Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) dropped the ball on this one. The new edition of Mansions of Madness (MofM) could have been outstanding. It could have been the benchmark for a 2nd edition, or a dungeon crawl, or an ‘RPG Lite’. As it is, it feels like an exercise in corner- and cost-cutting, which is bizarre in a game that retails at £90.
Cue the rumbles of disbelief and discontent.
“What? Are you crazy? Have you seen the BoardGameGeek rating? The reviews? It was the game of 2016!”
Look, I know it’s a fun game. I own it. Both editions. I enjoy playing and appreciate the much needed improvements made in the 2nd edition. But I’m always left with a slight twinge of disappointment at what could have been.
So what’s my beef with it?
Five years ago when the 1st edition was released, the miniatures supplied with the game might have cut it. They might even have been considered good. These days, with companies like Cool Mini Or Not (CMON) redefining the quality of miniatures board games, they start to look a little tired.
The 2nd edition doesn’t improve on this. If anything it’s even a step back. They’re okay, but the monster designs and poses are uninspiring, the detailing is mediocre and the plastic feels low quality. The investigator models go some way toward redressing the balance, but if you were hoping for CMON standards, then guess again.
However, the overall quality of the miniatures isn’t really my issue. What I find unacceptable are swathes of black plastic that serve as the miniatures’ bases.
They’re bases Jim, but not as we know them
Some of the most beautiful aspects of the game are the room tiles, with splendid artwork creating sumptuous mansion interiors. So why cover it all up with some needless black slabs?
A design justification for these travesties is to hold monster tokens. These square chits add some flavour text, useful stats and some funky artwork. Why bother? The colourful prose and Brawn stat on the reverse side are always face down, and the artwork is hidden forever as soon as you assemble the base.
And the base has actually been designed this way.
It’s more useful to have the tokens at the side of the board, matching the monster ‘drawer’ in the app. If FFG really felt these components needed to ride shotgun with the minis, then at least make the bases of a transparent material.
The room tiles and token artwork are cool. Acres of textured black plastic covering them up is ugly and crap.
Of course the bases do also have slots to hold ID markers in case there are two identical creatures in play. But is simply placing a marker next to the miniature so impractical? In fact the slots in the base were designed to hold and keep track of wound tokens in the 1st edition. A function now carried out by the mandatory app.
So these are a bunch of components left over from the 1st edition that have been recycled into the 2nd edition. Now I’m all for recycling, but perhaps not when I’ve shelled out the best part of 90 quid for a “new” game, and certainly not when it doesn’t do anything for the game play.
Regurgitating the same tired, unaesthetic pieces, especially when the new app dispenses with the need for them, smacks of either laziness or an unnecessarily tight budget. Neither is acceptable in a game at this price point.
Of course there’s an argument for compatibility with 1st edition components, and credit where it’s due, the included conversion kit for these is a welcome addition. But I’m sure FFG would have been only too happy to offer a new “base upgrade” pack for sale, just as I’m sure saps like me would have gone out and bought it immediately.
So let’s talk about the main elephant in the room for everyone:
Many 1st edition fans and gaming purists were alarmed. Not so much by the app itself, but the fact that it was compulsory. You simply couldn’t play the game without it. So how did it win over the jaded and entrance the rest of us?
Mostly it accomplished it by tackling the bugbears that haunted the 1st edition. Generated room by room, the mansion is now both mysterious to explore and easy to set-up on the fly. Gone are the stacks of room cards and with them the chance that hours of game play can be ruined with a small set-up error. Gone too is The Keeper*. Simply not needed any more.
There’s even an atmospheric soundtrack, some nicely narrated dialogue and a nifty save game feature. Awesome, right? Sure. But.
*If you’re saddened by this you can always use the app as a very trick Keeper’s aid. This lets you enjoy running the story rather than book-keeping, with the added bonus of not being lynched by the players for setting things up wrong.
