I’m aware that this blog has a habit of getting a bit number-crunch heavy at times, lots of theory, and not a lot of board game.
As part of an ongoing attempt to stem this tide of text, I try periodically to introduce some more visual content, looking at my efforts with the Paintbrush.
Today I’m going to return to Mansions of Madness- I did a painted low-down of the base game back in the autumn, and today I want to look at some of the expansions.
Suppressed Memories and Recurring Nightmares were 2 boxes that provided the tiles and figures of Mansions of Madness 1st edition for 2nd edition players – they disappointed some 2nd-edition fans with their lack of scenario/card content, but they way that they extend the range of Investigators and Monsters at your disposal made them a must-have for me.
Between the 2 boxes, there were no fewer than 16 new Investigators made available. Some of them were really nice figures to paint, and I was really pleased with some of the details, like the creases on Kate Winthrop’s lab-coat, and the pens in her pocket.
Generally speaking, the male investigators in Mansions of Madness tend to be less interesting to paint – Darrell the Photographer, and Bob the Salesman particularly fade into the background, although figures like Dexter the Magician and Monterey the Archaeologist have a bit more of the unusual going for them.
There are also a few rather more dynamic male investigators appearing in these boxes – Michael the Gangster and Joe the PI both come out all guns blazing – Joe feels a little bit over the top to me, but I like Michael’s scope, and he’s a fun investigator for scenarios that have a heavy focus on monster-bashing.
Relying more on mind than body, the next 2 male investigators are Vincent the Doctor, and Harvey the Professor – a lot more brown in the palette for these men (there’s no way I was going to paint Tweed pattern on something that size). I also liked Vincent’s Saw – definitely the approach to medicine you expect your Arkham Investigator to take.
Of course, no Arkham Investigators set would be complete without everyone’s favourite Arkham LCG Investigator, Duke, who comes to Mansions in the company of his faithful sidekick, Ashcan Pete.
Because Duke is so small, it’s quite difficult to get any meaningful detail onto his miniature (aside from the red scarf around his neck, but being the only dog in the set, he still stands out from the others quite well.
Jenny Barnes is a character who takes quite a bit of flak from various members of our play-group, and you have to admit that her outfit looks better suited to society balls than creepy old houses. However, she’s a character with quite an interesting backstory, and very good utility in most of the different games, so I still wanted to do a good job on this one – the colour-scheme for her dress and hat vary across the different Arkham Files games, but on personal preference I went for the blue rather than the purple end of the spectrum.
Gloria, the author was another fun one to paint- the shades of green weren’t that remarkable, but anyone who carries a typewriter like a handbag has done more than enough to catch my attention.
Sadly, this miniature arrived slightly damaged (leaning forward at quite a funny angle) and, although I’ve been able to correct it a bit with a hair-dryer and pot of cold water, there’s still a noticeable lean.
Amanda and Carolyn, the student and the Psychiatrist respectively, both have fairly blank outfits, but with a lot of utility in Elder Sign and Eldritch Horror, I still wanted the figures to look good – they certainly aren’t the stand-outs of the bunch (Amanda’s glasses are way too dark/thick-framed), but I think they’re passable.
Sister Mary, like Father Matteo from the 2nd Edition core box, appears in clerical robes, and I decided to follow FFG’s illustrations with a brown colour-scheme, rather than black and white, which leaves them looking a bit less similar to one another.
Last, but by no means least comes Mandy, the Researcher – this was a really difficult figure to paint, combining my two pet peeves from this range of figures – glasses and excessively detailed shoes. Overall though, I was quite pleased with the end result, particularly when viewed from a table-top gaming distance: the dark wash bringing out the detail lines in the jacket really well.
That’s about it for today – I want to aim more towards little and often with these pieces, but hopefully I’ll be back soon with some more Monsters
Somewhat belatedly, it’s time to recap on what happened on our gaming table during May.
May was a much quieter month than any I’d seen so far this year gaming-wise, as work, family, weddings and who knows what else clamoured for my attention.
(Ok, who am I kidding, it was mostly just the baby and the need to catch up on sleep).
However, whilst I didn’t manage to get a lot of things on my to-do list finished, that doesn’t mean that May was completely gameless, as you’ll see…
For one thing, May allowed me to cross a few more games off of the un-played list, as both of our Discworld games: Ankh-Morpork and The Witches made it to the table for the first time – Ankh-Morpork is a good game generally, although it has the potential to get rather frustrating as Random Events destroy all that you have built. Interestingly, for all its appeal, this one has only made it to the table twice in the past three years, and I’m often tempted to sell it, as it goes for silly figures on account of being out-of-print, but never quite get round to it.
The Witches is a much lighter, more family-friendly game – I didn’t really enjoy the game we played of it, as I got crippled by a string of shocking dice-rolls, and basically did nothing all game. Still, as something ideally suited for young children, it’s probably worth hanging on to in anticipation of when Ned can cope with something more complex than Peekaboo.
May also saw Super Dungeon Explore crossed off the list, as I sold it on – I picked this one up last year, and enjoyed a few early games that we played of it, but its sheer length, combined with the discovery of games like Mansions of Madness, Descent, and Eldritch Horror (not to mention others that are ‘coming soon’) mean that this wasn’t likely to see much more play, and didn’t really justify its place on the shelf.
Dominion became the 11th game to make it to 10 plays, hitting the table 5 times early in the month, although it faded towards the end of the month. I’m still working on something Dominion-wise, but haven’t got nearly as far with it as I’d hoped, so that will have to be a story for another time.
There are several other games that are still heading in the right direction to hit 10 plays sooner rather than later, but I don’t want to pre-empt myself, so I’ll talk about them when they get there.
What got played?
May was very heavy on Fantasy, easily accounting for over half of the month’s gaming. Within Fantasy, Terrinoth was the big new thing, about 1/3 of sessions, but over half of time, simply because Runewars and Descent are both multi-hour undertakings – I’ve got an article on Terrinoth cooking away somewhere, so I won’t say too much more on that now.
