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Thursday
Aug182011

A review of Mansions of Madness

 

Mansions of Madness is fairly unique in the board game space, as it positions itself as a storytelling game. This started me thinking about story in board games, and how it impacts the play experience. Because Mansions of Madness is so closely tied to the concept of story, I want to give my take on story in games before I start in on my review of the game.

Story in games:

I enjoy a wide gamut of game genres, but when it comes down to it, I have a special affinity with those that are story driven. The game sessions that I fondly remember, and excitedly describe to my friends, always have a strong and compelling emotional element. This makes sense, because without an emotional component there would be no story to tell. When the human element is removed, what remains is no longer a story, but a series of empty machinations. People innately realize that there is a difference between abstract movement and meaningful movement – between description and story. This idea often manifests itself in discussion of board games as “Mechanics vs. Theme”. Mechanics are the movement of the pieces, and the rules that must be followed during play, whereas the theme consists of the art, player motivations, and the real or imaginary ideas that the pieces in the game represent. Many abstract games are accused of having a “pasted on” theme, which is often used as a thinly veiled way of saying the game does not deliver a story. This is where my opinion of story may differ from the mainstream.

Story can appear under many different guises outside of the typical cut-scenes in video games, or back-story narrative in board games, and is much more pervasive than may be immediately apparent. Even games like the epitomic abstract “Chess” can tell a compelling story through the give and take of positional advantage. In these instances, however, the story isn’t found on the board, or in the pieces, but instead manifests from the interaction between the players, and is facilitated by the mechanics of the game. Even when completely devoid of theme, games can tell stories of loss and victory; clever cunning and missed opportunity; and can hide within their simple interactions the gamut of human emotion. After all, most sports are abstract games that are watched and loved by millions, not for their mechanics, but for the inherent story that is created through the interaction of the players.

When refined into its essence, a game’s story comes from its ability to elicit this emotional response. Theme is often a key ingredient in facilitating these feelings, and does so by enhancing the player’s immersion in the game world, but in the end, theme is still only a tool to help develop the story. The players themselves fill the role of characters within the story of a game, and the emotion that makes the game’s mechanics meaningful must come from within the players. With this in mind, story becomes a non-corporeal concept that rises above simple mechanics and theme, and lives on its own as a separate idea. Story is the brass ring that game designers are reaching to grab, because story is synonymous with player engagement.

There is an ongoing discussion about what makes a good game. The term “Balance” is bandied about a lot in these dialogues. Balance is the perceived fairness in a game; the potential for all players to achieve victory, given the same amount of effort. Some go so far as to say that a game which is unbalanced is fundamentally broken. Unbalanced gameplay can elicit strong emotional response just like a good story, but in many contexts this response can be negative, and directed towards the game itself. The player who experiences this will still relate his gameplay story to others, but this story may very well consist of a string of colorful expletives, and end with the words “never playing again”.

It’s in this situation, however, that theme can actually turn a negative game experience into a positive one. An unbalanced abstract game gives the player no frame of reference as to why the game is unbalanced, and as a result, the player has nowhere to channel his emotional response. But when theme is added to the same game, the player gains a frame of reference which allows him to justify the difference in difficulty; and what was a negative aspect of the abstract game, can become a positive aspect of a themed game. If one player is representing a ragtag band of rebels, and another controlling an oppressive dictatorship, it would make little sense for both sides to be equally balanced from a theme perspective. In fact, by adding that element of skewed odds, the game experience is often made much more emotionally compelling for the players involved.

That’s not to say that theme fixes everything, though. The theme of a game is still just a tool to justify the game mechanics. The choices that the player makes must be interesting, and empower him to feel that he is driving the direction of his play experience. There is a term used in film study: “Suspension of Disbelief”. This describes the ability of a film to immerse the viewer so much that he doesn’t notice the limitations of the medium, or discontinuities in the story. This idea can be applied to games as well: A player has a very limited number of decisions that he can make during most games, and he must play within the confines of the game rules and components offered. What amounts to moving bits around a board, and generating random numbers transforms into something much more engrossing during play, because the player looks past the limitations of the cardboard and plastic that make up the game components, and instead becomes immersed within the confines of the game mechanics and theme. If those mechanics become too dull, or are overly complicated, that suspension of disbelief is broken, the game components revert back to being bits of cardboard and plastic, and the player can no longer justify his emotional reaction within the confines of the game.

