough as it is.)
More unfortunate is that the base game only comes with four missions, and teases you with fifteen more available if you pick up various expansions. For a $100 game, that’s kind of garbage. I don’t begrudge the company their expansions, but at least start the players out with enough to make it feel like a full experience. Seven or eight would have been more reasonable—say, the ones that use the base game’s tile set but are sold on Steam for $4.99 a pop.
As for the difficulty, people house rule various things to make the game more playable. My suggestion is this, as a minimum variant: Allow anyone who takes a move action to move two spaces, even if they take another action in the middle. Only moving one space because the thing you need is next to you, even though you want to keep going (or move right back), is too common. You don’t know what you’re going to see when you enter a room, and without that flexibility, your action economy often tanks, leaving you needing more turns than you have to get the job done.
It’s weird to be able to spell out this many flaws this clearly and still deeply enjoy a game, but that’s the deal here. It’s so good. Between the price, the need for expansions, and the difficulty, it may not be for everyone, but this is pretty much what FF Cthulhu is, and they did a great job.