Saturday, 2 January 2016

Mansions of Madness

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Mansions of Madness is a Cthulhu mythology game. It is scenario-based, and the scenarios are one-overlord-vs-multiple-investigators affairs. Every scenario is a mystery, with the overlord setting up the solution and knowing how the scenario works, while at the start of the game the investigators don't even know what they need to do to win. The investigators need to look for clues to piece together the winning condition, and they need to achieve the winning condition before time runs out.

The scenario I played was from the Call of the Wild expansion. I have not played scenarios from the base game so I can't make comparisons. I just know the scenarios in the base game happen indoors, while in Call of the Wild the scenarios are outdoors.

Most players play investigators, and there are many characters to pick from. As an investigator you explore the map to search for clues, you encounter events and resolve them, you try to work out the objective of the scenario so that you can work towards victory. The overlord player is the dungeon master. He can summon monsters to attack the players. He gets to play bad events on the investigators. He manages the scenario, and he tries his best to prevent the players from winning.

The card at the top left is a character card with the basic information and stats. The two cards at the bottom are configurable traits of the character. You have options and you can select a specific combination that you like, or that you think will be most suitable for the scenario you're about to play. The card on the top right is an equipment card.

Those tiles at the top left are a minigame. When you encounter certain events, the overlord will set up such minigames for you to solve before you can proceed further. In this particular minigame you need to connect the start and end tiles, and you only have a limited number of moves per turn to turn the tiles or to swap their positions.

Our particular scenario started with the four map tiles in the lower left forming the initial play area. The two additional tiles in the upper right were added as we explored the edges of the map. Edges with cards mean you can explore and thus extend the map.

That one on the left is one of the monsters. The one on the right is one of the investigators. The investigator is in a shed now, and when she exits she will run into the monster.

This is an event card. It says you need to solve a puzzle (i.e. a minigame) before you can enter the location you are trying to access.

As the investigators explore more, the map area grows.

That disc is a non-player character (NPC) in our particular scenario. He is a source of clues.

The Play

Spoiler Alert: I will talk a little about the scenario I played. No specifics and no answers, but if you want to play this scenario completely fresh, you may want to skip this section and go straight to the next section - The Thoughts.

Ivan taught the game and played the overlord. Jeff, Sinbad, Kareem and I were the investigators. At the start of the scenario, we the investigators regained consciousness at a camp surrounded by a mysterious mist. We couldn't remember what happened or how we got there. We just had a nagging feeling that there was something important we needed to do. But what? There was a dodgy-looking stranger at our camp urging us to move. We had to keep questioning him for clues. He obviously knew something we needed to know. We kept him close as we explored the area, trying to figure out what it was we were supposed to do here. Our scenario had a countdown mechanism, so we knew time was not on our side. There was an urgency to quickly find out our mission.

The monsters summoned by Ivan in the early game were more annoyances than threats. We could kill them if we wanted to, but they were just distractions Ivan threw at us. Killing monsters was not how to win. We needed to focus on learning the winning condition, and then achieving it.

The clues we picked up were mostly mumbo jumbo. We could not make much of them. It took a while to collect enough mumbo jumbo for them to start making sense. And they still didn't make a lot of sense. We were mostly Eurogamers, so we applied more of our Eurogamer instincts than our Ameritrasher skills. We worked out that to win the game, we needed to bring one artifact off the map in one specific direction before the countdown ended. If we picked the wrong artifact or wrong direction, we would lose instantly. It was not just about beating the clock. We started the game with four artifacts. Now one of the them was consumable, i.e. if we used its power, it would be discarded from the game. Obviously that could not have been the key artifact. If it were, the investigators could have used it up before they realised that it was the key to winning. There was no way a scenario could be designed with such a flaw. It turned out that we were right (of course!). This was doing deduction based on our experience as gamers and the logic in game design. It was not based on being immersed in the story of the scenario. For the rest of the mystery, we had to rely on the written passages in the clue cards, i.e. the mumbo jumbo. We probably took them too much at face value, e.g. we just considered whether the clues were hinting at a particular artifact (or direction), but we didn't think deeply enough about whether the clues meant to tell us to pick that artifact or not to pick that artifact. At least in my case, that was the Eurogame mindset working. I hadn't immersed myself in the narration enough. At one point we, the investigators, made a wrong conclusion about the direction we should exit in, and Ivan reminded us to think deeper about the clues we had on hand. It was then we realised that a particular clue which we had thought meant to tell us to go in a particular direction actually meant to tell us not to go in that direction. Ooops! Communication breakdown!

Eventually we agreed on what the clues were trying to tell us. What remained was to get the job done before time ran out. At that point the board was infested with monsters. The big monsters were out too. We knew we had no time to fight them. We needed to run for it. I was a little thankful that we had "wasted" some effort in killing the little monsters in the early game. Otherwise there would have been even more of them around to drag us down at this crucial moment. I'm still not exactly sure how to balance between killing monsters to prevent a build-up, and ignoring them to focus on getting the scenario objective completed ASAP.

Kareem had a Spider-tingling feeling that our conclusion might be wrong. In Star Wars-speak that's "I have a bad feeling about this". There was another artifact which we had considered being possibly the artifact. Kareem hadn't completely dismissed it. However it was in a house far away from where we were, and that house was now a party house for monsters. Even if we could get to it and avoid getting eaten by the monsters, we likely wouldn't have time to bring it off the map. So we stuck to the plan. Well, mostly. Jeff, Sinbad and I ran in one direction with our prized artifact. Kareem went on a side quest. He ran towards the second artifact. A bold move, but eventually it just got him killed. Jeff, Sinbad and I managed to force our way through the tangle of monsters, and we succeeded in getting our artifact off the map. It was then time for the final reckoning. We got the direction right, but unfortunately Kareem's hunch turned out to be right. We had the wrong artifact all along. The real one was the one he died trying to extract.

Running with the wrong artifact, we got lost in the mist, and ended up back at camp, and we collapsed into unconsciousness. We came to only to find that we had forgotten why we were here, and what we were trying to do. We just had a nagging feeling that we had something important to do, and we had to do it quickly. Then a suspicious stranger walked up to us and said, "Hurry up!".

More and more monsters were popping up and we were starting to get overwhelmed.

The big ones were here now. These were a major pain. We didn't have to fight them, but even if we tried to leave their presence, we might still get injured because monsters get a free attack whenever you try to run away from them.

This was the climax. We were ready to exit the map with the artifact which we decided was the right one. It was the moment of truth. And.... truth hurts.

Game end. Kareem died a horrible death, torn to pieces by three monsters.

The Thoughts

The most important part of Mansions of Madness is the stories and the narration. To fully enjoy the game, you need to immerse yourself in the narration, and not play it as a mechanism-first game. You need to be imaginative. The system is much more than a mathematical problem. The flavour text is not just flavour text. It is part of the core of the game.

The solution to a scenario is variable. It is determined by the overlord when he sets up the game. The clue cards being used will differ depending on the solution the overlord decides upon. The map grows in different ways depending on how the exploration cards are distributed. So a scenario will rarely play the same the next time round. However if you have played a scenario, you will know much about it such that the second play will have fewer surprises. You will already have a rough idea what clues to watch out for and you may already be able to devise a general strategy. In fact if you see the same clue cards coming out again, you will know that the solution will be exactly the same as before. Thus, I would argue that a scenario is technically replayable, but in practice your subsequent plays will be less interesting. This may not be a problem. My copy of Tragedy Looper comes with 10 scenarios, and I haven't even done half of them.


Ivan Ho said...

Great review of the play!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thanks for teaching and dungeon-mastering the game!