Posted on November 8, 2016
Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition: Single play review.
We played through Mansions of Madness 2 on Thursday and I’m going to lay down my first impressions. This isn’t a proper review because I think I’d need to play through it a bunch more times to figure it out entirely, but here are my first impressions. Hopefully other players chime in with theirs.
Sidebar: Mr Scarr was in town this weekend and gave me a lot of good Boardgame recommendations. We also played a couple of rounds of Schotten-Totten, which is a fun little two player game.
Opening the box
Opening a game box, especially a big Fantasy Flight box, is always one of the most enjoyable solitary pursuits that you can do that won’t also get you jailtime. Not unless you open the box up real sexy like. This box is a little lighter than the Imperial Assault or Mansions Sr. box, because so much card components are now missing, replaced by software on the app.
What’s left now are:
- Map Tiles. They are beautifully illustrated, very appropriate to the setting; with a fairly even split between Mansion on one side and Streets of Torpid New England Fishing Community on the other.
- Invsetigator Miniatures. Like the first edition’s decent-to-good if not stupendous sculpts, but with better quality plastic used this time around. The Investigators are an entirely new batch. A few of the miniatures are a bit samey. We were lucky that Bryce chose to play Dexter Drake, because when one of three of the dudes on your team is swanning around in a top hat, it’s easy to keep track of who is who. Painting, of course, will solve that. But I think there are a few too many standing-still,-wearing-a-coat,-looking-pensive.
- Monster Miniatures. These are only decent, I don’t think they’re as good as the investigators. They’re certainly an opportunity to pull all the stops out and could have been so much cooler…
- Tokens. These are a new feature of the 2nd edition and related to how you interact with the app. As rooms are revealed in the game, Search Tokens or Explore Tokens are added. They’re removed once they’ve been used (typically) and are a handy way of keeping track of what you have and have not yet done. Interact and Sight tokens work in much the same way, but are just rarer. Clue tokens are a kind of currency that you spend during the game to improve your tests.
- Item Cards. Broken down into Common Items and… rare items, special items, I can’t remember what they are called, but that’s what it boils down to. Common Items are usually tools to solve problems, whereas Special Items are usually tools to solve very specific plot-related problems.
- Spell cards. With a range of spells that you can cast if you ever end up with any of these. The front of the card tells you what the spell is, the hidden reverse of the spell card tells you what the side effect is after you cast it.
- Damage cards. Covering both Health and Sanity damage. Some of the text is amusing, but all well written and thematically appropriate. Like the spell cards, these are double sided. The ‘up-side’ card by your character represents a point of damage and you may be instructed to flip it if a condition aggravates the wound. At that point, more detail is added and new conditions may affect you.
- Condition cards. Cover things like stun, restrained, dazed or focused. These cards also cover Wounded, a card you receive when you’ve lost all your health; and Insane, which is a card you get when you’ve lost all your sanity. Wounded is a permanent (but not awful) hobble on your character, whereas Insane reveals a new, personal, secret Victory condition for the insane character; a mechanism I like very, very much.
- iPad. (Not included, sadly). The final component is that you need something to run the app on. You can get it for the PC on Steam, or for iOs and Android devices from their respective marketplaces. Given that these are the box’s many contents, it’s a surprise that this is still a lot less that the 1st ed. box because the number of cards have been cut down. The cardboard puzzle pieces are gone. The combat decks (man, animal, monster) are gone. The Keeper’s cards and tokens are all gone too, all those plots and side effects and the horrible Threat Deck got up and left to go work in Imperial Assault after an ILM makeover. The Scenario book is gone, although they do still give you rule books (A starter book and a Definitions book, a la Imperial Assault). All those things have been replaced by the app who will keep things spicy enough for you.
Anyway, that’s a brief text-unboxing for you. We (Bryce, Ben, Rolland, JIM and me) all played last Thursday. I had a good time with it; there wasn’t much of a learning curve, I think we had it down pretty quickly. We started, with a brief rules review at 8 and got done at 11.30ish, with not too many stops in between, except the usual no-one-knowing-what-the-food-they-ordered-looks-like-and-most-people-ordered-chicken session surrounding the delivery of our dinner.
Playing the Game
As I’ve previously spelled out, I’m getting to be a Fantasy Flight fanboy and also the game’s owner, so I’m compelled to believe the game is good, because what kind of idiot spends that much on a game he doesn’t like? My impression is, take it with however much salt you like, that this is a good game. It isn’t a game we’re going to play every week. I don’t even want to do that. But I am already looking forward to playing it again and I know it will be a bit of a treat when I do.
