Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mansions of Madness Review - A Word to the Wise

Wherein Your Humble Narrator Describes the Temporal and Structural Horrors of a Board Game of Cyclopean Horrors.

The Narrative
(Note, you can skip below to the summary, if you're not interested in the game's flavor...)

One fated afternoon, my wife and I receive an invitation of vague portent, to attend a re-creation of a series of mysterious events, in some variety of dwelling. With the descriptor, Arkham Horror, my partner expects some tale describing the exploits of one Caped Crusader, but this story is much older.

One such structure.
We arrive at dusk, and discover a great structure being assembled.

The architectural detail is exact and atmospheric. It has been designed to represent many such tales of intrigue and terror. The rooms have been built sturdily and have a rich texture of print and physical construction.

I note that one room has no entry, but this is assumed to be one component of the schema  representing the grand, unknowable intellect that created this seemingly defunct dwelling. However, we should have heeded this warning.

As this house is assembled, so, too are the inhabitants. We glimpse great horrors which our intrepid investigators may combat.
Representations of foes.
These foes are represented by small statues formed of appropriately ancient biological matter, processed and reformed as figurines. They do not have quite the care given to them as the architectural representations do, but are still sufficiently ominous in tone to pique the interest of all parties involved.

Along with these, we visitors are are presented with more statues, representing each personality we will use to reenact this dark night's events.

There is a great gallery of personalities from which to choose, each with their own tale leading them to this dark mansion, and choices we can make to accomodate their particular disposition, including physical, mental, constitutional, and magical traits, along with particular personal possessions which may help them survive the night.

I pick a daring detective, with a fine fedora and finer hand guns. My wife picks a scientist who possesses great intellect and a strange machine to protect her surroundings from any dangerous presences. Our colleague chooses an esteemed archaeologist, and our party is rounded out by another actor from out of town, ironically playing the local and his hound.

All this while, our fifth participant is preparing for his duty, attempting to act as the dread intelligence which we are to combat.

The rules of the engagement are explained: a series of contests are resolved, based on the chance of cards and dice.

Our fifth member continues to prepare.

We tire of waiting.

We investigators play a classic game with less literal representations. Through luck and skill, I win our short skirmish in Scrabble with fifty-five points, where victory was set at fifty.

Then, more than an hour after we began arranging for our reenactment, it begins. We learn of the mysterious circumstances under which we adventurers arrive at the ominous mansion, and begin to enact our journey.

Our archaeologist breaks a safe with much alacrity, and reveals a sedative, with which one might calm one's nerves or aid a fellow in distress.

Our scientist stumbles into a darkened study, blinded by the surprising gloom.

Our local and his dog follows to gallantly protect such a scientist.

Seeing the less physically adept of our group protected by the staunch local, your humble narrator creeps into an adjacent room, only to find a safe requiring a key.

The mystical presence summons a witch, which is banished by our scientist's eldritch device.

We begin our second series of movements. The scientist leaves the frighteningly darkened chamber, to explore further down the hallway that our aged explorer is already in.

The man with his quadrupedal friend discovers a mighty artifact, but, not understanding or being able to utilise the device, magnanimously hands it to the architect whose path he has intersected.

Your detective-narrator, continues his exploration, into a scene of horror. Fortunately, he also finds in this room some courage of alcoholic variety, which which to quell some fear.

The horror fails to react.

We enter our third sequence.

Ever the loner and the explorer, your trenchcoat-wearing pistoleer intends to use his sleuthing abilities to gain access to the adjacent freezer.

Instead of finding a lock, I discover that in this freezer, in fact, lies a dormant evil which, immediately and without attempt at evasion, kills my hapless noir archetype.

Suffice to say, we, the investigators are shocked but excited. My character's death impresses upon us the severity and stakes involved in this mansion.

I begin, as my survivors continue to explore, to construct a new persona with which to combat evil, beginning on our next sequence. I choose another noir archetype, a femme fatale, dressed in fewer, but equally stylish, garments, and also bearing handguns, and begin to prepare for my re-entry with a new adventurer.

