Fantasy Flight is the kind of company that produces large, successful titles with high production value. They this so consistently that even people who’ve never been interested in board games may well have heard of them. If you haven’t ever played a more complicated board game but are curious to try, Fantasy Flight is where I would look first. And if this is really your introduction, I might well start with Mansions of Madness: Second Edition.
The first Mansions of Madness was released back into 2011, and the core of the game was quite similar. Players take on the role of investigators in early 1900s America, looking into mysterious goings on that inevitably lead to them delving into a Lovecraftian horror story and fighting off cultists and horrifying eldritch monsters.
The game was fun, flavorful, and inarguably successful. One common criticism, though, was the inherent clunkiness of the Keeper. The Keeper was the role given to one of the players. Instead of joining his friend’s as an ally the Keeper was tasked with keeping tracking of the mystery, organizing the unveiling of plot points, and making decisions for the monsters. It took a lot of time and forced one player to act as an antagonist. The latter wasn’t always a bad thing, but it did give a game that mostly felt cooperative a somewhat competitive vibe.
The second edition of the game seeks build on the successes while mitigating the sore points as much as possible, and frankly, it does an amazing job.
First and foremost, the role of Keeper is gone entirely. In its place is the companion app, a function used on a digital device (we use an iPad, but the app is available on Google Play as well) that keeps track of and maintains everything the scenario requires in the background.
When beginning a game the players choose a scenario and what characters they’re playing as. The app then tells the group what items they start with and gives a (fully voiced) introduction before giving the beginning layout, which the players build with tiles that represent different rooms. Players are not privy to the layout of the full map, and so every exploration of a new room is a tense and frightening experience.
Once the initial tile layout is given, the app instructs the players on what tokens to place down, giving them the options of searching through items in the room or investigating new rooms entirely. When players do one of these things, they move their figure accordingly and then hit a button on the app to discover what happens.
Every round occurs in two phases: the investigator phase and the mythos phase. During the investigator phase players are each allowed to take two actions such as moving between rooms, searching, or attacking. Once that’s done it’s the mythos phase. During this phase the app will tell the players if something mysterious happens. This could be the lights going out in a room and causing darkness, or it could be one of the characters violently hallucinating, or something else entirely. There’s a wide range of options, and while it’s possible for nothing to happen, when something does happen it’s always dangerous.
The mythos phase is also when monsters activate. The app instructs players on what the monsters do, which is almost always moving towards one of the characters and attacking them. Lastly, all characters that are too close to a monster have overcome their fears or suffer damage to their sanity.
The app works absolutely brilliantly. The randomized events and unpredictable actions of the monsters lend the game an air of mystery and danger that is completely in line with the theme of the game. The use of the app to describe monster attacks, random events, and reactions to horror allow the game to proceed quickly and smoothly without the needs for dozens or even hundreds of extra cards.
Further, the game itself is simply fantastic. The flavor is there in spades, and there’s a perfect balance of capability and danger. It never feels like it’s too easy (in fact I shudder to think of some of the awful things that happened to our characters) but you never feel helpless either. All of the games I’ve played have ended with our group balancing on the edge of a knife, with victory coming down to a few dice rolls.
Speaking of dice, the core mechanic of the game is simple. Players have stats, such as Strength, Agility, and Lore. Any task they attempt will ask them to make a test using one stat. To do so they roll a number dice equal to their stat. So a character with Strength 3 would roll three dice. There are three sides to the dice: blank, investigation, and success. Every test has a number of successes required to pass it, and various abilities allow players to turn investigations symbols into successes.
And that’s it. That’s the entirety of the most complicated rules component of Mansions of Madness, and that’s really one of my favorite things about it. This game is incredibly simple, especially since so much of it is handled by the app. Further, since there’s no keeper and thus no tangible bad guy, the game has a consistent feeling of cooperation.
All of this comes together to make a game that isn’t just easy and fun to play, but it is also incredibly inviting. My first game of the Second Edition wasn’t with my usual crowd, it was with my mother. My mother has never been interested in board games or Lovecraftian horror, but this game took all of fifteen minutes to have her completely hooked. When we finished and I went to ask her if she had fun, she interrupted me to ask when we could play again.
At the end of the day that’s the best thing about this game. It’s fun, it’s enticing, it’s easy to learn, and it just makes you want to play more. I’ve played a number of games where I walked away thinking, “that was fun, but I don’t want to play again for a while now.” Mansions of Madness: Second Edition is not one of those games. It is just the opposite, and I can’t wait to play more.