If you're a fan of Lovecraftian horror, adventure board games, roleplaying games, or (one can only hope) all three, then Mansions of Madness, the newest game in Fantasy Flight Games' Arkham Horror collection, is well worth the price.
What is it?
An adventure-style board game in the flavor of Last Night on Earth or Descent, wherein one player takes on the role of the gamemaster (in this case, "keeper") and controls the antagonist forces of the game against the rest of the players who each have their own character (in this case, "investigator") who are trying collectively to beat the game. Investigator players use their turns to move their character piece around the mutable rooms of the mansion, searching rooms for clues (which are not terribly difficult to decipher), gathering useful equipment, and fighting off monsters. The Keeper player spends his turn placing and moving all the monster pieces and playing traps and disadvantages on the players, punishing those who push too far or too recklessly.
The game comes with 5 separate scenarios, each with at least three alternate "solutions", and dozens of clue variations to provide for an acceptable level of re-playability.
What sets this game apart?
The investigation aspect adds an interesting twist, as the investigators are working against the clock (calculated in turns, not actual time) to amass enough clues so that the keeper player must reveal the win conditions for that particular scenario - only the keeper player knows what the objectives are for the majority of the game!
This element, in conjunction with a slight disparity in combat power between monsters and investigators, sets the mood for the game and is what motivates the players to feel a sense of actual horror. The game also comes with elaborate flavor text: the clues must be actually deciphered and actions (even combat) are dealt with by cards with detailed descriptions of the success or failure of the action. There are even visual puzzles that need to be solved by the players at many intervals during the game.
This game really wants to lend itself to an immersive, quasi-roleplaying experience. A bit of mild acting skill will really spice up a game, though certainly not necessary for full enjoyment.
If you have a group of people (or just you and a friend) who are looking for a thrilling adventure experience, Mansions of Madness delivers.
What's the downside?
Though there are several scenarios included, and several iterations of each scenario, I would estimate that after five or six play-throughs with a single group of people, you'd be out buying the expansion packs to add more variety to your games.
The price point is certainly high for your average board game, especially one that has diminishing returns after a certain number of replays. You can expect to pay 60 to 80 dollars for your copy as it stands right now.
The learning curve is high for the Keeper. Investigators have a pretty simple go of it: move and search or move and fight, make a dice check when needed, try to find clues as fast as possible. The Keeper is responsible for actually manipulating the majority of the game mechanics as the game progresses. This is not a role that can generally just be picked up and run with (especially as there is information in the Keeper's section of the rulebook that could give unintended clues to potential players.)
The time commitment for the game is moderate: 2-3 hours should be set aside to play this game.
If you enjoy other adventure board games and enjoy Lovecraftian horror, this is a definite for your list of games to own.
Keep the room dark, light some candles, and narrate in a spooky voice, and you've got a board game that really delivers the mood and the thrills of a roleplaying game with much less time commitment.