I love the works of H. P. Lovecraft. And I love good media that is based on his terrific stories. However I am picky and so far only one game came close to make me feel the same way when I first read Shadow over Innsmouth or the Dunwich horror.
I still want to make a ranking of the Lovecraftian video games that I like the most. But the issue is, that I don’t really like most of them. Whether it is the clunky controls, weird mechanics, or bad graphics, something is always off with them.
I am on an eternal quest to find the perfect Lovecraftian game, which has everything that I am looking for. However it is very hard to describe what I am looking for.
Usually it is a feeling, a tingling that I sometimes feel while watching a movie, playing certain parts of a game, or simply passing by in a well maintained, but seemingly desolate neighbourhood. It is a feeling of “something’s off”, something is out of place. There is no visible threat, no monster, just a lingering feeling of dread and uneasiness.
But while my quest with video games is yet to be fulfilled, I can present you the piece of media that got me the closest to my goal.
Mansions of Madness – Second edition
Mansions of Madness is not a video game, it is a board game. Or more like a hybrid of the two categories. The actual game is played on a physical layout, a map of the eerie place you are investigating.
Source: Fantasy Flight Games
To be clear, you need to buy the physical board game, but you will also need the application to run simultaneously. It is a wonderful combination of a table top game and technology.
You’re not alone
While it can be played alone, Mansions of Madness is a cooperative game. Up to 5 investigators are tasked to solve the horrific mysteries on one of the haunted locations of the greater Arkham area.
Through planning, teamwork and deduction you have to complete certain objectives before the time runs out and the eldritch nightmares of the Mythos are unleashed on the land.
The game starts by choosing a scenario you want to play. The base game has 5 scenarios. Additional ones can be bought through the app for a few dollars, or if you buy more physical expansions you can play even more maps.
Once you chose the scenario, it is time to pick your investigator. They are a crew of diverse characters from all walks of life. Doctors, athletes, criminals, you name it. What is common in them is that somehow they have been touched by the nightmares of the otherworld. I could also say that… They heard the call of Cthulhu… (sorry)
Of course each character has different stats and abilities. Rolling tests is a recurring mechanic of the game. If it is a physical task, you will probably want to send the burly mafioso to do it. However if it is a puzzle to crack, maybe the history professor is better equipped for the trial.
The companion app
Once everything is picked, you start the scenario.
Eerie music chimes up from the speakers of your device and a voiced narration will explain the setting.
From here on, you need to pay close attention to the app. It will explain you (visually presenting you) which tiles to place, where to put your investigators, presents items that can be picked up or examined.
Following the rules in the rulebook, your investigators have a certain amount of actions in a turn. You can move, pick up or trade items, use spells or fight.
There are parts of the map, that you don’t see from the get go. For example if you open a closed door, what is behind it will be revealed after. Thus you need to place a new tile with the newly discovered room and its items that you can interact with.
One of the things I really enjoy in the game is that certain objects can only be used by solving a puzzle on the screen. For example you find a combination lock, a puzzle pops up that you need to solve in order to unlock the chest. The number of your moves depends on your level in the skill that is needed for the puzzle.
For instance if you are trying to decipher an ancient scroll, you will use your lore attribute. If you are trying to pick a lock, you will need dexterity.
It is a great mechanic that adds a lot to the flavour and immersion of the game.
Once all the investigators have completed their actions for the turn, it is time for the AI to shine.
In the so called Mythos phase, supernatural events will unfold. A monster or a cultist rushes into a room to fight you, you hear a noise from upstairs or a the lights go out. Shrouded in darkness, your investigators suffer certain penalties on rolls, unless they have a light source equipped.
The app will always tell you what tokens, figures place on the board.
Of course these are just a few examples, a lot of things can go wrong in the game. After the Mythos phase is over, it is your turn again and this pattern continues until you reach your objective or meet your doom.
Divide and conquer
Another fun mechanic of the game are the health and sanity meters.
If you lose your health points due to physical effects, you become injured, which can hinder your movement, ability to fight or carry items.
What is more fun however is insanity. It is a Lovecraft inspired game after all, not many can face the eldritch horrors and walk away with a sound mind.
Once you lose your sanity points, you become insane. And an insane investigator is often worse than a dead one. Your insanity can manifest in various ways. You can become a kleptomaniac, stealing items from others. You can become a pyromaniac, setting the whole place on fire, endangering yourself and the others.
Or in the worst case, you can become an agent of doom, a secret traitor. Once you become insane, you get a card from the game with some secret instructions, that you must not share with the other players. One of these can be that you win if the investigation fails.
You have the key item that needs to be delivered to the exit to win the scenario? Well you better run the exact opposite direction, hindering the investigation and possibly stall time until it eventually runs out.
Scratching the itch
Dim the lights, put on some ambient music and sit around a table with your friends. Uncover the mysteries of Mansions of Madness together.
It is a game with a lot of elements that I love in Lovecraftian fiction.
A constant sense of threat. The number of turns are limited, and you need to be tactical about your moves. Any turn a monster can appear, or a supernatural occurrence can shake your core beliefs of reality. Resulting in losing precious sanity points. There are hardly ever any healing items in this game. You make the wrong move and you can doom the entire team.
A constant sense of uncertainty. The maps are pretty big, You will not be able to discover everything. You need a key for the cellar? Where should you search for it? In the butler’s room? Or maybe the study? Should you split up and be faster but more vulnerable? Or stick together, standing a better chance against monsters but slow down the investigation?
A constant sense of hopelessness. A fire broke out and it is spreading fast in the warehouse you are in. You must run outside but you hear the approaching shouts of the lynch mob of Innsmouth.
A constant sense of paranoia. Your friend lost his sanity points, drew an insanity card that he cannot show you. Is he still on your side, or he will attack you when no one is suspecting?
These are all parts of the game, and these are the things that I miss from most Lovecraftian video games. It is a truly amazing experience. You need your wits and bravery but you need to be cautious because any step can be fatal.
It is true, that you cannot play this game alone in the dark with headphones on like a video game. You have people around, which can break immersion. But you and your friends can always choose to roleplay your investigators, living through the story.
Explore the Mansions of Madness!
Mansions of Madness is maybe the only game for me that could really take me to the realm of Lovecraftian fiction. While it is not strictly a video game, it uses software to give you a full experience.
One more thing that is amazing in it, that the scenarios change when replaying them. The main story will remain the same, but locations, items, certain story elements will vary.
Also with the help of the app, a lot of things are possible that would not be in only physical board games. One scenario that really blew my mind was one where the party is split in two, in different timelines.
This means, that if you hide an item with an investigator who is in the past, the ones in the future will be able to find and use it.
I love board games. And with modern technology accompanying, conducting the game, the possibilities are really on a completely different level.
I highly recommend you to give it a try if you are a fan of Lovecraftian games like I am. It is a very unique and immersive experience and a great pastime with friends or family.
What is your favourite Lovecraftian video or board game? Have you ever played Mansions of Madness? Let me know in the comments, and if you liked this post, feel free to follow me for more!