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

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

Hint: that giant worm in the middle of the board is bad

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.


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