IELLO is diving into the realm of Cthulhu with Mountains of Madness; a quirky, cooperative party game from designer Rob Daviau. The game draws inspiration from the H.P. Lovecraft novel, At the Mountains of Madness, focusing on the events of an ill-fated Miskatonic University expedition to Antarctica as adventurers are driven slowly mad by exposure and their encounters with the unknown. If you are unfamiliar with Rob Daviau, he has a unique design pedigree. He is designer of Pandemic Legacy, Risk Legacy, Seafall, and the primary innovator of the “Legacy” mechanism where the game changes permanently over time based on the outcome of previous games; providing a unique gaming experience. IELLO Games has a consistent art aesthetic with cartoony and bright colors with games such as King of Tokyo and Kanagawa which appeal more to families and emerging gamers. A Lovecraft-inspired “party” game, certainly feels outside the usual realm of both designer and publisher and I was instantly curious. So how did they do?
A central theme to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and every game based upon his mythos, is madness. The challenge is that the essence of crippling insanity doesn’t really port well into analog games. Madness tokens can be collected. Players can track how “mad” they’ve become in order to optimize their play. In these situations, madness becomes another resource to monitor and maintain. There is no practical way to design for players to represent their internal experiences in the game and give them an active voice. That is until Mountains of Madness where players, as they continue through the expedition, are driven “mad” by their experiences. To do this they have to role-play specific quirks described on acquired madness cards. These quirks will hamper their ability to communicate and plan as the game gets progressively more difficult and the their madness intensifies.
This is arguably the central and most interesting mechanism in the game. Each madness card will provide a rule or action that the player must follow through on while communicating during the brief planning period with other players. Since a cooperative game normally hinges upon the successful communication of information between players, this presents a distracting and, at times, off-putting hurdle to victory, making this one of the more difficult cooperative games I’ve played.
This is where player buy-in for Mountains of Madness is pivotal. As characters grow increasingly “mad,” they will pull cards from one of three madness decks, each increasing in difficulty. Players actively role-play the described actions from the card when communicating to make it difficult for other players and themselves to meet their objectives. They are purposely choosing to engage in their “madness” in a way that will hamper play. If players are willing to play along with this, Mountains of Madness captures the feeling and reaction to insanity shockingly well. If they don’t buy into the roleplaying aspect of the game, there is very little else to the game.
This is not to say that the rest of the game is bad but the crux of the game is in the interaction between players, their madness, and the struggle to communicate successfully in quick sprints. Players who hold true to their madness will easily make mistakes, forget information, purposely confuse other players, etc. This provides a wonderful comparison to hidden traitor games where distrust is fostered as you attempt to suss out the betrayer in the group. But there is no traitor here, only people attempting to communicate and cooperate within increasingly difficult constraints. In essence, everyone is trying to slightly throw off the game. Everyone is a traitor…
And it is gloriously frustrating.
In Mountains of Madness, 3-5 players will attempt to explore a pyramid shaped set of tiles from coast to mountain, to hidden city, and then to the Edge of Madness and a daring escape to bring back enough evidence to secure their academic futures. Players have a hand of equipment cards representing different equipment (crates, tools, weapons, and books) ranging in value from 2-6. These will correspond to values and equipment to be utilized in order to pass increasingly difficult challenges.
Each round of play is split into a Movement and Encounter Phase. At the start of the round, one player is designated leader of the expedition. The leader ultimately decides the group’s movement and whether or not to discard Leadership tokens. Leadership tokens are a limited currency used to earn additional communication time, rerolling the penalty die, and resting. Resting allows the group to regain used Leadership tokens but forces you to permanently lose one so be careful. If the team runs out of Leadership tokens, the game is lost. So the game is geared towards the use and eventual loss of Leadership tokens.
During the Movement phase, the leader moves the group to an adjacent expedition tile. The leader can confer with everyone or make an arbitrary decision. And while it is certainly possible to shoot straight up the mountain, generally it is best to meander around to try to pick up some relics. A quick shot up the mountain and escape will not provide enough evidence to win. Since the role of leader rotates, the usual issue with one alpha gamer dominating the game is somewhat mitigated since every player gets the opportunity to be in charge.
Once the group moves the Encounter Phase begins and the tile is flipped, revealing the reward for successfully completing the tile. The team also flips over the timer and has 30 seconds to determine which cards should be played and by whom to complete the challenge. However, in the brief time to plan, the players will be hampered by their madness cards. The Leader is in charge of tracking the conversation and the contributions of each team member. Conversation ends as soon as the timer runs out, the Leader decides to use Leadership tokens, or when the Leader takes cards from a player and places them on the Sled board. At this point, everyone silently makes their final decisions and hands over the cards they wish to play.
Succeeding challenges provide advantages like taking away injuries, granting extra leader tokens, and most importantly, give relics, knowledge, ruins, and other cards needed to ultimately win the game. While success means gaining relics, the knowledge along with them means that the player gaining the relic may also gain a more debilitating madness or lose certain abilities. Failure means that you have to leave it to the fates and roll a damage die or choose to upgrade your madness card. While level 1 madness cards can be distracting, the level 2 and 3 cards can be downright disastrous to teamwork.
After the turn, the leadership of the group will rotate clockwise. As you climb higher up the mountain, you will notice that the iconography is not consistent with colors, shapes, or text changing. This is an amazingly delicate touch as you feel your sanity slipping further and further away. This is especially enjoyable if you plan on teaching and moderating this game with new players. That moment when the escape tokens are flipped and suddenly the colors are off is priceless. If the team ultimately succeeds and escapes the mountain, they will compare the difference between collected injury cards and collected relic cards. More injuries than relics equals an overall failure of the expedition.
My biggest gripe about Mountains of Madness is how overproduced it is for what is primarily a game centered around the madness cards. The 30 second burst of planning and conversation hampered by the madness cards takes almost all the focus away from the game board and components. The game could have been much more minimalist in presentation and still just as satisfying. Iello production and component quality is as high as always, it just seems that the game could have been just as effective and fun in a much smaller package with much less included. I would be the first person to jump on board with “Mountains of Madness: The Card Game.”
Mountains of Madness is a tricky game to review. The interactions are so unique that it is a challenge to gauge the game as either a party game or a cooperative game or strategy game. What is it? I don’t know. It’s a strange game but one that everyone seems to really enjoy. For me the madness cards are certainly the most intriguing part and requires perhaps an overabundance of player buy-in to really have the experience succeed. I would recommend this game to anyone who enjoys cooperative and hidden traitor or bluffing games in equal measures. It is challenging, exciting, and hilarious to play but requires more strategy than most party games and more extroversion than most strategy games which may make this game tough to find an audience for. But when you find them, it’s a hit.