Lovecraft still made a significant appearance, with more Arkham Horror and Elder Sign, as well as a welcome return for Mansions of Madness, back in play after a long spell on the painting table. Overall, we were still mostly in a solve-the-mystery/complete-the-quest setting, although there was a fair amount of PvP “kill the other side” in Runewars.
That just about brings me to the end of May (finally getting around to posting this on June 8th, which, the latest polls suggest probably isn’t also going to be the end of May – the electorate showing a disappointing lack of concern for punning bloggers…)
Of course, June is UK Games Expo month, so expect that to shape gaming for the coming weeks, and even if I don’t manage an Expo article, I’ll be sure to report back all the highlights in the next monthly summary, in a few weeks’ time…
Having had our gaming habits somewhat disrupted by the unexpectedly early arrival of a baby, it felt like a good moment for a bit of a retrospective.
I’ve been doing game reviews now for a little over a year now. In that time, I’ve saved myself money on some games I wanted to get anyway, breathed life into games that had been standing idle and, above all, tried a lot of games that I would never have come close to playing without doing the reviews. Today I want to look at some of the highlights.
Zombicide was one of the earlier games I got to review, and it was undoubtedly the game which made the biggest impact on last year – it was also my pick for “2016 Game of the Year” in the video. It’s a miniatures game, where a small band of heroes take on ever-growing armies of zombies, simple to learn, and not that difficult to master, I love how accessible this game is, and just how much fun it is. The game is scenario-based, so there’s a fair amount of variety, and the ongoing search for better weapons drives a lot of what happens. The zombies power up as your survivors do – specifically spawning in numbers determined by the most powerful survivor at that point in time, which means that you need to be careful of one person getting too far ahead of the group.
With a £70+ price-tag on the base game, coming from a publisher and designers I didn’t really know, this is something I would never have picked up having not played the franchise before. Having got it, it’s been such a hit that various birthdays and Christmas presents have gone on expansions. At the time of writing, it’s hovering on the brink of hitting 100 plays in under a year, which is pretty good going for a game that typically lasts more than 90 minutes, and regularly hits 2-3 hours or even more.
Cracking game, great fun, and it even inspired me to get back into miniature-painting to an extent that I hadn’t in a good while. Great stuff.
Gaming for the Future: Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition
After Zombicide, Mansions of Madness was the second most-played new game last year, but I’m including it on this list for a couple of other reasons. I’ve already waxed lyrical about this game here, and here (amongst other places), but there’s something specific I wanted to draw out today. This game completely changed my mind on the use of apps in Board Games. I use randomisers for set-up in Legendary and Dominion, but otherwise, I’ve always been pretty luke-warm on the concept. Things like X-COM, with a stress-inducing real-time element aren’t really my cup of tea, and I could never see the benefit: Boggle works fine with an egg-timer, with needing to digitise everything.
Mansions changed all of that – it gave us access to a great game that we’d always steered away from due to the 1-versus-many aspect, and it allows masses of replayability in a way that just wouldn’t be possible with physical components. The puzzles are probably the biggest aspect of this, but the whole experience is very well done – I never feel like it isn’t worth having the bits out, or that I could just be playing on the app, but the app streamlines the play so much. Eldritch Horror is another game we picked up last year, very similar in a lot of ways, but it does have a lot of bookkeeping to do (and I often miss bits), so having the app to keep track of these things just makes life so much easier. Lastly, the element of the unknown that it provides is great – the fact that you can roll a check without knowing how well you have to do to succeed gives you all the openness and surprise of an RPG, without someone actually having to take on the role of GM.
Mansions has really whet my appetite for more of these all-vs-app games. I strongly considered getting Descent, and only decided against it on the basis of time, but if the rumoured app for Imperial Assault finally appears, then I’ll be taking a very interested look at it (hopefully they’ll publish a second edition of the box, and someone will be needed to write a review…)
Elder Sign is a game we’d owned for ages, but hadn’t been played that much. In fact, in 2015, it didn’t get played at all, and I wouldn’t be overly surprised if the same was true of 2014. It was one of a small handful of Cthulhu-mythos games that had been bought in, but had never really taken off.
Elder sign was already on my radar as part of last year’s “unplayed” project, but it definitely helped when I saw an expansion sitting on the up-for-review list – the Alaskan-themed “Omens of Ice” box.
I didn’t put in for it straight away, but made a point of playing a few games first, to make sure I actually had some recent context for reviewing the expansion. Then I got the expansion to review, and played it some more. And more.
Fast-forward to 2017, and Elder Sign is our most-played game of the year so far. Part of that is due to some skewed circumstance, along with catching up on expansions for Christmas, but this is definitely a game that Reviewing breathed fresh life into – Dominion also benefited last summer with the excellent Empires expansion, but this felt like the clearest example of a game brought back from extinction.
Writing Board Game reviews can be a great opportunity to pick up games or expansions that I would be buying anyway. It also offers a chance to try something completely different.
There a few games which fit the “different” header better than AYA: a cooperative domino standing game where you work together, against the clock, to construct landscapes of dominoes in matching patterns, then attempt to knock them over with a single flick, leaving a unique pattern of animal and landscape photographs.
AYA is a fun little game – certainly not of the things we play most regularly, but interesting enough for a change. Without a doubt though, this is not a game I would have found and bought in a shop: it’s simply way too far off of my radar, too far removed from the sorts of things I normally play. When it comes to spending money, one of the main reasons I get so many expansions for board games, is that I feel like I have a better idea what I’m getting, a sense that I’ll be enhancing something I already know I enjoy, rather than taking a chance on something new. I still try to target games which I think might go down well at home for reviewing – it’s hard to write a review on a game no-one will play! – but overall, reviewing offers a great opportunity to push the boundaries slightly, to experiment with the new.
