Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month. This month’s game is:
This is a collaborative review and Session Report between Entropy editors Byron Alexander Campbell and Quincy Rhoads. Over the past month, we played through a session of the semi-cooperative, story-driven Lovecraftian board game using a proprietary blend of Google Drive, descriptive prose, Photoshop and copious snapshots. Byron took the role of the Keeper, the eldritch entity orchestrating the dark events of the game, while Quincy controlled all three of the plucky supernatural investigators. As the game neared its climax, we hopped onto another Google Doc to discuss the game’s strengths. Mansions of Madness has been among Byron’s top 3 board games since he got into the hobby, while this was Quincy’s first exposure to its idiosyncratic charms.
The Yellow Sign
Julian Glen’s home is a quiet sanctuary from the madness erupting all over town–spreading from Arkham Playhouse like a virus. You make your way across the lawn toward the house, but are suddenly startled by a man who dashes ahead of you.
“Oh! I’m late! Late! Rehearsals are starting! I’ve got the lines down!”
He bolts past you without taking notice, barrelling into Julian’s house. In his wake he leaves fluttering pages from a script…
One of the pages from the script is caught by a gust of wind, landing lightly on your shoulder. You grab it and read the words, “They ate and drank to their heart’s content, while the clawing at the door grew louder and louder.”
Professor Walters pokes the shrubbery with his walking stick, dislodging a set of dull brass knuckles. Must have slipped off the fingers of one of the local thugs the group saw rushing into the house.
Walters sees the fire burning on the front path. “What a lovely way to warm these old, damp bones,” he says, stepping south toward the fire.
“Doc, ain’t you forgetting something?” asks Michael McGlen, local hoodlum.
“Sometimes you have to stop and enjoy the small pleasures, my boy,” says Walters, stepping west toward the entryway.
Dexter Drake, stage magician extraordinaire, advances two spaces west and explores. There is a strange sigil painted onto the northern exterior wall of the entryway in still-wet yellow paint. It looks somehow familiar, but Drake can’t recall where he’s seen it before. As he tries to puzzle out the strange symbol, words from the play The Court of Carcosa rise unbidden in his thoughts…. Although he does not yet know the significance, Drake has been cast in the role of the King’s Champion.
“After you,” Drake says to the hulking McGlen.
McGlen chomps down on the bit of cigar in his mouth, makes sure his trusty tommy gun, Gladys, is loaded, and enters the entryway.
He pauses to take a look around. The words “Act 1 Scene 7” are written all over the walls of this room. Could it have some meaning? Maybe if he had his meaty hands on a copy of the script….
While the investigators are thus occupied, more enthusiastic townsfolk push past them into the entryway, muttering or shrieking lines from the accursed play.
Byron: It’s interesting to compare how Fantasy Flight Games frames their products in the expanded Arkham Horror line. Although each game includes roughly the same cast of characters doing roughly the same things in roughly the same 1920s Lovecraftian Mythos setting, the little blurb on the front of the box is a capsule review of what makes each game unique. Arkham Horror was “The Classic Game of Lovecraftian Adventure.” Eldritch Horror, Arkham’s globetrotting reboot, is “A Board Game of Global Mystery and Horror.” The Yahtzee-inspired Elder Sign is “A Game of Suspense and Supernatural Investigation.” And Mansions of Madness is “A Game of Exploration, Mystery, and Horror.”
Setting aside the overlap in terms between Mansions and Eldritch Horror, each of those descriptors clues in the potential player that it’s going to be some kind of horror or supernatural setting, but the experience that they emphasize is quite distinct–and pretty accurate, I’d argue. Arkham is all about pulp adventure, about punching Cthulhu right in the face and shooting cultists from the back of motorcycles. As a dice game, Elder Sign puts a greater emphasis on suspense, in the sense that you’re often praying for that Hail Mary result out of a dwindling pool of rerolls. And Mansions, I’d argue, does exploration and mystery better than any other game in the Arkham universe–better than most board games period, really. We’ve played two games online now. What did you think?
Quincy: Far back into the early ’90s I got a glimpse at the glory of tabletop gaming through TSR’s Dragon Strike, which is a sort of dumbed-down D&D dungeon crawl board game. I adored it then but couldn’t figure out why none of my family wanted to play it with me, but I was transfixed with its mechanics nonetheless.
