Quick thoughts on Mansions of Madness Boardgame

20 Oct

The other night, I had the opportunity to play Mansions of Madness, Fantasy Flight Games’ Call of Cthulhu-style boardgame. Being both a boardgamer and roleplayer I was keen to see what this hybrid game was like. With a boardgame’s miniatures, sight-lines, cards and tokens and an RPG-like gamemaster (actually called a ‘Keeper’ ), narrative and player characters possessing customisable skills it clearly has a foot in each camp. Ultimately this central premise is also its central flaw. It tries to live in both worlds and ultimately fails at both.

For one, it’s clearly not a roleplaying game. We tried a bit of characterisation, but this rapidly fell away as we tried to work out the best course to plot through the mansion and the relevant places to visit. Roleplaying is not without its strategy, but there is absolutely no benefit for characterising and playing the role. Characters just give a difference balance of skills which ultimately influence your strategy. Make a poor decision in keeping with your character and you’re unlikely to win the game.

As a boardgame it’s not cohesive enough. A strong set of rules and the strategy to make the best use of these rules — this makes a good boardgame. Mansions of Madness feels a little inconsistent in its functionality. Yes, absolutely, the production values are very high, but high production values do not a good game make.

Within my gaming group, Mansions has provoked a lot of discussion. Some calling it ‘reinventing roleplaying as if it didn’t exist already’, with others being a little more forgiving. It has a very trail of breadcrumbs feel — go here get this MacGuffin, put it in other MacGuffin — which discourages experimentation and inventiveness. It feels very much like there is only one right way to win and the players are primarily connecting the dots, not creating their own story.

I think if I were to play this game again, and I would give it one more go to see if my initial impression is correct, I would dispense with any pretence of roleplaying and focus on the goal of the story — ‘thwart the ritual’, ‘slay the beast’, what ever it might be. Min/maxing is vital and rushing from plot point to plot point a must as most of the games appear to run to a deadline.

As a final note, I don’t find this game very Lovecraftian despite what it promises. Dilettantes and private eyes with automatics in each had are not what Howard Phillips was about. Even the infamous ‘witch’ miniature and illustrations with her flapper hair cut fall waaaay of the mark even for the 1920s (as uncomfortably equaits sexuality with evilness in the most clichéd way). For a purist like me it’s a bit depressing, especially seeing as the flawed Arkham Horror reboot, also by Fantasy Flight Games, was at least a little closer to the key themes of the original works.


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