There aren’t a lot of board games that have caused as much heated discussion as the First Edition of Mansions of Madness, the one-versus-all Lovecraftian horror game from Fantasy Flight (FFG). Supporters loved the marriage of narrative and mechanics, the innovative puzzles, and the immersive theme. Detractors pointed out the impossibly fiddly and time-consuming setup, where one mistake could render the game unplayable halfway through, as well as the numerous rules conflicts and errors, especially in the first expansion. Both were right. So, when FFG decided to revamp the game and release a Second Edition, neither the stakes nor the bar could have been higher.
The biggest change is to a completely cooperative format, with the players all working together and the elimination of the adversarial Keeper role. This was accomplished by replacing the Keeper with an app (available for PC/Mac, iOS, and Android) to do all of the bookkeeping, similar to XCOM (also from FFG). This change is a fantastic improvement, both allowing for the setup to take place over the course of the game rather than forcing players to wait before play begins, and preventing the kind of mistakes that led to no-win scenarios in the First Edition. The app is intuitive and easy to use, as well as providing atmosphere in the form of narration and background music. You can use a phone for this, with one player reading and inputting data, but it’s a lot more fun to have a tablet or laptop in the center of the table so that all the players can read important plot points.
Gameplay is similar to FFG’s other ‘Arkham Files’ games – your character has two actions per round, which can involve moving between rooms or within a room, opening a door to reveal a new room, searching notable objects, interacting with NPCs, or attacking monsters (of which there will be plenty). Your character has health and sanity levels that must be maintained or you will be wounded or go insane, and you must make tests using your character’s stats such as strength, agility, lore, and willpower. Tests are rolled on a d8, of which there are three successes, three failures, and two almost-successes (spend a clue, and they become a success). When you open a door, search an object, or interact with a person, the app tells you what happens and what you find, including new rooms, items, clues, and monsters. After all the players take their turns, the app goes to the Mythos phase. During this phase, monsters move and attack, and bad things happen to your characters (again, all determined by the app).
You might have noticed that we haven’t talked about how you win the game yet, and that’s because…you don’t know until you start. You won’t know what your victory condition for a scenario is until you play it and develop the plot far enough for the app to determine how it ends. Even within the same scenario, the decisions you make will create far vastly different endgames, providing a much higher level of re-playability than the game might first imply. Similarly, the “bad things” that can happen to you during the Mythos Phase, or from a monster attack, are equally unknown until the app tells you, and they can pile up quickly. A character who suffers enough damage to their sanity goes insane, forcing them to draw secretly from the insanity deck and possibly giving them a new, personal, victory condition (one not overly compatible with the other PCs’).
So, with the app doing all of this heavy lifting, why bother to have a physical game at all? It’s conceivable that FFG could have gone that route, and simply created a pass-and-play game that takes place entirely on the screen. But you would lose something from that – the camaraderie of building the board together as you explore rooms, the excitement of seeing whether another player made a crucial roll, and the anticipation of turning over a wound or horror card to see whether the effect is survivable or cripplingly devastating. The app takes over as much of the game as is convenient to automate…but no more than that. This is still very much a board game.
MSRP is $100 and you get a lot for that – a bunch of miniatures, rooms to build the house, dice, many, many cards, and, of course, the development cost of the app, but you also get a conversion kit to add your First Edition monsters, rooms, and investigators into the mix, including the ones from any of the First Edition expansions. As we’ve come to expect from the juggernaut that is FFG, the components are all top-notch quality.