The game itself sees you enter a mansion with a vague idea of what/who you are looking for and you are tested as you search for clues by monsters/magical effects/whatever. Testing takes the form of rolling several d8s, the number of which will reflect your level of ability in a certain area. Get an Elder Sign on a die and that counts as one success. Get a Clue on a die and that counts as a success if you spend one of your clue tokens. Get a blank and it doesn’t count as anything. Some tests may require more than one success, some tests have different results for different numbers of successes.
As you search and explore you’ll pick up more clue tokens, more equipment to help you and more actual clues advancing the story and guiding you along. Eventually you’ll know what is going on, how to stop it, and where to go to do that. And in an ideal world you’ll do that.
In our game on Thursday, we more or less picked the place clean before advancing to the final test. Monsters bugged us as we did so, and we spent and regretted spending our clue tokens at what I thought was an appropriate rate. Fortunately, at the final test, we had our shit together to weather the increasing danger of the environment and all piled in to solve the (difficult) code breaking puzzle.
I had run through this scenario myself earlier, to see how the game worked and while I could have predicted a few of the events in the game, having played it before wasn’t that useful, I could neither head-straight-to nor avoid certain areas because the house was substantially different.
One of the biggest points of contention I’ve seen discussed is the game’s replayability. 1st Edition featured five scenarios (which in first edition meant 5 Mansions) which had at least 3 different stories. So there were at least 15 distinct stories, although some had shared floorplans and shared plot elements. Knowing the floorplan didn’t help you because the story was completely different.
In this edition, the base game contains four scenarios, each one with just one plot. However the floorplan isn’t the same each time and how to solve the scenario is different each time. The goods that you get to use to solve the scenario and the monsters you encounter may differ too, from a little to a lot. Playing the same scenario twice doesn’t help too much. In the scenario we played, you always:
- run into Spoiler McSpoilery, who can help you out
- need to crack a puzzle to get to the source of the problem UNLESS you’ve found the clue which tells you where to bypass it
- have to track down the source of the problem and will be impeded by the villain, who will always be Jimmy Redacted-name.
So the problem is the same every time in each of the four scenarios, but how you go about actually solving it is going to be different each time. Investigating the bathroom might prove vital the first time you play, but useless the second time you play, if the house even has a bathroom the second time you play.
If you want to be surprised by WHAT IS GOING DOWN 1st edition offers a better way of doing it. If you want to be surprised by HOW YOU HAVE TO FIX THE PROBLEM 2nd edition comes out on top.
I’m not sure what way is best, but this is all academic if Fantasy Flight releases new scenarios periodically, even if they are scenarios you have to pay a little for. The first and shortest scenario (it is supposed to take one hour to an hour and a half) entertained 5 grown men for 3 and 1/2 hours, meaning we’ve already extracted 17.5 man hours of enjoyment out of it. 17, really, JIM was late.
If you take them at their word, FF think it will take between 8.5 and 13 hours to play through all the scenarios included in the app one time. 42.5 to 65 man hours, if you have a full table. 65 hours of completely novel entertainment for $100 isn’t too shabby. When you do the vs. Cinema Tickets calculation, it still comes out on top. It’s no Settlers of Catan for replayability, but… that’s obviously not what it is going for…
- It’s easy. We picked it up quickly, including people who had never played the old version before. JIM joined us two turns late and picked up what he could do mostly just by watching us. At one point, after my kid no longer insisted on watching the app, we switched its position on the table away from me and Ben and Bryce operated the app, with virtually no pointers from me. There were occasional rules questions, but for deliberately complicated things that would stretch the rules, most everything else was plain sailing.
- The app makes for a faster game. It makes sense that the app would take of bookkeeping (monster hit point tracking, for example). That’s like, app 101.
- The app makes for a more atmospheric game. This is the other thing that works well as expected. The bed of spooky chords and ambient noise isn’t too intrusive (it might get on my tits eventually though) and the event based sound effects are good, short (important) and are used sparingly enough that you know some shit is hitting the fan when you get a specific sound effect. The voice-over narration is sparingly used which is good, because that would bog things down. The art in this and other FF Cthulhu products is excellent.
- The app adds a lot of thing I didn’t really expect. When exploring through a door, you get a brief description of what you can hear/smell/sense before you actually have to pull the trigger and spend your explore action. Not only is that more information about the house (and therefore more chances to add to the atmosphere), but means there is suddenly an ability in the game to listen at doors before making decisions, which wouldn’t have been possible with most boardgame mechanics. The app can give you a description of the room when you enter, but you don’t have to remember it all, because clicking on a search or explore token will give you a reminder of what’s there or even more info. That’s a nice side effect of using an app that I didn’t consider. Similarly, character-based events can reference something about that character since the app knows which you are using and items (in our case a journal) can have further levels of details that you can drill down into if you want to spend the actions.
