Board Games, H.P. Lovecraft

Mansions of Madness Board Game Review

Mansions of Madness published by Fantasy Flight Games and designed by Corey Konieczka is a one versus many (in this case one to four) board game using H.P. Lovcraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.  It was first released 2011.  It plays from 2 to 5 players (ages 14 and up) in 2 to 3 hours (or less).

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     In this game, there are two groups of players: the Keeper and the Investigators.  The keeper is a sort of game master or overlord which controls much of the game and is the antagonist for the investigators using sinister powers and monster to thwart them from uncovering clues, discovering their objective and accomplishing it.  The Investigators on the other hand are the remaining players (one to four) who take the roles of a 1920’s character archetype.  If you are familiar with Arkham Horror, you will be familiar with the eight characters found in this game.  The investigators role is to search the mansion (of madness) for clues to uncover what plot elements the Keeper has chosen for the particular story scenario being played.Image

     The game comes with five stories in total: The Fall of House of Lynch, The Inner Sanctum, Blood Ties, Classroom Curse, and Green-Eyed Boy.  Each story has three slightly different objectivess that the Keeper selects and keeps hidden until forced to reveal when the investigators uncover the appropriate clue. Additionally, each story has between 1-5 other elements for the Keeper to select from to tailor the each story slightly.  These usually involve where the next clue can be found in the clue change.

     To setup, which this game has quite an involved setup, the Investigators setup of the map which is composed of a number of thick cardboard map tiles to make the mansion (of madness) and select and spec (choose what abilities they want) their character for the game.  While the Keeper pulls the required clue, lock, obstacle, mythos, and event cards for the story and seeds them on the map in the appropriate areas depend on the story elements chosen.Image

Game play begins with the investigators who each allowed to move their character two spaces and receive an additional action which can be used for a variety of things such as movement, combat, room exploration, use of items, etc.  After each Investigator has had a chance to complete their turn, the Keeper draws threat (the currency they need to power many of their actions) and plays whatever effect they can afford and adds a time token to the event deck.  When the event deck has the same number of token as the number listed at the bottom, the card is revealed and read aloud by the keeper performing all actions it lists as applicable.  The game continues until the investigators or the Keepr have completed their objective causing the other side to loose.  In Mansions of Madness it is possible for both side to lose in that case the game and the Great Old Ones win.

Mansions of Madness Investigators

The Investigators: Gloria Goldberg, Joe Diamond, Sister Mary, Kate Winthrop, Michael McGlen, Ashcan Pete, Harvey Walters, and Jenny Barnes

The components in this game are of high quality.  In fact, I only really bought this game for the unpainted miniatures which I have all since painted. Please note, the picture shown is not my painting of the miniatures.  The sculpts are very good on par with similar 28mm war game pieces.  The artwork is also very good to the point I always think there is a mar or scratch in the Exploration Cards due dilapidated hallway they feature.  The map tiles are also both attractive looking and function as the same time.

Like I said above, I really only bought this game for the miniatures but decided to sit down and play a game since it came with it.  When reading the rules, I admit I was a little underwhelmed by it as a veteran pen and paper role playing gamer.  However, upon playing it the rules form a tight structure for both sides to work within with very transparent game mechanics.  Additionally, the game is intended to be more head to head rather than a Game Master facilitating an adventure in more typical rpg.  Though I would recommend new Keepers to understand the Investigators’ players skill level and relative interest in what they want out of the game.  Most of the stories are heavily weighted toward the Keeper.  This balance will equalize after multiple replays and the players roughly know what they need to do for story becoming more of a game of deception on the Keeper’s part.  Speaking of re-playability, the base game does have a limited stories, objectives, and elements.  Even the objectives and elements are that varied mechanically.  Objectives are sometimes opposites and elements are usually where the clue can be found in the mansion (of madness).  If Investigator players are enjoying this game for the mystery and exploration, it will have a fairly short shelf life.  However, if the Investigator players have played the same story multiple times the nature of the game changes as the Keeper must bluff where the clue chain goes and be on their toes about accomplishing their objective.

The Pros, it is a very light, structured rpg that has a definite ending.  While the game itself mention it, it is very jump in, jump out of game as players can join/leave adding/removing Investigators while the Keeper simply adjusts the amount of threat they collect.  It is a very good use of the Lovecraftian theme.  It has very good physical components.  Fantasy Flight Games have excellent customer service (I lost a piece of the game making it unplayable and they quickly replaced it).

The Cons, the game has a long and involved setup and long break down.  The Keeper and incorrectly seed the map and make the game unwinnable for the Investigators.  There are so many components that it is very easy to lose a vital piece making certain stories unplayable.  Some of the stories if you take a step back and look at it as a whole may come off anticlimactic. Because of the miniatures it is pricier than most board games.

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Bottomline, I actually have grown to enjoy this game the more I play it.  It hits the table each week and is likely to for at least the next month.  For something I wasn’t expecting to even really play that much it has blown me away.  If you and your group are interested the general premise of Mansions of Madness and none of the cons are deal breakers, I recommend picking it up. I give it 4 out of 6 Elder Signs.

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Board Games, H.P. Lovecraft

Arkham Horror Review

     Arkham Horror by Fantasy Flight Games in a cooperative Lovecraftian board game written by Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson and published in 2005.  It is based on the earlier 1987 Chaosium gamed based on the Call of Cthulhu tabletop role-playing game.   It plays from 1 to 8 players (ages 14 and up) in 2 to 4 ([sic] plus) hours.

