Yesterday, I played my first-ever game of Mansions of Madness with Kainenchen, Stands-in-Fire, and Mrs. Stands-in-Fire. None of us had played before or read the rules exhaustively, though Stands-in-Fire had gone over them a bit - so he played the Keeper. This review, then, is based entirely on player-side experience; I haven't so much as opened the Keeper's Guide, and there are going to be big gaps in my understanding of how the Keeper actually functions. The extremely short form of the review is that while I found a few items in their design questionable, I have a deep appreciation for what the game attempts, and I expect to play at least four more times in the future.
That note highlights the first of the game's strong approaches to story: there are five different map arrangements included in the box. The map is made up of rectangles of various sizes that are the rooms of a building; the map arrangements combine these so that doors meet up with doors and the building is put together in a more-or-less logical fashion. Each map has associated event cards to create the plot for that story. The replay value that is obvious on the surface is five sessions - not bad, considering how completely different those future games will be. Especially in a competitive game (where all players have a strong incentive to vary their gameplay, resulting in different outcomes in the emergent narrative), five different games in one box is pretty good - but that's just the beginning for this game.
The number of available plays diversifies wildly when you get to the Keeper's pregame decision points for the story. The Keeper makes three decisions, each of which has (I think) three possible answers. These choices change things on both the narrative side and the strictly-gameplay side. In this regard, the game has a strength for narrative that kind of blows my mind. I was expecting something a little closer to Descent, where the action is nonstop but the narrative is almost self-consciously trite. Instead, I got something with clarity, very strong structure, and some interesting ways of ratcheting up the tension.
Playing through "The Fall of House Lynch," a lot of the minor goals along the way are finding the keys to get through certain doors. Locked doors are a pretty basic way of gating a map, but I appreciated the way the game directed us generally from one minor goal to the next. It's possible that some of the bloom would be off the rose for this particular point in future gameplay; there is a risk of feeling like the game is just leading you around by the nose. The underlying problem here, then, is that if you don't pursue those plot goals with single-minded devotion, you're losing ground with the Event timer. In our case, we lost about three rounds exploring the dining room and kitchen, and I think all we got for our trouble was the Fire Extinguisher and the Lantern.
The Event cards and associated timer are one of the game's two key ways of ratcheting up the tension. Less appealingly, the Event cards that we saw just do different degrees of bad things to the Investigators, and they get the worse outcomes if they are following the plot and keeping up with the Event timer. I suspect strongly that this mechanic is intended to re-level the playing field slightly if one side is getting way ahead (it does, after all, punish the Investigators less if they're not doing well). It's also highly genre-appropriate for learning more about the mysteries and the Mythos only making things worse for the Investigators, but it means that victory incentives (again, in the one game we played) work against players going along with the plot and trying to solve the mystery. The particular victory condition we played for is
(SUPER SPOILERY! That's why there's a jump break here!)
to escape from the building through a puzzle-locked door. If we had pursued the plot assiduously, we would have unleashed a lot more zombies and would have been far enough from the only way out that we would have definitely lost.
But I need to back up and explain victory conditions. At the start of play, the Investigators are presented with a directive, but not a victory condition. In this case, there isn't some horrible monster at the end to defeat; all the Investigators can hope to accomplish is to escape with their lives. The Keeper, then, wins if he kills one of the Investigators before the end of the timer; the Investigators win if all of them escape the building. That leaves a yawning crevasse of space for ties: though alive, the Investigators fail to escape. Which is exactly what happened in our game yesterday. Faced with a puzzle lock, I went back for the axe that I had dropped in a previous fight, but I misjudged the amount of time this would take, and got to the space in front of the door just as time ran out. Oops. I'm not sure anyone at the table found a draw satisfying on our first time out. We're all veteran Arkham Horror players, so we're accustomed to being devoured by Old Ones, so I don't really understand why our failure wasn't a victory for the Keeper.
I mentioned puzzles briefly, and they're another of my favorite things about this game, to say nothing of one of the richest areas for idea-mining for other games. The game has Obstacles to overcome as part of exploration. These puzzles are presented on cardboard tiles that Investigators manipulate one move at a time. One Investigator can work on a puzzle at a time (and the others have to maintain monastic silence), which is good for maintaining personal challenge. The puzzles come in a wide variety of configurations, but with randomized game pieces from a large pool - again, replay value.
The problem that I have with the puzzles is that the number of moves you get per Action spent to work on the puzzle is based on your Investigator's Intelligence stat. I was playing a big dumb fighter (Michael McGlen), so I could contribute almost nothing to puzzles. I felt like my character choice was (unwittingly) opting out of a major area of gameplay, without the character's other advantages really compensating him for that cost at all. The one time I worked on a puzzle, I burned one of my three precious skill points to treat my Intelligence as 6 for that Action... and then, of course, I proved that I am not Mensa material by failing to think through all of my moves correctly, but let's not dwell. Puzzles are interesting and varied (we saw three completely different puzzle types, one of which was in two different configurations), but I feel like it's an area of gameplay that would be better if not tied to stats, since it's a striking contrast between character ability and player ability. It is wildly unlikely that I could solve any randomly-arranged puzzle in the two moves I got from Michael McGlen's Intelligence, but the game shouldn't be designed so that being able to fight means being unable to handle puzzles. Since you have some control over your starting stats, I could have chosen a more intelligent iteration of Michael, but of course I didn't understand that that would be important at the time.
