This is what escaped our collective mouth when Fantasy Flight Games released the second edition of Mansions of Madness during Gen Con of 2016. This is a company that typically rolls a parade of articles out on its digital home months in advance of a release. Yet this reimagined big box title lurched from the basement without a peep. It was quiet and then it wasn’t.
This is an age where we buy the idea of games years in advance, a time where people are in a hurry to open the box of my latest purchase for me and broadcast it on YouTube. But a game being released by perhaps the largest player in our industry with only a week’s notice? That’s absurd. That’s drama.
I’ve already written thousands of words on this new edition. I shared my enthusiasm for the game here. And here. Oh, and here too. Right now I’m working my way through the latest expansion, The Sanctum of Twilight, and feeling all somber and poetic. This means gin and reflection.
I still remember the original Corey Konieczka design fondly. It was a messy hybrid of dungeon crawler and mysterious story game that could leave you in wonder or constipation, depending on how your particular Lovecraft vignette developed. It had a look about it – that typical FFG spread of token buffet atop wonderfully illustrated room tiles. It was easy to look past the soft and fugly (that’s short for fucking ugly) miniatures because it was a different time. This was 2011 and we were young and naive.
Image courtesy of BGG user dinaddan
The first edition was captivating particularly for its ambition. It promised an experience that felt RPG-adjacent, as if you were working your way through a prettier but more stringent Chaosium module penned by their B-team.
And that was frankly good enough.
The prominent flaw, that the whole game could go belly up by the Keeper misplacing a single card, well it was something we lived with. It was our quaint board game version of “in our day we walked through five feet of snow to get to school!” We didn’t have an app to hold our hands and braid our hair, and it was perfectly fine. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t do better.
Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain
The fragility was the first element addressed in this new edition. By shifting the story-engine from human opposition and a collection of sorted cardboard to angry bytes of wonderful mystery – there is a true sense of innovation and progress. This is in no way a small thing. Automation isn’t just hitting our automobiles and checkout counters, it’s hitting our precious cardboard adventures too. And in this particular instance it’s magnificent.
There’s no more arguing about who gets to play Ashcan Pete and who’s stuck playing fishmen and cultists. The iPad loses that altercation every time.
You can also pull the box off the shelf and start playing almost immediately. You don’t need to setup the halls of the creepy mansion ahead of time. You don’t need to organize and pre-seed stacks of little cards meant for the hands of a toddler. All you need are a couple of characters and a single room, and away you go.
What’s even better is that the application facilitates enhanced atmosphere, not just with that creepy public-domain gothic soundtrack, but by fostering an actual sense of exploration. By obfuscating the layout of our horrific journey the design instills legitimate mystery. You never know what’s around the corner and that’s scary in a palpable way.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” – H.P. Lovecraft
The randomized appearance of enemies and triggered events further supports this design philosophy. Scenarios utilize unique timers hidden from our view and each little box of text that pops up has us bracing with a wince. By internalizing the mechanical processes it keeps us guessing. We can’t quite work out how it operates and it puts us in an uncomfortable state of not knowing the heuristic rules at play. At times it even feels unfair.
That loss of control and placing such a large portion of the game in a sleek black box, that’s jarring. It’s unsettling in the best of ways as a horror game needs to be.
This is such a fundamental shift in the experience that it helps to elevate the game beyond its flaws. It repositions this as an adventure game of delving into the unknown and it diminishes any sense of the mundane.
Or at least, this is how it all should work.
And it mostly does. This experience, however, is overburdened with substantial flaws and may be approaching a terminal point.
There is a systemic problem with the FFG release structure that may be unavoidable. The issue is that the most significant cost of an expansion is the content found outside the box. Software developers are expensive and the way we foot the bill is by paying for yet more miniatures and tiles we don’t need or want.
It’s all about oversaturation. I already have 35 investigators, 40 monsters, and 200 different hallways and ballrooms.
While each investigator offers a unique backstory and special ability, there are already a dozen others with similarly specialized stats that occupy the same niche. After the excitement of a new toy fades, you realize that the main fallout is five more minutes of digging through a bag of unpainted miniatures to find that specific one with a cigar and cane.
The tiles are worse. Organize them however you’d like, but the high-stakes adventure will stutter along as you pause at each moment of progress to paw through those huge stacks of 2D rooms. There is an effort to alleviate this by coding each release to a symbol – but you still must find the appropriate grouping based on size and that icon. Then you need to check both sides of each tile and of course, the one you’re looking for is always at the very bottom.
C’est la vie H.P.
The endless heaps of monstrous enemies offer a similar dilemma. I love a plastic representation of an indescribable horror as much as the next gumshoe, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s often easier to simply place the cardboard token out on the board. If I’m already conceding play space to automation, then I want as much as the tedium to be smoothed out as possible.
Even more unforgivable is the sense of homogeneity.
