Mansions of Madness, by Fantasy Flight Games, is easily described as a small scale of Arkham Horror. It’s the same Lovecraft theme and many of the same characters, only now it takes place on a modular map that represents some variety of haunted or evil mansion in the New England wilds. Unlike Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness is adversarial. I’m taking the role of Keeper, who controls all the monsters and tries to unleash evil into the world, while Graz is controlling the Investigators, who comprise motley group of professors and hobos. The Investigators start with a vague idea of why they’re in the mansion and where they need to go first (conveyed by flavor text), but they won’t know the Keeper’s true objective until they explore and uncover a few clues.
Graz is playing two characters: Ashchan Pete, the Drifter:
And Gloria Gaynor, the psychic:
Characters have statistics like Strength and Lore, all tested by rolling a ten-sided die and scoring equal to or lower than the stat. Rolls can also be augmented by spending a skill point, of which the investigators have a limited amount. Spending a skill point adds the character’s Luck statistic to whatever stat they’re testing. Each Investigator has a set of three actions per turn. Two must be devoted to movement, the final action can also be used to move (running) or it can be used to explore rooms (pick up items), move barricades in front of doors, hide in chests, attack monsters, or solve puzzles. They use these three actions in whatever order they see fit.
Most Keeper abilities cost threat. Threat is gained at a rate of one per Investigator per turn. The Keeper’s has different actions dictated by the situation. In this scenario I can summon a Maniac (who bursts through the doors, The Shining-style), I can move my monsters, I can expend threat to draw Trauma or Mythos cards (both used to hamper the investigators in instant or semi-permanent ways). As I only gain two per turn, I need to make my actions count. Summoning a Maniac costs 4 threat. Moving a monster costs 1. You can see how I’ll need to be frugal in the beginning stages of the game.
This syncs perfectly with the horror movie atmosphere. In the beginning the bad guys are lurking in the shadows, giving the heroes time to explore the mansion. In Resident Evil it’s probably twenty minutes before you find that hallway where the dogs burst through the windows. Before that it’s a zombie or two and the tension of what’s hiding just around the corner. The investigators need to make use of the monster-free time as much as they can, because once the Keeper gets going it’s hard to stop him. That’s about the gist of it. So let’s head into the mansion:
The Investigators are hot on the trail of some blah-blah-blah bad guy who disappeared at some point and is now doing some scary stuff. They’re here to collect on the disappeared guys debts, or whatever, but all thoughts of fiscal responsibility are out the window as they hear a scream echoing from the east side of the house. Wasting no time, Gloria explores the foyer and finds a Whiskey card. Whiskey, befitting its ‘Liquid Courage’ moniker, benefits her willpower and can be discarded to cure some of a character’s horror status. She heads towards the laboratory, the source of the disturbance.
Pete vaults up the stairs and into Hallway 1, using his action step on an extra move to make it the whole distance.
During the Keeper turn I take my two threat and use Evil Presence. Evil Presence is unique in that it’s essentially free to play as long as it’s the only action (aside from monster attacks) the Keeper spends his turn on. It allows me to draw a Mythos card and a Trauma card. My hand, which maxes out at four of each type, now holds “It’s Alive”, “What’s Inside”, and “A Reflection,” cards with minor horror effects.
Turn 2 Gloria moves from the Laboratory to the Operating Room, where she discovers and solves the Power Failure puzzle and finds Clue 3B in addition to a Silver Key.
Puzzles are actual tile-based games that come with the set. Most involve a matching game or completing a picture. In the case of Power Failure, Graz needs to make a contiguous line of same-colored wires to solve the puzzle. An investigator has a number of puzzle moves equal to their intelligence and can use these moves to rotate a tile 90 degrees, swap a tile with its neighbor, or swap a tile with a fresh one from the box.
So it starts like this.
And ends like this.
Pete moves deeper into Hallway 1, explores and finds… Nothing of Interest.