At this point, our director of most sinister beings interrupts us. He has overlooked a clause. He informs us that, in fact, my detective's entry into the freezer and subsequent death has unleashed great horror upon all parties involved, dooming them all.

Thus ends our journey.

In summary:
We spent an hour plus setting up, played a short game of Scrabble as the Game Master continued setting up, and played for three turns, at which point, my character opened a random door, which caused us to lose the game, maybe fifteen minutes into it, having never actually played one combat, and only having had three tests (one when the archaeologist picked the safe, and two for fear when the witch arrived).

We were all pretty pissed off, probably most of all, the new owner of the game.

The Flawed Scenario
The first issue: there was a warning clue (time-sensitive) to not go in to the freezer. This would be in the bottom of the fourth turn (meaning we could first react at the top of the fifth). However, with no narrative and only three passages to explore (with four player characters), chances were pretty strong that, with only three challenges within three turns' movement of the entrance, one of us would have encountered the freezer, considering that the object of the game is exploration.

The clue appears too late, assuming anything other than extreme caution advancing, in a game designed with a turn limit and encouraging (in theory) exploration.

The second issue: there are clues hidden in the mansion. However, the first hidden clue is entirely (!) inaccessible. Looking for errata, we found that two key tiles were, in fact, positioned incorrectly, denying both passages to where we were required to go.

The scenario, as printed, was impossible to win, except by chance.

The third issue: even with this correction, there was no incentive to pick one passage over another, meaning that, even with the fourth passage accessible, there's still a high chance that, with four players, one will pick the route that leads to the freezer.

There was no clear direction.

The fourth issue: assuming that the investigators hear the first clue (see #1), they still need to be sure it's not a bluff. Either way, it basically becomes a 50/50 chance, involving the characters choosing to believe the clue or not (remember, this is an exploration game, so it might be atmosphere). If the investigators avoid the freezer, the only way for the Game Master to win is to run out the clock.

The objectives are poorly structured.

The Flawed Game
In short, Mansions of Madness suffers from what many contemporary board games suffer from. The rules are far more elaborate than they need to be: creative organization could eliminate half the complexity of the game. You don't need 20+ spell cards, 7 different stats, four specific decks plus dice to represent combat, and "choose your own adventure" charts to pick the scenario.

My wife and I have been playing, in contrast, the (updated, but mostly mechanically unchanged) 1989 narrative board game Space Hulk for the first time, going through the scenarios. (This comparison is made, as one of the earliest narrative board games focusing on a structure with a clear antagonist and modular setup/scenario play). There are a total of a half-dozen or so well-defined actions, and new rules are slowly integrated in to the game. There are 2-5 dice involved in any action, and it's based on simple comparisons. There are no RPG elements, other than narratively linked scenarios. Even when severely unbalanced, we have both enjoyed the gameplay.

Mansions of Madness, on the other hand feels, essentially, like a video game. Rather, it feels like it should have been one. We took more than an hour to set up a 15-minute game. The twist ending of the scenario was abrupt and impressive, but, in light of the emotional and temporal investment, a complete letdown. In contrast, 15 minutes of gameplay (with little to no setup) for an abrupt ending could have been pretty gutsy, rather than frustrating.

In an exploration-based game with a very long setup time, having any ending that happens early and discourages exploration is a terrible idea, in my opinion as a casual player.

My wife and I agreed that that scenario would color our entire perception of the game, and we'd be second-guessing and attempting to metagame a boardgame, rather than playing out a narrative.

This metagaming continues, as, with a finite number of scenarios, if one were to become familiar with the scenarios, it would be more factor of metagaming and calling the bluff of the Game Master, more than playing a game. In short, the game has terrible replay value, despite being designed as a variable game.

I typically ascribe to the concept, "If you don't have anything good to say..." however, I wrote this review as a warning and analysis, because the game left a bad feeling with everyone involved. Fantasy Flight Games has great production values, and this is no exception, but, for this expensive of a board game, I would warn anyone away from this game.

Note: this was, obviously, based on a single experience. Maybe this is the exception, and I'd be pleased to hear otherwise, but, in my opinion, this scenario is bad for the health of the game, and I feel the game has some other fundamental flaws.