There’s a unique problem here in that the behavior and mechanical representation of each enemy is handled almost entirely out of sight. This means that all beasts feel nearly identical. If you asked me to describe the difference between a Nightgaunt and a Shoggoth in terms of impact, I’d struggle.
“One flies and the other hits harder”, I’d mumble.
While I have to believe there are some complexities to the data and algorithms running the opposition, it never really feels that way. This lack of mechanical enforcement paradoxically undercuts the mystery element that’s so crucial to the experience. It abstracts the monsters in all the wrong ways while formalizing the least important qualities – namely, the soft plastic appearance.
Don’t tear your hair out just yet.
There are a couple of redeeming qualities to the expansion collection. Besides the scenarios – which have remained varied and fantastic – the most spectacular asset is in the integration of new Arkham world content. As you extend your Mansions of Madness pile of physical stuff, the app will digitally buffer out your electronic collection as well. This means new monsters and items will appear in old scenarios. It also means that you will see new events and details of story that did not previously exist.
The Sanctum of Twilight is the best example of this narrative expansion. The arrival of the Order of the Silver Twilight is not simply felt in the two new scenarios on offer. You will see those snaking tendrils leave their indelible touch on multiple facets of the game. Without spoiling the kitten, a proper example would be a new insanity card which places a member of the Twilight Lodge in your mist. These small touches of setting fill out the world and provide meaningful definition.
There’s a real sense that we’re on a tour of Arkham and eventually we’ll have a fully realized vision of the city with multiple factions and significant citizens at play. I don’t have a strong hope that these will be pulled together into a central story or vision, but we will nevertheless be able to enjoy an engrossing story that’s capable of touching on many facets of the greater FFG property.
And now, time for a brief intermission.
Alright, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
The Loneliest Number
One of the strongest benefits of shifting play from an arrogant Keeper to a mindless machine is the enabling of solo play. Hitting the mansion alone means you get to field multiple investigators – I recommend three – and you’re able to play at your desired pace. The experience tends to be shorter while also facilitating lengthy scenarios since you can leave the game setup when you head off to play Barbies with your daughter. One minute you’re in a dilapidated prison with a Starspawn barreling down upon you, and the next you’re setting up a tiny picnic outside a not-so-tiny pink RV.
As a solo RPG-esque experience, it foots the bill. You get a slice of interesting story, some satisfying combat, and a solid experience of pushing around toys while stoking the fire of your mind.
Yeah, there’s always a but. This is another one of those elements where the game supports as well as it harms.
While functionally this is a perfect solitary endeavor, it suffers from that lack of complete automation. This is a game of many rote, repetitive tasks. You will place many rooms and many more tokens. You’ll dig around through the box and you’ll finger components until your papercuts have papercuts. As a multiplayer experience this works splendidly because you have extended moments of discussion which offer a break between the thankless tasks. When you’re sitting in a dark basement all by your lonesome, well the decisions tend to come faster and easier and those pauses between the shuffling of cardboard become more brief and less pronounced.
If I think back with a clear head it’s painfully obvious: the bulk of my last two-hour play session was spent finding pieces and clicking through menus. Sure, I made important decisions and sure the story was emotionally gripping at times, but there’s this nihilistic angle of the whole thing that is simply deflating.
It is a testament to the story-telling prowess of the electronica that this repetition is often overlooked. I do get caught up in the moment when I’m trying to sabotage a float to stall the parade, or when I’m frantically dancing about the wooden parlor dousing a fire I carelessly ignited with my Azure Flame ward.
That struggle between compelling fictional drama and routine labor is one that each person must reconcile. I can personally hack it in this regard, but it can be fatiguing and it keeps me away from binging the game in repeated doses over a short period of time. This is more of a ‘pull off the shelf once every few months’ type of game as opposed to running standby on my table.
A Brave Newer World
It seems inevitable that whenever I discuss this series I reach the ending by circling back to the beginning. While I’ve already milked countless hours of enjoyment from the glands of this beast (what an odd metaphor), I’m continually keeping an eye toward the horizon and the potential evolution of this experience.
I truly feel like there is a large degree of untapped potential. We’ve seen some of that utilized in the fantastic fan-made Valkyri toolkit, but it’s still sort of half-buried and waiting to be gleaned. The real promise lies in extended campaigns mimicking the structure of a classic RPG module.
Imagine an official expansion that parallels the venerated Masks of Nyarlathotep adventure; or what about Beyond the Mountains of Madness? I look to the Arkham Horror living card game and I’m envious. Mansions of Madness is primarily a story game yet it’s not managed to elevate that medium.
This is where the game needs to go. At its current pace it will physically outgrow its design space. It needs to be moving forward with direction, not erratically with its weight behind new cardboard and plastic. Give us narrative depth to explore and legitimate themes to ponder. It’s out there Mansions of Madness, you just need to grab it.
For those who stuck with me on this long journey, may the Yellow King bless your soul.