Board in the Stacks: Mountains of Madness

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.

Board in the Stacks: Pocket Madness

Pocket Madness (BGG, Amazon) is a funky little filler card game from Passport Games for 2 – 4 players which plays in 30 minutes. It is inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos cycle of books and stories by H.P. Lovecraft. In the game, each player is delving into the adorably dark mysteries of the void and beyond by researching, opening portals, and publishing what you’ve seen and learned of the beings who reside there. There is a danger to all this research into the unknown as players will slowly grow mad as they learn more and more. It is, quite literally, publish or perish at Miskatonic U.  

There are two types of cards — Portal Cards and Location Cards. There are 7 portal cards numbered from 6-12 and they are placed face up in the middle of the table. The Location cards are numbered 6-12, and they are 6 sixes, 7 sevens, 8 eights and so on. This is known as a pyramid deck…and I love a good pyramid deck. The location cards are shuffled and each player gets dealt 2, and 17 cards are removed and placed face-down. The remainder are flipped face-up. Then the two decks (one face up and and the other face down) are shuffled together and fanned out on the table. The result is an array of cards some exposed and others hidden.

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The Portal Cards are up top and the splash of cards below (17 face-down and the rest face-up)

I know this may sound complex but this isn’t much harder than setting up for a game of “Fish.” Don’t sweat it, you’ll do just fine.

On their turn players can take one of three actions.

  1. They can “research” by drawing the first 1-3 cards from the deck.
  2. They can “publish their research” by playing a complete run of cards from 6-12.  When you play a run every other player needs to take a madness token. For every subsequent run played during that round an additional madness token is collected. So, for the first run each opponent gets one madness token. The 2nd run gives 2 madness tokens to each opponent and the 3rd gives 3 madness tokens to each opponent.
  3. They can play sets of three or more of the same card and collect the corresponding portal card of the set played. Portal cards provide the owning player with a special power they can do once a round.

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Play will continue until one person plays all their cards or the draw pile is exhausted. If a player runs out of cards first then that person wins the round and can discard half their madness tokens and all the other players gain one. If the round ends because the draw pile is exhausted, everyone takes one last turn to play cards and then players get one madness token for each different location still in their hand.

Another round then begins and keeps on going until one player had 10 madness at the end of a round. At that point the game is over and the person with the fewest madness tokens (so the most sane person) wins.

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Here we have an example of some Portal Cards and the abilities they provide.

Pocket Madness is essentially a rummy game where the object is to draw up cards into your hand in order to make sets and/or runs and then meld them to score points. In Pocket Madness, rather than scoring points, you are punishing other players with madness by making them read your hideous thesis or by playing runs and sets, and gaining extra abilities.

This is an enjoyable enough filler game. Nothing particularly exciting. The theme is thin. The art is cute and colorful. The gameplay is engaging and provides enough interaction to mess with other players. Those new to the space may not be attracted to the theme and be turned off by the tongue-twisting names. However, the rules are simple and familiar enough that as long as you don’t try to sound out “Nyarlathotep” or “Shub-Niggurath,” you will likely find a fun and accessible card game here.  

Buy it if you have need for Cthulhu themed filler and if Cthulhu games are popular at your library. Otherwise pass on it.

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A set of 12’s and THE GUG

Cthulhu in the Stacks: Kingsport Festival

The Game

Designers – Andrea Chiarvesio, Gianluca Santopietro
Publisher – Passport Games
Number of Players – 3-5
Ages – 12+
Playing Time – 90 minutes
Mechanics – Cultist Placement, Dice Allocation, Animal Sacrifice

I want everyone to repeat after me — Lovecraftian Eurogame. Let those words roll off your lips and drip onto the floor. Savor them. These words will embrace you. Hold you. Ensnare you. The Cthulhu Mythos is a staple of large, sprawling thematic cooperative games such as Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror. Cthulhu even dipped it’s appendage into the murky depths of word games with Unspeakable Words. It launched aerial combat in Hornet Leader: The Cthulhu Conflict. But Cthulhu rarely makes an appearance in the realm of the Eurogame….until now.  H.P. Lovecraft’s Kingsport Festival game comes from Italian designers Andrea Chiarvesio (designer of the light dice allocation game Kingsport) and Gianluca Santopietro (Santopietro designed “Letters from Whitechapel” which provides an amazingly immersive experience) and is published by Passport Games. The game is a mashup of a dice allocation, worker placement game along with a heavy dose of Lovecraftian fiction and prose. But does it work?

Continue reading “Cthulhu in the Stacks: Kingsport Festival”