I’ve got a long relationship with Yog-Sothery aka H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. My library has numerous short story collections and novels and board games and role playing games. I managed to pick up a used copy of the original Mansions of Madness after playing it with friends many years ago, but rarely managed to bring it to table with the laborious set up by a single player who moderated as a game master of sorts. Think Betrayal at the House on the Hill but with one player being the villain for the whole piece like Descent.
This year, a buddy got a copy of the 2nd Edition for Christmas and was eager to give it a play. The experience had the same heart but many of the mechanics had changed. Fantasy Flight Games loves it’s custom dice and rebuilt this game around them. The core of exploration and puzzle solving rand the pulpy mystery feel of the original remained but the biggest shift was the introduction of an app to take care of moderation and clue set up. I have to admit, the app made it run pretty slick, though not without some snags here and there.
(Check out the Rules PDF here for the crunch)
You are playing investigators who stumble into an eldritch mystery. They explore the mansion, seeking clues and evidence to solve things, fighting or fleeing from monsters, but most importantly they are racing the clock as deadly consequences continue to mount. The app tells you what ability to roll on the custom dice, you enter the results into the app, and the app tells you the outcome.
What I Liked
I really like the pieces. The room tiles and the plastic miniatures have got good reusability for other games. There is a certain satisfaction to having moving a barricade token to keep that door shit. The mood music provided from by the app adds nice atmosphere. And the stories really follow the feel I would expect of a Call of Cthulhu game. Our first play through ended with the mansion being torn apart by a cultist ritual while one investigator was left a gibbering mess, limping away from an unspeakable horror and setting things on fire.
The App as Game Master
Having the app run the puzzles saves a fair bit of time. Instead of digging out the tiles and setting them up according to the handbook, the app just sets it up. So far we’ve only encountered two puzzle types but I expect there to be more as we play different scenarios. The app resolves the clues you find and what new tiles to place as you explore. It even incorporates different tiles based on what physical expansions you own if you tell the app to include them, including the original 1st edition tiles. One of the drawbacks with the app is the inability to replay certain parts like narration (though it should be found in the message log) or to correct human errors in entering numbers.
The Stories / Scenarios
The scenarios themselves have got good potential to replay, something carried over from the original. Originally, the moderator would answer three to five multiple choice questions that set up the clues to be found, the obstacles encountered, the clue needed to solve the mystery, and a few other minor details. The app does all that now, meaning there is a chance that there might be a repeat. If it follows the way things were in the original, the odds are about 1 in 27 at the simplest scenarios, coming closer to 1 in 729 for the more complex ones, not including variations due to including expansions. Even in a repeat, it’s not a bad thing as the game still remains challenging even if you do know all the answers. Part of the mechanics that can swing things is that a boss strength doesn’t guarantee you get to use it in combat. Each combat encounter is a small story, it could be rolling agility to quickly sidestep and get in that shot or an observation test to spot that vital opening for an attack. Some of it seems to depend on the weapon type (heavy weapons seem to do more strength tests, whereas a light weapon like a knife might be more agility) but don’t depend on it.
Damage, Horror, and other Consequences
I’m also a fan of how many of the cards work. Like any Mythos game, casting a spell is a gamble. In this iteration, once cast and you find out the consequences, you shuffle it back into the spell deck and draw another copy of that spell which may or may not have the same consequences. I might steal this mechanic for the next time I play Eldritch Horror, keeping that spell casting risk a gamble.
The harm cards have their own narrative flair, one that you try your best to avoid even though it doesn’t take you out of the game. The harm (Horror for Mental harm, Damage for Body harm) cards are usually dealt face up and the effects applied immediately, ranging from some flavour text (“Bruised” or “Spooked for a moment”) to serious (“Broken leg, if you attempt to move twice on your turn, roll a successful test or suffer another harm” or “Paranoia, gain another Horror if you end your turn in the same room as another Investigator”). Sometimes the harm cards come face down, lurking unknown until another card orders you to reveal and suffer all the face down cards at once. If you take enough cards that equal your stat, you get to clear them away BUT gain the Wounded condition (limits you to a single move action per turn) or Insane (gain an Insanity that changes your victory condition – could still be when everyone else wins or it could be a win once you set six rooms on fire as happened to me in that first play through). You have to go through a lot of harm to be eliminated and odds are the game will end horrifically before you reach that point, but the experience of being battered and on the edge of madness as you struggle to survive one more round to get that final piece of evidence is a memorable challenge without being a total death spiral.