|Mansions of Madness | Published 25 April 2011|
It has been almost two months since Mansions of Madness, the board game of horror and investigation for 2-5 players, started haunting tabletops all over the world. Drawing players into a sanity-bending Lovecraftian narrative, each game tells a unique story from beginning to end, and provides the conflicts, adversaries, and unlikely heroes that make it memorable.
But while Mansions of Madness has the strategic depth and versatility to deliver a consistently satisfying competitive experience, it’s important to remember one of its core design goals. In the afterword to his Keeper’s Guide, designer Corey Konieczka discussed the need to immerse players in an entirely new world, writing that:
...in order to draw players into this world, story needs to be the cornerstone of the game. People often speak about “getting into a good book,” and once you experience this, you understand that the phrase is an amazingly accurate description of the feeling. Once inside a story, the real world melts away. You are no longer staring at dimly lit pages, and you don’t even notice when you turn the page. Your mind is more inside the story than it is inside the real world.
From the initial story hook to the climactic realization of an ultimate evil, Mansions of Madness brilliantly achieves this level of immersion. Indeed, the creation of a strong shared narrative is perhaps its greatest strength, and games of Mansions of Madness thrust players into a world of Lovecraftian horror.
That certainly doesn’t mean that a Keeper shouldn’t try his absolute best to win. The Keeper’s role is undeniably antagonistic, and having a foe that pulls punches undermines the gravity of a story. But Mansions of Madness excels at walking the fine line between competition and narrative, and if everyone is willing to commit to both of these elements, the resulting balance will produce memorable results. At the end of each game, players would do well to define their success based on two criteria:
“I don’t have to outrun the Chthonian...”
For the Keeper, winning is often a matter of delaying the Investigators as early and as often as possible. But while other “one-versus-many” games may encourage the lone antagonist to simply eliminate his adversaries, killing Investigators is seldom wise in Mansions of Madness. It’s often better to keep them alive, clinging to life (or sanity) by a single frayed thread. In short, you want them broken, but not dead.
After all, a barely-sane Michael McGlen is a constant danger to his fellows, capable of turning his Tommy Gun on them at the slightest provocation. Likewise, should Harvey Walters find himself with a broken leg, his comrades will be forced to make the difficult decision of lagging behind to protect him (at the cost of precious time), or leaving him to his fate. Remember: the Investigators want to stick together and make good time. You want the opposite.
While the above tips are admittedly a tad vague, there are a number of varying strategies for both sides, and their application depends on both the story being told and the plot decisions that the Keeper has made. Universal to every story and choice, however, are a few tips for ensuring the most immersive narrative experience possible.
Consider your motivations carefully
From a strategic standpoint, players will want to choose their characters based on what advantages they bring to the group, and how their abilities complement those of their teammates. But from a narrative standpoint, go even deeper.
The rules give you the latitude to choose your own character (rather than randomly assigning them), and this was done very much on purpose. A player who has chosen his character may feel more ownership of that character, helping him to play the part. Consider reading your character’s background, and even discussing briefly the circumstances that led to him teaming up with the other Investigators. While it may seem unnecessary, this simple step will put you in the right frame of mind as you help the subsequent story unfold.
For the Keeper, these considerations are just as important. When setting up, make story decisions that speak to you on a gut level, and that establish plot devices you can invest yourself in fully. Also realize that your ownership of the plot doesn’t end after you’ve placed the clue cards. Where has Walter Lynch gone, and why is his mansion infested with axe-wielding maniacs? Who are these people? Even if you never discuss plot specifics with your group, letting your imagination extrapolate on the story’s foundation will result in a much more satisfying experience.
Read the flavor text every time
Resist the habit of skipping flavor text, even after you’ve read that text in previous games. With their broad range of possible outcomes, Combat cards provide a great opportunity to create truly cinematic moments... but this if far less likely if you merely scan the card for its pass/fail effects and move on.
In one especially memorable story that took place at a recent convention, Joe Diamond found himself in the climactic final moments of a fight against a hideous otherworldly fiend. After pumping round after round of .45 caliber lead into the Shoggoth, Joe’s efforts fell tragically short of success. Just then, an unarmed Sister Mary entered the room, and steeling herself against the horror she beheld, quickly plunged her fist into the beast’s pulsing hide and squeezed the last of its life from its black and shriveled heart. The entire table erupted in celebration of this amazing moment! From only the rich description of the cards and a bit of imagination, an engrossing scene formed in our imaginations and took hold in our memories.
In the end, Mansions of Madness delivers the foundation of a great story and the blank page on which to write it. But it’s ultimately up to the players to decide where that narrative goes. What story will you tell?
Mansions of Madness is a macabre game of horror, insanity, and mystery for two to five players. Based on the beloved fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Mansions of Madness tells a story in which one player takes on the role of the keeper, a malevolent force working to complete a sinister plot, and all other players take on the roles of investigators, the unlikely heroes who gather to oppose him.
Yes, most DEFINITELY read the flavor text, each and every time. I'd also suggest to embellish or add a little of your own flavor descriptions as well!