I recently dusted my copy off, and I’ve realized why it was so unfun for my family. It’s arbitrarily difficult with minimal payoff.
Mansions of Madness takes all of the charm of Dragon Strike, mixes in fun, Mythos flavor, and adds in mechanics that actually work, such as clearly visible obstacles, locks, smooth board movement, and a fun approach to stat checks.
Byron: I haven’t played Dragon Strike, but I do think I see what you mean about arbitrariness. A lot of games about exploration tend to involve multiple levels of randomness. In something like Betrayal at House on the Hill (a great game in its own right) or DungeonQuest, the environments you are exploring are a literal grab-bag of random room tiles, and then, when you step into those rooms, random things happen to you in the form of traps, monsters, treasure or events. If your random event results in you finding an item, it’s another random card draw that may or may not be appropriate to the situation. Mansions of Madness turns that idea on its head by creating the entire mansion map according to a set floor plan specific to the scenario you’re playing, so that Walter Lynch’s mansion always has the laboratory to the east of the foyer, for instance. Taking the same idea a step further, the items found inside each room are placed according to a script–there’s some room for variability, but they’re not completely random. It necessitates a somewhat tedious setup, but what this allows in terms of storytelling is magical. There is logic and consistency. Maybe there is a shotgun behind a padlocked closet door, or a copy of the Cultes des Goules jammed inside a suitcase. Rooms have a peculiar weight–I still remember one of my first sessions, which featured a series of underground caves drenched in darkness. Even though the darkness was just a little cardboard token and a small stat modifier, it stayed there for the entire game, and I swear, you could feel its presence. I revisited it in remarkably vivid dreams.
McGlen makes his way past the actors into the coat closet and explores it.
Some sort of beast, all fur and fangs, drops down out of the darkness and begins ripping into the mobster with its claws. When he’s separated the creature from his face, he swing his tommy gun toward it and is moments away from firing when he realizes that it is a housecat–albeit a mostly feral one. Having drawn blood, the sated the creature begins rubbing against McGlen’s voluminous trouser-legs, purring loudly.
“What a buncha weirdos,” McGlen mutters, bits and pieces of costume strewn around the closet.
Drake runs into the gallery, while Walters walks into the entryway and stops.
Event 1: Frayed Ends of Sanity
The entire house seems to swell with anticipation. Visions of a cryptic series of runes haunts you. Perhaps your subconscious memory remembers something from the play….
As the memories begin to come together, Professor of the Arcane Harvey Walters is startled by another actor appearing in the entryway. There is a faint yellow glint in his eyes–the professor can almost make out the maddening, twisted shape of a familiar sigil in the reflection….
Walters locks eyes with the gibbering actor. Where there should be a glint of humanity, he sees a void–a void he has seen far too many times before. He mutters an incantation, hoping his instincts are correct. He can’t afford to be wrong yet again….
As Walters’ shriveling spell takes hold, the mad actor staggers around the room in agony. Walters watches as the man’s skin sloughs off of his face. He runs from the room, shrieking. Walters proceeds into the gallery two spaces. As he passes the actors rehearsing their play, their frenzied gesticulations remind him of his time studying in Borneo all those years ago…he shudders to remember such horrors.
McGlen exits the closet and moves to occupy the far east space of the gallery with Walters.
“Good kitty,” he says, nuzzling Mrs. Wylde with his nose. Suddenly Mrs. Wylde’s hackles raise and she leaps from McGlen’s grasp.
“Mrowwwwrrrrr!” she yowls, leaping into the crowd of actors and tearing into their flesh.
“Miss Kitty! Come back,” pleads McGlen.
Finished with the actors, Mrs. Wylde climbs up Drake’s cape, digging her claws painfully into his back, then rests on his shoulders, purring. “Hnng,” groans Drake as the cat’s claws dig in.
Quincy: But back to your question about mystery: the way the exploration deck spits out red herrings or cool power-ups or key story elements really does add tension when a maniac is breathing down your neck and you’ve got to find the key to the closet and you can’t stand to lose any more sanity. Which reminds me of another intriguing element of this game: trauma. Madness has a huge place in the Lovecraft oeuvre. Would you agree that Mansions of Madness captures the traumatic horror of ancient, indefinable evil better than a lot of other Cthulhu games?