Getting that perfect mixture of theme and mechanics can be a difficult proposition. There is no magical formula for creating a good game, yet there are a multitude of different paths to achieve compelling gameplay. Not every game hits that mark, but when a game does hit that sweet spot, the experience is sublime.

The Game:

Mansions of Madness is a game designed by Corey Konieczka, and published by Fantasy Flight Games. When it comes to theme, Mansions of Madness has it in spades, even more so than the typical Fantasy Flight fare – and that is saying a lot. Its story-driven design aspires to take that step beyond pure theme, and strives to deliver a marriage of balanced mechanics and story through a uniquely focused gameplay experience.

In Mansions of Madness, players take on the role of individuals who find themselves investigating strange, supernatural events in a creepy mansion. The investigators must struggle to combat creatures, explore the mansion, search for clues, and solve puzzles to ultimately put an end to the unspeakable horror that confronts them. Like several other Fantasy Flight games, Mansions of Madness takes place in the world of the Cthulu Mythos, modeled after writer H.P. Lovecraft’s early 20th century short stories and novels.

Mansions of Madness shares many similarities with some other popular games on the market; most notable are Fantasy Flight’s own Arkham Horror, and Wizards of the Coast’s Betrayal at House on the Hill. Despite these similarities, however, Mansions of Madness manages to find its own unique identity, and any does not feel derivative. Like some other games in the genre,  Mansions of Madness uses modular tiles to build its vivid game board, but unlike most games with tile based boards, the tiles are not arranged randomly. In fact, the random elements found in Mansions of Madness are mostly relegated to combat, and skill tests alone. The majority of the game is tightly moderated, and in some ways resembles a roleplaying module more than a board game.

Like a role-playing game, Mansions of Madness is mostly a cooperative experience. All the players, except for a single player called the “Keeper” are working together towards a common goal. The “Keeper” is a bit different; he fills a role similar to the Game Master in a roleplaying game. Unlike roleplaying games, however, this “Keeper” player is actually in competition with the other players, and has his own set of conditions to win the game. Before the game even starts, one of the 5 possible scenarios in the rulebook is chosen, and the modular game board is arranged as indicated by that particular scenario. Although there are only 5 scenarios, each scenario contains a handful of different possible variations from which the keeper can choose. Each scenario has detailed instructions about which of the game’s many cards will be used, as well as how they are arranged and placed. These cards contain clues, puzzles, and items that the investigators will encounter, and also act as a way to control the tempo of the game.

Although this merging of role-playing concepts with board games is unique and refreshing, I did find that there were some implementation issues that lessened the experience for me. Because the game relies so much on its back story and theme to drive the game forward, it is paramount that the story itself is compelling. Unfortunately, if that story never really coalesces, the game can feel flat. The first scenario in Mansions of Madness never really clicked for my group, and as a result, created some apathy towards the game. Much of the problem revolved around the fact that this introductory scenario didn’t build on what players were familiar with. When confronted with monsters, the players sought combat, instead of the strategic exploration and evasion which is really at the core of Mansions of Madness. The first scenario really doesn’t do much to anticipate this behavior, or guide the players back on track. A bit more direct instruction in the first scenario would have properly set the stage for more subtlety in later scenarios, and solved the issue of new players wandering around aimlessly.

