“Fear is our deepest and strongest emotion...”
Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Files line will always be one that’s near and dear to my heart. Arkham Horror was the board game that first opened my eyes to the hobby of tabletop gaming many years ago. As one of the many people who grew up solely on mass-market titles, the idea of a completely co-operative board game was entirely foreign to me, much less a title with such interesting lore and world-building. Many titles from this line have found a permanent place in my collection, such as small “push your luck” style game of Elder Sign, or the grandiose world-hopping journey that is Eldritch Horror.
The original Mansions of Madness released back in 2011, with the second edition launching five years later in 2016. The second edition, however, is a wholly different creature than its predecessor, requiring the use of an app in order to control the actions of the board and its dreadful denizens. Is this another hit in one of Fantasy Flight’s most famous lines, or is it a title you should be afraid to open?
“God! What wonder that across the earth a great architect went mad,”
To play a game of Mansions of Madness: Second Edition you’ll need to download the official app. The app is free and can be found on the Apple App Store, Google Play, and Steam. Any device will work, but using a tablet is preferable since it’s easy for everyone to see and small enough to pass around the table. As you progress the app will act at the scenario manual does in other games, showing you how to set up the room tiles, doors, points of interest, etc, eliminating the need for a scenario book.
The base game comes with four scenarios, more can be purchased individually from the app itself, and others are unlocked when you purchase one of the numerous physical expansions. After picking a mission, players select their character and tell the app which characters they picked. Then the app will generate a list of starting possessions for the group. These items are random and players decide how to best distribute these possessions amongst everyone.
Once the preliminary set up is completed players proceed to the Investigator Phase where the main action occurs. It’s up to the players to discover what the victory condition of their scenario is, as the game rarely ever tells you at the beginning of your quest. You must explore the dark mysteries that hide around every corner and to try and prevent unimaginable terrors from taking control. On a player’s turn, they can take two actions. The following actions are the ones performed most often:
• Move: Players move their figure up to two spaces.
• Explore: A player can investigate a “?” symbol that is on their space. These might require the player to perform a skill test, or may provide information that could help progress the mystery.
• Interact: Similar to Explore, this action lets players talk to NPC’s or to interact with something in the environment.
• Trade: This lets players who are the same space swap any number of items between each other.
• Component: Activating a card or skill.
• Attack: For when it’s time to show those monsters who’s boss!
Many of these actions require the players to use the app in order to perform them. Exploring, for example, requires the player to tap the symbol they are investigating on the app so it can provide instructions on how to proceed. Players may be required to beat a skill test in order to gain valuable information. Other times the app may require players to solve a puzzle using one of their stats These puzzles range from the classic slide puzzle, where you have to arrange a 3×3 grid into the correct pattern, a code puzzle that tasks you with putting different runes in the correct order, to a Professor Layton-esque lock puzzle where you need slide a designated block into a particular position.
After all, players have taken their actions the Mythos Phase begins, during which the game itself tries to hinder players’ progress. Events challenge players’ skills and sometimes harm them, then the monsters activate and attack players who are in range. Lastly, players resolve a “horror check” against one monster in their sightline. Failing the check often results in a loss of sanity or negative conditions being placed on the player. This is all managed by the app which walks the players through what needs to be done.
Health and sanity work a little differently in this game than some other titles in this line. Instead of the usual counters, players are dealt damage or insanity cards. Once the health or sanity limit has been reached by a character, all of their current damage of that type is wiped away. The player is then dealt a Wounded or Insane card. Being wounded limits the player to use the movement action just once per turn. Being insane gives the player their own secret objective they must now fulfill along with the current main objective in order to win the game. If that player reaches their damage or sanity threshold a second time, they are eliminated, and the entire party has one last round to complete their objective before succumbing to the creatures beyond the stars.
“No new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace.”
The app is the first thing that needs to be addressed when discussing the Mansions of Madness: Second Edition. The whole experience revolves around it, and the game is completely unplayable without it. There will always be a contingent of players who will hate electronic devices of any form entering the analog realm, and this game isn’t going to convince them otherwise. I’ve played this with one or two players who all had the said, “It should just be a video game if it needs an app.”