In the introduction to the first scenario, I wondered why I was listening to the narrator also pretend to be a panicked butler on a telephone. He’s a good voice actor, but a little variety perhaps? Sadly for the talent, once the introduction is over, narration duties pass to the best orator or the player that just loves the sound of their own voice, which is pretty much reinstating a Keeper’s role.
At the very least I expected the NPCs in a scenario to be voiced by the narrator. No joy.
The introductory scenario runs to a good hour and a half, often more when you take into account cups of tea and giggling at the insane. Later, more complex investigations can push that time towards Arkham Horror realms. So a save feature is a godsend, right?
The app does save details of items, tokens, monsters and overall mansion layout. But unless you have a gaming table, (in which case you don’t need a save function) you still have to do a fair amount of post-session housekeeping.
First you need to note the location of all the characters, monsters and dropped items (a mobile phone photo can often help), and second it’s handy to store characters with all their associated cards in separate baggies ready for next time. Or just write everything down.
This issue could have been solved by a simple drag-and-drop mechanic built into the app itself. Want to Save and Quit? No problem. Just allocate these five or ten characters/monsters/items to their various room spaces and you’re good to go. Job done. No mobile phone image or notebook needed.
Considering the lack of extensive narration, and the numerous 1st edition scenarios ripe for conversion, the initial offerings were fairly meagre. You can tackle each scenario multiple times and have it play out in subtly different ways, but at the end of the day it’s still the same story, and its replay value remains limited.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love the app, and the improvements it brings outweigh the criticisms, but some fairly minor tweaks could have really made it shine.
Most distributors supply a box insert to save you buying plastic containers or cutting foamcore. The insert is often vacuum-formed plastic. Easy to design and cheap to mass-produce, it polishes a (hopefully) great game.
For some games, such as the much-lauded T.I.M.E. Stories, the insert also serves to effectively save the game progress. Considering the shortcomings of MofM’s app save feature, somewhere to store character cards and components between sessions might have been a godsend.
The MofM box on the other hand, features a folded piece of printed cardboard that really just serves to pack out the contents in transit.
I’m not particularly singling out MofM here; the entire FFG range could do with similar love on this front, but at the price, MofM is one title they might have pushed the boat out for on this occasion.
Not always a gimmick
We live in an era where crowd-funded miniatures games are almost over-subscribed on Kickstarter. Not a week goes by without some new game appearing, packed to the gills with plastic and featuring yet more plastic in exclusive stretch goals.
Many in the community are rightly jaded. But if there was one project that might have actually benefited from it, it was MofM 2nd edition.
If the project had been properly marketed and crowd funded from the start, instead of coming out of nowhere, not only might it have raised even more revenue for FFG, but the quality of certain components might have been infinitely improved with stretch goals (new bases, a quality insert, different plastic, better cards etc.).
The two initial expansions could also have been offered during the funding process, alongside additional monsters, room tiles, scenarios etc. It’s the kind of game that needs every scrap of variety and content it can get.
Crowd-funding is no longer simply a method of getting projects off the ground for start-up outfits. It’s a tool used by established and respected providers that serves to market a product, evaluate supply and demand effectively and work to provide the best possible product by having a development period intimately integrated with the consumer.
I have no idea why FFG isn’t making use of this production tool to full effect. It’s a win-win situation for company and customer alike.
Dreams of what could have been
Despite its shortcomings, I like MofM 2nd edition. The changes that FFG have implemented make it a more enjoyable gaming experience. It’s quick to set up, atmospheric, and fun. I’d even go as far as to suggest it’s a gateway game. I’ve certainly had success using it as such.
It’s just that for the retail price, you shouldn’t be spending time and money cutting foamcore inserts or drilling holes in third-party transparent bases.
The head honchos at FFG should be rightfully proud of the positive reception that MofM has garnered since launch, but should be kicking themselves over what should and could have been. They’re going to need to up their game to stay ahead of the new kids on the block.