22 March 2017 | Mansions of Madness

Horror for the Whole Family

Developer Grace Holdinghaus Talks Mansions of Madness as Accessible Horror


Last month, we did an interview with Nikki Valens, Kara Centell-Dunk, and Grace Holdinghaus, the three brilliant minds behind last year's Mansions of Madness Second Edition and the eerie scenarios released since. We got to discuss the fascinating game design process, the clever mechanics and scenarios within the game, and the unique stories that defined the experience for each of the game's developers. We didn't quite get to everything in our brief chat, however, so today, Grace Holdinghaus is sharing her thoughts on how she considers Mansions of Madness Second Edition to be a little different than horror games of the past and how that allows fans of the Arkham universe to bring new players to the table. 

Fighting for Success

These days, it seems like everything is getting a gritty reboot.

But in some ways, the Arkham Horror line of games has gone the other direction. The tone of the games is far from fluffy, but they aren’t drowning in the cosmic despair of the classic H.P. Lovecraft stories. The investigators of Arkham Horror don’t stop fighting just because it’s “impossible” to defeat a Great Old One. They arm up, they roll out, and they delve deeper into the mythos than any character in classic Lovecraft could safely manage.

Part of this tone change is due to the format we game developers write in. When making a game, it is commonly agreed that the players should, in fact, have a chance of winning the game. This isn’t a horror movie where the villain can stand on a pile of dismembered carcasses while the credits roll (at least not every time).

That may be why I felt comfortable bringing Mansions of Madness Second Edition home to meet my parents, so to speak.

Family-Friendly Frights?

It is no secret that many board games require five-plus hours of hard thinking, cutthroat strategy, and thumbing through thick rulebooks to cross-reference a corner case. There are plenty of board game fans who adore that part of gaming, but to some, that experience is closer to torture than a fun Friday night. My parents are in the second group.

With Mansions of Madness Second Edition, I was worried that my family would take one look at the tiny cardboard bits, the decks of sleeved cards, and the glowing tablet screen and just shut down. However, by the end of playing Shattered Bonds, they were trading strategic advice on whether or not to Barricade a certain door, or have Jenny Barnes shoot twice with her .45 instead.

When deciding whether or not to bring this particular game out for a family game night, there are some things you should know. Sometimes the Arkham Horror games get bloody. I know that at least when I write flavor text for Mansions of Madness Second Edition, grossing myself out counts as a win. That being said, there is an ephemeral line for violence that is hard to explain. Like many things, you just know it when you see it. Sometimes it is fitting to encounter a graphic throat-slitting, but other times it would be too much.

While these games do present violence, it’s often paired with a bit of levity. I’m sure the eagle-eyed fans have caught a few of the jokes we put in the Mythos Events. In a three-hour game, you cannot maintain a constant level of tension without risking fatigue in your players. To ramp it up, sometimes you need to offer some relief. The chances to laugh serve to make the finale all the more haunting. Or perhaps the levity is solely for the benefit of us creators, to keep us holding onto the razor edge of sanity for as long as possible.

The Fears We Face

By and large, anything mystical in the Arkham world will kill you or push you to the brink of madness. The danger posed by forces outside of human control is high, but not insurmountable, unlike classic Lovecraft. Humanity is neither inherently good nor inherently evil, instead each individual is given a choice between an easy road to destruction and a tough road to heroism. Many of the forces the investigators encounter are mental—madness, terror, ignorance. The themes of psychological danger can be dark and frightening.

These games get inside your head, play with the expectations you have, and pull reactions from you based on what they make you imagine. Because the players will always be able to imagine something worse than anything I can write. Leaving that mental space, space enough for a sigh of relief or a scream, is crucial to every part of these games.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Arkham Horror Files games aren’t exactly like books, or like movies, or like chess. They aren’t like anything I’ve ever worked on or consumed before. At the end of the day, though, cooperative board games open the door to rich social interactions. The Arkham Horror Files games open the door to tense, white-knuckled anticipation of what will happen next. Mansions of Madness Second Edition leaves you with the tempting mystery of what is behind the next door. 

So I hear people ask, "Is Mansions of Madness a family-friendly game?" My family enjoyed venturing into the cursed halls of Mansions of Madness. With the app handling the majority of text, it is simple to adjust the game to your preferred pace or style. But ultimately, you will have to make that decision for yourself. Good luck, and have fun playing! 

Mansions of Madness (MAD20) and its first component expansion Beyond the Threshold (MAD23) are available now at your local retailer!

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