I think most of us love the Cthlulhu games that are out there, and believe me there are some doozies, but there have been a couple along the way that I wasn't overly impressed with. Ignoring odd spin offs like the Pandemic variant from last year, I recall detesting A Study In Emerald and not being won over with the original Mansions of Madness. It was fiddly, prone to breaking if the moderator made a mistake and took forever to finish.
The former is beyond redemption for me, but then I don't like a lot of Martin Wallace games, they are just not my style. The latter I was a little bummed about as the concept was great. It essentially took a magnifying glass to the likes of Arkham and Eldritch Horror and zeroed in on a single location, like a haunted house for example. You encountered monsters, solved puzzles and got immersed into the Lovecraftian mythos. It was like what Betrayal On House On The Hill wishes it could have been, except for the broken mess we got lumbered with. Seriously it's the only game I know that deserves its own Windows crash screen. . .
So the announcement of a reprint for Mansions of Madness had me excited. Reprints are something I always look forward to. A chance to improve on the original concept. Some publishers get it right, some mess it up, but if I give Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) credit for something, it's that their reprints are usually spot on. Citadels, Mission Red Planet, Tigris & Euphrates, Game of Thrones LCG, they're all examples of master reprinting at work. And implementing an app as well? It worked wonders with X-Com, another in my collection. Sign me up and let's hope that I still retain my sanity at the end of this review. . . .
From Fantasy Flight Games:
That the influence of the old house was unwholesome, he could not deny; but traces of his early morbid interest still held him there. He argued that the fever alone was responsible for his nightly phantasies, and that when the touch abated he would be free from the monstrous visions. Those visions, however, were of abhorrent vividness and convincingness, and whenever he awaked he retained a vague sense of having undergone much more than he remembered.
–H.P. Lovecraft, The Dreams in the Witch House
Mansions of Madness: Second Edition is a fully co-operative, app-driven board game of horror and mystery for one to five players that takes place in the same universe as Eldritch Horror and Elder Sign. Let the immersive app guide you through the veiled streets of Innsmouth and the haunted corridors of Arkham's cursed mansions as you search for answers and respite. Eight brave investigators stand ready to confront four scenarios of fear and mystery, collecting weapons, tools, and information, solving complex puzzles, and fighting monsters, insanity, and death.
Open the door and step inside these hair-raising Mansions of Madness: Second Edition. It will take more than just survival to conquer the evils terrorising this town.
Pandora's Big Box
So you've got a giant box and thus you expect it to be crammed full of tonnes of goodies. . . . well yes and no. It's got a lot in it, but it's not crammed. There's more room tiles than I think I've seen in any game, all double-sided with spectacular artwork on them. The attention to detail is frankly astonishing. The usual trope of quality cards can be found, as well as the bucket 'o' miniatures collection. The latter is where things drop a little bit though.
I've no big problem with the miniatures themselves, I'm not fussy on that front and I don't expect ridiculously crafted sculptures. They're not brilliant to say the least, but they'll set the scene just fine. The minor issue comes with the bases they stand on. They're not especially sturdy when in them and you have to insert the tile that comes with all monsters with the stats on them inside the base itself. And it's a tight squeeze to say the least. Once they're in there you won't want to remove them any time soon. And it covers up the gorgeous artwork on them, which seems weird from a design point. It's nice to see the stats on the base of the model, but some may choose to simply leave them out.
Despite all the components present, there's quite a bit of room left in the Mansions of Madness: Second Edition box. It had to be spacious to allow for miniature storage, but I can vouch that it can hold all the current expansions to date. It won't last though, this is Fantasy Flight Games we're talking about!
Technology at Harmony with Lovecraft
Let's tackle the main event first. The app. If you've followed me through the years, read my reviews and my article in the UK Games Expo magazine some years ago, you'll know I'm an advocate for app implementation in board games. Not just simply porting a board game to an app (although that's cool too and has even made some physical versions redundant), but having the app work with the game to create an experience like no other. X-COM: The Board Game was my previous favourite use of this. . . I say previous, because I can confidentially say that this is the best use of an app I've ever seen in any board game, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever.
