Fantasy Flight Games
Welcome to the first installment of Tabletop Terrors, which will cover horror tabletop games both in general with a look at what’s out there for those that don’t know and on a deeper level for those already familiar with some of the more popular titles.
A little over a year ago, I was introduced to the world of tabletop games. I quickly discovered that in the world of tabletop, horror isn’t a niche genre; it’s the mainstream. About one third of the tabletop industry is based in horror or dark fantasy. Walk into almost any game store, and you’ll find row after row of games based on Lovecraft, vampires, werewolves, and zombies zombies ZOMBIES. So many zombies.
To kick things off, I’m starting with my current favorite Tabletop Terror: Mansions of Madness by Fantasy Flight Games.
Fantasy Flight owns the Call of Cthulhu franchise and its associated Arkham Horror series of games. Mansions of Madness is part of the Arkham Horror world, sharing characters, creatures, and themes with several of the other titles FF produces.
At its heart Mansions is a storytelling game. One way to think of it is a traditional role-playing game, but adapted to a board and card system instead of pencil and paper. It’s designed by Corey Konieczka, and as Fantasy Flight describes it, “Whether you’re facing a rotting zombie in the graveyard, a knife-wielding cultist in the attic, or a massive chthonian on the front porch, Mansions of Madness’ components will draw you in the terrifying action.”
One player plays as the Keeper, the force of evil in the game. The Keeper is part ‘dungeon master,’ controlling the game and telling the story, but he is also an active opponent to the other players with his own goals and ability to win the game. The other players are investigators, each choosing one or more characters to embody as they explore the mansion of the story and attempt to resolve the tale in their favor.
Unlike what most would think of when they hear ‘board game,’ Mansions uses stories to create very specific sessions for each game. The base game comes with five different tales, expansions are available that add individual stories or provide groups of stories along with new investigators and monsters. Each tale has many variables chosen by the Keeper before play begins. The primary variable is the possible resolution to the story. Did the mansion’s owner disappear into another dimension, or was he possessed by a demonic presence? Depending on that choice, the investigators may need to perform a ritual to close a portal or track down the now-maniacal owner and his Lovecraftian minions. Other variables change the location of items and clues needed to solve the mystery, keeping play fresh.
The board is different for each story. The rooms are modular, individual pieces of cardboard with gorgeous art that fit together to create the mansion for each tale. Cards are placed in each room based on a carefully crafted system that ensures the story moves along exactly how it needs to in order to reach a resolution.
It’s the beauty and complexity of this system, invisible to players, that wows me with this game. It reminds me of the kind of ‘scripting’ that exists in video games: If a player goes into this room and opens that chest, it triggers the correct story event. Keep moving forward, and so does the tale. It becomes virtually impossible to ‘break’ the game, rewarding and punishing exploration at the same time by providing puzzles and traps.
During each turn, investigators can move, explore, solve puzzles, or attack. A system with a limited number of actions keeps things tense, as time moves forward with each turn…and if time runs out, so will the luck of the investigators. Events happen as time passes, and they rarely bring good news for our heroes.
In the midst of this is the Keeper. Each story gives the Keeper a different set of abilities he can throw at the investigators. His powers aren’t limitless but are fueled by ‘threat,’ which he gains at the beginning of each turn, based on the number of investigators in the mansion. He may be able to terrify them and cost them sanity points, force them to move to different rooms against their will, or summon horrific monsters to threaten and attack them physically.
Investigators must manage both their physical health and their sanity. True to the Lovecraft mythos, sanity is precious; lose it, and your character is out of the game. Until the very end of the tale, a lost character isn’t the end of a player. You simply choose another character from the stack and start over without any items gained by your predecessor, all dropped where he or she fell.
The investigators aren’t powerless, of course. Each starts with a set of items or spells, and each character has special abilities to use in their adventure. As they search the mansion for clues, they’ll pick up useful items and weapons to aid in their search…if they can avoid the traps and defeat the puzzles locking these items away in chests and closets.
As time progresses and frequent run-ins with monsters results in ‘horror checks’ that cost sanity, the investigator players become more and more desperate to reach their goal. While they discover ways to defeat the Keeper, the Keeper builds his forces. Time works against them as the story itself brings more beasts and doom to bear against the threat posed by the investigators.
Over the hour or two a game takes (minus a bit of lengthy setup by the Keeper), you can expect to traverse a complete, well-written piece of horror fiction. Some are directly themed to Lovecraft tales (the ‘Seasons of the Witch’ expansion story is a take on ‘Dreams in the Witch House,’ for example), while others are entirely original horror tales of ghosts, possession, or bloody ritualistic murder.
You need a minimum of two players, but the game is much better with three or more. Make sure you have a nice, big table (a card table would do) as the game has a pretty large footprint once it’s fully prepared for play. While it’s far from a casual game, it’s not particularly difficult to play, especially as an investigator. The role of Keeper should be reserved for players with experience in the game or running story-based games in general, as their ability makes or breaks the enjoyment of the other players.
As with most Fantasy Flight games, the production values are incredible. Everything is covered in amazing, original artwork, and the unpainted gray plastic miniatures included in the game are extremely attractive and detailed. (Well, as attractive as a shoggoth gets, anyway.)
Any fan of Lovecraft, horror stories, or games will adore Mansions of Madness. Check it out, and look for more Tabletop Terrors soon!
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