Byron: It definitely does a better job than the other games in the Arkham line. In both Arkham Horror and Elder Sign, you can lose sanity by confronting the Mythos monsters, but those games treat “sanity” as just another flavor of health points–when you run out of either, you get sent to the hospital/asylum to recover, or you get eliminated from the game. In Mansions, you can easily have an investigator with 0 sanity still running around, but he’s turned into a ticking time bomb. As the investigators take damage or “horror,” the keeper can play Trauma cards that he’s drawn during his turn. These are one-shot or permanent effects that cobble the investigators in all sorts of ways, from a broken leg to a fear of reflections, but the ones that come into play when an investigator reaches 0 sanity get really, really nasty. You saw one of those in our first game, right? In fact, I think it ended the game. It was the “No Way Out” card, which, as it happens, does result in the investigator’s death…by suicide. There are also cards that have insane players attack their companions or get replaced by a monster. But even with “No Way Out,” the difference between dying automatically when you reach 0 sanity and knowing that you might die, whenever it’s most opportune for the Keeper, or you might fall victim to some other foul fate…it’s palpable, I think.
Quincy: The trauma cards definitely offer yet another layer of challenge–and it’s not an easy game, really. For example, Walters has that crazy effective shriveling spell, but his trauma made me have to completely rethink my strategy, and the King’s Court cards [used to cast an investigator in a role for the play] add an even deeper level of strategy. The game doesn’t allow you to plan too far in advance, so when you botch a roll and get a trauma card, it really is a shock, which can sort of mimic the real horror of seeing shambling corpses or raving actors.
The magician’s keen eye spots a small bottle protruding from one of the actors’ coat pockets. Using his sleight of hand, he obtains the bottle without the man noticing. Proceeding into the dining room, Drake notices a table piled high with rotting food and filthy kitchenware. Some unknown urge goads him into taking a bite, but Drake stops himself just before a maggot-infested slice of meat would have entered his jaws.
Back in the gallery, the actors crowd around the remaining investigators. “Isn’t Julian’s work simply magical?” they gossip. Strangely, Professor Walters finds himself beginning to come around to the actors’ views. Although he does not yet know what it portends, he has been cast in the role of the Pale Priest.
One of the actors begins reciting a soliloquy from the play. The air shimmers around him. The moment passes, and the other actors applaud politely. Suddenly, the man erupts in yellow flame. The cultist is killed.
Seeming unfazed, another actor picks up the speech. Producing a prop staff from his costume, he swings it haphazardly around the room as he gesticulates. Some of the swings come dangerously close to McGlen’s. Too slow to get out of the way (what a palooka!), McGlen is stunned as the prop staff rebounds off of his skull with a hollow thud.
Meanwhile, the ornery old professor shoves away the actors crowding around him. One of the men bows obsequiously. “I am terribly sorry to have intruded,” he smirks. Harvey Walters rolls his eyes at the simpering actor and begins to exit the gallery, but the actor slams the door shut in his face. He is unable to push past the burly man.
Byron: It is a hard game, especially for the investigators. Some people think that it is unbalanced. But for me, that is part of the game. What good would a Lovecraftian game be if humanity stood an even chance of coming out on top? It is unbalanced against the investigator players, but that’s okay.
As per your experiences with trauma, that’s the strength of having a Keeper player instead of having the game be fully cooperative, like the other Arkham universe games. I said in my review of Arkham Horror that it is completely indifferent to your existence, which fits Lovecraft’s cosmic horror for certain, but in Mansions of Madness, the Keeper’s presence at the table grants the forces of the Mythos an evil intelligence. I waited several rounds for Professor Walters to take a damage just so that I could give him that Arcane Scar trauma, which makes him take another damage each time he casts a spell, and I think giving Michael McGlen Kleptomania so that he could not share the burden of transporting the story’s key items to their designated destinations may have won me the game. But we’ll see. In both cases, you get the sense that this intangible evil presence is orchestrating the investigators’ doom.
Quincy: Plus the miniature design! The monster bases and the detail. They’re really fun.
This game has me excited about miniatures in a way that Warhammer, X-Wing and other big-name tabletop miniature games have fallen short doing. This game has me super excited about Fantasy Flight’s new Star Wars: Imperial Assault.
