(Pssst…for more MoM, check out last October’s collaborative Session Report covering the print-on-demand scenario, The Yellow Sign.)
The Facts of the Case:
There’s been such a glut of H.P. Lovecraft-inspired art, fiction, and music that it’s easy to write off anything even remotely eldritch as clichéd and treading familiar ground.
(Side Note: And let’s all take a moment right there and stop to reflect on exactly how ludicrous that sentence would have sounded during Lovecraft’s day; somewhere beyond the stars, ol’ Howie is cackling ruefully at the impact his strange tales have in these modern, uneasy times.)
And that right there is the first of many times when Mansions of Madness (MoM) goes left when you expected it to go right. It’s easy enough to say, “Another big box, overproduced Fantasy Flight game with expansions up the yin-yang treading the same tired Cthulhu ground, I bet.”
Well, yes. And no. It’s complicated. Really, really complicated. It’s just that…well, let me back up.
The basics: You and 1-4 other players each take the role of an Investigator, who has…dammit, I did it again. Let me back up again.
Before the basics: One player–the Keeper–selects a scenario for the game. The other players–the Investigators–will try to win. Gameplay, when it can be done properly, consists primarily of the Investigators moving around a map of the scenario (usually a house, sometimes a wilderness area) attempting to uncover clues, meet objectives and stay alive while the Keeper throws all sorts of terrible things, monsters, and events at them. And also tries to meet his or her objective. Usually. Sometimes.
Let’s try again: Imagine if you took the granddaddy of Lovecraftian gaming, Arkham Horror, and threw it in a blender with a dungeon crawler–say, Descent—then mixed in a healthy dose of those one-shot RPG scenarios that get played when not everyone can make it over on a Saturday night, so you’ve gotta come up with something right now, and if it’s broken then we’ll just patch over the rough spots with some creative DMing, and oh man they’re gonna clean me out of orange soda again because Pete never brings anything, the mooch.
Ugh. This isn’t going well. Alright, let’s just throw it out there:
Mansions of Madness is my favorite multiplayer detective game. And I will almost never recommend it to anyone.
“But wait!” I can hear the cries. “This is a horror game, not a detective game! Also, it’s terrible!” Ssssshhhh, quiet, you. Everything will be explained.
For a detective game to be successful for me, it has to tick a few boxes:
- Give me a mystery to solve
- Let me do the detecting
- Make me figure stuff out
- Make me feel like I’m part of a detective story
- Provide a satisfying resolution, win or lose
And Mansions of Madness does more of those in a setting I love than any other game I own. Really! Let me take a few million words to explain why.
So How Goes the Ticking?
The first stroke of genius is that each scenario presents 3-5 different choices that the Keeper makes before she does anything else; those choices affect the map, the placement of items and clues and, ultimately, the win conditions for both sides. So there’s ideally a good deal of replayability in any given scenario, with the general trappings remaining the same but very different experiences in the details. The point here is that even if you know what scenario you’re playing, you won’t necessarily know which variation on it you’re playing. And so, the initial mystery is truly a mystery, something a lot of detective games don’t actually bother with.
What’s more, the actual win condition itself is a mystery; the investigators have no idea how to win at the outset. Maybe they have to stop a cult. Maybe they have to kill a Shoggoth. Sometimes, the winning move is to walk right back out of the house. But you won’t know that. It’s a mystery, and one you’ll have to solve to win. So, on our list of criteria:
Give Me a Mystery to Solve: Checked!
(Side Note: Alternatively, you can simply wait out the in-game clock to have the objective revealed to you; however, that almost always leads to a loss, since by that time, it’s usually too late to prevent the Keeper from winning.)
(Additional Side Note: Besides, what detective worth his salt just sits around and waits to have the answer handed to him? Pffft. One who deserves all the devouring he gets, frankly.)
As for you, intrepid detective, you’ll assume one of the by-now-familiar personages from Fantasy Flight Games’ Arkham universe: Ashcan Pete, the drifter with his trusty dog Duke; or Old Man Withers, the astronomer; or Jenny Barnes, debutante with a trust fund and a pistol; or Joe Diamond, the luckiest private eye this side of Arkham. All are among the usual suspects. Instead of getting handed a card with your vitals and equipment, you get to choose from a selection of beginning stats and inventory items; it’s already getting personal, in a way that the best Lovecraft demands.
