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Subject: THE Lovecraftian Boardgame rss

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Martin Presley
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As background, if I had to recommend just one table top role-playing game, it would be Call of Cthulhu. It's a game everyone already knows how to play; you take on the role of a normal person; you're not some fantasy wizard or cybered-up runner. The setting is the Earth we're all familiar with. And can you count to 100? Good, you can do all the math the system requires. Add to that the almost universal appeal of Lovecraftian horror: man confronting his smallness and fragility in the eye of an uncaring universe. If you've ever wondered about these arr-pee-gees, and want to know where to start looking, look no further.

That said, what if you came to me and confessed you possessed an intense agoraphobia which makes the prospect of roleplaying an intensely neurotic experience, but still want to run away from unknowable squid monsters? Imagine me now thrusting a large box into your chest, and announcing the title in the style of a man raised exclusively by a pair of trumpeters, "MANSIONS OF MADNESS".

Oh man, this game comes together in all the right ways. Let me give you a scenario that came up in a game I had not too long ago. Investigators saw the Keeper, the one-man team controlling the forces of the titular mansion, remove three cultists, replacing this vacancy with an unpronounceable horror so large it takes up the entire physical space of the room, and their heads found their way into their hands in despair. A nightmare of both appearance and statistics is in the way of the final clue they need to stop me. They could run past this new threat, but it gets an attack for that. Is it worth the risk? Is it smart to send someone low on sanity but high on dodge, or vice versa? And what if the Keeper is holding a card that will, upon an investigator taking damage, screw him like the card was a bulldozer on Viagra?

Certainly, the Keeper has so many ways to demoralize, terrorize, and just straight-up murder the players it's stunning. He has his actions, which are the bread and butter powers of the scenario. Then there are Mythos cards, which can interrupt and hamper Investigator turns. Then there are Trauma cards, maladies of the body or mind that can be played in response to injury or sanity loss. Then there are the monsters themselves. Then there is the fact that the Keeper starts out knowing what the objectives of the scenario are, while the Investigators start off in the dark.

Sounds like the Investigators haven't a chance, right? It does look bad, but good God, they are some tough bastards. Sometimes the Keeper will throw monsters at them again and again, holding a devastating Trauma card like a secret barely contained by a six year old child, just needing that single hit. The investigator dodges the mi-go's stun ray. Dodges the Hound's bite. Pushes the zombie off him. Trips the cultist, actually doing it damage in the process. You might even land a wound, only to have it mitigated by card or special ability. These are men and women who simply at times refuse to die.

That, right there, is the Lovecraftian dichotomy that no other game gives you. The one side, the horrors, the Mythos, capable of untold cruelties and nightmarish obstacles. They cannot be stopped; slowed or banished perhaps, but it is always a temporary solution. But these humans on the other side, they fight through it; they endure to the end, to put an end to the terrors. I have not played a game of Mansions of Madness where some player did not, at some point, believe there was no way to win and they were all well and truly doomed. And I have also not played a game where that was true. So often the game will come down to a single roll, a final puzzle, the LAST TURN before the outcome is settled. Tension everywhere, followed by laughter and cheers.

And those components! There's practically enough there to drown an infant in! Now you might be thinking, Mansions must be complex if it has all those bits in it. That my friend is called bigotry; now let me educate away your prejudice. Just like the perennial Call of Cthulhu, it couldn't be simpler. I'll teach you all you need to know to get started. Every investigator gets a turn, where they can move two, and do an action, in any order. Actions include investigation, combat, or even a third move. Then the Keeper gets his malign turn. He starts by harvesting his grim resource, Threat. All his actions cost threat, you see. After he does all the deeds he wants/can afford, all monsters get a swing at nearby investigators. Then a token is placed on a game clock, and it's the investigators turn again. All actions are resolved by drawing a card, or rolling a single die. You are now qualified to play Mansions of Madness; all other rules can be explained along the way or are on cards. Just lovely.

One thing about those bits though, the setup IS long. And if you mess up the setup of the cards in the mansion, it can quite easily break the game, which makes setup extend even more as you double-check all your work. Even then though, the game easily clocks in at two to three hours; hardly outrageous. If I was to be critical here (and I am), there are more legitimate complaints; the game comes with only 5 scenarios to choose from, with one of them being just atrociously designed, and another has a potential instant-lose-upon-reveal item card that investigators can trip over on turn 2. Combined with the first-printing, which contained situational but game-breaking bugs and several printing errors, it suggests at a lack of play-testing in general. These errors and exploits, like infinite threat loops, were fixed in subsequent print runs, but the poorly designed scenario (called Classroom Curses) remains. This might not be a big deal in another game, but the fact that each scenario is best when played for the first time means having a single bad scenario is a heavy loss. There are multiple set ups and objectives for each scenario, so it's not as if there is no replay value, and it still is fun the second or third time through. It's just sad that the best of Mansions ends that much sooner.

There's so much more I could talk about. There's how each monster starts off with it's stats largely concealed, so the characters don't know quite what any one threat is capable of until they start fighting. Or how there are actual logic puzzles in the game, requiring the player, not the character, to solve them; but some characters get more moves per attempt that others. Or how the Keeper benefits from not killing players too quickly, preferring to drive them mad and make them suffer while slowly tightening the noose. And to boot, it's so easy to get non-gamer friends interested in it. "It's a board game about investigating a haunted house", you say. Even if they can't tell Dominion apart from Twilight Imperium and have never read a word of Lovecraft, I guarantee they will be intrigued. "How does it pull that off?", they will ask. "Incredibly well", you reply.

