09 November 2013

"Lovecraft" boardgames - the theme is not enough

A short while ago I asked Anders at our club if he wanted to bring down Mansions of Madness again, it had been a few months since last time and I thought my initial "meh" impression of the game would have passed. Furthermore Anders said he had a scenario from the Dunwich expansion that would be more Lovecraftian in tone compared to the action oriented scenario we had played in our last session.

Well, at the end of the session I was still not convinced about the game and could not understand why since I love the Lovecraft mythos and stories. And while the Dunwich scenario gave the impression of being a lot more "open" with a vast outdoor area and blended in some roleplaying aspects by throwing in a "investigation light"-twist it didn't offer any particular satisfaction.

So I've been thinking about it and I should start off by mentioning Arkham Horror. My group played that game to death and I bought most of the expansions. I then started buying more boardgames and Arkham was put aside for a long while - mainly due to growing into a very cumbersome boardgame with thousands of cards, tokens and other stuff that needed a HUGE table to allow me to set up a game properly. But when we finally came around to playing it again the experience was not as awesome as we were used to. And the core of the problem if you boil the game down is that it is a bit too random in difficulty as too much is tied up into the dice rolling that requires a 5+ on a D6 to pass.

The dice rolling all too often means that a character will either be very lucky and pass everything which makes the game a breeze - or fail miserably at every die roll making the game frustrating and in the end boring for that player. Our last session of Arkham Horror was a display of complete failure on the part of every single character. Sessions like that are a total mood kill, it may be acceptable to have one or two turns of setbacks - but not being able to complete anything for multiple turns when you must roll dice all the time is annoying and not fun.

We nowadays try to balance the game a bit by picking characters with some synergy between them, and picking a Old One that provides enough challenge without too much penalty effects as the game can stack the odds against you on its own. That, most of the time, is enough to fix the random nature of the game that may range from "easy" to "impossible and lost from turn one".

Now Mansions of Madness is like a zoomed in version of Arkham Horror and has added a few ideas. Combat is now a combination of rolling dice and drawing a combat outcome card. Characters are still canvassing the board for clues, and in our last scenario there was some character interaction with NPC's as well. However for a game that means to offer a more detailed experience it still feels, to me at least, very gamey and with a thin illusion of open ended gameplay.

Combat situations are either presented as very easy and thus rather uneventful obstacles, or impossible with no chance of actually winning. A witch may spawn and you quickly kill her with no other effects to your character, the storyline or really anything else. On the other hand, the game master may suddenly spawn multiple monsters or a single strong one and it becomes impossible to defeat them which results in a endless chase around the board (almost demanding to be accompanied by Benny Hill music).

The illusion of the open ended gameplay where characters could move around freely on the board was broken by several features. In our scenario there were 3 NPC characters, one of them was supposed to be a cultist and we were to find out who by talking to them. In reality there was very little meaningful interaction, rather a lot of "fetch quest" actions. You talk to them, they ask you to search the board for some item and then come back. The restrictions of the scenario and format of the game also affected how the "investigation" worked. You simply had to find 3 items indicating a specific NPC character, but there was no deeper thought put into the scenario - you only walked around the "search" locations on the board and flipped some cards that randomly pointed finger at one or the other NPC character. The final outcome once the true cultist was revealed to me was received with a shrug "oh well, that is the cultist - we win". Sadly this "story driven" scenario was lacking any of the puzzles that I really enjoyed in the previous "action oriented" scenario we had played - something I thought was rather well done and which utlized the character stats in a very clever way.

To me Mansions of Madness fail to be a successful mystery game or catch the spirit of the Lovecraft stories. Fantasy Flight Games has released a ton of Lovecraft themed games, covering boardgames, card games and dice games. All of them rely heavily on the Lovecraft theme, but having sampled most of them (Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness, Elder Sign, Call of Cthulhu LCG) I must say that most of them just use the Lovecraft theme as a means to draw attention to themselves while the game mechanics fail to capture the spirit of mystery and horror often being the core of Lovecraft's work.