And this is where I begin to slip on my investigator shoes. I’m here, at the front door of a dark, foreboding house. Maybe I’m checking on a missing person; maybe I’m investigating a bizarre letter; maybe I’ve volunteered for scientific experiments; maybe I’ve come to see a play; maybe I just woke up here. It’s just me, maybe a friend or two, and a big map with a bunch of facedown cards just taunting me with their hidden clues and horrors. Spooky.
You decide where to start your investigations, aided by subtle and not-so-subtle hints in the narrative introduction. Do you investigate the light in the second floor window and head for the stairs? Or do you follow the smell of burnt food coming from the kitchen? And why is there a howling noise coming from the old oak tree in the distance?
(Side Note: There are those among the ludorati who will decry “pasted-on” theme and flavor text as meaningless and inferior to “true” theme, which is communicated via mechanics. That’s fine. They’re welcome to their opinion. Me, I came here to get inside a Lovecraft story and investigate dark mysteries, so I’ll have third helpings of that yummy flavor text, thanks, and serve mine with extra paste.)
The play alternates turns between the investigators and the Keeper. Typically, the investigators can move two spaces and take an action per turn. An action is usually something along the lines of exploring a room, attempting a puzzle (!), or hitting a baddie in the mouth. Exploration consists of revealing those facedown cards planted so carefully by the Keeper, in the exact order laid down, because that’s how you reveal locked doors, electrical wiring traps, puzzle boxes, and other obstacles that you must pass before revealing the clues that lie beneath them.
And so you’ll find yourself making more decisions: should we spend time trying to unlock this safe, or do we hope we don’t need whatever’s inside and continue another avenue of investigation? Or should we split up (don’t ever split up) and cover more ground faster? Time is ticking!
It’s this sort of time management/risk assessment that’s the heart of the gameplay, and it makes MoM more strategic than it might seem at first blush. And the best part is that your actions are nearly always entirely under your control.
(Side Note: Until the Keeper plays a card that makes you shove an axe through your partner’s liver. Fair warning, that will happen from time to time.)
There’s no rolling to see how far you can move on any given turn, there’s no random event cards, no luck-of-the-draw, let’s-hope-I-prepared-for-this-turn-correctly guessing game; there’s just you and your fellow investigators using your God-given abilities trying to figure out what’s going on and get the the hell out alive, preferably by thwarting the Keeper sitting across the table.
It’s what’s called agency. There’s an agency to Mansions of Madness that deepens the connection between player and game. I guess what I’m saying is….
Let Me Do the Detecting: Checked!
And in the course of said detection, you’ll have to figure stuff out, led on by those aforementioned clues. What does this silver key unlock? In which rooms might one logically look for the source of a heating problem in the house? Which rooms might have the best view of the Garden? Is this journal page warning me away from the freezer, or beckoning me towards it? Exactly how can I escape these time-traveling hounds? These are all questions asked by various scenarios, and it’s not even the half of it. The best ones require lateral thinking and synthesis of a few different, disparate clues. The worst ones are merely obvious (or, occasionally, broken). But still! It’s more than simple pattern-matching or slapping like colors on a clue and suspect and calling it “evidence.” Although, speaking of pattern matching….
The deduction also happens in the form of the minigames that permeate the scenarios, and this is another little bit of brilliance. To get past some obstacles/locks, you’ll need to participate in a puzzle or lock minigame that requires you to generally move tiles around like a slider puzzle, or rotate them until like wires are lined up together, or form the full image of a painting; it’s nothing too difficult, but it still requires you to figure it out. You only get so many moves per turn, then you have to decide to either abandon it or hang around another turn and keep working on it. You can’t solicit advice from the other investigators, either!
Did I mention that the clock is still ticking and the Keeper is just counting down the turns to ultimate doom while you’re moving around statue pieces or alchemical reagents to complete the correct combination? The minigames are a great way to localize some of the brainwork and focus on a small victory in service to the larger story while providing tension. They usually reward you with a special item or a vital clue to lead you to the next room for your investigation.
Between the overall “What the hell is going on here, and what happened before we got here, and oh yeah, how do we win?” aspect of thinkery and the smaller minigame element, MoM does what every good detective game should do:
Make Me Figure Stuff Out: Checked!