- Damage. The mechanics of the game, app aside, have changed for the better and this is one of the areas: how damage is handled. There’s a nice risk involved in having to flip your previous damage over because your character may realise it wasn’t as bad as they thought or much worse than they thought. Kind of a cool way to put criticals and glancing wounds into an otherwise very straightforward mechanic. The Insanity condition I really like because while the rest of the party shares a Victory condition, you get your own demented Victory condition whereby you and only you will be successful.
- Party makeup. The characters are good, with abilities that make them distinct enough from each other and the app randomly dishes out items at the beginning, allowing you to divvy them up where appropriate. Some characters still have set starting gear (Ashcan Pete still gets his faithful buddy, Duke) but fewer characters will be defined by their gear throughout games. We had the butler Sinclair, beating bad guys to death with the butt of a Fire Extinguisher, while old lady Agatha Crane was chugging whiskey and then using the broken bottle for a square-go with cult goons.
- Vital evidence. The rarer stuff you pick up around the house includes Evidence cards, which are used in the final showdown/climax like clue tokens. Which gives investigators a little bit of hope going into climax, rather than exhausting everything they have to get there. It makes the mid-to-end game an effort to survive to attempt the climax, which I think keeps it interesting.
What doesn’t work:
- Puzzles. I mean, yes, obviously they work, that’s something the app is good at. Buuut… there don’t seem to be as many different types. Maybe I’ve yet to run into them, but there are only a sliding tile picture puzzle, a Gridlock-style puzzle and a Mastermind type puzzle when it seems like there could have been more, and kind of easily, given the number of puzzle apps. Their difficulty seems to vary wildly, which is maybe deliberate, but it doesn’t seem to be.
- The FF Quarterback Problem. All the big box Fantasy Flight hybrids suffer from the same problem – they’re games that lend themselves to Quarterbacking. The more finely balanced and tense the games get, the easier and more tempting it is for one person to call shots for the entire party. This is especially the case when the entire crew goes before all the monsters do and the turn order is left up to players: you naturally have a conversation about who should do what and that doesn’t take much to turn into a conversation about how everyone should get their jobs done. There’s not much can be done about this (although breaking up the turns player/monster/player/monster does mean that your best laid schemes may only survive until the enemy acts), so a civilised agreement to discuss strategy, but not tactics, may be the only recourse.
- The Monster miniature bases are a pain. There are so many ways they could have done them, including just giving the monsters affixed bases like the investigators with their important numbers (Awareness, Horror, Brawn) stamped into it. Instead, the bases fall off all the time, the card inserts aren’t the easiest things to see (deep-set, slightly off target). Many of the sculpts (especially the monsters) are flimsy which for bendable plastic is only ever going to lead to them being mishapen. The peg and hole system that they use for basing these miniatures is fine for the big chunky fellas, like the impressively sized Star Spawn of Cthulhu, but an absolute bitch for some of the others, since you are having to push a flimsy plastic ankle/equivalent to make a peg on the sole of a shoe go into the hole. If you are planning on painting these and permanently basing them, you can fix this permanently, but for the casual player without time to calibrate pegs and holes, this is going to be annoying. Better sculpts would have helped with this. The only monsters repeated from 1st edition are the Cultists, meaning that those 1st Edition cultists don’t have appropriate bases any more and are useless…. unless you paint their robes a different colour and have a second weird cult at your disposal, to keep things fresh. Home team and Away team, maybe.
- Four scenarios. The small number of scenarios available at the app’s launch IS still a little disappointing. I can do that Man Hour/$ mathematics all I want, it would have been cool to have a few more (not expecting miracles). The next expansion will have two more scenarios and a bunch more tiles/investigators/monsters/cards. But really what this game appears to need is more scenarios; ideally relatively open ones that use tiles from whatever collection you have.
- Running Time. This is something that can get improved with playing, I’m sure, (I’m not sure). But we played the shortest scenario at 60 to 90 minutes (5 people, mind you) and it still took all evening. There was no more evening left. The largest scenario is clocked at 4 to 6 hours which may make it prohibitively long to play through of an evening. We’ll see. As I mentioned, we picked that house clean like we were locusts before advancing at the last possible minute to the climax. If one of us had strayed further and stumbled on the bad guy earlier, maybe our game would have been shorter (one way or another).
- Dead. The second time you lose all your health/your sanity, your character is dead. Everyone gets one more round to complete the scenario and then it’s lights out for everyone. That’s super harsh…. but I kind of like it. I’m not certain that it’s the best way to do it and I’ve got a feeling that in the longer scenarios, an unlucky roll of the dice is going to rollback 3 hours of game. So I’ll reserve judgment on how much I like the rule until it actually happens to me.
I’ve never developed a rating system. I dunno. It’s good, I think it will stay fun for a while. However many thumbs that is. ‘Round Mansions of Madness ways, the thumb rating is a lot less reliable.