“Vile rabble!” Dexter Drake shouts suddenly. “You insult the name of the King! I’ll teach you a lesson….” Without warning, he attacks Harvey Walters. He makes a sweeping kick at the stooped old man’s legs. The professor barely feels it, but to Drake, it’s as though he kicked a stone wall.
Event 2: The Shortest Straw
“Actors! The time has come to perform the last act. Please welcome our newest cast members!”
The imperious voice of Julian Glen echoes from the direction of the chapel. Harvey Walters once again finds himself transported by the words of a play he barely recalls, and becomes the new King’s Champion.
“Call me rabble, will you?” Professor Walters shouts, attempting to trip up Dexter Drake with his cane. “And look how careless you’ve been!” The old man aims a right cross at Drake’s jaw, but he puts too much strength behind the punch and throws himself off balance, barely catching himself on his cane.
“You’re late for rehearsals!” Julian Glen shouts, throwing open the chapel door and barreling into the hallway. “Yes, you mustn’t be late for rehearsals!” another actor echoes, entering from the chapel.
“What’s this!?” Glen shouts. “You’re not even in costume?” He advances toward Dexter Drake, who catches sight of a tantalizing red medallion hanging around the playwright’s neck. As Drake bends forward to grab the relic, Glen throttles the magician’s neck.
“What are you doing to the master?” the actor shouts. He performs a dark ceremony. As he chants a passage from the play, he bursts into yellow flame, just like the one before. “You fools!” Glen shouts. “Why do I always have to work with such incompetents? The accent is on the final syllable!”
Byron: The storytelling in this game is a bit unusual. The scenarios are story-driven to be certain, but despite all the graphic flavor text, the story is merely a skeleton. It’s almost a pseudo-RPG, demanding the Keeper player to really flesh out the details. They’re there–the skeletal structure can support the flesh–but they’re not immediately there; you have to fill in all the blanks. Did you get a sense of that in the games we played?
Quincy: Yeah, and that’s the case for the investigator, too. The game really hits its stride when both players get involved and get lost in the details. And there’s potential for reward as the game progresses, much like an RPG campaign. McGlen became this lovable palooka with a shine for kittens and shooting people point blank. None of that is in the game text, but I have a hard time imagining playing without those details.
Remember when I said Drake slit Julian Glen’s throat and then the randomly drawn combat card supported that?
Byron: That was great. The combat cards allow for a lot of memorable story moments using a relatively simple system of testing against your strengths in certain attributes, much like in an RPG. Because you never quite know, before drawing the card, which attribute you’re going to have to test or what the consequences might be, it stays dynamic and enforces the horrific theme. For example, you might shoot a monster, thinking it will be a test against your Marksmanship, but end up having to test your Dexterity or Willpower at the risk of dropping your gun in fear. You haven’t even gotten to see the combat cards against Beast or Eldritch type monsters.
Stepping away from mechanics for a moment, you mentioned the miniatures earlier. I find myself indifferent to miniatures as I play lots of different types of games–they definitely have a visual impact, but so do colorful cardboard standees like Arkham Horror has. One thing the minis in Mansions do really well, though, is give a sense of scale. The investigators are small, about the size of a human fingerbone, and the humanoid monsters scale about the same, but the eldritch abominations can get massive–it gives a physical sense of the hopelessness of the situation.
I also love the detailed art on the maps. Shadows and lighting are particularly impressive.
Quincy: Lately I’ve been really into Print ‘n Play gaming. Money’s tight and I’m very reluctant to buy a game unless I know my whole gaming group is sure to love it. Also, I can’t stand playing a game that I feel like I could make myself. I need my games to feel luxe, and Mansions of Madness fits the bill. The detailed artwork on all of the map and card pieces and (again) those minis just scream quality to me.
Dexter swings his brass-knuckled fist at the maniac…and over-swings, missing the man’s head completely. “Oh, balderdash.”
He quickly runs two spaces into the secret passage.
McGlen sees Drake run past him in the cramped corridor. “Da heck?” He exits the corridor beside Drake in a cramped room.
“M-Maniac,” Drake stammers out of breath.
McGlen enters the north room and investigates that part of the corner hallway. He is horrified to witness the accursed sigil in glowing yellow paint covering the bathroom door. More lines from the play surface in his memory, but the more he remembers, the more disturbed he becomes.
Meanwhile, back in the hallway with the maniacal actor, Walters’ scar pulsates painfully. “I must!” he yells.
