Note: this topic was recently covered in Episode 244 of the podcast, if you prefer an audio presentation.
The second edition of Mansions of Madness, released in 2016, is one of my favorite board games. I love the atmosphere, I love the combination of gameplay and story, I love how the app works with the game – it’s a complete package. And Fantasy Flight keeps putting out more support for the game.
One element of that continued support is more investigators (although there were a bunch at launch, between the base game and the figure/tile collections). At the time of writing, there are 32 options, with another 4 soon to be arriving in Horrific Journeys. So I thought it would be helpful to take a look at what makes a good investigator, and what the best ones available are (when I say “good” here, I mean powerful from a gameplay perspective – this would be a very different list if it was just which characters I like).
There are a variety of different kinds of scenario in Mansions of Madness, from ones with heavy combat and no interaction with characters, to ones with lots and lots of interaction and just one fight at the end. This advice will be from the point of view of a ‘generic’ sort of scenario. These scenarios have at least a good amount of combat, but either don’t involve a ton of interaction or the interaction they involve doesn’t require rolling influence all that much. Of course, if you’re attempting a specific scenario that you’ve played before, you’ll be able to get a better idea of which characters could help (and also some characters may be better if you know exactly where to go to use their talents).
In evaluating investigators, it’s important to keep in mind that – once you get past those glorious atmospherics – Mansions of Madness is a game of action economy. Every scenario puts the players on a clock – a certain number of turns and, therefore, a certain number of actions, before disaster strikes. To win, those actions need to be used efficiently. Investigators that effectively provide “free” actions or that improve actions that were going to be taken anyway can be very good. Investigators with abilities that use up an action must be considered with skepticism. Actions that do something like provide a clue or heal a wound are generally bad – they don’t do enough to further the investigation.
Another factor to consider are which stats are most important. Sanity is more important than Health, and Will is the most important attribute. It’s often much easier to accumulate trauma than physical damage – everyone’s rolling during most mythos phases, after all. But physical damage is also much less problematic (until you die, of course). The consequences of being wounded are real, but not the end of the world. The consequences of going insane are frequently massive. Indeed, the ‘traitor’ cards are often effectively game over – Mansions of Madness scenarios are usually tough to beat even with the group working perfectly together. One player working against the rest almost always spells doom. And there are a lot of ‘traitor’ cards in that insanity deck.
Working with this is the importance of Will – it will be constantly rolled by every character. And not only is it rolled more than any other attribute, it prevents a lot of trauma over the course of the game (and often some wounds as well). If there’s any single thing I would suggest when picking an investigator, it would be to look for a Will of at least 4. You’ll see below that I have investigators who are Will 3 on my list, so it isn’t a death sentence, but that Will of 4 can help keep the game going longer, which equals more fun, especially for a newer player.
Of the other attributes, Strength is probably the most important. Although combat doesn’t happen as much as “Will saves,” combat happens in almost every game of Mansions of Madness (sometimes a lot), and you want every character to be able to participate in it. Strength is the most common combat roll, since objects like crowbars and fire extinguishers are more common than guns. However, while everyone needs Will, the three combat attributes can be spread out around the group. For example, one character should probably have a high Lore to use spells, while a character with higher Agility can carry the best firearm.
Finally, be hesitant about abilities that are too situational, because (unless you know where to go from a prior play) it’s hard to ensure that the character gets to use the ability. A clear example of this is Amanda Sharpe. She’s one of my favorite characters, but her investigator ability is terrible. It only works on puzzles, and (especially with more common 4-ish player counts) it’s entirely likely that she’ll go the entire game without hitting a puzzle. There will probably be a puzzle … but chances are she won’t be the one that hits it. And it isn’t worth spending a bunch of actions to get her over to the puzzle. This applies more broadly to observation, influence, or lore (on a character who isn’t going to cast spells). There are a lot of search tokens that require observation or lore, and a few interactions that require influence – but will the character with the high attribute happen to end up in a position to use it? Don’t get carried away with this concept, because those attributes still matter – but it isn’t like combat where you can generally assume that every character is going to use it every game.
With that said, here are my top 10. The specific order isn’t terribly important, so don’t put a lot of stock in which character is #6 v. #4 on the list. But there is a bit of a break point between #7 and #8 – I’m pretty confident that the top 7 belong on the list, but there are a few others who were just off of the list that I could be convinced belong in those bottom few spots.
#10 – Lily Chen, The Martial Artist (Sanctum of Twilight) – Lily earns her spot by being a solid front-line fighter who still has good mental resistance. Her ability to enhance unarmed damage means that she effectively always has a weapon (that can’t be dropped), which has the side benefit of freeing up your first weapon for some other character with decent strength. My #11 is Tommy Muldoon, who similarly comes with a weapon (his unique rifle, Becky), but I’m giving the nod to Lily because of her Will of 4.
#9 – Minh Thi Phan, The Secretary (base game) – Minh squeeks into this spot on the back of her ability, which gives her or another investigator a free reroll each round. This is a potent ability, granting a clue variant without an action, but Minh is dragged down by her subpar attributes – having just extolled the virtues of Will and, to a lesser extent, Strength, I present you a character who has only 3 in each (with a low Lore as well, Minh needs a firearm, or possibly a knife, to be at all effective in combat).
