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Designer Diary: Madness at Midnight, or How To Be An Evil Cultist

mads l. brynnum
2400 Kbh. NV
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The pitch for Madness At Midnight is quite simple: What if you're not trying to stop ancient Lovecraftian horrors from entering our world, but rather actively working to make that happen? So instead of being heroic investigators, each player controls a gang of cultists trying to summon their specific ancient evil.

The First Prototype

From the beginning of when I started working on the game in 2013, the basic design questions were: What would cultists do? What would their goals be? How can they achieve them? What will they need? And so on. By asking those questions, I found out that they of course should be able to learn powerful spells at Miskatonic U. and that controlling powerful locations in Arkham should be one of the paths to victory.

Another inspiration was how to tackle the basic concepts of the Lovecraftian mythology. For instance, sanity (or the lack thereof) is a huge part of the Cthulhu mythos, but since you're essentially playing the bad guys, going insane couldn't just be a way for your cultists to die. Instead one of the key concepts of the game is that the madder your cult gets — that is, the more sanity you lose in order to cast spells and do sinister deeds — the harder it is to control. To put it in game terms, you take actions by spending dice that can be rerolled by gaining madness, so more madness results in fewer rerolls, which means you can't do exactly what you want but have to improvise a bit.

The first prototype used for solo testing, with minis scrounged from Chaos in the Old World

A surprising amount of the initial nuts and bolts of the game is still present in the published version. You control cultists fighting for dominance in Arkham; you can learn spells, grab items, rob graves, and fight the pesky investigators. And, yes, some of this may seem familiar if you have played other Lovecraftian games. I am a huge fan of Arkham Horror, and while I wanted something that felt very different, I wanted it to retain some of the same vibe, only turned upside down.

I approached Sean Brown of Mr. B Games, and he liked the design but felt it maybe needed that last bit of oomph and asked me whether I'd be okay having a second designer take a look at it. Now, relinquishing control over a creative project is always somewhat daunting, but as a designer you must know that this is simply part of the business. However, when he mentioned he knew Richard Launius and would try to persuade him to develop the game, I was all in — and not just all in, but a bit starstruck, really.

The final prototype I made for the Danish convention Fastaval before Richard Launius started working on the game


So Mr. Launius got the game in late 2015 and started working on changes. He had A LOT of ideas, and for a moment I feared the game would change dramatically. In the end, though, he came back with something that greatly resembled the original game, but had more story elements and more variety and which was simply better. I playtested the new version, and from then on out we spent a lot of time emailing back and forth to adjust things — or rather it was usually me emailing about stuff, then him replying quickly with a ton of ideas to fix or adjust things based on his years of experience with both game design and the Cthulhu mythos.

A perfect example of a small, but important change he made was in the number of minions you have. I originally decided on seven cultists for each faction because that seemed like a good number, and it worked well enough. Richard upped this number to 13 and introduced a cult leader, which really changed the pace and feel of the game and simply added more fun. He also introduced special abilities for the minions of the different cults, along with the double-sided board locations that will ensure the game doesn't grow stale even after repeated plays.

What the game looked like after Launius did his magic, but before the final layout

Work, Work, Work

The game was Kickstarted in May 2016, and from then on Sean and I worked hard on finalizing the game, which was a ton of fun but also a ton of hard work. The amount of stuff that needs to be tested, proofed, rewritten, retested, and reproofed is honestly staggering. As an example, I think we spent the better part of two months working on the rules. No, it wasn't made easier by the fact that I live in Denmark and couldn't just pop by to go over everything, but it also goes to show just how insanely difficult writing rules is.

Part of the final pre-production sample, with specific abilities for each factions' minions and a special faction madness ability

I'm very proud to have Madness At Midnight be my first published hobby board game. (I have made and am still making so-called serious games about stuff like team leadership, chain management, STDs, and other exciting subjects.) And I’m also very happy to have Richard Launius' name next to mine on the box. Ever since I was a teen and read my first story by Lovecraft, I've been a fan of the mythos. I played the Call of Cthulhu RPG, I've played the PC games, I've written a book of Lovecraft-themed nursery rhymes, and I have of course played lots and lots of Arkham Horror, so making this game feels a bit like giving something back.

Mads L. Brynnum
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