Thursday, June 26, 2014

Instant role playing game

I am a big fan of the immersive nature of gaming. I like to lose myself in the world of the game, and to me exploring is more fun than simply winning. It's why I tend to favor adventure games like Fortune and Glory or Runebound over abstract strategy games, and it's why I love collectible card games but don't really like playing them at a competitive tournament level.

Naturally I like role playing games, where the entire point is to let your imagination run wild, and the setting and story are far more important than "winning." What I don't like about role playing games, however, is the sometimes large amount of prep time involved. When it's my turn to be game master of our bi-weekly role playing group I tend to favor pre-written adventures set in recognizable worlds. As a player, I don't particularly enjoy creating characters to play, and most of mine tend to be thinly disguised versions of characters from media, history or literature.

Mansions of Madness is what Wil Wheaton calls a "role playing game in a box." It combines the immersive, story-driven experience of a role playing game with the structure of a board game, using H. P. Lovecraft's 1920s based Cthulhu Mythos for its setting.

One player takes the role of the Keeper, and is responsible for setting up the game and controlling the Lovecraftian cultists and monsters that serve as the game's antagonists. The Keeper's role is similar to the game master in a traditional role playing game except that in Mansions of Madness the Keeper has his own set of strict rules to follow, and he can play to win.

The Keeper chooses a scenario and the board is set up, using tiles that represent the different rooms and surrounding grounds of a rickety old 1920s building. Each scenario has multiple story options for the keeper to choose from, so they can be played multiple times without the players knowing what's going to happen. These story determine the contents of different stacks of encounter cards that are placed in the various rooms on the board. Encounter cards can be useful items, obstructions that must be passed, or vital clues to the plot of the scenario being played.

The rest of the players take on the roles of investigators, choosing from a roster of suitably Lovecraftian characters such as tweedy professors, society debutantes and hapless scientists. Over the course of the game, the players explore the board searching for clues to the resolution of the scenario. Meanwhile, the Keeper has a specific set of action cards that he uses to place and move monsters on the board, with the intention of fulfilling the nefarious purpose of the scenario's villain.

The game is weighted in favor of the Keeper: he knows what's going on long before the players do, and the monsters and cultists he controls tend to be more powerful than the investigators. But, like other Lovecraft-based games such as Arkham Horror, the sense of doom-laden near-futility is appropriate to the setting and source material.

With its 1920s Lovecraftian setting, well-made components, and emphasis on story over competition, Mansions of Madness hits so many of my touchstones that I can't really give it an objective review, but it's a near perfect game for me.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) It really is role playing without all the extra work, which is exactly my cup of tea.

Date played: May 3, 2014

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