Another area that could have been improved was the delivery of the backstory itself. Aside from a few detailed paragraphs setting up the scenario, all other plot based information is relayed through tiny cards that are roughly the size of business cards. This limits the amount of prose in the game, and turns the plot into a vague outline. Adding more detailed and lengthy text in the game manual, or in a small per-scenario booklet would have added some needed depth to the various plots. Normally, in less directed games, it is up to the players to create their own story, and vague flavor text is more of a snippet to spark the imagination, and in that context brief flavor text is perfectly enjoyable. Mansions of Madness however, structures it’s scenarios in a way that dissuades players from free-form movement. In fact, the placement of cards in each scenario is explicitly designed to limit player progression. Players literally cannot move into certain areas without having met specific prerequisites in the game; and there are from three to six of these chokepoints in each scenario. Players instinctually look to the theme to justify these roadblocks, and with only a smattering of text to explain each one, the story ends up feeling empty. Limiting player movement isn’t a bad thing though, it is important to maintain the pacing of the game; there is just a lot of missed opportunity regarding storytelling that could have been harnessed with this decidedly linear progression.

Mansions of Madness supports from 2-5 players, but really plays best at the high end of that range. With more players in the game, more things are happening due to the increased number of actions that the keeper can take with a higher player count. In the relative starkness of the plot, more actions mean more potential for the players to do interesting things. This dynamic turns Mansions of Madness into more of a social game, just like the roleplaying games that it loosely models. The players’ success or failure in the game really hinges on their ability to work well together, and it’s this interaction that fuels the fun-factor in the game. With a length of 2-3 hours per session, it is important that players stay engaged, or else the game can start to drag.

While Fantasy Flight suggests a minimum player age of 13, this is due more to the theme and content of the game than the mechanics. Mansions of Madness has a horror theme that takes itself very seriously, with gory illustrations on the components, some grisly descriptions on the cards, and foreign, insect-like creatures found in the box. In addition to the general horror aspects of the theme, Mansions of Madness also assumes a bit of knowledge about the Cthulu Mythos, as it gives no explanations about what the strange creatures the investigators encounter are, or where they came from. This can lead to questions from players such as “Is this a Cthulu?”, while pointing at the large Shoggoth miniature; or incredulous looks when they are told that the Shoggoth CAN fit through the narrow passage because he is an inter-dimensional being, and doesn’t have to follow the same physical laws as we do. This doesn’t mean that the players won’t enjoy the game, but it does break a bit of the suspension of disbelief that Mansions of Madness relies on.

Components:

The artwork that graces the mountain of components in Mansions of Madness is visually stunning. Cards make up a good majority of the content, and are used to depict character statistics, to represent items and obstacles, and to represent player and creature actions, among other things. The cards come in two sizes: a smaller business card size that represents items, obstacles, and other things that can be found on the game board; and a larger playing card size that represents actions the keeper can take, character sheets, combat actions, events, and anything else manipulated outside the confines of the game board.

There are a ton of tokens in the Mansions of Madness box as well. These represent different game concepts, such as threat (The keeper’s form of currency), damage, insanity, time, and various environmental and status effects. The game also contains a handful of jigsaw-puzzle-like tokens used for solving the various conundrums the investigators will encounter during the game. The tokens are nice and thick, vibrantly colored, and a pleasure to handle.

The board itself is very interesting; it is put together for each scenario, by arranging double-sided modular tiles into a predetermined configuration that is described in the investigator manual. Each tile depicts one or more rooms, and each room is further subdivided into individual spaces (usually one or two per room, but more for larger rooms and outdoor areas). While the room divisions are bold and well defined, it can be easy to forget about the individual spaces sometimes, especially when there are a large number of miniatures in the room.

The plastic figures that come with the game are truly spectacular. They look amazing and some of them are truly massive in size. Each monster has unique information about it printed on a small square token; with public information on the front, and secret information on the back. Each figure attaches to an ingenious black base that has a slot in the side which allows a monster token to slide into it. The base also has cutouts on the top to allow the public information to show through, and another on the bottom to allow easy access to the secret information. If this wasn’t cool enough, each base also has a small hook to which wound tokens can be attached, making all the required information about a creature available at a glance, during play. With so many components in the game, the ability to keep all the monster information in one place without the need to cross-reference a separate character sheet is fantastic. The only issue with these clever miniature stands is the tendency of the miniatures to fall off of the little pegs that hold them on, but a dab of glue easily solves that issue.