#8 – Marie Lambeau, The Entertainer (Streets of Arkham) – Marie is also stuck with a low Will and Strength, but has a lot more combat potential than Minh. Marie’s ability is an exercise in action efficiency, allowing a free action every single turn. Normally I’d be skeptical of an ability that only works with a spell, but the investigators will start with a spell, giving Marie something to work with right away. A nice side effect of Marie’s ability is the chance to use spells that would otherwise never get cast. It’s rarely the right choice to use a spell to do something like heal a damage or grant focus – they just aren’t worth the action (and all the other downsides of spells). But with only those other downsides of spells? Now there’s some functionality. However, in addition to her Will, Marie is kept down by those inherent drawbacks of spells. The spell at the start of the game may not be useful over and over again. Any lots and lots of spell castings will wear at anyone’s sanity. Marie has 8 of that, but lacks a 5 Lore to really make the spells sing, while her mediocre Will means she’ll be taking trauma elsewhere.
#7 – Carson Sinclair, the Butler (base game) – Like many of the other characters on this side of the list, Sinclair sports a 3 Will (he is the last investigator on this list who does). And, horror of horrors, his ability uses up an action. But that’s OK, because the effect of the ability is to give another action. Mansions of Madness isn’t just about the raw number of actions, but also action efficiency. And nobody is better than Carson Sinclair at making sure your actions are used efficiently. He clearly doesn’t do a lot in a two-player game, but at 4 or 5 players he really shines.
#6 – Sister Mary, the Nun (Recurring Nightmares) – Like Minh Thi Phan, but with a Will of 5, Sister Mary is, as a result, considerably stronger. Her ability to effectively grant clues can be a godsend. However, unlike Minh, she can’t use her ability on herself, so she has to make sure to stay near other investigators. This is less significant than her lack of combat prowess, which keeps her from climbing higher.
#5 – William Yorick, the Gravedigger (base game) – Actions that give clues are not great. Abilities that give clues for what you were going to do anyway can be fantastic. Yorick gets a free clue every time a monster is defeated (regardless of where it was or who defeated it). That can be a mammoth number of clues – he is one of the few characters I have ever seen with more clues than he knew what to do with. On top of that, he sports a Will and Strength of four (and a sanity of 7), giving him good combat ability and mental survivability. His stock clearly drops precipitously in any ‘mystery’ scenario that lacks combat, but otherwise he is amazing.
#4 – Agatha Crane, the Parapsychologist (base game) – Every group wants a spellcaster, and Agatha Crane is the best there is. Her Lore of 5 gives her the best odds of high damage when you really need it. Her Will of 4 and sanity of 9 give her fantastic mental toughness (she’s bad at non-spell combat, but that’s not what you’re using her for; although she falters with only two investigators). but on top of that her ability is as good as Yorick’s – she gets a clue every time she resolves a horror check, and that’s generally going to be every single turn there’s an enemy on the board.
#3 – Finn Edwards, the Bootlegger (Streets of Arkham) – The most common actions in a game of Mansions of Madness are moving and searching. Finn Edwards boost the former every time you do the latter. There are few things that can induce action inefficiency as often as needing to move exactly one space when searching, thus losing half of the move action (which you will surely have to take again later). Finn does away with that problem, and generally just saves a lot of time with free half-actions. He also meets the Will 4 test, although he is not good at combat – his appearance this high is a mark of how much I value that ability.
#2 – “Ashcan” Pete, The Drifter (Recurring Nightmares) – “Ashcan” or, more accurately, “that guy who comes with Duke, probably changes how Mansions of Madness plays more than any other investigator. Trading is usually a weak action – sometimes you do it because you need to, but you never want to spend one action to pick an item up and then another action to hand it off to another investigator (possibly with some wasted movement in there as well). Well, Duke fixes all that. Not only does Duke turn trading into a free action, but also does it at range. Without Duke, the investigators either have some inefficient item distribution, or waste actions. With Duke, they can generally have what they need, when they need it. Plus Duke enables shenanigans like passing the shotgun between investigators for multiple uses per round (note: I play with Duke as being non-tradeable, so you can’t go crazy with this). Oh, and “Ashcan” Pete has exactly what you’d want in stats, with 4 Will, 4 in Strength and Agility, and with a ‘dump stat’ of Influence with a 2 (aka, exactly what you want the dump stat to be).
#1 Rita Young, the Athlete (base game) – Duke may be more game-changing, but Rita still has more raw power. Finn can get extra movement when he searches. Rita just always gets extra movement, even when she moves more than one a round. Every investigator moves all the time, so Rita’s ability will generally add up to multiple extra turns over the course of the game. She also has a Will of 4, and a bruising 5 Strength. And, like “Ashcan,” her other status are buoyed by her terrible Influence which, again, is exactly what you want. Rita’s only drawback is her 5 sanity, but the efficiency and combat potential is too much to pass up.
Now, go forth and investigate! Or let me know what you think down in the comments. Who doesn’t belong in the top 10? Who did I leave out?