As board gaming has rapidly evolved over the past couple of decades, it’s always exciting to see the innovations people come up with. There are plenty of games that have offered a fresh take on existing mechanics, and a select few that have introduced new concepts entirely. And on rare occasions, a truly great game comes along that challenges our preconceived notions of what a board game can be. I feel that Mansions of Madness does just that.
Madness… or Genius?
The new, second edition of Mansions of Madness was released in 2016. It is a cooperative game of exploration, combat and puzzle-solving for up to five players. When compared to its predecessor, the most notable enhancement is that it is a digital hybrid — it utilizes a free companion app in tandem with the physical game.
I know that for some people, incorporating digital components into board games is a controversial issue. Part of the appeal of board games — face to face interaction with friends and family around a table, free of the distraction of glowing screens — runs directly against the idea of incorporating an iPad app, right?
I might have agreed with that sentiment a few years ago. However, since that time, there have been a several examples of games that have incorporated companion apps to great effect. One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Codenames, and Alchemists are three examples that come to mind. The Mansions of Madness app stands head and shoulders above these predecessors, using the ‘digital hybrid’ concept in some brilliant new ways.
First of all, it enables the designers to present a game of exploration that is full of mystery and intrigue. When players set out their initial map tile(s), they have options to investigate items in the room or open a door into an adjacent area. All of these options are marked with tokens on the physical map, as instructed by the app. When interacting with a token on the map, the active player simply touches that corresponding icon on the app’s display. The app provides flavor text and any relevant instructions on what to do next — perhaps perform a skill check, draw some cards, or place some additional pieces on the board. With the app taking care of these tasks, there is no need for someone to play as the game master, or page through a book with the risk of accidentally seeing spoilers.
Secondly, it neatly streamlines the clunky parts of the game, allowing for a rich board gaming experience that doesn’t get bogged down in the administrative bits. From tracking monsters’ health, to providing clear AI instructions for the ‘Mythos Phase’ (when monsters attack and the players face various horrors), to visually displaying how to set up a new room – the Mansions of Madness app handles all of the things that would normally be cumbersome and time consuming.
Meanwhile, all of the tactile elements are still there in the ways that you would want. All skill checks are performed by rolling physical dice, not just pressing a button on a screen. The characters and monsters are represented by top-notch miniatures (though I’m not sure a couple of the monsters qualify as ‘miniature’ based on their gargantuan size). When players gain items or conditions, good or bad, these are all represented by physical cards.
I think it would have been easy to go overboard with the app and end up with a product that feels more like a video game with a bunch of accessories. In my opinion, Mansions of Madness manages to toe the line without stepping over.
A Real Page-Turner
Okay, enough about the app – what about the game itself?
If you are simply looking for the most perfectly balanced cooperative game, and couldn’t care less about theme, this game is probably not for you. In the two scenarios we played, we managed to achieve victory pretty comfortably both times despite making some pretty foolish errors. It’s not that the game is too easy or hard, it just feels quite dependent on luck.
At the same time, both games did feel exciting and tense throughout. This was due to the heavy theme, the connection we all felt to our individual characters, and the element of the unknown. It was not really until we neared the end that we realized we would succeed, especially from an individual perspective. Some characters became slowed by physical wounds, or even driven insane, and fires began to spread relentlessly across the map. Ever more powerful hordes of monsters bore down upon us, threatening to tear us limb from limb.
The storytelling in Mansions of Madness is rich and engaging, even to someone like me who generally finds the Lovecraft theme overused. Decisions made by characters can have far-reaching ramifications on the story, and surprises abound. I’d love to go into more detail, but it’s better if you experience it for yourself.
Ultimately, I did not mind the role of luck in Mansions of Madness. If you like thematic games, and you approach this one looking for an exciting interactive story, you surely won’t be disappointed. For what it sets out to do, Mansions of Madness is a groundbreaking, best-in-class game.
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