Nothing cards are seeded into the mansion at random to obscure exactly where the clues are. They’re also used as filler cards in rooms with actual items for the same purpose. Many rooms that have a clue to the mystery also have a key to the next door that needs unlocking. Placing nothing cards in rooms with only one real item makes it less obvious where the objectives are.
Pete then spends his final move action to look at the locked door to the master bedroom. He can’t open it, but using his move step reveals what type of lock it is, which may be useful later. On the Keeper turn I gain two more threat and summon a Maniac on Pete. Graz must roll a horror check for Pete as the Maniac comes bursting out of an adjacent wall.
Once a monster enters a room, all investigators in the room must roll at or under their willpower stat or suffer 1 horror damage. Some monsters apply negatives to the horror check, making it harder, but all do 1 horror on a failure. Investigators have between 8 and 14 sanity and the more horror damage they’ve taken, the worse status effects a keeper can play on them. An investigator doesn’t die when they lose all their sanity, but an insane investigator can have trauma cards played upon them at any time, making them almost worse than just having a dead investigator. Luckily Graz rolls a 4 and Pete is safe. That doesn’t save her from the Maniac’s swinging axe, which does 2 damage to her and, a very minor silver lining, 1 damage back to the Maniac.
Pete attempts to evades the monster, rolling an 8 and failing. He takes 1 damage in the process, but now is able solve the Lock Puzzle he discovers. In the room he finds a Sedative, a card that can be used to remove a Trauma from an investigator. With nothing else to do, Pete moves back into Hallway 1.
Gloria moves into the freezer, where she finds a Puzzle Box she doesn’t have enough moves to solve in one turn. She sits and waits for the next one.
On the Keeper turn I gain my two threat, expending one two allow my Maniac to move up to two spaces. I move him onto Pete, then expend another threat to steal a sample (represented by a token of a stripped-out tooth, sorry Pete).
Samples are specific event cards. If I’m able to bring a sample to the altar on the other side of the mansion I gain a bonus 5 threat and often other bad things will happen, depending on the scenario.
Also, after stealing a sample I’m allowed to move my creature one more space. I run him over into Hallway 4, towards the altar.
The ill-gotten prize.
My 3rd turn done, it’s time to flip over Event Card 1. Its only stipulation is that investigators suffer horror damage if they haven’t found the first clue yet.
Event cards impose a time limit. Every few turns another card is turned over, often with detrimental effects on the investigators. More monsters may spawn and they may take horror damage if they haven’t fulfilled certain conditions.
Pete, unwilling to lose his tooth to some crazed asshole, walks right into the room and fails his horror check with a roll of 8. But he doesn’t let that stop him. With no weapons but his own two mitts he straight-up cold-cocks that Maniac, dealing two damage and stunning him, which means the maniac can’t act next turn.
Combat is resolved semi-randomly by drawing cards from a deck until you find one that matches your attack (Unarmed, Ranged Weapon, Melee Weapon) and then testing the required skill. There’s a limited number of cards, you’ll shuffle through the deck two or three times a game probably, but the varying effects make the combat a little less stale. Instead of doing base weapon damage, sometimes you’ll get a bonus. Some cards deal damage even if they fail. Some cards have disastrous results (like fumbling your weapon) if you don’t succeed.
Gloria puts all her effort into solving the Rune Puzzle. She does so, and gains an Elder Sign, a powerful artifact that forces monsters to flee, but you need to be careful of its use. The Keeper decides in what direction the monster flees, so in some cases it’s like giving him a free move.
Done with the puzzle, Gloria moves out towards the back porch and the Entryway.
Pete, still on the warpath and shouting “THIS IS FOR MY TOOTH!”, socks the Maniac right in the jaw. Testing Strength and rolling a 7 ends up with Pete dealing 4 damage, killing the Maniac, and regaining his tooth (which he presumably sticks back into his face, because that is the sort of super gross things a tooth-mad hobo would do). 4 damage from a melee attack is almost comically high. Most unarmed attacks are 1 or 2 damage and, for reference, a Shotgun at long range only does 4. THOSE ARE SOME GOOD FISTS YOU’RE PACKIN, PETE.
