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23 October 2013 @ 06:44 pm
Board Game Half-Review: Mansions of Madness  
Last weekend I went to a board game night at Cori's place, and most of it was spent either playing Fluxx or Mansions of Madness.

Fluxx was Fluxx. If you've played it, you know what I mean. Whoever brought it had all the expansions, so there were some things that I hadn't really dealt with before--the "Radioactive Potato" card that bans its owner from winning was new to me--but the basic concept wasn't any different, and it's still just as ridiculous and random as it ever was.

Mansions of Madness was a game I've heard about but hadn't played before, and also I keep confusing it with Maniac Mansion and expecting there to be evil plants and microwaving hamsters, but it's actually a more straightforward Cthulhu-esque game. It's a bit like a combination of Betrayal at the House on the Hill in that there are scenarios and the board is assembled beforehand, but it's different in that there are only a handful of scenarios. I think they said it was four in the main game, plus they had an expansion that was drawing material from Dreams in the Witch House, which is the one we played. Note that we did not get through the scenario.

I wrote a while back about playing Elder Sign, and my problem there was that it all felt way too random. That game's structure was "Move to node, roll dice, pray, repeat," which didn't leave me feeling like there was much I could do to affect the course of the game. Mansions of Madness has a map instead of a series of nodes, which already increases the need for tactical thinking, and it also has all the interesting item locations revealed before the game begins. Scenarios have a series of "clues" that need to be discovered, and there's a time limit imposed by the actions the Keeper takes and the counter that counts down to various events that occur, leading to a need to strategize your movements and making splitting up vs. staying together an actual choice.

I actually suspect the Keeper is a lot of the reason I thought Mansions of Madness was better, for much the same reason that human opponents are better than computer opponents at providing a challenge in computer games. Relying entirely on randomness can be a lot of fun if you have a good content generator, as the myriad of roguelikes can attest to, but it can also feel random, unfair, and pointless, as the myriad of roguelikes can attest to.

As I said, we didn't finish, but I could kind of see where it was going. The Keeper used his Threat tokens to summon cultists who sacrificed themselves to summon Hounds of Tindalos, each of which required multiple actions from the investigators to kill. Once those started popping up, the clock started ticking as we began running around looking for other clues while fighting monsters.

It is kind of a parody of a Call of Cthulhu game, though. Investigators hurl themselves at a ton of monsters in a Mythos hoe-down, and dead investigators are replaced by random bystanders who happen to show up at the haunted mansion at the most opportune time. In an RPG I'd be annoyed if I hadn't signed up for it, but as a limited focus for a board game it works pretty well.

Unfortunately, since we only got through part of the scenario--it's one of those games that takes a long time to set up, plus it has to be explained, and the human opponent means the Keeper often took a bit to contemplate his actions--I can't really speak to the totality of the pacing and how well the race works all the way to the ending nor whether tactics get thrown out the window at any point. I would definitely play it again, though, and that puts it one up on Elder Sign for me. However, I still think Betrayal at the House on the Hill is better. Betrayal is perfect at emulating the feel of a horror movie, where a bunch of people break into a haunted house and start exploring and running into creepy things until all of a sudden all hell breaks loose and they frantically have to fix things. Mansions of Madness isn't really that good at emulating a Lovecraft story, though I suppose it's not that bad at emulating a Call of Cthulhu story, like John Tynes' fun adventure I talked about here. Maybe it's more Derlethian. If one of the scenarios ends with nuking Cthuhlu...

Man, I write a lot of reviews lately. It is a good way to stay writing even though my life is more routine than it once was, I suppose.
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