Mansions of Madness comes with three rulebooks (although two of these are combined into a single physical booklet): The Rules of Play, which is nicely illustrated with large, full color pictures, and describes the rules of the game in a very clear and concise manner; the investigator’s book that contains the tile placement, room layout, and a small backstory for each scenario; and the keeper’s book, which contains the placement of all of the item cards, clue cards, puzzles, and obstacles for each of the different variations of the scenarios. All of these manuals are full of theme, great artwork, and clear instructions. A better index, or reference sheet could have made looking up rules questions during the game much more streamlined, but the manual is arranged in a manner that makes it easy to flip through it and answer that pesky rules question.

Setup:

Setup in Mansions of Madness takes quite a while, and can be very confusing at first. Setup can easily take thirty minutes. The nature of the game requires that the components are meticulously sorted, ordered, and placed in very specific spots in the play area. This process is delegated between the keeper and the investigators, with the investigators setting up the game board, and the keeper collecting, sorting, and ordering the appropriate cards for the scenario. This division of labor helps cut down on the setup time, and gives the players an opportunity to better learn the components they are about to use during the game.

The investigator setup involves building the game board, by placing tiles according to the illustration in the manual. Because the investigators set up the board, they get a better idea of how rooms are laid out, and can plan routes through the mansion in their head. There is a negative side to this, however; players do not truly get that sense of exploration and discovery of the mansion during the game. From a tactical standpoint, it is really necessary for the players to know the layout of the entire game board up front, but this necessity works against the exploration theme that Mansions of Madness tries so hard to cultivate.

Setting up the board correctly is imperative. Many tiles look similar to other tiles, and can be unintentionally rotated, making it easy to accidentally place a tile in the wrong configuration. This can have significant gameplay impact, sometimes moving doors so that portions of the mansion are made inaccessible. It is worthwhile to make a second pass across the board to make sure that everything is placed correctly.

After the investigators have set up the board, they select characters. There are a handful of different characters to choose from, each with a different backstory, and different stats. The distribution of characters allows for a good variety, and the backstories are entertaining to read, and help players to get into character. Investigators further customize their characters by choosing from a selection of traits and special abilities that have been tailored for each. Some of these traits allow characters to start the game with specific items, which they receive after selecting the appropriate trait.

At the end up setup, the players read the scenario’s backstory from the investigator’s manual. This is usually half of a page of text, setting the mood, and giving the players a motivation for being in the mansion. This text is easily the most detailed piece of fiction in the game, and it would have been nice to see this level of detail in other text found in the game.

While the players are performing their half of the setup, the keeper is tasked with setting up the plot points in the game. The keeper is able to select some variations of the story by answering questions from the keeper manual. For each answer he will place a corresponding, numbered tile onto the table. These questions usually consist of one who's answer determines the goal of the particular scenario, and a handful of other questions that determine where in the mansion particular events will occur. While the first question can fundamentally change the scenario, the other questions just determine where particular events occur so that there is some replayability in the scenarios.

Based on the choices that the keeper made, he will refer to a table in the keeper’s manual, which will tell him what cards he will be using for the scenario, how to order them, and where to put them on the board. In order to correctly drive the game plot forward, certain cards must be placed in certain rooms. Any cards that do not belong in a specific room are randomly distributed in the remaining, empty rooms. This is a very lengthy process that is prone to error, and if the keeper accidentally looks at the card setup for answer “3a” when he answered “3b”, the game can become unwinnable. If you are easily distracted, like me, conversation during the setup process can cause it to take much longer than it normally would. In fact, for this reason, I prefer to privately set up the scenario ahead of time, before the game starts.

After the setup is complete, the keeper reads the flavor text from the keeper manual aloud. This narrative is just more than simple flavor text, and the keeper should probably reiterate this fact to new players. The  text on the clue cards, and in the opening story actually tell the players where they need to explore. If it mentions incontinence (it doesn't), then the investigators should probably make their way to the bathroom, or risk wandering around aimlessly.