It’s all well and good as you move from room to room, reading the flavor text, with paintings occasionally getting thrown at your heads by poltergeists or lights suddenly going out or fires starting up out of nowhere.
(Side Note: Fires, it should be noted, are most certainly not well and good.)
But, as anyone who has even a passing familiarity with horror will tell you, eventually there’s going to be a point where something (probably drooling) will shamble/race/ooze towards you (probably screaming) and attempt to separate your limbs from your torso (probably all of them).
And here’s where you might expect the usual Ameritrash dice fest, right? You’ve got weapons, you’ve got stats, hit points, the whole nine yards. Some kind of roll-off between you (the investigator) and the Keeper (and his monsters) would be par for the course. Well, thankfully, MoM has something much more interesting than that in store.
You see, the investigators are wholly responsible for what happens during combat. Every combat consists of a single card drawn by the Keeper based on the kind of monster involved and the type of weapon the investigator is carrying, describes in lurid detail exactly what happens in the fight. Perhaps it’s setting the scene of you trembling to pull the trigger as the monster bears down on you, or the “sense of innate horror” that fuels an overhead smash with a blunt weapon. It’s not just a die roll (and it is always a single die roll of one ten-sided die), it’s a scene, and it describes exactly what you’re doing to the extent that you almost feel like you’re watching a movie with your character in it.
(Side Note: Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having space in the imagination to conjure up my own images and my own stories, but I also love being a part of a well-told story, and MoM simply refuses to allow you to forget that you’re a critical part of the story. It’s not that the die failed on your Marksmanship roll, it’s that you “recognize some glimmer of the man the creature used to be and flinch at the last second.” It’s that kind of thing.)
Case in point: In one of our games, Old Man Withers, carrying no weapons and faced with no other options, gets attacked by a zombie. The battle card drawn had–and I am not making this up–Withers doing the only thing he could do in the situation. In a stunning reversal of fortunes, making a long-shot roll, he bit a chunk out of the zombie, killing it.
Taking damage is often accompanied by some sort of semi-permanent Trauma card dished out by the Keeper, which usually bestows a condition on you: perhaps you’ll be hobbled with a twisted ankle or made permanently afraid of being left alone in a room. You spend the rest of the game dealing with those new character aspects, as well as everything else. It’s OK. You’ll find a way. You’ll be resourceful and work around it, or trade items to mitigate effects, or change your approach.
And it all gets back to that agency, a sense that you have an active hand in the mystery and events that unfold. I’m choosing which things to fight, which things to run away from, which allies to recruit…it’s me versus the Keeper, not me versus the dice. It’s a narrative through and through, and the struggle between you and the Keeper is the struggle to write the end of the story. It’s competitive fiction, and it works on so many levels, getting exponentially better the more affinity you have for the theme.
(Side Note: I’ve played exactly one other game ever that I’d call competitive fiction. It’s terrific and I want to talk more about it, so you’ll be seeing it in a future Playing Detective.)
It’s more focused, and more isolating and driven, than its sprawling cousins Arkham Horror or Eldritch Horror. You won’t be traipsing about as you wish, stopping to shop for powerful items or have a meal at the diner to recuperate between street-clearing brawls with Mi-Go; you’re confined to the spaces and rooms on the map, most all of which are claustrophobic hallways or spooky gardens or lonely forests. It’s a sense of place, of time, of purpose. It’s almost goddamn literary when it’s played with the right bunch of people in the right frame of mind. When that happens?
Make Me Feel like I’m Part of a Detective Story: Checked!
Six years ago, when this article began, I mentioned that I almost never recommend Mansions of Madness, which probably seems strange seeing as how I just spent 5 pages proposing to it. And there are a few very specific reasons for that.
First off, the setup. It is labor-intensive and requires precision. The Keeper has all the heavy lifting to do here, as she needs to make the story choices, then dig all the appropriate cards out of the appropriate decks, then seed the cards in the right order (this is critical for the locks and puzzles), then gather her own four decks of cards (!), then figure out which monsters she’s likely to need, grab those, then finally put the cards out on the map. If it’s the first time she’s ever done this, it can take upwards of an hour to set up a game.
(Side Note: The players, in contrast, have to, um, pick characters and set up the map. So, yeah.)