Gloria finds a Fire Extinguisher in the Entryway, an item we’ve found limited use for. In addition to being a comparatively weak melee weapon it can be discarded to put out fires, obviously, but we’ve found that fires often benefit Investigators more than the Keeper, who will have more trouble getting monsters out of a flaming room than the Investigators will have escaping the monsters. After picking up the Fire Extinguisher, Gloria attempts to move into the garden and is stopped by a Magical Lock.
Now it’s the Keeper’s turn. I’ve lost my Maniac but I have a Zombie to putter around with. The Zombie, inspired by my expenditure of 1 threat, lumbers over like a good servant, strips another tooth right out of Pete’s face (hopefully the same tooth, but Pete’s probably not that lucky.
One more threat gives my Zombie two more movement on his dashing towards freedom.
Turn 6 Gloria expends her entire turn in a not-very-exciting fashion by running back to the Laboratory. Pete, still craving blood and teeth, catches up to the zombie and tests Strength for his attack. He fails with a 9, and the card says he takes 1 damage. Sorry sucker, get your tooth another day. On the Keeper’s turn I gain my two threat, spending 1 to move my Zombie into the Foyer, and another to solidify my hand of Mythos and Trauma cards, gaining “Claustrophobia” and “Vertigo.”
Pete moves into the Foyer where I take the opportunity to play Vertigo. Mythos cards are played between the steps of a player’s turn. In this case Pete fails his test and takes 1 damage. Minor, but it adds up. Now he’s going after the zombie. He passes his horror check with flying colors (after losing two teeth he better) and continues assailing his opponents unarmed. He deals 3 points of unarmed damage to the Zombie. Given his recent good luck (tooth loss notwithstanding), Pete starts considering a career on the welterweight circuit.
Gloria is still stuck with the busy work. She explores the Laboratory on her way through, turning over the card to reveal a whole lot of nothing, then moves into the Foyer and passes her horror check against the Zombie. She waves it a cheery hello from her side of the banister. I gain 2 threat on my turn, for a total of 4, and spend 1 moving my Zombie two spaces, trying to get away and make use of that sweet, sweet tooth. My turn ends and the second event card flips over.
As Clue 2 has not been found, each investigator takes a horror point, putting Pete at 3 and Gloria at 2.
Gloria spends her whole turn dashing to the Guest Bedroom. She’s able to open the locked door, but that’s it.
Pete continues to tilt at windmills. His lucky boxing streak is at an end and he fails his Strength test with a magnificent ten. Presumably this causes him to tumble down the basement steps to the tune of 1 more damage (now nursing a health 6 points). To add insult to injury he fails his Horror check and takes another point of that.
Now with five threat in my bank I’m able to Summon my Maniac onto Pete (four threat), who quickly snatches another tooth (one more threat). This makes a grand total of three! The maniac makes a break for it. Pete has basically resigned himself to a toothless life of boiled potato stew out by the railroad tracks should he ever escape this mansion and fails his Horror check with an 8.
Not a good turn for Pete.
At the beginning of this turn Gloria uses her special power, allowing her to see all the cards in the room of her choice (The Basement Landing). She learns that the lock is a Jammed Door, which only requires a Strength test, and the room also holds a Lantern, which can be used to ignore Darkness status effects (darken rooms reduce Investigator abilities) or also discarded to burn a monster. As she’s spent her action on that, she can’t explore the room she’s in, so she waits. Not a super great use of Gloria’s one-time only power. In the best cases you’ll use it to find some future objective so you can make a beeline to it. Not today, Investigators.
Pete has more luck. Believing as hard as he can, punches his hated zombie foe. He deals 2 damage and stuns the monster. He waits, not seeing the urgency in recovering his tooth while the monster is disoriented.
I gain my two threat and spend one to move my Maniac to the altar. The Zombie is stunned, so he can’t do anything, but that’s okay. At the beginning of my next turn the Maniac will have deposited his sample and the bonus threat I receive will really get the ball rolling.