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     The premise of the game is that is 1926 and dark shadows grow in the fictional Massachusetts city of Arkham.  Great and powerful entities known either as Ancient Ones (AO) or Great Old Ones (GOO) slumber in dimensions beyond time and space waiting until the stars are right to awaken.  It appears that this time is now.  Strange eldrich gates to other worlds are opening in Arkham and bizarre, insanity causing monsters are pouring out them.  It is up to a small group of investigators (the players) to seal these gates and halt the encroachment of the Ancient One from entering and destroying our world.

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Arkham Horror board set up

To play Arkham Horror, the players select one of the 16 investigators in the game, from a hard-boiled private investigator to crotchety old university professor and even a wandering stage.  magician.  The investigators must prevent one of the 8 ancient ones from awaking by collecting clue tokens, entering gates to other worlds, exploring other worlds, and closing and/or sealing these gates.  If the investigators can seal 6 gates or close all the gates while possessing 1 gate trophy (earned by closing gates) per investigators the player beat back the Ancient One putting them back to rest for a while longer.  If the investigators cannot do this, they must battle the ancient one (with the exception of Azathoth that awakens and ends the game) in a last ditch battle for mankind.

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Cthulhu’s Ancient One Sheet

I’m not going to get much more in detail on the specifics of the game mechanics and rules as there are many and they are not particularity unified.  I will say that the game is composed a five phases: Upkeep, Movement, Arkham Encounters, Other World Encoutners, and Mythos.  Dice rolls are made with a standard d6 typically looking for a 5 or 6.  Most the time a single success is requires except the case of [X] were X equals the number of successes required.

Upkeep Phase is where the investigators can adjust their skills increases one at the cost of another.  Additionally, Upkeep is the phase where players maintain some of the special powers or effects such a Blessing witch makes dice probabilities easier.

Movement Phase is where the investigators can move around Arkham or Other Worlds.  It is also the phase where players initiate combat or evade with the monsters in Arkham.  It is important to note that Evading and Combat checks are different that Sneak and Fight checks which use each skill respectively.

Arkham Encounter Phase is where the investigator draws the color coordinated card to the location there are at (unless they are in a street location).  They read and perform the action described in the text of the card that matches the location that are at.  It is also this phase that investigators at locations with open gates are pulled into Other World locations.

Other World Encounter Phase is where the player draws Other World Encounter cards until they match the colors at the gate their investigator is at.  They read the text for the location or Other if the location is not on that card and perform the action(s) described.

Finally, the Mythos Phase is where the players draw a Mythos Card and perform the actions described on it in proper order.  This is often another gate opening up or it the location already has an open gate a monster surge.

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Investigator Sheet

This game is one my favorite board games.  I really like the Lovecraft theme as well as co-opt games.  Unlike some other board game players, I enjoy the random luck element of both the dice rolling and randomness of the cards.  I see it as crisis management as you have to plan on things not going your way even when percentages are heavily in your favor.  I think the game does a good job of balancing beneficial encounters with detrimental ones (although I count neutral ones as beneficial).  I also like the various sub-stories found on many of the location cards; though sadly many places in Arkham don’t visited ever outside of seeing what kind of encounters happen there. I never read the cards before the game, so I little idea what kind encounters happen at Ma’s Boarding House or at the River Docks.

While I really like this board game, it has many flaws that I think could have been fixed.  One thing I would have done different would be to make the street locations on the game board the space where the Arkham Location Encounter Cards kept.  The game board is already gigantic and the game has literally hundreds of pieces.  To help reduce the already cyclopean footprint of this game I would have put some the pieces on the board itself.  Perhaps that would have made the game more busier than the creator wanted, but I don’t think so.  One thing I have noticed it Fantasy Flight Games love lots of little tokens and Arkham Horror is no exception.  I wonder if it could have been possible to place spinners (or some other integral tracking) on the investigator sheet.  The back story would have to be in a smaller font or one a second sheet, but after all the tokens are placed on the current sheet it isn’t going to be picked up until after the game is over anyway.  More teamwork between investigators would have been nice.  I would liked the idea of being able to combine dice pools when investigators are working on the same task such as fighting monsters or even closing gates.  It doesn’t come that often, wouldn’t be difficult to house rule in, I don’t even think it would fundamentally change the game beyond making it a hell of a lot less risking taking down the really tough monsters (I’m looking at you The Beast).

In just about everything else, there are parts of Arkham Horror I’m not a fan of.  Like so many other reviewers, I think the game’s setup/tear down time is a little long in the tooth and often times the game itself runs a little (lot) long.  I have played in a game that stalled out 4/6ths (4 of the 6 sealed gates accomplished) through with no clue tokens on the board and too strong of monsters to bring down (was battling Shub Nigguarath) that took near 6 hours ending in a battle with the Ancient One.    I will also say the game becomes fairly easy once you know which gate locations are the most common.  My group picks the investigator they want to play rather than randomly.  While I don’t think anyone picks their investigator purely on power, we do tend to select ones that work in concert with each other.  Another thing to note is the rule book is not particularly well composed.  It would have been incredibly helpful to have a cheat sheet on the phases with notes on the most commonly missed things during phase.  Hell I don’t know if I would have mind a couple of notes on the game board such as how many monsters in a monster surge or how The Sky and Outskirts work.  The Terror Track is almost always a non-issue to the point I still don’t know if we are using it correctly.  It seems like by the time it kicks in you know if you lost or not.

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Bottomline:  I really enjoy Arkham Horror even if  it does have quite a few problems.  I will openly admit though, without the Lovecraft theme, it would not be the case. I give it 5 elder signs out of 6 not quite sealing away the Ancient Ones for good.

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