Mechanics:

Mansions of Madness has quite a few rules, although some of them never come into play unless you are tackling certain scenarios. The core rules are fairly simple, however, and can be taught fairly quickly. In fact, if the keeper sets up the game ahead of time, Mansions of Madness is a good candidate for a game that can be taught while playing.

For the investigators, the core concept in Mansions of Madness is exploration. The investigators start the game without knowing their objective, and they must explore, and find clues to reveal it. This forces the player to listen to the clues, and plot points that are revealed throughout the game. These hidden objectives and secret clues add an exciting mystery to the game if you are willing to immerse yourself in the story, but players who ignore this information are at a disadvantage, and will find themselves frustrated, and feeling like they don't know what to do next.

When exploring the mansion, there are two phases to the game: the investigator phase, and the keeper phase. During the investigator phase, each of the investigator players can take two movements, and one action, in any order. For each movement, a player can move his miniature to an adjacent or diagonal space, as long as there is not a wall in the way. Sometimes, when moving into a new room, it will contain a lock card. When this happens, all movement stops, and the player must successfully resolve the lock card before moving forward.

These lock cards are a mechanic that Mansions of Madness uses to control the tempo of the game, and ensure that the plot unfolds properly. In order to enter the room, the player has to use a specific item that is associated with the type of lock, or solve a puzzle to open the door; the requirements are printed on the card. If the player succeeds, he can continue his movement, but if he does not, he must end his movement, and cannot enter the room.

Sometimes, the player will enter a room with a monster, or other environmental effect, and will have to test for horror. Horror and insanity are prevalent in the Cthulu Mythos. The creatures in Lovecraft’s writings are so horrible, that just looking at them can cause insanity in mortal men. This idea is presented in Mansions of Madness as a player statistic called “sanity”. As the player encounters things in the mansion, he will have to test his will against the horrors that he finds. If he fails this test, he will find that his psyche takes damage in the form of horror tokens. If the investigator takes too many horror tokens, he goes insane, which allows the keeper to do some pretty nasty stuff to them.

Checking for horror is done using a simple “skill check”. This “skill check” process is performed during horror checks, combat, and in response to certain game events that require a player to test his skill. The player rolls a 10 sided die, and if the result is equal to, or less than the skill he is testing, he passes, otherwise he fails, and received a horror token. Some tasks are harder than others though, and may modify the number that the player must roll to succeed. The players also have a small number of “skill point” tokens that they can expend before rolling to add their luck statistic to the skill they are testing. These skill points are a limited resource though, and must be used wisely.

Aside from the two movements, an investigator player can take one action per turn. These actions are all very intuitive, and it isn’t difficult to remember them. The most common action used is the "Explore" action which allows a player to look at, and take the cards that are face down in the room, as long as there are no obstacles in the way. If players find themselves with nothing useful to do, they can take the “run” action, which allows for an additional movement. Players can also use items and spells as an action, pick up and drop items, as well as hide, and barricade doors. Of course, the investigators can also choose to attack as their action, and engage a monster in combat.

Sometimes, when exploring a room the investigator will come across a puzzle. This is one of the more unique aspects of Mansions of Madness, because it represents character intelligence in a very intuitive manner. It is hard to separate the player’s intelligence from the character’s intelligence in games; if a character is stupid, but the player is a genius, then giving the player a puzzle doesn’t realistically depict the character’s abilities. On the flip side, just rolling a die for an intellect test wouldn’t isn't very interesting, and doesn’t give the player a feeling of accomplishment. Mansions of Madness addresses this dilemma by giving players actual puzzles made of tiles that must be manipulated in different ways to achieve a proper arrangement. The players must actually solve the puzzle with his own brain, but the number of times he can manipulate the puzzle is determined by his character’s intelligence. This means that a player with a character that has a high intelligence will have more than enough turns to solve a puzzle, whereas a character with a low intelligence will give a very limited number of turns, making the puzzle difficult for the player. Puzzles that haven’t been solved are left as-is in the play area, which allows a player to finish the puzzle on a later turn, or let another player to try his hand at the puzzle. Not only does this puzzle mechanic keep the game thematically solid, it engages the player at an intellectual level as well.

