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Mansions of Madness: Second Edition» Forums » Reviews

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Miguel
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Warning: it's going to take me a little while to get to the point. Sorry in advance.

A little bit about me. I consider myself primarily a eurogamer, but I've played a lot of RPGs in my day, and enjoy everything from war games to card games to American style games. I'm not a huge Cthulhu fan, but I would say that at various points I have been definitely "Cthulhu-Curious".

In university, I dabbled with the RPG. I loved the insanity concept. Most of all, I loved how an entire game could be structured around a reality the characters were not particularly well suited to deal with. Let's face it, even the weakest creatures in that game were significantly more powerful than the characters. The characters needed to solve the story by discovering the terrible and arcane spells or artifacts that would give them the tools necessary to fend of the evil... Normally at a great cost to their personal sanity. Brute force was an option, in the same way that jumping out of a crashing plane is "an option". You can do it, but your dying anyway. That perception of the Cthulhu mythos has always stuck with me.

Fast forward to recent years, and various publishers have been putting out a large variety of Cthulhu themed games. The first one I tried was FFG's Arkham Horror. Despite a few innovative mechanisms, the eurogamer in me recoiled at the ponderous gameplay and bloated ruleset. Most of all, the RPG geek in me hated the final battle with the great old one... It just didn't make sense to me that a couple of investigators could use mortal weapons to take on the likes of Cthulu toe to toe. Needless to say, I was not a fan.

Eventually, upon hearing about Eldritch Horror, I became interested in exploring that mythos again. This one, I enjoyed much more. The gameplay was abstracted but still engaging. I had recently read several of H.P. lovecraft's stories, and world hopping to find clues and artifacts actually mirrors the central Cthulhu story quite well. I was somewhat more satisfied with the resolution as well... If you do run down the mythos track, the great old one will bring a consequence upon the world and you have a last chance to succeed based on a storyline appropriate condition (sometimes combat related, but not always). There is a lot of fighting against mythos creatures, but I've come to terms with that. Mechanically, I really enjoyed the cards with multiple backs for spells and conditions. Details like that made the gameplay a great deal more immersive.

Still, even though I liked it, it didn't tell a very good story. I feel there is a weakness in the design which erodes it's potential... When you choose the great old one, a specific deck of cards comes into play with missions and clues that are appropriate to the story. Unfortunately, they make a very limited appearance in any given game. You will have many, many random encounters for each mythos clue you read. By virtue of being buried in so much noise, the story is diluted to the point of irrelevance. Yes, each great old one brings a tangibly different experience to each game, but it's more a question of tweaking the system than anything else. So, anyway, fun but not much of a story.

Recently, it seems like like designers and publishers have put a lot of effort into unlocking the storytelling potential in boardgames. Time Stories, Mansions of Madness and the various Legacy games have brought new concepts to the table that push the limits of what is possible in this regard. People point to games like Agricola and Dominion and discuss how they spawned whole new categories of games, but I think that this particular movement goes beyond that. I'd go so far as saying that it's more akin to the hybridization of euros and American style games that occurred slowly over the last decade. The impact is going to be felt across categories and across styles, but all things will be better for it.

So, as everyone knows by now Mansions of Madness 2.0 is an app driven game which allows investigators to cooperatively explore and resolve a mystery set in the fiction of H.P. lovecraft. The first edition of the game, which I haven't played, functioned without the app. It appears that the consensus was that it was wildly ambitious, but failed to realize it's potential.

I would give a more generous review to this version. It does many things really well. There are still things that prevent it from living up to it's full potential, but ultimately it tells a great story. For this reason, it's certainly my favorite Cthulu game so far. My issue with regular humans fighting mythos creatures remains, but at least so far there hasn't been any direct fighting with great old ones, so that's good.

The components are a mixed bag. The game tiles are beautiful, but the minis are mediocre (cool looking, but not the best quality plastic or molds, leading to imperfections and various issues with their fit and finish. Also, their bases are awful). The other physical components, like tokens and cards, are of high quality.

From a gameplay perspective, things are pretty simple and straightforward. Each investigator takes two actions. Actions range from moving, to interacting with features in a room, to fighting a creature or using an item. Given that most of the interesting stuff occurs as a result of these simple actions but is otherwise hidden in the app, I think the simplicity here is appropriate. There are a few nice mechanical twists, though. The cards with multiple backs introduced in Eldritch Horror make an appearance here through the spell cards. Just like in that game, after you cast the spell you must flip the card to see if anything unforeseen happens. Also, the way damage and insanity are accumulated is done through card draws were some damage is dealt facedown or face up, with the face up cards potentially generating other effects (for example, giving a character a broken arm and therefore limiting the amount of items he/she can carry). These all work to increase the immersion of the game, while adding minimal mechanical overhead. There is also the other nice touch that sees a character that reaches their limit in physical damage assigned a permanent "wounded" condition which limits their movement and a character that reaches their mental limit assigned a permanent "insanity" condition. Unlike the "wounded" condition, the "insanity" condition introduces a hidden goal/ limitation to the receiving player. As an example, a player may receive a condition which states that they cannot win unless they investigate every clue on the board. They cannot tell other players why they are acting the way they do, but they won't win unless they complete their objective. It's actually critical that players go in knowing what the potential insanity conditions are, because there are some which introduce alternate winning conditions like "find a bladed weapon and get yourself alone in a room with another character and murder him/her". When all players are aware this is in the game, when a player receives an insanity condition there is immediate suspicion and distrust introduced. Double guessing if that player is truly still with the team, but saddled with a compulsion to do certain things, or if they are trying to throw off the group to trick them into letting him/her satisfy an alternate winning condition is pretty cool. Not knowing about that possibility and having the game come to an abrupt end because you got murdered by a fellow team mate is not fun at all.

