Mar 30 2011 6:07pm

Living the Dream (Well, H.P. Lovecraft’s Dream, Anyway)

Mansion of Madness

I love games that tell a story; this is probably why I am currently participating in three (3) separate roleplaying campaigns and GMing two of them.

But good stories can be found in other games as well; my favorite board game of the moment is almost certainly Battlestar Galactica, a social “who’s the traitor?” game based on the reimagined series that does a fantastic job of marrying mechanics and theme. (The hook: One of you is actually a Cylon, but the mechanics of gameplay make it extremely difficult to know who even if they’re right in front of you.)

Imagine my delight when I stumbled across a new game entirely focused on narrative and storytelling; imagine my further delight that said game is hip-deep in the world and works of H.P. Lovecraft; lastly, imagine my now-unbounded delight to discover that the game is actually really good, independent of and perhaps in spite of the high expectations I already held for it. I am speaking of Mansions of Madness, a team-based Lovecraft investigation game from Fantasy Flight. It’s awesome.

The game is played in scenarios, each with a specific mystery that the players must work together to solve based on clues they encounter while exploring a creepy old house. One player is the Keeper, kind of like a classic Dungeonmaster role; he or she controls the monsters and various other misfortunes that inhabit the mansion. The other players are investigators, all classic Lovecraftian archetypes (the scientist, the historian, the normal dude in over his head, etc.), who explore the modular board and uncover the clues of the slowly-unfolding story. It’s a lot like Betrayal at the House on the Hill in some ways, another classic haunted house board game, but the Keeper is what really makes it new and awesome—because these are specific scenarios, rather than random developments, the sense of story is rich and detailed and surprisingly full.

Let me give you an example; I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum. In one scenario we had two investigators following up a lead in an old house; it turned out the man had lost his wife and as we explored his house we found laboratory notes and journal entries hinting that he had attempted some kind of horrible experiment to bring her back. The deeper we got into the house, the more terrifying it became: lights would click off and on with a will of their own; a madman with an axe shadowed us through the house; a flash of light moving down a distant hall turned out to be a man on fire, desperate to escape and mad with pain. The burning man attacked us and we managed to fight him off, setting fire to the mansion’s foyer in the process. When the madman returned, accompanied now by the shambling corpse of his reanimated wife, we knew it was time to get out of there as fast as we could. The game came down to a final fight in the burning foyer as we struggled to unlock the front door and escape while fending off the last mad strikes from the madman and his zombie wife. It was a fantastic game, at turns spooky and mysterious and heart-pounding, with a great story and a thrilling climax. What more could you want from a game?

A game in progress

Mansions of Madness does have its faults, I admit. The rules are very quick and simple, even for beginners, but the set-up time is ridiculous—a necessary evil, perhaps, to make the game itself go smoothly, but it feels odd to invest as much as a full third of your playing time just building the board and seeding it with clues and items. We’ve also encountered at least one scenario that seems fundamentally broken: whereas the rest of the scenarios encourage and even reward curiosity, one of them actively punishes it, which was a difficult mental gear-shift resulting in our one and only bad experience with the game. Overall, though, it’s a great game and a very immersive experience, embedding the players in a classic Lovecraftian narrative with a perfect blend of deduction, horror, and desperation. If you like horror games, mystery games, or the rich Lovecraft mythos, you owe it to yourself to give Mansions of Madness a try.

Dan Wells is the author of the John Wayne Cleaver trilogy. The final installment, I Don’t Want to Kill You came out from Tor Books on March 29th.

David Thomson
1. ZetaStriker
How does it stack up against, say, Arkham Horror? Obviously this has a stronger narrative element, but having heard about Arkham Horror for years and having just recently played it for the first time, I was absolutely blown away.
Mark Lambert
3. Ranbato
How is replayability? It sounds like it might be 1/scenario.
Bob Gallo
4. StormbringerGrey
Thanks for the review Dan, I’ve run this game twice as keeper and love it. Yeah, the setup is huge but it’s totally worth it.

@Zeta, for me it has retired Arkham Horror. AH has lots of atmosphere but it’s complexity sometimes gets in the way of the narrative. Mansions has a genuine story arc with simpler game play and a much more intimate feeling. Despite simpler mechanics it feels like a richer game in terms of options, you can hide in chests, barricade doors, set things on fire. Much closer to a roleplaying experience without the Game Master overhead. With expansions MoM is likely to become the definitive Lovecraft boardgame.

