RogerBW's Blog

Mansions of Madness Second Edition 15 September 2016

Some friends of mine have got the new edition of Mansions of Madness, and I went along to try it out. Spoilers for the "Escape from Innsmouth" scenario.

It's still one of the Fantasy Flight Cthulhu games, like Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign and indeed Arkham Horror, and so we get the same characters as usual.

But instead of one player sitting out as GM, an app is required to run the game. (This is compulsory: the full rules are not available. And the app is closed-source and only runs on closed platforms.)

Clearly (if you know me) an app-based boardgame isn't something I would ever buy: you can't modify the rules, and you can't expect to get it off the shelf in ten or twenty years' time and still be able to play it. It just doesn't scratch my boardgame as opposed to my computer game itch. At the moment, there isn't even a scenario editor for this: you're limited to the four scenarios in the box, though many more are promised soon (at extra cost of course).

But I was willing to give it a shot, and so we did. Where this immediately has an advantage over the first edition is that setup takes just a few minutes, rather than the hour-plus that it used to; first one selects characters, then the app guides one through any extra cards or tokens one should take, and the first few tiles of the game board. Tokens are added to the board as reminders of things that can be investigated, and also shown on the screen.

(Note the size of the text that was sent via Chromecast to the TV. This would be pretty much unplayable on a phone, and it's a bit tight even on a tablet, as Fantasy Flight's designers have chosen a very small typeface.)

This scenario was "Escape from Innsmouth": the party had been sent there on some minor matter of genealogical research, decided we didn't like it, and now had to get away. We quickly started to find our way to the docks.

But, it turned out, we first had to complete various bits of research or the boat out in the harbour wouldn't come in and pick us up. Still, we could at least burn the place down.

We failed, in the end, because we hadn't opened every single door, box or puzzle in the exact right order. And I think that this is where Fantasy Flight is trying, given the very limited scenario count, to add replayability: given the turn limit there's no practical way to succeed at this on your first play without being very lucky. I suspect one could plot out the exact order in which to do things for a second play (unless of course the app shuffles them around!), and probably fail because it's quite a hard challenge even then, and maybe get a victory on a third or fourth play. There could easily have been variable difficulty levels in the app, but I suspect that having beaten a scenario on "easy" one wouldn't be inclined to go back and try again on "hard".

But that doesn't make it much fun on a first play, where we were at the board for perhaps 5½-6 hours, and particularly once it became clear that we weren't going to win (some five turns before the end) the game did start to wear out its welcome with me.

Where one might have expected the app-based scenarios to be much more flavourful than could be achieved with a few lines of tiny text on a card, this one mostly reminded me of classic text adventures: take item A to puzzle B, use it to get item C which needs to go to puzzle D, except you'll discover them in the order B, D, A. This is a lock you can try to pick, but that lock only opens with a key. Some rigidity is probably inevitable in a mechanical GM, but it can be better disguised. My real narrative problem was that, because we went in an unexpected direction, we didn't get the mission goals that should have been in the initial briefing ("gather the evidence and then escape") - if we'd gone in a different direction at first, we'd have known we had to complete three specific tasks, and we'd have had a more solid structure to work with. Instead, we concentrated on escaping since that was what the briefing had told us to do, got all sorts of messages that made no particular sense out of context, and then had to head back to look for evidence.

At the same time, some of the card text is distinctly ambiguous (just how far can Ashcan Pete's dog carry items?) and sloppy.

It's not terrible, and the app wasn't as annoying as I'd expected (the monster combat in particular was very well handled), but the compromises made in the name of keeping the players interested when new scenarios will clearly be expensive to buy (though I'm not really sure why they should be, given the simplicity of the game engine) make this one that I don't expect to go back to in a hurry.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:50am on 15 September 2016

    Yeah, I think we spotted at least one bug in it but that may have been bad design (not drawing our attention to something the computer had done) or our exhaustion.

    It does not feel like a smooth experience. It's neither fish-nor-fowl-nor-good-red-herring in as much as the app isn't tracking every character and what the app is telling you can easily get away from what you think is happening on the board.

    Promising though and a good build up to that sense of doom that I know so many people play Cthuloid games to experience...

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:04pm on 15 September 2016

    Yes, I can't argue with any of that. In general I'd rather be playing a pure board game, but I've played the old edition and the setup time is, er, substantial; there's stuff you can do with the app, in terms of hidden things without a GM, that isn't practicable any other way.

  3. Posted by Nicola Zee at 01:37pm on 21 September 2016

    I think your comments are fair. I was somewhat disappointed by how disjointed the story was and how ridiculously long it all took. To justify the expensive price-tag FFG went for a small number of long scenarios. Instead they should have mainly gone for several short one-off scenarios with plenty of narrative and story - together with a scenario editor.

    Despite this it was a still a good purchase for me because I own the 1st edition including the expansions and because of this I will be able to play the next 2 stories released by FFG for free as they are reissues of existing figures and tiles with a scenario to go with them.

    I'm still going to be disappointed if they don't release a scenario editor. If they do not, all is not lost as there are already fans who are writing their own scenario editors!

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 01:55pm on 21 September 2016

    It seems to hit a sour spot: the game mechanics are concealed behind the app, but at the same time they feel like the relatively crude mechanics we used in first edition. If you're going to hide everything away, you can make it horrendously complex, with tiny little influences from all over the board; or you can have it out in the open to appeal to people like me who like to "solve" systems of rules. But in its current state the game achieves neither.

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