I feel like it wouldn’t be fair to finish this article without pausing for a moment to mention Star Wars Carcassonne, or Starcassonne as I like to call it. This takes the well-known tile-laying game, and mashes it together with the Star Wars franchise – it’s an interesting twist on the original game, with dice-based combat and planetary invasion making for a slightly more direct, if also more luck-based experience than the original Carcassonne.
The Star Wars theme is pretty thin- really this is “space” Carcassonne to a far greater extent than it is Star Wars in any meaningful sense, but that doesn’t seem to hurt its popularity – this was by far the most read of all the articles I did for them last year, and it continues to attract attention into 2017.
There have definitely been a few reviews in the last month or so that have run into baby-related reviews, and when time is at a premium, you don’t want to be unable to play your favourite game because you’ve promised to review something strange, new and not-all-that-appealing. That said, I’m optimistic that Review work will still have a place in a parenthood world, and I look forward to telling you all about them in due course.
The announcement of this game was probably what re-ignited my interest in this area, as it had been a while since I read any Lovecraft or played any Cthulhu-themed games (I think I played 1 game of Munchkin Cthulhu last year, but I’m not convinced that counts). I managed to play a sneak preview of this game at UKGE, and was really impressed. I then managed to get my hands on a copy of my own in late August, and it didn’t disappoint.
As I’ve said several times in various places, this game is both Pandemic and not Pandemic at the same time. There are many aspects which are remarkably familiar, at the same time as the game brings in elements that are unique. The sanity dice leaves you spending most of the game fearing that you may lose your mind and, if enough Old Ones awake, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it before you eventually go mad and the world is destroyed.
Being a Z-Man game, the characters in Reign of Cthulhu are not the familiar faces from the FFG set of Cthulhu games, they are merely generic figures. That said, they still offer varied gameplay styles, and for a standalone game that seems unlikely to warrant an expansion, it still feels like it’s got plenty to offer. Not the most involved from a thematic/narrative standpoint, still a good game.
Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition
Mansions was the surprise appearance of the summer. It was announced about a week before its release, and it’s one that I was lucky enough to pick up a review copy of: with a retail price somewhere in excess of £80, this isn’t one I would ever have been buying, but I think it does a remarkably good job of justifying the price tag. The miniatures are a bit naff out of the box: excess casting and clunky bases, but they scrub up well, with both monsters and investigators looking the part after a quick paint job. The tiles are already a very high standard, and the various card decks are all good.
Apps in board-gaming were one of the first things I ever wrote about on this blog, and I was pretty lukewarm on the idea at the time. Mansions changed my mind: the app is really well done – it takes care of a lot of the bookkeeping, but I never felt like I was playing a computer game instead of a board game. The limit of only 4 scenarios to begin with was somewhat restrictive, but having not paid for the base game, we were happy enough paying for the first tile/miniature pack, and will doubtless invest in at least the first digital scenario or two, due to appear for around $5 sometime very soon.
One of the biggest things that Mansions did, was to get us mentally invested in the setting, and interested in the investigators, which definitely enhances the experience of the other games.
Elder Sign is a game I’ve had for several years. I didn’t play it all in 2015, but I dusted it off back in the spring, and even picked up an expansion to review. It’s a game that requires you make a bit more effort with the flavour – it’s too easy to skip over the flavour-text and focus straight in on the dice you need to roll: in the past, I think I’d been trying to push this one on people with no real interest in the Mythos, and it had fallen a bit flat.
Now feeling a bit more like I know the characters, from other games, or from some of the tie-in fiction, it’s easier to get a bit more invested, and I feel like I’ve enjoyed the games I’ve played. I’ve still only played it solo and with my wife, but we’ve played it quite a bit and enjoyed doing so.
Eldritch Horror is another Fantasy Flight Game, a very highly-rated globe-spanning board game. It’s fairly long (although probably no longer than a lot of games of Mansions), and has a lot going on – I picked up a copy in a Maths Trade.
Eldritch was released a few years, and landed during a time period when my first attempts at finding a good Cthulhu game for us had petered out: as a result, I just never really looked at it that closely. Most reviews I did read seemed sharply divided between it being “the streamlined wonder-game that Arkham Horror should have been” or “a vile exercise in dumbing down that is an insult to the Arkham name.” (ok, neither of those are actually quotes, but they capture the feeling of an awful lot of BGG threads…)
Having played this a few times, I’m not sure I’d agree with either of those assessments. It’s a fun game, with a lot going on, but once again, I think the length is such that it wouldn’t wash with people who hadn’t already been hooked on the Mythos via Mansions.
I liked Eldritch, and am in discussions with Santa about how best to approach the backlog of expansions (I have neither the time nor the money to get all of them). That said, it’s still not a perfect game. Having come into this off the back off a lot of Mansions, I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff there is to keep track of: in both of our early plats, we missed various rules and triggers, and in the second game, that may have even made the difference between victory and defeat. Aside from the sheer length, I think a major factor stopping this game going from “fun to play now and then” to “played all the time” is that excess bookkeeping, and having too many things to keep track of.
I also want to mention quickly the scaling issues this game has – we’ve only played it with 2 players so far, and the first couple of times, we took a character each, spending most of the game charging about frantically, and failing to get to places on time: having gone at it again with 4 characters (2 each) it felt much more balanced, and I think that’s how we’ll play it in the future.
Arkham Horror LCG
Arkham Horror the Card Game is the most recent offering in Fantasy Flight’s “Arkham Horror Files Series” and the second ever cooperative Living Card Game, it was released in early/mid-November. Coming from several people involved in the Lord of the Rings LCG, it very clearly builds on those foundations, but has various unique features of its own, both showing where lessons have been learnt over the past 5 years, and showing a conscious effort to make the game feel like a part of the Arkham Family (aside from the recurring characters and settings, the Chaos bag in particular feels like a direct homage to the earlier titles in the series).