Call of Cthulhu LCG might as well have a fantasy theme, as the theme has zero impact on the game. You just want to defeat each other with the most successfully completed missions. There is a lot of namedropping of characters, places and Old One's but there is no proper use of the theme itself. It's a combat game using Lovecraft mythos.

Elder Sign, I play this game on my Galaxy Tablet, and love the game. I would probably dislike it as a physical dice game though and having to play with other players as the mechanics are so straight forward that multiplayer is pointless. It's also more about resource management than any mystery solving.

Mansions of Madness, has a lot of good ideas but imo it fails to properly use the format it presents. It relies a lot on combat situations, when the components could be used for interesting and less predictable gaming. I think custom scenarios are the way to go here if you want to make a proper Lovecraft mystery. As a game master, don't tell the players more than they need to know - tell them as little as possible. Then have them explore (really explore and interact) a location as you slowly unveil the hidden horrors. To just begin a scenario by saying "you have to find 3 of item X" or "you have to go here to win" just kills the mood (keep player knowledge vs character knowledge and all that in mind). I also think that combining the dice with the combat outcome cards often end up giving situations that are at odds with themselves. You attack someone with your weapon - intending on killing them - roll to his and do so only to draw "you fire warning shots in the air" as combat outcome.... what?! It would be better to completely skip the dice and just use the combat cards on their own when combat arises, using the combat stats for combat initiative rather than your success ratio on a die roll.

Arkham Horror, the game that pretty much spawned all Lovecraft inspired games in FFG's catalogue. It's a good game with a few flaws. First you pretty much need an expansion pack to spice things up - the bad thing is that the more expansions you add (while adding a ton of good things to the core game) also make setup time and table space requirements overwhelming at a certain point. I always liked the location decks in the game, as it provided a better sense of Lovecraft weirdness, horror and mystery than any other Lovecraft themed game I have played. You always have a fair idea of what you may get out of visiting a location, but you will still have plenty of surprises during the actual visit. The game also risks to become a "chore" having to run around the clue token spawn points like a headless chicken, especially if the number of monsters and mythos effect stack in such a way  as to provide you with impossible to win odds - which while fitting for something Lovecraftian - makes for a pointless gaming session (why waste 3 hours by prolonging inevitable defeat that you see coming on turn 2?).

What I would really love to see as a Loevcraft inspired game is something like Mansions of Madness, with its floor tiles that can be used to make different maps each time you play. Less combat and more mystery and puzzle solving, more horror as the main enemy to affect that affect the player characters rather than endless monster spawning combat situations. I would also like the game to capture the twists of Lovecraft novels rather than serving you the whole story, "beginning, middle, end" synopsis in the introduction to the scenario you are about to play. Instead of knowing exactly how to win or what you are up against it would be more satisfying for the player characters to find out themselves through proper investigation of the board - not only by visiting "search" locations. This would probably need a much more active and fleshed out Game Master role than that of Mansions of Madness (which imo centers around annoying the players with monster spawning and putting penalties on actions the players want to perform - but doing so openly). A Lovecraft themed boardgame imo, should be more of a RPG with boardgame components than a borrowed theme with a bunch of inhoherrent and contradicting game mechanics.


  1. I really like Arkham Horror, but yeah - super long setup time and even longer play time! Steering clear of Mansions of Madness due to it not being fully co-op. Also the problem with "story" based stuff is often replayability - an issue that exists in all forms of games. If you already know what 3 items to get and where to get them then your second run will probably be less thrilling than the first.

    1. There are at least three different ways of playing each story, so your players will never know what their supposed to do each game.