All that fiddliness in the first edition is gone. This handles everything. The storyline, the music, the combat, HP tracking, map layouts, card draw, random effects, it's all taken care of, making this so much more streamlined to operate than before. In fact it's quite surprising how quick Mansions of Madness: Second Edition is to set up. Choose a scenario, grab your investigators, put the card decks out and then let the app tell you the starting map layout. Begin! Compare this to something like Eldritch/Arkham Horror, which have a lot of moving parts especially with expansions galore. Here once you've familiar with the main rules, it's almost a pick up and play game.
It's intuitive and easy to search for help when required. But what it also does is jumbles up some of the settings in the scenario so that rooms are different, monsters are different, etc. The key plot points will remain the same, but they may end up in different areas or have minor tweaks to them. This removes the chance of someone gaming the system in advance. Okay, it's not perfectly randomised, but unless you're playing this game every week it should be enough to keep things fresh and if like me you have the upgrade kits with the first edition tiles, this will help even more.
The ambient music keeps the atmosphere going and it's great to propel the app on to a TV on the wall. . . . which I might be guilty of doing these days! Really the only thing missing is voice acting, which currently is only heard on the prologue, but I'm sure the cost of acquiring good voice actors for every scenario would be huge.
Sucking me in..... to this World!!
The stories and scenarios in Mansions of Madness: Second Edition are interesting and full of tension. The game will ramp up the difficulty more the longer you take and eventually you'll reach a point of failure if you're really slow. This keeps you moving at a fairly quick pace and sometimes you're unable to investigate everything on your first try. There's a healthy mix of combat and mystery throughout so it doesn't feel like a dungeon crawl game. And what combat there is, is taken care of very well with the app with HP tracking and monster selection.
It's a game of moving parts that achieves one ultimate goal by the end. Complete immersion. This really feels like you're telling one big story right down to the Mythos phase events every round. What I really love is the way combat is handled from a story perspective. You choose an attack based on type and a story element is shown to illustrate what you're doing, from flank attacks to spell-casting to grabbing a nearby candlestick and going toe to toe.
On top of that the horror effects from monsters are probably my favourite narrative aspect. There's some fairly creepy effects they pull off at times and it's refreshing to actually read why some of these adversaries are scary to behold for the investigators.
Long Descent into Madness
Now if I'm going to mention anything that's negative other than some minor component issues, it's the time length of a typical Mansions of Madness scenario. Even the basic scenario with several players will take hours to complete. So even though it's quick to set up, it's a long road to completion.
However depending on your setting, that's not a problem. The app will auto-save your game upon exiting, though you will need to track what items and cards you're carrying. But that's easily done either by leaving the game where it is or recording it on a sheet - BoardGameGeek has some useful files uploaded by users for this very purpose.
Final Thoughts on Mansions of Madness: Second Edition
There is very little negativity I can give Mansions of Madness: Second Edition. It's just that good! The biggest issue is with the length of some scenarios, but as you can put the app away and resume play another time that's easily mitigated. The design of the miniature bases could have been better, but it's a small niggle at best. Everything else just shines here.
The app has clearly had a lot of design time put into it and it's possibly the best app implementation for a board game yet. It combines with all the quality artwork and miniatures to create a sense of immersion that's difficult to match elsewhere.
Expansions have helped to keep this game fresh, but there's plenty to sink your teeth into in the base game and each scenario will change on every play so you can't "game" the system and still be surprised at times. The variety of characters and rooms is wide, keeping the replay value on a high note. The game is lengthy, but you can easily save your progress.
This is the poster child from this day forth for what a good reprint should do for a game. It should retain the theme and feel of the original, streamline fiddly elements and complex mechanics and improve on component quality. The First Edition of Mansions of Madness is dead, long live the king!