The announcement of this came with near-perfect timing, as I finally succumbed to the inevitable and parted with my Call of Cthulhu LCG collection – a good game, but a competitive LCG that I could never find opponents for. Arkham seemed set to not only fill the gap, but to offer a better fit than its predecessor had, both in terms of thematic coherence and in terms of the co-op gameplay.
Being a Living Card Game, there will be a lot of content available for this going forward: FFG have already released some playmats one of which has an especially stunning piece of art that I like. I’m not going to say too much more about it here, as I’ve already done a review of the Core Set, along with some articles for Mythos Busters on how we can enjoy losing Lovecraftian Games, and started to look at issues of character class and deck-building. Overall, I plan to do a few odds and ends on this over the coming months, so stay tuned.
It’s also worth mentioning the tie-in novels that exist for Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror range – the physical copies can be slightly hard to track down, but the Kindle Format is readily available from Arkham, and I’ve been really enjoying them: not all of the characters are game-play regulars, but several are, with others making cameo appearances here and there.
So far I’ve read the Dark Waters trilogy and whilst it’s not about to win any literary prizes, I’ve found them really enjoyable – capturing the sense of Arkham as a place, the challenges and dangers driving our investigators, and an awareness of the pulp origins of many Mythos tales. Reading about Amanda Sharpe’s dream of lost R’yleh has already inspired me to play her in a game of Elder Sign, and seeing how he handled himself in a fight, was the inspiration for giving Silas Marsh a run-out, an inspired decision for the game of Eldritch Horror where we faced Cthulhu out at see. I plan to continue wading through these over the coming months and hope they continue to be enjoyable.
Fantasy Flight have also announced The Investigators of Arkham Horror, a book filing in background details on all the 52 Investigators who appear across this suite of games. It’s going to be a large, 264 page+ colour hardback, so it will cost a pretty penny and, sadly, the delivery cost to the UK will more than double that $60 starting figure.
I’m really hoping that our FLGS will be able to pick these up, ideally the deluxe edition that comes with a Play Mat for the LCG and a chance to get hold of Marie Lambeau plus her signature Asset and Weakness for the LCG, not arriving in normal retail releases until sometime next year. Either way, it looks like it’ll be a good addition to the shelf.
Overall, it has clearly been a golden year for all things Lovecraft in the world of gaming. Arkham Nights, FFG’s annual Cthulhu gaming weekend, sold out for the first time ever, and the whole IP really feels like it’s riding the crest of a wave with upcoming expansions announced for all of their games which I’ve mentioned above. I’ve already talked on here about some of the issues which Mythos gaming sometimes provokes, but overall, I’ve really enjoyed most of the games from this Mythos that we’ve played this year, and I look forward to many more in the future.
Some Musings on the place of Lovecraft in Lovecraftian games in the 21st century.
A little under a week ago, I stumbled across some of the rumblings generated by a recent article published by Cynthia Hornbeck. Hers was not a name I’d heard before, but both Hornbeck’s own blog and the Board Game Geek news article which brought it to my attention, describe her as a former employee of Asmodee North America, (the umbrella organisation who are now behind other big names you might have heard of such as the publisher of a lot of my most-played games, “Fantasy Flight” and the UK distributor, Esdevium).
Hornbeck’s article took aim at the recently released Conan board game, which she cites as being an abysmal example of sexist, racist stereotypes. She also argues that acquiescing to something like this in board games helps reinforce misogynistic, racist norms in society at large.
I haven’t seen the new Conan board game itself, so I’m not going to get in to the details of the claims she makes about the game (for those who are interested, amongst all the shouting, the comments section below this article has a few people taking issue with some of the factual claims Hornbeck makes about the game.)
I did review an older Conan game a few months back, and as I read back through my review, I think I would stand by the main thrust of my argument – roughly: there’s some dodgy stuff in here, but the game is so abstract that most of the time you don’t really notice.
Reading it with Hornbeck’s article fresh in my memory, I can see how people might want me to make more of this aspect, but I think that I’d assumed anyone considering a Conan board game would be sufficiently into the Conan theme that they’d be aware of/ have already made their decision on this type of thing.
Despite that long-ish intro, I didn’t come here today to talk about Conan. If you’re interested in the topic, I’d recommend having a look at Hornbeck’s original article, which is certainly thought-provoking, even if it feels hyperbolic in places, and some of her conclusions seem stretched. There’s also the article on Kotaku which brought the original blog piece to a slightly wider audience, and gives the company behind the game a chance to respond.
What I wanted to pick up on though was a single line near the start of Hornbeck’s article, which struck a bit closer to home.
“Conan is closely based on the books of Robert E. Howard, who was coincidentally a close friend of another highly influential author racist, H. P. Lovecraft.”
As I’ve mentioned more than a few times lately, the second half of this year has seen a heavy Cthulhu-Mythos theme to it in our house. Whilst some of Hornbeck’s conclusions seem a little strong to me, and her comment on Lovecraft felt a bit lazy, I did come away from the article feeling challenged by one of her exhortations towards the end.
“As a gamer, start refusing to purchase or even play a game that objectifies women, excludes women, excludes non-White people, makes non-White people the enemy, etc.”
Am I playing games like that? I don’t think so. But then, I am a white, middle-class man. It would hardly be unprecedented for one of us not to notice this sort of thing. I decided then, to take a look back through the games and see how it felt they were doing at creating a world which captures the mobsters and monsters feel of an Eldritch 1920s without having to import a 100 year-old worldview.
Starting with Lovecraft himself, I think we can say without argument that H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) said, wrote, and (presumably) thought a lot of things that would be considered ignorant, rude and at times, even downright racist in today’s world.
Beyond that, it gets a little more complicated – and people who have done far more research than I, have already spilled many gallons of ink on whether Lovecraft was simply a product of his time, or whether he should be regarded as a bigot, even within his own historical context – overall, it seems to me to lean towards the latter, but there are advocates of both sides.