I couldn’t disagree more wholeheartedly. I have nothing but affection for these deep dive adventure and dungeon crawl games, and the less record keeping I have to do, the better. The app eliminates the need for reference guides and player responsibility for stat tracking, and it slashes downtime between phases. Instead of having one giant scenario book, several different decks of cards, and half a dozen different monster sheets to keep track of, all of this information is stored on the app. It does a wonderful job of keeping the game moving. When you deal damage to a monster you simply subtract how much damage you did to it in the app; if you failed to kill the daemon the app will keep track of its current health for you until you eliminate it.
It even helps set the ominous mood which all Lovecraftian games desire. Normally you’d have to go online and make your own cosmic horror-themed playlist to create the proper ambiance. The app provides thematic music and sound effects. This creates one of the most immersive board gaming experiences you’ll ever have. Connect your tablet to a Bluetooth speaker, dim the lights, light some candles and you have the makings of your own personal eldritch hell.
Component quality is exceptional, easily the best of the entire Arkham Files line. Fans of Arkham/Eldritch Horror will be familiar with the square tiles that show the monster on the front and their stats on the reverse side. While those are still in this game, these abominations are brought to life with actual miniatures this time around. Each figure has a stand that holds its tile, showing you its stats at the feet of the horrid creature. Seeing three-dimensional apparitions roaming around the board looking for you really ties the game together making it a subversive experience. My only complaint is a few of the minis in our copy don’t lock into the basses properly, falling over with the slightest nudge. In our base copy, we only had this problem with two of the minis; it seems to be a manufacturing mistake rather than a design flaw since other copies of the same creature stay in the stands just fine.
The story and atmosphere make this game stand out. It’s incredibly enjoyable when you try a scenario for the first time, not having any clue what you’re going to have to do in order to reach the conclusion. The inherently ominous environment of the game creates a lot of built-in tension. For example, every time you open a door you never know what might be on the other side. Often times nothing is there, other times you stumble into a room with a Star Vampire feasting on its latest victim. The app randomizes enemy placements, room layouts, and events, making scenarios re-playable even if you successfully beat them. Physical expansions add even more variety to the experience, making it worthwhile to play an old scenario again with new characters because of the app with randomized events, rooms, and items to spice up the experience.
On the flip side, there are a couple of little things that hold the game back. Since the map is built as the game progresses there is unavoidable downtime when setting up a new tile. Each time a new area is discovered you must search through the giant stack of tiles to find it, set it up with the appropriate orientation, doors, and makers, then find and place any monsters who appear in the area. It’s not a huge deal right out of the box, but as you add more and more expansions searching for tiles in the giant stack occasionally slows the pace of the game.
The insanity card conditions that change the player’s victory goal are a little weird after a dozen plays, I don’t know quite how to feel about them. On the one hand, it’s nice to see the designers make an attempt to really make it feel like your character is going crazy, forcing you to do things you wouldn’t do normally. The issue is you still need to reach the end of the scenario in order to win. Not fulfilling your insanity condition only makes you fail, not the whole party, and there are no additional negative effects if a player doesn’t compete with their personal win condition. Much of the time players simply ignore these conditions, only trying to fulfill them when it is convenient but does not hinder the group. It seems like a missed opportunity. A better option might have been forcing the players to change the way they play the game by giving them a handicap, or at the very least have an epilogue at the end of scenarios that changes the ending for players who didn’t fulfill their insanity goals.
Minor objections aside, Mansions of Madness: Second Edition offers an amazing experience. The app makes what would otherwise be a much heavier, denser experience much more approachable for newer gamers. The stories and experiences are outstanding, and the moment-to-moment gameplay can be downright nerve-wracking at times. Though the game might give you nightmares, it won’t be due to lackluster gameplay or design, and you will be happy you explored this dark and foreboding world.
Final Score: 9/1
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AKA “The Board Game Mole”
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