Talking about puzzles has in turn led me to mention Skill Points and Combat, both of which are interesting but have issues. Skill Points are a per-game resource (Michael gets 3) that can be restored, but only rarely. They allow you to add your Luck to any other skill for a single Action each. This is a pretty smart application of Luck as a stat. Being the typically cautious and hoarding player that I am, I spent one on that first puzzle, and then lost the rest when I got hit with Dementia (one of the Keeper's cards). While it was obviously the right thing for the Keeper's player to do, it bothers me as something that he was able to do. Any way to deny characters per-game abilities is likely to be unpopular with me, much like if I had taken Dynamite as my starting item and had it taken away from me before I could use it.
Continuing on that note, though, that's something that for the most part the Keeper can't do; I think the power is called Uncontrollable Urges, and one of the Keeper's options with this power is to force the player to do something - but he can only force the Investigator to use an item if the player would get some benefit from it, rather than completely throwing it away. I like this setup in that it is an interesting and tactical tradeoff for the Keeper.
Okay, back to Combat. Combat bothered me. I made a number of decisions when selecting my character's stats and planning my Actions that were based off of assumptions that are valid in other games. For example, Michael has a Strength stat (6), a Marksmanship stat (7), a Willpower stat (8 - the only thing that protects him from his startlingly low Sanity), and a Dexterity stat (2). I chose the tommy gun for his starting item, and picked up an axe in the course of the game. When I'm thinking about how I want to spend one of my precious Actions (the game is short; I think I get about 15-16 of these), I really only want to do things that have a reasonable chance of success. This is hard to judge, though, if I can't know which stat will be tested when I make my attack. It's randomized by card draw, and over the course of the game, attacks with my tommy gun used Marksmanship, Willpower, and Dexterity. Unsurprisingly, I failed the Dexterity test in a big way. In another case, I had to use Marksmanship for an axe attack; when I succeeded, I dealt extra damage, but also dropped the axe, so it cost one of my precious Actions to get it back. I found it to be a very unwelcome surprise that my decisions were founded on such incorrect assumptions about how they would be resolved.
I've mentioned Actions a couple of times, and they're one of my areas of complaint with the game. I felt like I spent a lot of the game accomplishing nothing, for one reason or another: either because my attack missed, or I needed to spend my Action picking the dropped weapon back up (this happened twice), or because exploring an area revealed that there was Nothing Of Interest Here. Considering again how few actions we had in the course of the game, it's pretty frustrating. But as I mentioned above, success in the plotline isn't necessarily related to victory in the game. Compare this to, say, Arkham Horror, where players are on a tight but slightly flexible timer (the Doom Track, and possibly also the Terror Track, the Dunwich Horror track, and let's not even talk about Innsmouth), and while some actions may be unsuccessful, completely lost turns are relatively rare.
That pretty much covers my complaints about the game, so I want to mention a few more positives. I like the function of Traumas and Insanities, which are Keeper cards that he can only use after an Investigator has taken Health or Horror damage. Being reduced to zero Sanity isn't a game-ending consequence; it just means that the Keeper can play Insanities on you whenever the hell he wants, since you can't take any more Horror damage. As Michael McGlen only had six Sanity to lose in the first place, I was grateful for this.
We only found one spell (Blood Pact) over the course of play, and its ability to heal Health was not crucial since we didn't take many physical injuries, but the design of spells and their backlashes is really interesting. Lore is a stat (Michael's Lore was 1). When you cast a spell, you get a minor beneficial effect. After resolving that effect, you test Lore and read the back of the card. On a Pass, you get some additional benefit, possibly with an associated penalty (probably a Horror cost). On a Fail, you get a nasty penalty (Horror cost and more), possibly with a minor associated benefit. You usually then discard that spell card and draw another card of that same spell, though sometimes you lose access to the spell instead on a Fail. There are four or five different cards for each spell, and each is different. I like this means of handling variation, and I'll be thinking about ways to apply it in other games.
Stands-in-Fire said after the game that he felt like he was "playing the board" rather than playing a true antagonist, and it felt about the same way from the other side. Considering that the sharply antagonistic relationship between Descent's Overlord and players is my main complaint with that game, this was a welcome difference. I also liked the fact that the Keeper had his own minor objectives within his overarching objective. When a Maniac attacked, he tore out some of Michael's hair and ran through the house until he got to the altar in the back of the building. Once there, he sacrificed the hair on an altar, and the Keeper gained a big pile of threat tokens. This is the game's other way of ratcheting up threat that I mentioned liking. It was also very cool that the NPCs had a goal... and I'll totally be using this mechanic for a field battle at some point.
In conclusion, I like this game a lot, and I strongly feel that it has accomplished things in a board game in terms of cohesive yet varied narrative (above and beyond emergent narrative) that I hadn't ever seen before. My complaints with its mechanics weren't such that they stopped me from enjoying the game, and it gets a solid Would Play Again. I would even enjoy playing the same map and story choices over again, just to try different player strategies and see more of the things we missed. Fine family fun... if you have the Innsmouth Look.