Personally, when I read Lovecraft, I can wince when a leading character has a cat called “N*gger Man” or at some of the derisive offhand descriptions of Blacks, Asians or other characters, but by-and-large, that doesn’t stop me reading his work – some of it is very good, other bits feel tortured and overblown, and I’d certainly say I’m more drawn to the ideas he had and the world he created than to his particular craft as a writer. Lovecraft’s crimes against women are largely by omission rather than commission – i.e. it’s not so much what they say or do, so much as the fact that they often don’t appear at all.
It’s important to remember that the Cthulhu Mythos is not simply the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself was heavily influenced by writers who came before him, such as Edgar Allen Poe, and also borrowed things directly from earlier works such as Carcosa and Hastur, taken from Ambrose Bierce, via Robert W. Chambers The King in Yellow.
Within Lovecraft’s lifetime, his works interacted with those of others: Robert E. Howard (yes, the Conan guy)’s The Children of the Night, features a character reading The Necronomicon, and there were other writers who interacted with the world he had created. However, it was only really later, and largely through the work of August Derleth that the Mythos expanded, becoming something which numerous later writers could contribute to, and which has seen the setting expand beyond Lovecraft’s original works. In recent times, writers like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore (who would be unlikely to make anyone’s list of bigoted or narrow-minded authors) are among those who have cited Lovecraft and his Mythos as an influence on their writing.
For me, the appeal of the Cthulhu Mythos setting is a little hard to describe, but I think that there are definitely some key elements to it: I’ve already used the phrase Mobsters and Monsters, and I think there’s something about that 1920s aesthetic which has to be there – jazz and prohibition, the horrors of wars past, and the optimistic decadence which looks to a brighter tomorrow. It’s also, as has been well explained over at Mythos Busters amongst other places, the idea of battling cosmic forces too powerful to comprehend: the aim is survival, and a fully triumphant victory is simply never on the cards. Lastly, I think that there’s an element of forbidden knowledge – the idea of things that Man Was Not Meant To Know, that your mind is in as much danger as your body when you look in to these things.
The fact that most Cthulhu games do offer some hope of victory, however hollow, says to me that we are dealing with the wider Mythos, the version imagined by Derleth rather than simply Lovecraft’s starting point. I think that this Mythos has been developed broadly enough that it’s possible to have a game that feels “faithful” to the setting without being dependent upon outdated ideologies.
From Theory to Game
All of that is well and good, but establishing that something is possible and establishing that it has actually happened are different things, and I wanted to move on next to look at the actual execution of these ideas in the game.
Arkham Horror Files
I’m mostly going to concentrate on Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror Files range – this is the umbrella term that covers Mansions of Madness, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, Arkham Horror the Card Game, and various others.
Play the Man
There are 52 different investigators who appear across this range of games – I’ve collated a list of these as best I can, and by my reckoning there are 23 female investigators and 29 male: it’s not a completely even split, but it certainly doesn’t feel like this is just token representation.
In terms of the roles that these investigators play, there is a fair amount of breadth for both genders: yes, the Secretary and the Dilettante are female, but so are the Spy, the Scientist and the Martial Artist. The PI, the Fed, the Soldier and the Gangster are all male, and there is a noticeable tendency for those in the more influential position to be male – the Senator, the Professor and the like, but this is still supposed to be the 1920s and it’s probably more of a stretch to imagine a woman being given that kind of senior academic appointment back then than it is to suggest that there might be ghouls and monsters hiding in the shadows.
Not every investigator appears in every game – in fact there is nobody yet who appears in all of them – but for any of the games, picking up the Core Box (this is Fantasy Flight, all the games have expansions…) will give you a broad spread of options across the genders.
Race is a slightly different question: at a rough guess, only 5 of the 52 investigators are non-Caucasian: Akachi Onyele, Lily Chen, Minh Thi Phan, Rita Young, and Jim Culver. They are respectively a Shaman, a Martial Artist, a Secretary, an Athlete and a Jazz Musician, which suggests a certain amount of tropery in linking race and occupation.
Rita Young is a source of particular controversy: a character whose backstory involves persecution in the Deep South, particularly at the hands of the KKK, pictorial depictions of her have covered a fairly wide range of skin tones, with her pre-painted miniature looking decidedly white.
Personally I went for a skin tone that seemed more in keeping with the bio when I painted the miniature and, whilst it came out slightly darker than I’d intended, it makes more sense to me.
On top of these characters, you can add a few others like Finn Edwards, Marie Lambeau, and “Skids” O’Toole who are still decidedly white, but not Anglo-Saxon, which seems to have been where Lovecraft drew the line.
I think it’s possible to go too far with trying to make characters in a game “representative” – to the point where the designers are more concerned with making sure they’ve got enough of type X or Y, and not enough with an interesting concept / backstory – in that respect, I don’t really mind that I haven’t found an exact 50:50 male/female, and 50:50 white/non-white split. Could they have created more non-white characters? – absolutely! Do I think it would be good if, were they to expand the roster of characters, more of them came from non-white backgrounds? – Yes! Do I think the games as they are feel like they lack options in character choice? Not massively.
Who We Are and What We Do?
If I’m picking a character to play in a game, whether it’s Arkham, Pathfinder, Lord of the Rings (gender in Tolkien is a whole other article, and this one’s already getting long…), or any other, I’m generally a lot less interested in their gender or the colour of their skin than I am in their ability, what they’ll actually be like to play – I’ll confess that in Pathfinder, I’m drawn to the more obscure races (Goblin, Tengu etc) but there’s no real parallel for games set in New England (although if Fantasy Flight want to let me play as a Mi-Go who has decided to side with the humans, I’ll definitely take them up on the offer).
It’s kind of cool that Grazzle, my current Pathfinder character is Lizardfolk, but I’d quickly have got bored with that if it weren’t for his phenomenal healing ability. I am neither a waitress nor (as far as I’m aware) the reincarnation of a powerful sorceress, but that doesn’t stop me from having fun playing as Agnes in the Arkham LCG.
