Mansions of Madness: Second Edition (Including Streets of Arkham, Sanctum of Twilight, Beyond the Threshold)
H.P. Lovecraft's demented universe creeps onto your tabletop in the form of a fully cooperative adventure. 2-5 investigators enter locations like the hostile enclave town of Innsmouth, cult-infested mansions, zombie-covered graveyards, and plenty more, while uncovering clues as to the true nature of the evil they must confront. All the terrifying action is driven by a free downloadable app.
1-4 hours, depending on player count and scenarios.
Designer: Nikki Valens
Artist: Cristi Balanescu, Yoann Boissonnet, Anders Finér, Tony Foti, Corey Konieczka, Jacob Murray, Magali Villeneuve
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Category: Thematic adventure
Price: $89.95 Amazon.com
Mansions of Madness Second Edition, a reworking of the 2011 game, is a narrative-focused, dungeon-crawl style board game. The required downloadable app will guide you through selecting characters and setting up a scenario in a flash. Once you’re ready to go, the app will drive the action, telling you when a new enemy appears or which tile to draw from a large stack when you explore a new area. The game’s scripted scenarios gently push you toward your goal as you move through abandoned houses and down dark city streets, until you confront the Big Bad, make a daring escape, or complete your investigation.
There’s a lot to be aware of in MOM2E: gore, magic spells, suicide, occult rituals, alcohol, terrifying monsters from the deep, elder “gods,” violence, and swearing. Approach this one with caution.
Philosophically speaking, the game draws heavily from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote from a nihilistic worldview that’s just downright depressing. It’s what makes his horror tick. Christians can interact with his work in good conscience, but you’ll want to recognize just what it is that makes Lovecraft so terrifying: the fact that he assumed a vast, infinite, and completely uncaring cosmos that would as soon crush you like a bug as it would let you live your life in peace. It’s diametrically opposed to a Christian perspective.
The perfect H.P. Lovecraft game is out there somewhere, lurking in the dark. It’s not Mansions of Madness Second Edition, just as it wasn’t the convoluted mess that was Arkham Horror Second Edition, nor the excellent but increasingly bloated Eldritch Horror. But this one comes close—maybe as close as any game has come before, staring into the abyss beyond madness longer than any game before it, before being forced to look away lest it be driven insane.
My history with Lovecraft games is a long and twisted one. I dabbled with Elder Sign and Arkham Horror Second Edition, but found the former lacking any sort of theme and the latter a mere spreadsheet with the names of Lovecraftian monsters copy-pasted throughout its flowchart-driven design. Mansions of Madness First Edition was closer to what I was looking for, but it was a product of late 2000s FFG design: lots of tiny text on tiny cards, rule exceptions stacked upon rule exceptions, 3 hours to play, and what often felt like more setup time than actual gameplay for each session. Plus one guy had to be the Keeper, and that’s just lame.
Finally, I thought I’d found my holy grail: Arkham Horror First Edition. It sighed out theme from every pore and tentacle, unlike its modern offspring. But it was a Chaosium spin-off game from the 1980s, and as such suffered from a strange mishmash of wargame influences and RPG sensibilities that make it unfriendly for a lot of groups, necessitating several house rules to make it run like butter. It’s also a bear to track down. I still love it—it’s the crown jewel of my game collection—but it’s not quite accessible for most people.
To the topic at hand: Mansions of Madness Second Edition. This game is a breath of fresh air, addressing most of the flaws of games in the adventuring and dungeon crawling genre. It sets up in five minutes. It’s rules-light, drawing on a required smartphone app to run the AI and tell you what tiles to slap down as you play. It’s a far cry from its predecessor, whose 1 vs. all format and convoluted scenario setup demanded more of its players than it gave back in theme. And it takes players on a nail-biting, honest-to-goodness Lovecraftian adventure each and every time.
The most effective part of this design is that the writers seem to understand what makes Lovecraft’s horror work. It’s not about blasting enemies with Tommy guns. You’ll fight your fair share of monsters here, as the game necessarily includes more combat than you encounter in a typical Lovecraft work. But it’s not the guns-blazing affair that Arkham Horror often turned into. Your character might be more prone to investigation, and the game gives you room to explore that strength. Maybe you tell your friends you’re going to go check out that stack of papers in the corner, or you’re gonna see what’s in the garage while they investigate the ominous sounds coming from the kitchen. It works very naturally in the setting, and rarely feels as though you’re min-maxing stats or tediously counting squares as in so many other dungeon crawls. You can let the narrative sweep you away, rather than simply trying to solve a Lovecraft-themed puzzle.
The digital app complements the narrative-focused design as well, as it provides just enough uncertainty to tempt you into hanging around one turn too long, before the lurking horror in the basement bursts through the floor or the jeering mob closes in on you in the alleys of Innsmouth. Some turns the app will simply tell you that nothing happens, or that the wind outside the windows has begun to howl. Moody touches like this hep the game transcend its mechanisms and become a real experience of immersion into Lovecraft’s world.
Much discussion has been had about app-driven games and their future in board gaming, and this one is an example of doing it right. It takes away from rule and component overhead, helping the game hide its underpinning skeleton of rules and mechanisms so you can focus on the story and the fun. Scenarios are somewhat replayable. Several of them are partially randomized by the app, meaning you don’t know exactly where the key items or the Big Bad are.
It’s almost perfect. Mansions of Madness’ giant, fiddly black bases on which you must mount the game’s miniatures, a holdover from First Edition, are an exercise in madness, but not the good Lovecraftian kind. The figures don’t connect properly, causing all kinds of havoc when you try to store them. And they obscure the excellent tile art. They’re not even necessary anymore, since the app handles most of the bookkeeping, so FFG definitely should have left them on the cutting room floor. From a gameplay perspective, everything hums along smoothly, although fishing for the tile you need can bring the game to a lurching halt, and luck plays a major part in the outcome of a scenario.
The game’s expansion model bears mention as well: though the game has a high price tag, only a few scenarios are included, with more available in expansion packs and downloadable purchases through the app. It’s not ideal, but scenarios certainly aren’t one-off experiences as with the Unlock or Exit series, so there’s still some value to wring out of the base game alone. Every expansion so far has been excellent, with the scenarios getting progressively more creative as they go.
Setting aside its few niggling issues, Mansions of Madness Second Edition is the ideal Lovecraft game, letting you weave stories of tragic horror in a couple of hours with some friends. The sense of dread and creeping fear is pitch-perfect for a spooky Chtulhu-tinged experience. FFG’s Lovecraft universe isn’t a place you want to live, but you’ll still love venturing into this world for a couple hours, alone or with friends.
+ Incredibly immersive, moody setting
+ Fast setup
+ Elegant app integration
+ Excellent art
+ Great solo play
- Sifting through tiles throughout play
- Large luck factor
- Money sink
- Terrible miniature bases