Transcript of the podcast published on June 3rd, 2011.
With the theme of the current show it seems appropriate to interrupt my musings on game design and talk about two new games from Fantasy Flight that have something in common but that also have many differences: Mansions of Madness and Lord of the Rings Card Game. Both games have deep roots in established works of literature: Mansions of Madness is inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s fantastic Cthulhu Mythos and even more by the many games that developed this world, like Call of Cthulhu the roleplaying game or Arkham Horror, both originally published by Chaosium Games. The new Lord of the Rings LCG is of course based on the great stories of J.R.R. Tolkien, truly the founding father of contemporary fantasy.
Fantasy Flight has made its name as a publisher mostly of epic fantastic games in which the experience – meaning the immersion of the players in an imaginary world, often helped by elaborate graphic design and high quality game material – is more important than the Euro-pondering of action optimization and victory point collection. I don’t know about you, but I know many players who will never be satisfied with storytelling experience and who will never get into games like Talisman or even Twilight Imperium because there are moments when players relinquish control of the game to dice rolls or event cards. Even fantasy aficionado Tom Vasel has problems with the mostly freefall and luck-driven Talisman because he feels that the players choices are too limited. Other players can enjoy Talisman as a modern variant of the roll and move journey games that were so common in the 19th century, just with added fantasy, more choices and more excitement.
Mansions of Madness has its detractors and critics, but for fans of storytelling games it is a great experience. Anyone who has ever played the great role playing game Call of Cthulhu in its original non D-20, non-munchkinized version, will immediately see the design success in bringing the feeling of exploring a house occupied by evil beings to the boardgame table. The game really feels like a horrific and sanity-threatening adventure without outstaying its welcome. The rules go so far as telling the Keeper – who plays the house against the investigators – to play so that the investigators have a good time, instead of only playing for winning the game.
It has been said that the game gives the investigators too little, the Keeper too much to do, but I personally find Mansions of Madness great fun, even though it is quite a chore to keep track of all the little cards and counters. Most of us don’t have time to play long role-playing campaigns anymore as adults, but games like Descent and Mansions of Madness give us the fix that our role playing heart yearns for. If you loved Call of Cthulhu, you will love Mansions of Madness, otherwise you should stick with Puerto Rico or Caylus.
The Lord of the Rings Card Game is the newcomer to Fantasy Flight Games new series of expandable but not collectable card games, of which the “Game of Thrones” LCG is so good, that I am actually still playing it regularly. The Lord of the Rings Card Game is different though in that it tries something new, being designed specifically for solitaire or cooperative play, which has rarely been tried extensively in the CCG world, except for the failed game “Ruinsworld” and some scenarios for the old Middle Earth CCG.
I have played the new Lord of the Rings card game quite extensively in the last days and can already say that I like it even though I am yet unsure of its durability as a deck-building game. Deck building is most fun against an unexpected opponent, if one would know the opponent’s cards exactly it could be less fun. Fantasy Flight has tried to make the game interesting by making it quite hard to win – I have yet to win even a medium difficulty scenario with Gimli and Legolas in my group alone, because they are so weak in adventuring potential and usually are beaten by the deck if one draws too many locations, overcome by the shadow treat even though they can kill opponents left and right – people who know the game will know what I mean!
Basically the Lord of the Rings card game feels like a puzzle that has to be solved- each advanced scenario can only be beaten if the players learn the cards well and optimize their strategy, so in a way it is like a learning process against a programmed opponent. In that respect the game actually is similar to the Lord of the Rings board game by Knizia, which also felt more like a puzzle than a genuine story experience, with the card game having the advantage of being infinitely variable and quicker to play and setup then Knizia’s game.
Every player has to decide for him- or herself. If he is more of the adventuring or analytical type – I can say that I personally enjoy both styles of playing very much and could not really live without one of them.
By the way – Mansions of Madness has a great fan made solitaire conversion where the keeper is replaced by an ingenious paragraph system – I can very much recommend it!