It’s worth noting that the descriptions and occupations are about the characters’ backstories: whilst they will influence their strengths and weaknesses, they don’t limit them in an absolute sense. Yes, in the LCG Daisy Walker sucks at hand-to-hand combat, but she can still toast ghouls with a copy of shrivelling or two. In Mansions, my wife mostly plays as Min Thi Phan – a bookish woman she can identify with – but with agility and observation 4, she can gun down cultists with the best of them.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that this is still a game and part of why we play games is because sometimes the Hail Mary pass comes off: Agatha Crane probably wouldn’t have been our choice to face down the Priest of Dagon, but somehow she rolled the 3 successes on 3 dice needed to slide across the floor through his legs, and whack him in the groin with the pickaxe: that moment, where the little old lady KO-ed the boss monster still stands out months later as one of the best moments playing this game, in a way that it simply wouldn’t have if Michael McGlen the Gangster had rolled 2 successes on 5 dice to cave the monster’s head in with a crowbar.
In terms of what I’m familiar with, there aren’t that many other Cthulhu Mythos games out there which go that heavy on characterisation – Mythos Tales is a very flavourful experience in Arkham, but there’s never really a moment where we’re concerned with who “you” the player are.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu has “roles” – more a character class than any kind of backstory. She may not look like me, but the Hunter is generally my first pick for her un-paralled ability to take down Shoggoths. The Reporter (also female) is another key figure, able to get round the board better than pretty much any other character. As I say, it’s not the most thematic / role-play-y of Cthulhu games, but there are multiple female characters, and they include the most powerful / hands-on.
Obviously, there are dozens, if not hundreds more Cthulhu games out there. However, I don’t know the RPG well enough to comment on it, and things like Munchkin Cthulhu or Smash Up: The Obligatory Cthulhu Expansion are light enough that I don’t feel any real need to go too deeply into their characters.
Overall, whether you read Lovecraft’s work or not (I do, periodically, but I think a lot of the other stuff, including some of FFG’s tie-in fiction, is as good if not better), I think it’s perfectly possible to play Cthulhu games without affirming any of Lovecraft’s more dubious views. In a way that may not be true for Conan, there is enough scope in this world for game designers and game players alike to create varied characters: characters who give everyone an opportunity to play as a character they can relate to, if that’s what they want.
As noted above, I am white and male: it’s possible that I’m not the best person to be making these judgements – that’s why I’d really like to hear other people’s thoughts: are Lovecraft’s views an issue for you when considering a Mythos Board game? Do you agree that the world these games inhabit is a bigger, more creatively open space, an acceptable place for us to game in? Or are there aspects you struggle with? Perhaps you disagree with Lovecraft’s views but are happy that a game is just a game, and aren’t even bothered about how far they carry over to your table-top experience.
I’d be interested to know people’s thoughts in the comments.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this in this past, but I’m quite a fan of numbers.
Numbers, lists, spreadsheets, calculations etc, all play a fairly significant role in my gaming, as I try to keep track of what I have and haven’t played.
Something I’ve generally paid less attention to in the past, is the rankings games receive on Board Game Geek – I might casually note a number, or whether a game appears in “The Hotness” (i.e. lots of people are talking about this game right now), but it’s never been very systematic. September was when I decided to change that.
It started with Mansions of Madness. As you may know, this is a game that was rebooted in 2016, and made quite a splash as it did – I was interested in how this translated over on the Geek.
Anyone with an account on BGG can rate a game and when you go to a game’s page, you will see the rating it has – a simple mean average.
Not unreasonably though, BGG itself doesn’t actually set all that much stock by the average rating, instead it uses a dark and mysterious scale called the Geek Rating. Some folk in the past have claimed to possess mystic insights into the arcane ways of the Geek Rating, but as far as I know, the exact algorithm has never been made public.
What I do know with a fair amount of certainty, is that a game’s Geek Rating is influenced both its average rating, and by the number of ratings that average is based upon. This means that you can’t get the top-rated game on BGG by creating something no-one has heard of, and having three mates all give it a 10.
To put things into a real-world example, in early September the then unreleased Arkham Horror LCG, had a phenomenal 9.2 out of 10 Average Rating. However, this translated into a Geek Rating of only 5.6 (which clocked in at number 4,300 and something), simply because that 9.2 average was based on only 55 reviews.
Looking at Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition specifically, at the end of August, the game was sat at 358th in the overall rankings. The 971 people who had rated it gave it an average of 8.56, but with fewer than a thousand people rating it, that made for a Geek Rating of only 6.945.
By 12th September, the average rating had actually dropped ever-so-slightly, to 8.55, but the extra nearly 300 people who had contributed to that rating were enough to drag the Geek Rating up to 7.176, and bring the game into the top 200.
The overall number of ratings continued to rise steadily throughout the month, and although the average rating dropped slightly, the Geek Rating rose until, at the end of the first week in October, it made it into the Top 100. Now we have reached early December, the average has fallen further still to 8.42, but it sits firmly settled as an all-time great, 47th in the overall rankings, and with a highly respectable Geek Rating of 7.630.
I’ve had this article on the back burner since September, as I tracked the various numbers. My suspicion is that Mansions of Madness is nearing its peak –it might climb a bit higher, but ultimately, I think it will start falling. Only 3 games above it in the rankings have a higher average score, and as times goes on, there is bound to be a cooling off. Of course, this could be for many reasons – People will decide that they don’t like it or have grown tired of it (limited replayability is one of the big complaints filed against this game), or its rise will bring it into direct comparison with other games whose fans will down-vote it. The longer it spends high in the rankings, the more likely it is to attract people who’ve heard a lot of hype, play it, and feel underwhelmed, or people who aren’t that interested in the theme/mechanic but like to play all the “top board games” and both types are likely to give it a low score.
I also wanted to take a moment to think about another game, Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu. This game was announced earlier this year, and it gathered a lot of hype, spending months and months in “The Hotness.” This game rather successfully smashes together the Pandemic name and basic mechanic, which is pretty much the biggest thing in Board Gaming right now, with the perennially popular Cthulhu Mythos theme, (an IP that’s having a particularly good year).
