What scares you? The dark? Spiders? Tentacled monstrosities from hideous otherworlds? Whatever your fear, video games want to exploit them by isolating you in a dark room with a pair of headphones. Scaring you while you're sat round a well-lit table with friends seems a much taller order. Yet that's exactly what tabletop game Mansions of Madness aims to do, with a little help from digital trickery.
It casts players as typical Lovecraftian investigators. Your job is to explore haunted locales, gathering clues toward solving an occult mystery. Although there is a board, cards and plastic figures, software acting as a proxy games master is central to the experience. "The app does not immediately reveal the entire map to the players," Nikki Valens, the game's designer, explained. "Instead, the players explore the mansion one room at a time. It also manages an AI that controls how monsters act and which terrifying events will befall the players."
Many board games have similar systems based on card decks and flowcharts. But Nikki felt that using an app would help unsettle the players. "I wanted them to worry for the safety of their characters," she said. "The same way someone might worry for the characters in a horror movie. So the app jumps them straight into the game. Then it keeps them focused on the story and experience instead of getting distracted by game mechanics."
Which story and experience you get depends on which scenario you choose. This also sets up the players' reasons for being there and what they must do to get out. Escape from Innsmouth, for instance, casts them as academics doing research in a small town, only to find they're trapped there. To win, the unwilling heroes must discover why the locals have isolated them then find another way to leave. This means exploring for clues and items, and begging residents for help while killing or fleeing from hostile or monstrous ones.
Each scenario has several fixed plot points which stay consistent every time you play, but randomisation from the app ensures that other elements change to keep the experience fresh. "Where you found a shotgun last time, you might instead find a journal containing secrets to solving the mystery," Nikki explained. Keith Hurley, VP of Media and Interactive at the game's publisher, Fantasy Flight, chipped in with another example. "The introductory scenario has seven unique variants alone," he enthused. "We can maintain a level of mystery for the players, so they don’t know what waits behind a given door until they interact with it in the app."
This level of mystery is what builds that tingle of fear around the table. In most board games exploration and encounters get handled by dice or, as Nikki puts it, with "two dozen decks of cards". They're often geared so that you're guaranteed to find what you're looking for so long as you survive long enough. Mansions offers no such luxury, with every wrong turn, every bad decision coming back to haunt the players.
"It's not scary in the same way as, say, an action scene in a horror film or a video game," Nikki admitted. "But Mansions is unsettling and creepy. I've seen playtesters get shivers or pause for a moment to calm down after particularly horrific passages of story text." The app drapes these paragraphs, akin to those you find in choose your own adventure books, over all the events in the game. Fighting a monster, for example, means picking a weapon and rolling dice. In any other game, that'd be it. Only Mansions will tell you how your machete gets stuck in the target's amorphous body and you frantically use your other hand to pound it deeper.
All these elements work together to draw you in. Enough Lovecraft to snare the imagination. Enough variety to keep surprising even seasoned veterans. Enough theatrics to encourage players to read out the narrative snippets in their best dramatic voices. And then, while you're waiting to see what's behind a critical door, the sudden creak of it opening makes everyone jump. "There’s a lot you can do to set the mood with a simple collection of music or sounds," Keith pointed out.
Mansions isn't the first time that Fantasy Flight has dabbled with multimedia additions to their games. In 2015 they released a tabletop adaptation of the XCOM franchise in which software controlled the alien menace. The same year saw a free program for their dungeon game Descent which generated random maps for co-operative play. It is, however, by far their most ambitious digital gamble to date.
"Interactions with non-player characters are greatly enriched," Nikki revealed. "Players can engage in entire conversation trees not unlike narrative driven video games such as Mass Effect or Dragon Age." Plus, some of the action gets taken away from the board and onto the screen. "Puzzles require players to solve small mental challenges using the app in place of rolling dice," she continued. "It's like a video game mini-game: hacking in Bioshock comes to mind." All of these things, of course, help keep everyone invested in the game experience and, in turn, add to the shock factor.
A greater shock would be if a successful board game company like Fantasy Flight took a greater leap into the digital space. There are precedents: recent kickstarter Fabulous Beasts is so reliant on technology it would never work as paper game. Mansions of Madness could, and therein lies its magic. Digital enough to be scary, traditional enough to feel like an old-fashioned game with friends. Keith does not, however, rule out forays further into computing. "There’s lots of room for us to grow our designs for this type of experience," he said. "We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of companion app gaming."