To complete the game, the players continue the process of searching rooms, fighting, evading monsters, and following clues until they discover and complete the objective. Of course, the investigators aren’t the only players trying to win, the keeper will try to stop them at every turn, and he has quite a deadly selection of tricks up his sleeve. The keeper has his own secret objective that will bring the game to an end in his favor. Both the keeper and the investigators are both limited by the inevitable march of time, and if neither has completed his objective before time runs out, everyone loses.

After all the investigators have taken their turns, the keeper gets his chance to terrorize the investigators. While investigators have a fixed number of actions each turn, the keeper has a kind of currency that he spends to perform actions. This currency is called “threat”, and is gained by the keeper at the start of his turn. Depending on the scenario, the keeper will have a different set of actions that he purchase with his threat. Each action is represented by an action card that the keeper player keeps in front of him. Actions can cost differing amounts of threat to use, and allow the keeper to do things like spawn monsters, move monsters, and perform other story specific deeds (such as taking tissue samples from the players). Each scenario uses a different subset of these cards, so not all actions are available in all games, which requires the keeper to stay nimble, and change his strategy from game to game.

Aside from the action cards, which are always available for the keeper to purchase, there is also a small deck of “mythos” cards. These are cards that the keeper can acquire throughout the game, and activate using his threat. Unlike the keeper's action cards, these mythos cards are discarded as soon as the keeper uses them. Mythos cards often have prerequisites for use, such as requiring investigators be in certain rooms, or be carrying weapons of a certain type. These mythos cards can be very powerful, and the keeper may find himself building strategies around these cards in order to leverage their effects.

The last type of card that the keeper utilizes is the “trauma” card. These cards can be used on a player when he takes damage (either physical or mental). The effects of these cards are usually permanent, and persist until another trauma card of the same type takes it's place. I really like the depth of theme that these cards add; in most games the character takes damage, but has no permanent effect on the player's abilities. The trauma cards in Mansions of Madness are different, and can simulate a potentially debilitating condition as a result of damage.

At the end of the keeper's turn, creatures that are in the same space as an investigator character can attack. The combat system is an aspect of Mansions of Madness that really shines. This was actually very surprising to me, as I've never been a fan of the card driven combat in many of Fantasy Flight's games. I may be more accepting of the combat in Mansions of Madness because there is still a die-rolling element in the combat, but it is the card driven portion of combat that elevates it. Combat is separated into several types: melee, ranged, unarmed, etc, and each monster type (humanoid, beast, and eldrich) has it's own deck of cards used for combat. When a player attacks a creature, cards from the deck of the applicable monster type are turned over until a card with the appropriate combat type is drawn. For example, if I am unarmed, I would draw cards until I find one with the “unarmed” heading. That card will have a bit of flavor text on it about the attack being made, and then tell the player what attribute to make a skill check against. Based on the text of the card, the player may have to test against different abilities. This mechanic makes combat more interesting, because the cards don't stand as a simple replacement for dice, but instead impart story into the game, and turn combat from a potentially dull act of number crunching, into a meaningful narrative experience.

After all investigators and the keeper have taken their turns, a time token is placed on top of the event deck. This deck is built to introduce plot events at certain intervals during the game; when the number of time tokens on the deck equals a number printed on the back of the top card, it is flipped over and the events described on the card are performed. If the last card in this deck is flipped over, it usually means global failure, both for the investigator players, and the keeper. The inclusion of this event deck serves to convey interesting plot events, limit the time a game is played, and keep all players on target. Without a ticking doomsday clock, players may feel motivated to leisurely explore the mansion; the event deck keeps impending failure breathing down everyone's neck, and motivates them to stick to their objective.

