Last time, I wrote at length about Fantasy Flight's 2005 smash hit Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition. Arkham persisted as a flagship game for Fantasy Flight, including 8(!) expansion releases, numerous accessories, and over six years in print. But by 2011, Arkham Horror had largely run its course. Arkham's repetitive random encounters and stale gameplay loop were increasingly overshadowed by new releases. But Fantasy Flight's designers had seen the writing and the wall, and so in addition to 2011's final Arkham Horror expansion they released two brand new games in the Arkham Files Series.
Today, I present to you: Mansions of Madness. Mansions of Madness is the luxury entry in Arkham Files series with a retail price roughly double Arkham Horror's. Your premium purchase gets you a ton of components, of course, but also excellently sculpted plastic miniatures for all the player characters and monsters! Now instead of imagining a Shoggoth or a Dhole based on a tiny 1-inch square picture on a cardboard chit, you can see their immense bulk in full 3-D glory. Trust me, it's worth it.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Mansions of Madness corrects many of my problems with Arkham Horror with one change: it is not cooperative. Instead, it is a 1 vs. many game where one player takes the role of The Keeper. Their job is to control all of the monsters, interfere with the investigators, and generally manage the game. In other words, they are the GM that Arkham Horror needs.
As the Investigators search for clues, the Keeper creates adversity. The investigators enjoy a fairly simple gameplay loop where they can move and take an action. They'll continue to explore and fight off monsters until they accomplish their objective. The Keeper wields complex set of mechanics, decks, and monster pools to assist them in creating a challenging but fun experience. Which brings us another major deviation from Arkham Horror.
Before you set up a game of Mansions of Madness, the players have to select which scenario to play. The base game comes with four different scenarios of wildly varying difficulty. Newer players who want to ease themselves into the game can play the first scenario and finish in around 60-90 minutes. More experienced players can tackle the harder scenarios, but be warned that those can least 2-4 hours. And as the scenarios grow in difficulty, the Keeper gains access to more tools for tormenting the players!
But what's great about this scenario system is that the Keeper doesn't just have the same old powers every game. Instead, the Keeper will include different cards in their deck for each scenario. This means that the investigators will face different challenges that, importantly, are narratively relevant to the scenario. It wouldn't make sense for the Keeper to trigger a blackout while the players are searching a forest, for example, or for an investigator to suddenly suffer from agoraphobia while exploring a closet.
But you know what this games pulls off extremely well? Locks. In Arkham Horror, investigating a location usually means simply drawing a card and rolling some dice to try and pass whatever skills check the game demands. Boring and overdone. In Mansions of Madness, you'll try to open a door and find that it's locked, or maybe you'll enter a room and discover some wiring issues. When this happens, you don't just roll dice to see if you succeed. No, instead the Keeper will pull out several cardboard tokens and lay them out in front of you, and then give you the rules for an actual, real life puzzle! And you only have short time limit, so you'd better have your thinking cap on!
Seriously, the first time the Keeper reached into the box and placed one of these puzzles in front of another player, I laughed with delight! What a great idea for a game! This, more than anything else, charmed me from the first moment. And don't forget, this was years before the first "Escape Room in a Box" games hit the market. It was like playing a video game but in real life. The puzzles are not terribly challenging, but the really tight timer keeps you on your toes and makes them much harder than you would expect.
Of course, this is an early 2010s Fantasy Flight game, which can only mean one thing: terribly complex rules. Like Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition, Mansions of Madness has big, complicated rulebook that makes it an absolute bear to learn. New players can be guided through by an experienced Keeper, but an amateur Keeper is going to really struggle. Setting up the game is also a pain. The best way to play this game is for the Keeper to set up the entire board and all of their components before everyone else arrives. When you and your friends are staring at a wall of board games trying to decide what to play, I guarantee that you won't pick Mansions of Madness.
Despite the painful rulebook, Mansions of Madness fixed many of Arkham Horror's flaws, and most people who have played it recognize just how impressive it is. Fantasy Flight built upon this success with two expansions, plus a number of "print-on-demand" scenarios. Time to roll up my sleeves and review . . . none of them. Mansions of Madness is so big, annoying to set up, and expensive that very few of my friends at the time had access to a copy. I've actually only played it thrice at time of writing, and every time was awesome! But I've never played as the Keeper, I've never had to deal with set up, and I've never had to teach the game to a new player. Honestly, I wouldn't normally review this game after so few plays, but I thought people would get annoyed if I reviewed all of the Arkham Horror games EXCEPT Mansions of Madness. And even after so few plays, I have opinions about the game! And if you didn't care about those opinions, why are you still here?
Anyway, Mansions of Madness is great. With a skilled Keeper managing the game, you can have hours and hours of fun. I think of it as a collection of roleplaying one-shots where everything you need sits in one box. The challenge is really just in finding a good Keeper, and that varies by playgroup. Some Keepers are hyper competitive, and try to play optimally to defeat the other players. Other Keepers treat it like being a roleplaying GM, and they try to tell a story and build the challenge over time. Your experience may vary, but in general, this is a great game.
And it doesn't end there. In 2016, Fantasy Flight released Mansions of Madness: 2nd Edition. This new version of the game is largely the same as the original, but with one major tweak: there's no Keeper. Instead, the game comes with a free companion app. The investigators enter information into the app, and then the app narrates the story, instructs the players on any modifications needed for the board, and creates all of the challenges the players have to overcome.
One advantage to the app is that instead of programming each scenario to have a single map, the app can randomly generate suitable maps using the available pool of room tiles. Even if you play the same scenario multiple times, the map will be different each time. I wouldn't say that it's worth playing every scenario over and over to try out every map combination, but it does keep the game fresh if you decide to play an old scenario game. Also, the app makes the game solitaire-friendly like Arkham Horror. In that respect, Mansions of Madness: 2nd Edition might be the most successful incarnation of Richard Launius' original vision.
As an added bonus, Fantasy Flight designed the 2nd edition to integrate with the 1st edition. If you have the base game or expansions, you can enter that information into the app and it will incorporate those components into the scenario library. It even expands the number of scenarios available for you beyond the standard four that come in the 2nd edition base set. But, for any latecomers to the franchise, Fantasy Flight also released a special expansion with just the minis and tiles from the base game, so you can still enjoy the expanded experience without a full copy of the base game. And then they released 5 full expansions between 2016 and 2019, which brings the total number of available scenarios to 22. *Whistles*. Now that's a lot of Madness!
Of course, the downside of all app-based game integration is that, well, eventually the company will stop supporting the app for new devices. And when that happens, this will just be a huge box filled with cool minis and cardboard tokens. This game's lifespan is limited, though who can say for how long.
I'd like to write more about this game, but I literally can't. I have never played the 2nd edition. My friends who have played it all rave about how awesome it is, so that's promising. I've had good experiences with other Fantasy Flight app-driven games, and I enjoyed the first Mansions of Madness so much,so I feel pretty confident in recommending this one too.
Mansions of Madness provides the coherent narrative experience that Arkham Horror promises but fails to deliver. If you have the first edition, it is worth taking the time to learn, set up, and run a few games. If you don't, the second edition is absolutely worth your time. The app streamlines some of the first game's rough edges and makes it easier for new players to get the game to the table. You should play whichever version of Mansions of Madness is available to you.
But don't forget, there was another Arkham Files game released in 2011. Mansions of Madness was the luxury product that provided the complete experience, so what does that mean for its companion title? Come back next time to find out!
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