So then, you’d expect Pandemic Cthulhu to be riding high in the rankings, right?
Well no, apparently not. The game currently has an average rating of 7.7 which certainly isn’t too shabby (I tend to work on the basis that anything above 7 or 7.5 is worth looking at), but by early October, all that chatter had apparently only transformed into 500 or so ratings, for a geek rating of 6.29 – that wasn’t enough to even put it into the top thousand in the overall rankings. Again, this is a game that’s still on the rise: with nearly 1300 ratings it had made it up to 545 by early December, but that still felt surprisingly low to me, all things considered.
One of the issues with the way the Geek Ratings are worked out, is that a lot of people will gravitate towards the first title in a series. As such a refined, later edition or instalment may attract the almost universal opinion that it is ‘better’ yet wind up with a lower ranking because it doesn’t get as many ratings.
Obviously, one of the positives of the Geek Rating system, is that it works to correct against expansion bias. Put simply, loads of people with diverse gaming backgrounds might try a new game, but only the ones who liked it will stick around for the expansion or the next iteration. If that expansion can be played as a standalone game (thus earning it its own entry in the rankings) then it will likely get a much higher average score, because the people who gave the original low ratings won’t have bothered looking at this version, playing it, or (crucially) rating it.
Dice Masters is a good example of some of the issues with this: for a while, all the discussions were happening on the page for the original version of the Game, Avengers Vs X-Men. As such, it has been rated by nearly 4500 people, and has the highest Geek Rating of any title in the series.
The average ratings are rather different: Green Arrow and the Flash briefly boasted an impressive 8.2 average. However, as that was based on the opinion of only 27 people, it didn’t even have a Geek Rating. Most people just don’t really bother rating a new Dice Masters set separately these days, it seems: by now, they expect most people to have made up their minds on the game one way or another.
What’s in a Number?
Obviously any ratings system of this kind is, ultimately, subjective. Some people will love games that others hate and soforth.
Around the time I first started writing this article, a quiz popped up on Facebook, a “how many of the top 100 games on Board Game Geek have you played” – I was quite startled that I had only played 23.
Of the ones I hadn’t played, there are a mixture of different types. Blood Rage only took me a few days to add to the “played” list (this was already planned, not just a reaction), offering a timely reminder that these things are always in flux. By the time Mansions nudged its way into the top 100, I could tick off a quarter of the games in the top 100.
Of the remaining games in the top 100 that I haven’t played Descent is very high on my want-to-play list, and others like Legendary Encounters: Alien are fairly close parallels to games I have played (Legendary Encounters: Firefly).
That still leaves a vast number that I’m steering well clear of on cost grounds (X-Wing, Imperial Assault), or simply know nothing about.
Working as a Board Games reviewer means that I’m keeping a far closer eye on new releases than I ever used to, and I’m a lot more likely to have played 2016’s new releases than anything else to come out over the past few years. Hopefully over time, I’ll be able to play enough of the top 100 to feel better informed next time one of these quizzes rolls around.
Thematic? Family? Customisable?
Aside from the overall rating, Board Game Geek also ranks games by category. There are some obvious benefits to this – a game might score fairly low overall in the rankings, but actually be considered the best game of its type (Arkham Horror LCG – still only 297 overall, but already the best “customisable” game by ranking). Equally, a game might seem to rate quite highly, but the recognition that it falls within a very popular category can indicate that there are still plenty of better alternatives out there.
These Categories also provide a convenient way of filtering things out. A lot of games that get ranked highly on Board Game Geek are long, complex, heavily strategic, head-to-head games. Whilst neither strategy nor complexity are a major issue for me, I know that (realistically), for a game to do well in my house, it has to be a good experience for 2 players, where one is a hardcore gamer with a brain that likes abstract puzzles, and the other is a casual gamer who likes theme and creativity. In practice, that means that 2-player games for the most part have to be either cooperative, or pretty quick.
With a bit of poking around in Board Game Geek, I managed to find out how to rank all the Cooperative games in order. Whilst I didn’t expect to have played all the overall Board Game Geek heavyweights, I was really surprised at how few of the top co-ops I’d played. 8 of the top 20 isn’t too horrendous, but that doesn’t include any of the top 5, and as you look further down, I can only tick off 14 of the top 50.
The top 5 Co-operative games, according to Board Game Geek, are Pandemic Legacy, Mage Knight, Robinson Crusoe, T.I.M.E. Stories, and Dead of Winter. Everything I’ve ever heard about Pandemic Legacy suggests that the gameplay is really good, but the disposability scares me. Mage Knight only came onto my radar very recently, but it certainly intrigues me. TIME and Dead of Winter are both things I’ve had my eye on for a little while, but the probability of having a traitor in the ranks for Dead of Winter keeps it at arm’s length.
Ultimately, the most important thing when playing games is to have a good time. If ratings, rankings, or categories help people with that, then great – but it’s still important to keep a perspective on things. It’s pretty rare these days that I actually go out and buy a brand new game (as opposed to buying new sets for existing games, or getting new games sent me for review) but when I do, I’ll make a point of reading several reviews, including at least one negative one, maybe even watch a video or two and often these will highlight why even the most highly-rated game may not be for me.
What do other people think? do rankings and ratings matter to you? or is there something else driving your game-making decisions?
It’s been a fairly dry few weeks here on Fistful of Meeples, as I’ve talked a lot about numbers, lists, statistics, and even storage inserts. Whilst this is the sort of thing that often fills my mind, I’m aware that it may not be the most exciting fare that people have ever read, and I want to keep a balance. For today, let’s take a more colourful look at Mansions of Madness 2nd edition.
Mansions of Madness is a game that’s been floating around for a while, in which a “Gatekeeper” marshals various dark and sinister forces against a band of investigators who are exploring a Mansion or other location. This summer’s surprise release saw the game re-booted for a second edition, giving the role of the Gatekeeper to an app, leaving the players with a fully co-operative and/or solo-able way to play through the Mansion.
