The advent of new technologies has brought an interesting time for board games. How long will cardboard and dice be the core of the tabletop experience when we’re all increasingly tied to our portable computing devices of various sizes and holographic technology seems to be the next big thing. Until the day we have table sized tables and ubiquitous holo-lenses our smartphones, tablets, and PCs have the potential to become a powerful component to enhance tabletop gameplay. When revising Mansions of Madness for its second edition, Fantasy Flight Games took the bold step of replacing a major part of the original game with a free-to-download software application. Does this gamble pay off and improve the experience or is it just a gimmick?
Mansions of Madness, like most of the games in the Arkham Files series, casts players in the role of a team of investigators drawn into a story filled with supernatural horrors. Unlike the other games in the series, which are more task or conflict focused, Mansions of Madness instead brings the story to the forefront, acting more like a stripped down pen and paper role playing game. The stories vary to allow for different experiences, from combat heavy encounters to twisting mysteries. The first edition was an asymmetrical board game where one player was assigned the role of the malevolent Keeper, using eldritch abilities and controlling the monsters to hinder the investigators who were trying to discover what was going on. Mansions of Madness’ second edition has replaced all the keeper elements from the first edition with an app available for iOS, Android, PC and Mac.
The app presents players with an interactive copy of the map that they have laid out on the table using the same thick, double-sided room tiles as the original. Indicators on the screen and mirrored tokens on the board show points of interest and exits to other rooms. Players move their pieces around the board, but then they wish to interact with objects or explore beyond doors, they can tap or click on the icon in the app which will resolve the action, then instructs the player to make checks, take items, or add rooms and features to the map. Most of these interactions present the players with vital story details, helping them in determining the course of action they should take.
Once all the investigators have taken their turn, a quick tap on the app moves the game into the Mythos Phase, when monsters take their actions and strange effects that can target the investigators. These will also be described by the app, ever escalating as the story continues. Some of these are random but will often reference specific locations or even particular characters.
The app also handles monster generation and behaviour, but the interpretation of the behaviour is still made on the physical board by moving the monsters in the method indicated on the screen and completing their attacks. When they do attack, the app describes the event in great, and often harrowing, detail, and there is a wide variety of the types of actions the monsters can take and how they are resolved.
Mansions of Madness’ first edition suffered from an intensely long setup time, requiring the Keeper player to make small piles of cards to place on the fully laid out map tiles. Not only was this time consuming, but it also telegraphed areas or importance to the investigators, removing some element of exploration and surprise. It also relied on cardboard puzzles which were awkward to incorporate and had only one solution so once your group was done with the scenario, there was minimal incentive to go back to it. The app in the second edition resolves the majority of these issues. Setup is now easy with the app stepping you through everything needed including the starting equipment. Instead of cardboard pieces, puzzles are completed on the screen, and although you will still be seeing the same ‘kinds’ of puzzles, they have random solutions for each scenario. This improvement doesn’t make sliding block puzzles any more exciting, but it will still be satisfying to find the logic behind some of the “Mastermind” puzzle. Further content downloads should resolve the puzzle variety issue as well.
The app’s randomization of elements, including map layouts, is ideal for revisiting previously played scenarios. In introducing new players to the game, I played the main scenario four times and each time discovered new information and possible outcomes from decisions. This shorter scenario probably wouldn’t hold up to many more replays, even with the randomization, but there is a significant amount of content to dig into, and the larger scenarios will still surprise players after the first run.
The app will indicate when skill checks are required by the story elements. You will be requested to roll the appropriate dice and enter the number of successes into the space provided. There is no indication of what the thresholds for resolution are. Will it be a simple check or is it better to use items and abilities to increases the number of successes? Results can also vary depending on the number of successes entered into the app. Players will frequently have to invest some time into the story to determine what the needs for the task are.
I love this element of tension and discovery which could not be replicated with cards since everyone would see all the information before making their choices and dice rolls. Unfortunately, the random elements you will likely see repeated most frequently, which do have an effect on gameplay, will be the combat resolution for the investigators. You choose an enemy to attack from the list then the type of attack you are using depending on your equipment. The app will present you with the description of a scenario and then ask you for a dice roll based on it. The problem with this is you may assume that using a particular weapon, like an axe, would result in a roll against your strength statistic to suddenly find the app requesting an agility roll based on the combat “story”.
While this is much more thematic, it’s challenging to make strategic decisions when the app could throw anything at you. You will also see many of the same descriptions repeated during longer battles which can take away some of the fun associated with the random content and unlike the story based skill checks all the results for the combat checks, good or ill, are presented in the text right away. There’s no variation or surprise from success or failure.
When it comes to the physical components, it is no surprise that they are of high quality, a standard for Fantasy Flight games. The room tiles are thick, sturdy, and show no signs of warping. They are quite detailed but may take some additional scrutiny to distinguish between one another at a glance. The text indicating which room it is is quite small as well. The miniatures are good, but not of the same quality as the previous edition or other miniatures produced by Fantasy Flight in the past. They feel a bit soft in comparison, and I had trouble fitting some of the monsters into their plastic bases.
The method used to track physical and mental damage in the second edition is ingenious, and you will wonder why it has not been incorporated into more Arkham Files games. Instead of fiddling with tokens of various denominations when you take damage you take the same number of matching cards. If they are face down, they represent minor damage while cards played face up have specific ailments that can permanently affect your character. Occasionally damage will instruct you to flip a face down card you already have face up, indicating a trauma that has gotten worse.
If your total count of damage cards equals your matching stamina or sanity value on the character card, you aren’t immediately eliminated. If it’s physical damage, you take a wounded card, a straight forward action limitation, and discard any of your facedown damage cards. However, if you’ve accumulated too much sanity damage, you draw a secret insanity card instead, which you can’t reveal to the other players. This can do minor things like adding quirks to a character, like having them unable to speak or take the same action twice in a row. They can also drastically alter the win condition for a character, like having a certain number of spaces on fire or winning only if the game is lost. Most of these are enjoyable inclusions although you’ll probably want to ditch the ‘Pact With Yog-Sothoth’ and ‘One of the Thousand’ insanity cards which can prematurely end games while being a bit too easy for the afflicted player to accomplish.
Mansions of Madness: Second Edition also features some streamlined rules from its original version, particularly when it comes to spaces and line of sight. Things that are considered ‘in range’ have to be within 3 continuous spaces and not blocked by doors. While this significantly lowers complexity, it does create odd scenarios where bullets can travel around corners but not through doors.
Owners of the first edition can consider the second edition to be additional, expansion content, the app allowing the integration of all of the first edition investigators and room tiles. For those who don’t own the first edition and its expansions, Fantasy Flight has made all the content available in two mini-expansions and has also created scenarios specifically for them. They can be expensive, but this is nice for completionists or those concerned with uniformity among the components.
Mansions of Madness: 2nd Edition is an experiment that largely succeeds, creating a new experience using app integration that creates the potential for varied applications. While not perfect the app integration adds a significant amount, and the small issues don’t detract from the overall experience. The first edition was a singular experience, and the new version doesn’t entirely replace it if you prefer the human element in the antagonist. Otherwise, the new edition of Mansions of Madness is a fresh experience and worth taking a look.
- App is great addition to gameplay
- Randomness creates opportunity for replay
- Stories and scenarios are varied and well crafted
- Lots of content available from the outset
- Combat mechanics can suffer from the randomness
- Miniature quality is mixed
- Can be very expensive for a game with less physical components