The app is the game's biggest strength, but also it's most glaring weakness. As a game tool, the potential is clear. The scenarios I've played (3x Cycle of Eternity, 1x escape from Innsmouth, 2x Dearly departed) have all been distinctly different stories. The exploration process is a lot of fun. I really enjoy not always knowing what the goal is up front, and working to solve the problem once I do. I like the flexibility in the structure, the possibility of shaking things up with twists and turns handled by a timer in the app, the built-in variability of the scenarios allowing for some replayability, etc. The problem is that, around all this promising stuff are a number of other decisions that occasionally bring the experience down. The main culprit is the highly sequential way new rooms are described. Placing a new room tile takes a really long time, as players go through multiple text boxes and prompts as they complete the room's setup. A much quicker setup (or at least an option for one), could shave a not insignificant amount of time from the game. Second, the random events that occur during the mythos phase can be jarringly unrelated to anything going on. I wish more effort had been made to make those events relevant to what is happening, or at least something scenario specific. Lastly, I wish there was a way to turn on/off the verbose combat, and I wish key words such as "ranged" vs "in the creature's space" or "move IF an investigator is within two spaces " vs "move 2 spaces towards an investigator" were easier to pick out . It's frustrating to have to dig through mostly repetitive text to pull out the info you need (let's be honest, the combat flavor text doesn't remain interesting that long). It would also be thematically stronger and visually easier to parse if the consequences for success or failure where revealed after the roll was made. We have made mistakes moving creatures that shouldn't have moved, not noticing that success still leads to damage or a condition, etc, due to the way this text is handled. Lastly, the app should allow for an undo function. Yes, it would allow cheaters to back out of bad decisions, but for the rest of us honest folk that just want to play the game it's frustrating not to be able to go back on an error you've made (as an example, I realized that I opened a locked door with a character that wasn't actually holding the key. There was no way to roll it back, so I either had to cheat and give that character the key or forfeit the game).

The scenario structure is the game's second biggest simultaneous strength and weakness. I love the scenarios, and I love that some work has been done to make them somewhat replayable, but the nature of mysteries is that they don't stay as interesting once they have been explored. I'm not sure I can put a finger on why a random setup of known things (such as a typical game of Eldritch Horror) doesn't get old, but a random setup of unknown things does (once they are known). It's weird to think that if the gameplay of Mansions of Madness was limited to a random layout of rooms and random drawing of cards and monsters (a la Castles of Ravenloft), that we'd probably not complain about replayability... But because we know it's been designed and a coherent story has been applied, it's perceived that the replayability gets worse. Anyway, it does, so many scenarios are needed to keep things fresh and right now the selection is limited with only four in the box and two in the "map and piece packs". So far, I have a hunch that each scenario will probably have approximately 3-5 plays in them before they would get stale.

I've gone on long enough. I've very much enjoyed my time so far with Mansions of Madness, and I truly think that its combination of boardgame, app and scenario design is a solid foundation for great story telling in many games to come. With some tweaks, it could get even better (it needs to speed things up and improve the incoherent random mythos effects), but even as it is it's a great and thematically immersive game that meshes digital and physical gaming in a very effective way.
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Bloody Cactus
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thanks for the review, I'm very on the fence to get or not get this, so I appreciated the shortcomings you listed.

The upside 'undo' could theoretically be easily added, with any software changes.

Im leaning to wait another 6 months and see how it matures and how its expansions go.
 
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Michael Pittman
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I'd dearly love an undo option ... not to back up after doing something regrettable, but just to correct keying errors (which happen, especially if you are using a phone or smaller tablet).

As commented in the review about the nature of mysteries, I found the first play of a scenario to be incredibly thematic and immersive ... but subsequent plays less so. However, the game can be difficult and those subsequent plays still worked for me from a puzzle perspective.

I only have the base game, but I've played Cycle of Eternity three times, Escape from Innsmouth about eight times, Shattered Bonds three times, and Rising Tide once. I have enjoyed every game (except maybe the one where one of my investigators got a broken arm straight away hahaha) and feel like I've gotten decent value out of my purchase already.

The value would have been greatly improved if it wasn't for the iffy quality monster miniatures and the price point was reduced.
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Gil Winters
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Nice review.
Question: Are you satisfied with the gameplay decisions in MoM2? I've played about 10 games so far and it feels to me that you mostly want to interact with everything and the only meaningful decisions are those where you try to min/max and be efficient when it comes to movement, getting the best person to get the right item, have the right characters undertake the right actions, etc. For a traditional Eurogamer (like yourself) I would think that while the game delivers on theme and story, and provides some good mechanics (tests, damage, insanity, exploration) it doesn't sufficiently present 'delicious decisions' for players to agonise over. Your thoughts?
 
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Miguel
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You're right, The fun of playing MoM does not come from the same kind of difficult decisions present in most euro games. There are some nice mechanisms, such as the double sided cards, but overall the systems is really only there to support the exploration of scenarios. I think it's more than sufficient for that, but I wouldn't recommend buying the game looking for clever or difficult decisions to make. You are exploring scanrios that have a narrative structure, that unfold in various ways and that is where the fun is.

I played the rather long "Rising Tide" and, without spoiling anything, that scenario brings a very different type of scenario to the game. It will be interesting to see where the scenario design takes us.

Obviously, there is a progression to how a scenario is typically played. The first play is all about exploring the setting and trying just about everything there is to try. This typically results in a loss, so the subsequent play through(s) will be more about taking what you've learned and trying to be more intentional about solving the adventure.

So, anyway, I guess I parked my "eurogame" expectations at the door with this one! (Just as I do when playing wargames or party games)
 
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