I love this game- I picked up a review copy that I wrote about for Games Quest, and it’s spent many hours on our dining table since August. It’s thematic, and the layout tiles are beautiful.
It wasn’t without its detractors though. Replayability and the number of scenarios included is a can of worms that I’ll leave for another time, but people were also quick to find fault with the miniatures.
A monster in Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition is made up of 3 components, a grey plastic miniature, a massive black base, and a cardboard tile that gets (mostly) swallowed by said base. The pegs for fixing the miniatures into the bases were often the wrong size and, unless you spent some time filing or gluing, they could be relied upon to fall apart with depressing regularity.
Whilst 5 minutes with glue and scissors would have been sufficient to make the game playable, I felt inspired by my ongoing efforts to pimp out Zombicide, and taking an idea from Board Game Geek, decided to give these figures the full treatment.
The Cultist is your basic Lovecraftian monster. Seemingly entirely human, he has turned to dark and sinister ways, and needs to be stopped. The base game of Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition comes with a lot of cultists, offering a fair amount of scope for varying the colour scheme without making them look implausibly jovial in hue.
Leading the cultists, is the Priest of Dagon – like most of the monsters in this set, FFG produce a pre-painted version of this character, which provided a useful starting point, but it felt a bit too gaudy to me.
Instead, I opted for a slightly darker tone to meet the overall mood of the game. There’s not really a great deal going on overall with this figure, but I’m generally fairly happy with how it turned out.
The Riot is simply a mob of angry men, and the ordinariness of it all is what I was trying to capture in the painting of these figures. Sometimes the narrative will hint at something more sinister in the blood of these types (or even straight-up tell you that it’s being used to represent an army of zombies). However, for the miniatures, I just wanted something that could pass for a crowd of 1920s men, suddenly roused to anger and violence, terrifying because of their apparent ordinaryness.
Still human-looking to the casual eye, the Deep One Hybrid is born of the sea, and not quite human. I’ve done a few of these, trying to tread the line between the natural and the ridiculous: I think that overall the slightly unnatural flesh tones and the red eyes are more effective, but the more “human” one is still perfectly serviceable.
Whilst the world of Lovecraft is full of ordinary folk who have meddled in things that should not have concerned them, it also contains plenty that it clearly monstrous, and the game reflects that too.
The Ghost was probably the hardest figure to paint, as the ideal effect would be translucence, which obviously cannot be painted on to a piece of solid grey plastic. For both attempts at this, I went for pale, muted colours – everything in shades of grey for the first, and then a whiter palette for the second, which I tinged with light blue, before adding the chains in a heavy, unmistakably corporeal dark metallic shade.
The Child of Dagon is a strange monster. Typically in scenarios, you seem to encounter a normal looking human who is suddenly and dramatically transformed. This is another where FFG’s pre-painted miniature is a very bright colour, almost garish. I wanted something a bit less over-the-top, whilst still retaining the definitely-not-human aspect. I think what I’ve ended up with works well.
The Deep One is a creature of the sea, and the first of the Monsters which doesn’t appear to have been human at any point in time. For this one, I followed the colour-scheme of the pre-painted miniature for sale on the website fairly closely, including the pink tinges around the hands/feet and spine – although, I’ve generally gone for a slightly more muted tone than the official ones. As there were 4 of these, I was able to bring in a bit of variety, I went for a greenish rather than blue base for this one, and a greenish tint for another. Overall, it still seems to work fairly well.
The Hunting Horror was one of the trickiest models to paint, the pattern – lots and lots of little squares – on the skin had a very pronounced cast line on it in the first one, and by the time I’d trimmed with the scalpel, filed, and re-filled gaps, some of the detail was lost. For the first one, I kept with the dark, blueish base colour and some pale panels shown on the FFG website.
For the second though, I decided to push the boat out a bit: I’d used a green primer for this round of monsters, and the pale green I’d used on one of the Deep Ones made for a nice additional layer over this, giving it a hint of brightness without looking too garish.
The blood red for the main body is a bit more of a departure from any of the sources I’d seen, but once it was muted down with the ink wash, I thought it still looked ok.
The final Monster from the Core Box was the Star Spawn. These are monstrous enough in size and shape that they really didn’t feel like they needed too much done to them in terms of outlandish colour. I kept with the fairly plain green spray primer, and touched up missing patches in a similar shade. I then tried to introduce a little bit of fairly weak purple into the tattoo-like patterns, and the protruding veins. I also added white for the eyes.
I’m still not 100% sure how to finish this one off. It feels like it needs a little bit more work- perhaps some tinting on the face tentacles, but as it doesn’t need a base, it’s easier to revisit later on.
Overall I’m fairly happy with these monsters. I think that the clear base instead of the large black plastic one is probably the biggest element in improving the aesthetics, but with clear bases, you definitely can’t paint afterbasing, so getting that done now was key.
It also didn’t really seem fair to hair the monsters in full technicolour whilst the investigators shuffled around in plain grey plastic, so I painted them too. There are colour pictures of the investigators on their character cards, along with various examples on the internet, so I didn’t need to put too much creative thought into these.
The hardest bit about the investigators was the bases. Whereas the monsters come with a peg that works well for attaching them to a base, the investigators are cast as a single piece with their base. I suspect that I could probably remove them from the bases without damaging the legs/feet in most cases, but re-attaching them to a clear base might well prove tricky.
Having decided to leave them on their bases, I then had to decide on colour. I attempted to recreate the cobbled-stones pattern of the outdoor tiles, but wasn’t happy with the result. Given how many different floors there are, I ultimately just went for grey, as the simplest option.
Just as I was reaching the end with painting these, the expansions arrived, complete with more monsters and investigators. I’m not sure how long exactly it will take me to get those painted, but I’ll be sure to post an update once I have.