Ole Pete is out for blood in the worst way. He spends a Skill Point on his zombie-punching test, making it so he only fails on a roll of 10. He passes, dealing only 1 damage, but it’s enough to kill the Zombie. Still howling in berserker rage, and having replaced his stripped-out tooth for a second time, he batters down the jammed door and enters the Basement Landing.
Gloria explores, finding the Magical Phrase necessary to open up the Garden. Moving into the Storage Room nearby requires to to solve a Lock Puzzle, which she does no problem.
She enters the Storage Closet and ends her turn. On the beginning of my turn the Maniac has dropped off his grisly trophy and I gain 5 threat in addition to my usual 2. I spend 4 to use Maniac Attack.
Earlier I used this card to summon a Maniac onto Pete. The ability can’t bring a new Maniac out if there’s already one in play, but I can use it to move the Maniac wherever I want (he gets a full heal in the process). For balance reasons you can’t teleport the Maniac if he’s currently holding a sample. If it could it’d be too easy to get him back to the altar.
The maniac, now on top of Pete, steals an astonishing FOURTH tooth. At this point Pete is likely just straight-up going crazy from tooth loss, so it’s no surprise he fails his Horror check. The Maniac, gleeful as ever, takes his post-sample move to get closer to the altar.
My turn over, Event 3 resolves and a new Zombie crawls up from the dirt of the Garden.
Time is running short for the Investigators.
Pete knows it’s all on the line now. He moves to the Maniac and spends another Skill Point on his combat test, but to no avail. He fails with a roll of 10. No effect. Seems the teeth-madness has full hold over him.
Gloria explores the Storage Closet, and finally something more valuable than a shitty Fire Extinguisher is found. She’s got a Shotgun! Thoroughly armed, and ignorant to Pete’s (who is considering a moniker change from “Ashcan” to “No-Teeth”) plight, she trots out into Hallway 1, heading for the Garden now that she has the Magical Phrase necessary to unlock it. My turn is a short one. I’m comparatively low on threat and I’m waiting for the huge burst from my second sample drop-off. The Zombie waits where she is and the Maniac moves to the altar, ready to claim his second prize.
Pete has given up all hope. He moves to the Ceremony Room in pursuit of the monster, but finds the door to be Sealed. He can’t get through, ever, and his tooth is lost. In shame he searches the surrounding area. He finds a Sedative, but no Sedative is going to bring back his teeth.
Gloria moves to the Foyer, still trotting to the Garden and, showing a bit of psychic talent, drops her Whiskey for Pete to find. A kind gesture, but maybe too little too late…
As the second sample is resolved — and my threat skyrockets to 9 points — the Objective is revealed. This whole time I was collecting samples for a dark ritual! A Shoggoth bursts from the depths of… wherever Shoggoths come from and begins steamrolling its way towards the front door (expending 1 threat to do so). Pete passes his horror check as the Shoggoth slurps and blurbles past him. After having lost all those teeth, even Eldritch horrors from the ocean depths have no effect on him.
The Objective has been revealed. The investigators win if they can kill the Shoggoth, or delay it for long enough. The Keeper wins if the Shoggoth can get out of the front door.
The Shoggoth moves to the Basement Landing, and I spend 4 more threat to move the Maniac to Gloria as a delaying tactic. Gloria passes her Horror check, but that’s fine. The Maniac attacks, forcing Gloria to test her Strength. Strength is not her strong suit. She fails with a 6 and takes 1 damage.
The pieces are coming together and the heroes have little time to react. This is where they need to get it together and big time! …so it’s pretty spectacular when Gloria fails her Shotgun attack with a roll of 10, causing her to drop the weapon to the floor. With no hope left, she stays where she is.
Pete takes of running to the Basement Landing, taking 1 horror damage from the Shoggoth in the process in the process. With his psyche as weak as it is I’m able to play “It’s Alive” on him, which can potentially prevent him from going through doors. He conserves his last action to use a Sedative and remove the Trauma, but things are still looking pretty grim and they can’t afford much more lost time.
