Mansions of Madness hit the street in 2011, heralded into the world by equal parts fanfare and criticism. It was an interesting take on the dungeon crawl board game with a slower buildup focused on unraveling H.P. Lovecraft inspired mysteries. You punched Mi-Go in the face and solved puzzles over a couple of hours.
The pain points in the design revolved primarily around its fragility. One player took on the role of Keeper–analogous to an RPG Dungeon Master–and ran the ancient horrors. This player needed to spend a good half hour building the map ahead of time and seeding decks of cards with different clues and items. If a key was accidentally left out of the search deck in the second story bathroom, then the players may never gain access to the cellar and the whole thing would fall apart. One bad experience like this and your group would want to burn the thing in effigy while chanting “Cthulhu Fhtagn!”
One of the big surprises this year was Fantasy Flight Games releasing a second edition of this quirky design. The news here was that the Keeper was completely eliminated and replaced by technology. We’ve been told for years robots would replace the work force and it’s finally hitting us hard. For Dagon’s sake, think of the children.
This newfangled app-driven board game is something; although I’m not quite sure if it’s something brilliant or a momentary distraction. But it is something.
Let’s get the complaints out of the way first so we can get to the good. Bad news first as they say in Arkham. By removing a breathing soul from the position of Keeper the game loses a bit of an edge. While the balance of Mansions of Madness was never its strongest point, there were moments of tension fueled by competition that are now absent. A great Keeper could also lift the mood of the entire experience and make it something special.
Additionally, the required application is needy as all get out. You want to stare at the board and push some plastic miniatures around but you need to click through prompts and message boxes for nearly everything: searching rooms, fighting monsters, exploring, interacting with NPCs. It feels like 70% of the game is that hefty application and 30% is the actual cardboard and plastic.
It’s an uncomfortable proposition that takes a while to get used to. After spending several hours with the game it’s still difficult to determine its identity in terms of physical play versus electronic interface. It’s a true amalgam and it can be unsettling.
Fortunately, the integration of an application is much more than just driving convenience. Don’t get me wrong, Mansions of Madness is a heck of a lot more convenient and that’s a huge selling point. You can setup and be flying down dreary corridors and shooting up Cultists in no time.
The real magic here is that an app can do things a player simply can’t. It can track timing in novel ways and present event triggers and unexpected occurrences with flair. While the stories here aren’t going to inspire thoughts of Hemingway or Faulkner, the narrative is solid and the enhanced mood and flavor text presented digitally helps. It’s also easy to appreciate the attention to detail as tokens representing items to search typically correspond to artwork on the tiles themselves. Whether it’s a painting on the wall or a pile of papers, these little touches go a long way to selling the story and setting.
The single most fantastic element gets to the crux of the issue when comparing digital games to those on the table top; many of the mechanisms are obscured. This is great because it reduces rules overhead but it also brings about a sense of mystery and unease that does wonders for the atmosphere. By not understanding the mechanics behind a crowd of rioting citizens randomly showing up or erratically wreaking havoc, you’re never comfortable or relaxed. It keeps the pressure up and the tension high and it naturally evokes an element of mystery that feeds into the game’s premise.
This air of mystery is essential to the enjoyment of the game and it’s the primary asset of this new edition. To some degree I wish the included scenarios pulled the rug out from under you more often and hit us with even more surprises. These are the strongest moments of the game and my primary memories in reminiscing on plays.
Overcoming the technology’s immaturity is the challenge for the future of this game. The opportunity is wide open and I hope to see a deeper system of exploration with unexpected hooks tying back to the scenario’s story arch. There’s potential for a campaign of linked adventures forming a narrative similar to the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Perhaps even developing characters over time and gaining mental ailments that re-occur over repeated sessions.
Software is much more malleable and expandable than a cardboard product. I imagine we’ll see downloadable scenarios and expansion content in the coming months and this is extremely exciting. The game ships with only four included scenarios with replayability being hit and miss. The story structure remains the same but items, NPCs, and even some room tiles shift or alter upon repeated plays. Thankfully that promise of future content delivered through my home’s crappy WiFi has me perked up and jonesing for more.
Mansions of Madness second edition may not be the perfect app-powered board game, but it is novel and very enjoyable. If you can overcome the format shift and let loose of some of those ingrained constraints we’ve learned through years of playing board games, this release can offer a fantastic experience. The future looks appropriately apocalyptic.
Have you played Mansions of Madness? What do you think of the integration of apps with board games? Let us know in the comments below!
In addition to Geek & Sundry, Charlie Theel writes for Miniature Market’s The Review Corner and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. You can find him on twitter @CharlieTheel
Cover image courtesy of FFG
Images courtesy of FFG, and Paulo Renato/BGG