@Dan – RE: broken scenario – I think I encountered the same problem as you. There is one scenario variant that can result in a Keeper auto win in as few as 2 or 3 turns after a 45 minute setup. Depending on which clues the investigators have uncovered this can happen with no warning. I played through it. I killed off the triggering investigator (and he got his replacement) but kept the game going, I’m glad I did. I won’t spoil the ending but it was tense with all four investigators on their feet shouting at each other for the last 3 turns.
Bob Gallo
5. StormbringerGrey
@Ranbato – for each scenario, the keeper answers a series of multiple choice questions which determine the scenario objective and setup details. The first question sets the story line and is by far the most important with each scenario having 3 possible answers. So, you can look at it as 5 scenarios x 3 story lines each = 15 plays without significant repetition. The investigators should, on average, lose 50% of the plays and will want re-matches to complete the story, so you’re looking at more like 22 plays (the secondary questions move items and change some details so the re-matches will not be exact repeats). And of course, this is Fantasy Flight Games we’re talking about, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that expansions are already at the printer.
6. Sanagi
Interesting. How does Mansions compare specifically to Betrayal at the House on the Hill? It sounds like Mansions of Madness takes a lot longer to set up and lacks the traitor idea that's a big part of what makes Betrayal fun. But the downside is that Betrayal suffers from unclear and poorly thought-out rules. I'm not sure my gaming group has the patience for that much set up, but if it means the game never grinds to a halt while we debate the rules, maybe it'd be worth it.
Marcus W
7. toryx
This sounds fantastic. I've played and loved Arkham Horror and Betrayal at the House on the Hill but from the sounds of it, this takes things to a whole new level.

I do wish games like this could figure out a way to reduce the set-up time. That always severely limits how much actual playtime my friends and I can get with most of these games.

At any rate, I'll be adding Mansions to my list of games to watch out for.
Ashe Armstrong
8. AsheSaoirse
So, is this sort of like Clue, except Lovecraft and more roleplaying elements?
Bob Gallo
9. StormbringerGrey
RE: Setup time – we might be making the setup time sound a little worse than it actually is; all players are actively engaged during the setup and it’s length hasn’t bothered anyone yet. Investigators can be customized somewhat so players spend some time discussing various options (I count that as playing). Investigators are also responsible for laying out the tiles and reading the story prologue. While this is happening the keeper is sorting out his or her seed cards, action cards, etc… The setup is long but no one should be twiddling their thumbs waiting for the game to start. Of course, if you’re hosting the entire game can be setup in advance.

RE: Betrayal at the House on the Hill – I’ve played and enjoyed BatHotH but I think MoM is a much better game both in terms of mechanics and theme. The rules are straight forward, we’ve made small mistakes here and there but nothing major, nothing that stalled or broke the game. The keeper is actively trying to win so you get that feeling of head to head competition right from the start, BatHotH is cooperative until the end game. On top of this, MoM actually has two traitor mechanics. The keeper has an action card called “Uncontrollable Urges” that can be played when an investigator reaches 0 sanity. The investigator still takes his turn as normal but the keeper gets to move the investigator again during the keeper phase and execute a limited range of actions, usually with the intent to cause some mischief. The other traitor mechanic is scenario specific and much more dangerous … I’ll just leave it at that.

@Ashe – the only relation to Clue is that they both take place in a mansion. Much more RPG like but you can’t lose sight of MoM being a game; the keeper isn’t a neutral gamer moderator, the keeper is an active player attempting to win.
Ashe Armstrong
10. AsheSaoirse
@Stormbringer: Okay, so, it's a board game with RPG elements and storydriven. I really want to understand playing as the Keeper better because, quite honestly, that sounds more fun than anything else. Then again, reading about this game has me wanting to create my own Lovecraft RPG just to terrify my players as a storyteller/DM.
Bob Gallo
11. StormbringerGrey
@Ashe –
I’d have to say with Mansions of Madness there are advantages to playing both keeper and investigators and there’s no reason why players can’t switch between scenarios.

Lots more information about MoM here:
and here:

And if you really want a full RPG, there’s no need to write your own. Call of Cthulhu is a great system, it’s been in print for decades, and has volumes of supplements and adventure books:
CoC 6th Edition
Amy G. Dala
12. amygdala11
My game group had some trouble with MoM the other night, most likely stemming from the broken scenario (vaguely described above).

We'll probably try again (we play a lot of Arkham Horror anyways!) but one complaint was that player actions each turn were rather limited for the time it takes to play them. (This is coming from players I ran an entire Descent: Road to Legends campaign with, so we're not inexperienced). As always with FFG games, there's a little too much chrome...
Ashe Armstrong
13. AsheSaoirse
@Stormbringer: I'm not saying there aren't advantages to playing each, just that with Lovecraft, I like the idea of playing the Keeper and coming up with terrifying scenarios. It's the writer in me.

I'd heard of CoC but I'd never looked into it. I tend to bend, change or outright ignore some rules anyways, so I figured doing my own would be best but I will definitely check CoC out and see what I can do. Thanks!

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