Pete, not having a lot else to do, picks up the Latern in his spot and bemoans his toothless fate. Gloria makes a final, desperate plan. With the Elder Sign in hand she’s able to force monsters 2 spaces away from her. That means she can delay the Shoggoth indefinitely, as long as she keeps passing her tests. But, since it’s the Keeper who decides where the monster moves, the only place she can use the item from to guarantee the Shoggoth doesn’t escape is the entrance tile itself. She moves in that direction, easily evading the Maniac with a roll of 2 and situating herself in front of the door. I gain my 2 threat and use it to move the Shoggoth to the landing in the Entrance. Next turn, barring Elder Sign complications, my Shoggoth will be Audi 5000 and set loose to rain terror upon the land.
Not really having a reason not to, I also swarm my Maniac onto Gloria, attacking and forcing her to test Dexterity, but she adds a Skill Point to the mix and passes, barely, with a roll of 5.
It all comes down to this. Gloria grasps the Elder Sign with all her might, spends a Skill Point. It is almost impossible for her to fail this roll unless…
SHE ROLLS A FUCKING 10.
And that’s all she wrote. We don’t even bother moving Pete. It makes more sense that he’s bemoaning his toothless existence, weeping silently in the Basement until the Shoggoth brings about the end times. Which it does with the spending of one last threat point. The Shoggoth, doffing its comically Shoggoth-sized top hat and spinning its comically Shoggoth-sized cane, strolls out of the front door and proceeds to wreak havoc upon mankind forever and ever. And all because Pete couldn’t hang on to his teeth.
BYE SHOGGOTH. GOOD JOB!
Analysis If you notice any errors that’s because this is a log of one of our first games and we didn’t have a complete grasp on the rules. Things like when you can play Mythos cards on investigators or the thresholds for Trauma cards are some of the weird fiddly parts that took a couple more tries to grasp. That’s why you didn’t see me playing any of those Mythos cards on people, even thought they would’ve provided a nice horror bump (though they usually cost threat and I was saving most of it for use on samples). Also, we are chronically bad at remembering to do Horror checks, which doesn’t help me as Keeper. Live and learn.
Still, I really like the way the theme syncs so well with the mechanics and I like that few of our games have been a foregone conclusion. Often in games of Arkham Horror the last few turns before a win feel pointless, because failing a dice roll once your plan is almost complete doesn’t usually spell failure it just forestalls the inevitable.
In Mansions of Madness this is less of an issue. Graz could’ve won that game, and had a solid plan for doing so. A Shoggoth one of the most powerful monsters in the set, but if Gloria could’ve held it off that turn Pete might’ve grabbed up the Shotgun and they could’ve started mounting an effective defense.
We had a game where, in the final moments, the investigators had to escape the house while a swarm of zombies descended upon them. With one character, an elderly professor, separated from the group and sitting at one health they could’ve taken the easy way out and all escaped the house. With three investigators escaping and one dead the result would’ve been a draw instead of a win for the Keeper. Instead they mounted a heroic recovery effort, blasting and hacking away at Zombies and Maniacs until the Professor was free and the heroes escaped with a solid victory under their belt.
This is one of my favorite game types: an adversarial game with co-op elements. It reminds me of 3-on-1 Magic The Gathering games, or even the Juggernaut ruleset in Halo matches. The two sides are totally mismatched, but it’s not exactly imbalanced, they just have different strengths.
My major concern is the lack of scenarios. The booklet comes with five, which are further expanded to fifteen by each having three different objectives (other objectives in the scenario we played would be to kill a super strong Maniac or have all the Investigators flee the house). This limits your run throughs, but we haven’t tried them all yet and we’ve had the game for a couple months. What’s more: the Internet, god bless ’em, are constantly coming up with new scenarios. They might not be as play-tested, but it’s a variation if you ever get bored, and the modular components of the board makes fan-made scenarios as easy to run as the pack-ins.