  2. Hi Alex,

    I can agree on a lot of things you said here in your review. But on the other side, I have to say that with the multitude of variety the Lovecraft world has to offer it seems to me it's quite difficult to have a perfect balanced game on this.
    I do play the Arkham boardgame a lot, who I think is a really successful release. Yes, sometimes it will happens the mythos cards + the old one choice makes it a very difficult and unbalanced task for the players. But, imo, it's to the players to think forward to the final battle and get the best options they can get to face the old one in that final struggle. In AH players work against the game what they do not in MoM (Where a "gamemaster" is present, well, kind of).
    I didn't like MoM for the same reasons as you. There were some good ideas and it looks great, but the great disappointment was for me that the gamemaster was there just for being there. The game in all its details make it difficult to change the course of the happenings. Far from the RPG, where real horror, investigation, mystery and mythos has its place.
    As for the LGC, which I play a lot with Christine now (and we had a good discussion at the time on FB), I think its also quite successful. It's more of a reaction game then a "doing it in your turn" game. What makes it more interesting imo. We play it a lot that way and it makes it for more tensed and more memorable games still in the Lovecraft theme. So for me, it's a success.
    To end my long comment, I'll suggest you to play the RPG if you want to enter the real Lovecraft theme. That is all about storytelling and horrifying mysticism. Where a game master can really let feel its mark till the end of the story (a bit like ghost stories told to each other when we were younger ;) ).

    I still do like your posts and I follow your blog a lot. So keep on the good work ;)



    1. Hi Thibo!
      I actually have the Call of Cthulhu RPG book (6th edition IIRC) as well as some source books. I may delve into that once my group gets tired of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire :-)

  3. While I agree with some of your points, I think your being overly critical of this game. Well, from my point of view anyway :)

    Arkham horror really annoyed me, I bought it when it was first released hoping that the Lovecraft setting & great art work would translate into an awesome game.

    After playing it a few times I gave up, all you end up doing is frantically running around the beautiful board trying to close gates. I've heard the advise too, "its much better with the expansion". Well, if the core game was any indication, I wasn't about to sink more money into seeing if it would improve the situation. Its a real shame too, the board looks fantastic, you just never get to explore it.

    With regards to MoM, I agree with you that the "keeper" needs to play as much of a GM role as possible, but keep in mind its not an RPG! No board game can be both. You can't compare apples with oranges and complain that they don't taste the same.

    If you want an open ended story game, play RPG's. IMO no board game comes anywhere near close to an open ended adventure game, apart from a dungeon crawler. And even then your mission is a pretty basic. "Find "X" guy and kill him after cutting a swathe through his henchmen.

    I think your wanting MoM to be something that it can never really be.....an RPG experience.

    1. I agree with you about me being critical :-D
      I like your thoughts about a possible "Dungeon crawler" solution, that could possibly be done with MoM - you could have characters gradually uncover new tiles as they move on the map. That would add a bit more of the "exploration and investigation" that I am after.

  4. Some good thoughts. I had mansions of madness but found it a drag also so I passed it on.

  5. Thanks for the review. both Arkham Horror, and MoM were games I was considering buying, but after your review, I think I'll find something else to spend my pennies on...
    As much as I would like to try out a Cthulu RPG experience, I dont really think I have time to indulge in RPGs anymore...
    Must admit I did enjoy Elder Sign the couple of time I played it...

    1. The Call of Cthulhu RPG seems very interesting, I've only glanced through the pages but I may try to get a game or two down the road once I've learned enough about Pen & Paper RPG gaming from our current Star Wars: Edge of the Empire sessions. CoC being a lot more traditional and rule heavy than EotE in its format also makes it a bit more of an effort to learn. But I really enjoyed toying around with character creation for CoC. If my group plays it in the future there will certainly be a report on the blog about it :-)

  6. Interesting. I nearly bought Elder Sign yesterday but felt it wouldn't get played enough.

    I haven't played Arkham horror but was similarly disappointed by MoM.

  7. Mansions of Madness, what a horrible bad game.
    The puzzle feature is just a time-sink, the whole "card-whats-in-the-room" give it all up and the cards block the nice looking boards.

    Sadly owns the game, hope someday to sell it.

  8. Maybe this might be worth checking out. I find the steampunk imagery a little tacky, but perhaps it's Mansions of Madness done right?

  9. Also, you can find the rulebook and other info on the official page;

  10. Thanks for the heads up Luka, will try to check it out :-)


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