A million clever ideas, put together in a lucid, cohesive package. Yes the game has its flaws, but I just love it to bits, in spite of those flaws. It works so hard to capture the earnest feel of horror, in the Lovecraft mold, and so often succeeds. Plain and simple, it's a treat. A joy. It's the Lovecraft board game we've deserved, and now it's here. Celebrate.
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Mir
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Quote:
And those components! There's practically enough there to drown an infant in!


I think you should stop playing this game for a while. The theme's taking over!
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Simon Harris
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mace92 wrote:
Quote:
And those components! There's practically enough there to drown an infant in!


I think you should stop playing this game for a while. The theme's taking over!

Quite right, can't see a jury buying that defense gulp

Simon
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Chick Lewis
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Nice review, thanks for writing it up. You deserve a little geek gold.

I feel much the same as you about this game.
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Martin Presley
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mace92 wrote:
Quote:
And those components! There's practically enough there to drown an infant in!


I think you should stop playing this game for a while. The theme's taking over!


Ha, you might be right. I should play Investigator more often.

chicklewis wrote:
Nice review, thanks for writing it up. You deserve a little geek gold.

I feel much the same as you about this game.


Thanks! Glad you liked it.
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Sebastian Beck
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Good review. Although I begin to dislike the game because at first I was really impressed by the cool bits and mechanics. But after a while I had to recognize that the game itself is quite too simple, especially for the investigators. You call it an advantage that everything is card driven; in my opinion this is one of the biggest problems of the game.

The investigators are just moving and dealing with the card results - they cannot plan anything. They attack a monster and draw a card without knowing on which attribute they have to roll on.

Yes, the game really creates a good atmosphere but the game design as a whole feels to flat and simple for me.

After playing the scenarios multiple times I have to admit that Mansions of Madness is a prototype of an impostor!
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Martin Presley
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Beckikaze wrote:
Good review. Although I begin to dislike the game because at first I was really impressed by the cool bits and mechanics. But after a while I had to recognize that the game itself is quite too simple, especially for the investigators. You call it an advantage that everything is card driven; in my opinion this is one of the biggest problems of the game.

The investigators are just moving and dealing with the card results - they cannot plan anything. They attack a monster and draw a card without knowing on which attribute they have to roll on.

Yes, the game really creates a good atmosphere but the game design as a whole feels to flat and simple for me.


But it's so tense because of that! You don't know what kind of attack you're going to draw, and if you'll land it; between that and the larger tension of the Keeper starting out in a position of knowledge and the Investigators being in the dark, it's all part of the excitement.

I'll readily admit if what you want to play is a real brain-burner, MoM isn't the game for you. It's Ameritrash doing what Ameritrash does best, evoking a theme and creating a dramatic experience, but it's not going to scratch the same itch that, say, Power Grid or Dominion hit.
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J Boomhower
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I know it's been before (and again) but I will ask again because I face the choice...being such a fan of the RPG (which I also own and adore), would you choose Mansions over Arkham Horror and why?
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Martin Presley
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MhidDa wrote:
I know it's been before (and again) but I will ask again because I face the choice...being such a fan of the RPG (which I also own and adore), would you choose Mansions over Arkham Horror and why?


Mansions is both truer to the source material, and a better designed game, than Arkham Horror, so I'd absolutely put Mansions out in front. As a disclaimer, I feel that AH is just not a very good game: it's deeply random, tactically shallow, drags on forever, except for the times you will just lose in an hour or two, and does very little to evoke a theme beyond flavor text and artwork. There ARE a lot of people that love AH, so it must be doing something right, but I've never seen it.

Mansions will feel both in scope and in mechanics closer to the Cthulhu RPG though, no question, regardless of the independent merits of AH as a game.
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Freelance Police
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MhidDa wrote:
I know it's been before (and again) but I will ask again because I face the choice...being such a fan of the RPG (which I also own and adore), would you choose Mansions over Arkham Horror and why?


I like the combat resolution decks. Unlike most RPGs, you can no longer be confident that you'll kill off the monster because you have 80% Shotgun. MoM also has 25mm figures and floor plans, *perfect* to play for horror RPGs. I'm pretty sure that you can adapt any Call of Cthulhu adventure to the MoM system.

Plug: Look for the *free* Call of Cthulhu RPG adventures on DriveThruRPG.net. Definitely look at The Boarding House (sp)!
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Kevin Outlaw
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hoobajoo wrote:


...it's deeply random, tactically shallow, drags on forever, except for the times you will just lose in an hour or two, and does very little to evoke a theme beyond flavor text and artwork.


Fine, fine, but tell us your opinions on Arkham Horror. He he.

Sorry, couldn't resist - the above quote could be leveled just as easily at Mansions of Madness, which is random and tactically shallow, sometimes a drag, and sometimes too quick.

MoM does a MUCH better job of implementing the theme (especially by limited the amount and types of monsters you will face in any given scenario - AH always feels a bit far from the source when there are 10 different mythos beasties just wandering around the streets), but Lovecraft is a hard theme to pin down, and while I think MoM is as close as you can get in a board game, it still falls short of recreating a true Lovecraft vibe.

I absolutely love both games, even with their many many many many faults; they are both completely different and are both perfect in their own ways for certain situaions and groups. I agree with you 100% that if you are coming from the RPG, go with MoM as it is going to give you more of the theme you want. Not only that, but as already mentioned, all the floorplans and figures can be put to good use in your RPGs too.
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Bowie Tsang
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I completely agree with you. MoM/AH are both imperfect. It is the theme that matters and I think MoM is better at carrying that out.
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