He casts shriveling. Small cuts appear all over the insane actor’s skin. He strikes himself repeatedly with his ax blade, as though warding off an unseen swarm of insects, then falls to the ground in a still, bloody heap.
Walters’ pain is blinding. He staggers past the corpse and into the passage.
McGlen shrugs off the strange feeling he has and proceeds north and left into the next hallway.
Exploring the room, he encounters a bizarre sight: a strange key anchored to a shelf. No matter how hard he pulls, it won’t come free…. One of his rare neurons firing, Michael McGlen takes out the locked tome he found in the dining room and tries it on the key. It fits perfectly. Awkwardly twisting the book around the stationary key, he manages to undo the clasp just as the wild-eyed man that the investigators encountered outside the house storms into the room, a bundle of clothes under one arm.
“Ah! Good, you’ve found my notes!” he babbles. “I’ll study those, you take these. Hurry, to the worship set!”
At that moment, whispered voices drift down the halls. Their chanting becomes louder and louder. McGlen covers his ears and starts banging his head against the wall to get the voices out. Something fragile in his mind cracks, and he develops a weird sensation of distrust for his fellow investigators. He eyes Drake’s dream dagger hungrily. That’s MINE, he thinks. He looks at the brass knuckles. That is also mine.
“Give it to me now!” he shouts aloud.
McGlen has developed kleptomania. “C’mere, Kitty,” he yells, swiping Mrs. Wylde off of Drake’s shoulder. The cat screeches and digs her claws into the half-crazed gangster.
Walters attempts to run(as fast as his old bones will carry him) into the locked bathroom. A crude yellow sign adorns the door. It reads, “The King’s Chambers.” There is a complex lock below the handle.
You’ll need a key….
Event 3: Eye of the Beholder
You feel eyes all around you, as if you are on stage and an audience expects some unknown words. Something compels you to appease the waiting masses….
Byron: What did you think of the puzzles? They were sort of a pain to do over the internet, but I think the concept behind them was ingenious. It really gives you that feeling of an old-school survival horror video game like Resident Evil or Alone in the Dark.
Quincy: I enjoyed the puzzles. I’ve never played a board game with so many disparate elements before. The puzzles, like everything else, add to that tension as an investigator is struggling to escape the mansion or decode those Eldritch messages. I, too, was reminded of Resident Evil.
Byron: What’s so clever about them, in my view, is that they work as puzzles–there is always a solution–but are also completely randomized, so the second or third time you encounter the same suitcase or padlock, you still get to solve it anew. And yes, they are a totally disparate element.
Quincy: I’m hard pressed to think of another game with that element, Space Cadets is the only thing that comes close. It’s so unique.
The Keeper role seems to be a mixture of referee and trickster. How fun is it to play this role? Do you ever just wish you were the investigators?
Byron: Being the Keeper is tough but rewarding. It really is a lot like DM-ing, at least as I understand it from my limited RPG experience. For the best experience (for both parties), you actually need to do a lot of prep work. As I mentioned, the story behind each scenario is coherent but really sketched out, so before I play a new scenario, I go through the clue cards, the Events and the Keeper Action cards and try to figure out what each one means in the framework of the storyline for that scenario. Then, when we’re playing, I can add little flourishes where necessary, or at the very least make sure I don’t imply something that gets contradicted later. The setup is a pain, but I think it pays off.
The main thing you miss as the Keeper is the sense of surprise. For the investigators, you get to explore and have the story unfold room by room. You get to hear a clue and try to figure out what it’s hinting at. The Keeper doesn’t get that. On the other hand, the Keeper arguably has more options in the game, between his Keeper Actions, Mythos and Trauma cards. Managing your hand of Mythos and Trauma, figuring out which ones to play at the first opportunity and which to hold as a secret weapon, along with managing your threat (used to power the Keeper Actions)–it’s arguably a deeper, more complex game than the ones the investigators are playing.
And you get to feel like an evil mastermind, which is always fun.
Byron Alexander Campbell
Byron Alexander Campbell is an aspiring human living in Southern California. He is interested in games, story, and the surprising ways they intersect.
Quincy Rhoads lives in Middle Tennessee with his wife and their son. He teaches English composition for Austin Peay State University. His book reviews have recently appeared in HTMLGIANT, Rain Taxi, and Metazen.