Conclusion:

I have a generally positive impression of Mansions of Madness. It is enjoyable to play and has a nice depth to it's mechanics, without being completely overwhelming. The rules are intuitive, and although they may seem intimidating at first, it is not hard to remember how things work, and there aren't a lot of exceptions in the rules to be forgotten. The mechanics themselves are well-balanced, and the tempo of gameplay is moderated in a way that drives the plot forward, as long as players pay attention to the clues.

Combat is easy to understand, and the card driven, die-rolling mechanic really works to make the combat itself interesting and relevant to the theme, and should appease players who like both card driven and dice controlled combat mechanics. Because different attack types use different cards, and each monster type uses a different deck, the combat experience is really tailored to the situation at hand, which makes combat feel more cinematic. The design put into the miniature bases, are also worth noting, as they simplify what could be a complicated combat process otherwise.

Mansions of Madness is bursting with theme, and the unique, directed scenarios make for an interesting, almost episodic feeling experience. For the first few plays, the excitement of not knowing what is about to be encountered motivates replay, and keeps players coming back for more. The artwork on the components, and the detail put into the sculpted miniatures really tie everything together, and deliver an exquisitely themed package.

Despite the wonderful theme, dazzling components, and balanced gameplay, Mansions of Madness does have some drawbacks. In many ways, it appears that the game attempts to do too much in it's marriage between theme and game balance, and may end up diluting the gameplay experience. Even though Mansions of Madness is dripping with theme, It fails to deliver a deep, compelling story. While the game is enjoyable, and the attempt to tell a story is admirable, it only really gives a taste of story, delivering what ends up being more of an outline that is never really fleshed out by gameplay. More detailed clues and events could have really helped the game in this area, and by moving fiction from the small cards to the larger manual, the delivery of story could have been fleshed out much more. This may have added a bit of complexity and made the gameplay a bit less streamlined, but I think that it would have made the game more immersive and enjoyable.

I'm sure it's this perceived emptiness in the story that makes the game feel a bit sterile, but the theme itself adds to this feeling as well; H.P. Lovecraft's stories often gave the feeling of isolation and desperation, and tended to be more about plot than character development. Mansions of Madness reflects this theme well, but as a social, cooperative game, it really needs to facilitate player interaction, and character development a bit more.

Although the game is well paced, and balanced, this doesn't necessarily make for the best story. Due to the inherent balance, the players never really feel outclassed or outnumbered, which lessens the visceral horror impact. In this instance, a bit of imbalance in gameplay may have helped invest the players in the story more. There are also very few opportunities for the players to heal in game, which makes the progression towards the endgame very linear. With little opportunity to regain health, progression can feel like a slow burn towards the inevitable end. Empowering the players through success, and allowing them more opportunity to heal, or gain a leg up, would have created a game full of more ups and downs, and explored a wider range of player emotion.

It may seen like I am focusing on story a lot, and holding Mansions of Madness to a different standard than most games, but unlike most games, Mansions of Madness is built around a linear, story like progression. With only five scenarios that come with the game, story becomes even more important, because it has to hold up after multiple replays.

The final issue I have with the game is that there are “nobody wins” situations. The game can end in a draw, or more accurately, situations where everyone loses. These endings are extremely unsatisfying, and sometimes don't really even make sense with the narrative given. Not only does this leave the players unfulfilled, it causes players to make decisions that do not make thematic sense, motivating players to behave in an uncharacteristic, suicidal manner to ensure that nobody can win the game.

Despite my criticisms, I still think that Mansions of Madness is a fun game, and worth playing, and it has a definite place in my collection. But, when it comes to the exploration based horror game, I find myself leaning more to the often grossly unbalanced, less sterile, and more interesting stories and scenarios of Betrayal at House on the Hill. I’m not sure that gameplay balance trumps theme when a game is built to tell a story. Stories are interesting due to the inherent imbalance, and in this case I think the balance of Mansions of Madness is actually a shortcoming. It has a lot of promise, though, and is built with expansion in mind, so I will certainly be bringing it to the table again. But, I hope that Fantasy Flight can bring some more personality to the game through expansions in the coming years.

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