Plus, if one of the critical cards–the clue cards, puzzle, obstacle, locks–is in the wrong room, or even the wrong order in the right room, it can literally ruin the whole game, rendering it unwinnable for one side or the other. The hell of it is you might not even realize it until the game is over; it’s a very slim margin of error, and the setup’s nature can lead to one person who’s familiar with it being designated Keeper over and over again just because others don’t want to do it.
And that’s a problem because 99% of the fun in this game to me is playing the investigators. The Keeper knows exactly what’s supposed to happen, and when, and how, and I guess that’s some folks’ bag, but it’s not the reason I play MoM.
(Side Note: To the publisher’s credit, the scenarios in the big box expansion Call of the Wild attempt to remedy this to some extent, with a few of them giving the Keeper a more interesting job by doing things like searching for player-hidden artifacts. They’re…OK.)
But that’s assuming you ever had a chance to win in the first place. Some of the scenarios are so buggy that some combinations of story choices make it impossible for one side to win, and some are so imbalanced that a tried-and-true tactic for the Keeper is to just save up threat tokens (the currency of evil deeds), then spend them all at once to win. Guess how much fun that is? (Hint: none. “None much fun” is the answer there.)
And finally, once that’s all through? It’s back to the whole setup rigamarole again, after putting everything back, choosing a new scenario, etc., etc. It’s tough to get more than a single game in on any given night. And the minefield that potentially awaits you for doing so can render the whole thing a waste of time, which…isn’t the best way to fire up enthusiasm for the game. Particularly since the game time itself can be over in the blink of an eye, depending on the scenario and players. Hardly seems worth the effort sometimes. Which means….
Provides a Satisfying Resolution, Win or Lose: Schrödinger’s Check; or, Is Neither Checked nor Unchecked until a Particular Game Has Been Concluded
But! There’s good news ’round that oddly angled, non-Euclidean corner! The expansions–starting with the single-scenario Print-on-Demand ones, including the 3-scenario Forbidden Alchemy, and culminating (so far) in the big box Call of the Wild expansion–keep improving the game. CotW in particular does a lot to remedy the complexity of the Keeper setup, adds even more replayability, and introduces outdoor scenarios and a few cool new mechanics. In fact, it’s a shame that there’s no easy way to port some of the original base scenarios to the CotW methodology; that’s how good it is.
The PoD scenarios are…well, they start out pretty terrible, if I’m honest, but they get progressively better and become downright awesome with some interesting new mechanics and settings in the later ones. Forbidden Alchemy is somewhere between the two.
And even when it comes to the base scenarios, the good people over at BGG have done the Lord’s work in making edits to the original game scenarios to squash bugs and restore balance via tweaks and edits, which are well worth a look if you’re going to dive in.
The Most Merciful Thing in the World Is the Inability of the Human Mind to Correlate All Its Contents
MoM is, forgive me, such a maddening beast because for every sin it commits, it does something spectacularly, narratively Lovecraftian that you probably don’t have in any other game. And for every brilliant piece of gameplay, there can be a table-flippingly frustrating downside. A collection of great mechanics, terrific flavor, asynchronous play and great production values that almost seemingly goes out of its way to shoot itself in the head with broken/imbalanced scenarios and onerous prep time before it’s had a chance to properly introduce itself.
It’s wild, it’s different, it’s flawed–deeply–and when it’s cooking, it delivers a Lovecraft experience on the table rivaled only by a great Call of Cthulhu RPG session. When it’s not cooking, you’ll wonder why the hell you even bothered.
It’ll come as no shock that I give Mansions of Madness 5 out of 5 elder signs for delivering an occult detective experience par excellence (except when it’s not). Yes, it’s exponentially better the more Lovecraft fans you play with and the more down you are with the flavor. Yes, sometimes it asks for more than it gives. Yes, it’s uneven in places and sometimes downright unfair.
But it’s also inspired, devoted, and unquestionably unique in its ambition and execution.
It’s almost as if MoM is some indescribable, nameless shambling mound of a game, defying classification in its grotesque–oh, well played, Mansions of Madness. That thing you just did right there? I saw that. And like the doomed Lovecraft protagonists who carry forbidden knowledge with them, haunting them the rest of their days, I cannot unsee it. Nor would I want to.