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Subject: Geeks Under Grace Review: Mountains of Madness rss

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Chris Hecox
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Help, I can't stop laughing.
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Mountains of Madness is a cooperative game from IELLO and designer Rob Daviau. The titular game is based off H.P. Lovecraft’s novel, At the Mountains of Madness. This book details the fictitious events of an expedition to Antarctica, in which Dr. William Dyer of Miskatonic University recounts the tale of a group of explorers, slowly being driven mad by an unknown force which lay dormant in an ancient city between the slopes.

Daviau is a famed tabletop designer who began a career designing games with Hasbro and Avalon Hill. Daviau’s design credits include: Pandemic Legacy, Risk Legacy and many other editions of Risk, Heroscape, Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit, Seafall, and more. More recently, Daviau is behind the scenes with Restoration Games, which includes restored titles like Downforce and Stop Thief!

IELLO began in 2004 as a games distributor in France. In 2008, IELLO became a games publisher and began US publishing in 2012. While IELLO has done international distribution for a number of successful games, publisher credits include well-known titles such as King of Tokyo, King of New York, Schotten Totten, Kanagawa, Steam Park, Arena of the Gods, the Tales & Games series, Welcome to the Dungeon, and more.


Mountains of Madness puts players in the middle of an existential crisis that not only puts the team cautiously at odds with one another, but also creates the possibility of both danger and fatality.

Taking departure from typical soi-disant Lovecraftian tabletop games, Mountains of Madness develops a musty atmosphere of confusion amongst players. Here, instead of rolling dice to attack an otherworldly force with a puny firearm, players will try desperately to communicate and cooperate, only to end up disheveled, distraught, and filled with raucous laughter. While so many other Lovecraftian games (Eldritch Horror, Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition) invent thrilling adventure and craft stories of survival, none of them capture the threads of insanity that H.P. Lovecraft wove deep into the fabric of each of his tales.

In other games, one might have even hidden cards which change the player’s disposition or end-goal. In Mountains of Madness, players have short, 30-second bursts of decision-making moments. In these sprints, mistakes lead further down the track of failure, which causes players to go mad, or push victory further and further away. Those other games are not at all bad, per se, but Daviau brilliantly evokes a mindset of distrust, chaos, and mystery reminiscent of Lovecraft’s horror novels like The Dunwich Horror, or my personal favorite: The Colour Out of Space.

A team of 3-5 players join together in search of finding truth in ancient legends of a city hidden within the valleys of precipitous mountains. Players are given hands of various equipment, including tools, weapons, and more. The leader of the group switches hands clockwise from round to round, and the unfortunate trailblazer must make many a decision on not only how to progress towards the peak, but also when to use precious leadership tokens. These grant special bonuses to ease the archeological trip. Once all have been exhausted, players must choose to rest, which restores the deck of equipment cards so more can be played for successful voyage, but also shuffles injuries and permanently removes one token from the game.

Each turn, the leader moves onto a new expedition tile, where the aforementioned 30-second challenge begins. Upon flipping the tile, players can see what numbers of cards must be played, and also learn which rewards will be given by succeeding one of the challenges. Only in this period of time can players discuss their hands, so prioritizing the words you speak is key to success. These challenges give advantages like taking away injuries, granting extra leader tokens, and most importantly, give relics, knowledge, ruins, and other imperative cards to ultimately win the game.

If players can finally scale the mountain and escape via plane, they take all sustained injury cards and compare the difference with gathered relic cards. Failure means more injuries than relics, which is likely the case most of the time. Mountains of Madness is quite difficult as a cooperative game. In fact, typically my biggest gripe with cooperative games is taking the time to play a lengthy cooperative title, only to lose in the last few minutes. The journey usually never justifies the end for me, as most games are about the grind and staving off the inevitable. Furthermore, I don’t mind losing in competitive games because at least someone has victory, but in cooperative games it’s more difficult for me justify the time played.

Mountains of Madness makes each victory hard fought, which lends more justification for me because bouts of acquiring relics come and go so quickly. Sure, players work to hold off the slow creep of madness like one holds off the impending doom of outbreaks in Pandemic, but here, each and every relic won is hard fought. The table cheers upon collecting another relic, though each otherworldly card also disables the owner from a specific skill on his tableau.

The combination of the suspense of acquiring and determining each other’s madness, losing faith and trust in the current leader, and the realization of the ticking clock are what make each game of Mountains of Madness unique and thrilling. As someone who doesn’t have a lot of care for cooperative games, Mountains of Madness opens the genre for me. Sure, the Quelf-like madness cards are silly, but they help create an eerie experience, setting Mountains of Madness apart from usual cooperative flair.

The game is also beautiful. Box design alone rivals Abyss. A group of adventurers peer toward a mellow goldenrod light splitting the inside of a towering door. Each card is a different piece of equipment and includes flavor text from the game’s source material. Of course, there’s never time to read the text, or even the text of each expedition location. Injury cards burn a bright red. Relics give players increasingly more mad looking madness cards, and give scrambled, garbled, and text-covered tiles to place over the corresponding abilities. The game’s insert is a bit wonky, with just barely not enough space to hold all the cards, but there are spaces for everything to fit, which is appreciated. The IELLO production astounds.

For those wanting a unique twist on cooperative gaming, Mountains of Madness provides. At some point, players will repeat madness cards, but because players can’t discuss their madness during the game, no one will know for sure what’s going on. I’ve only escaped the mountain when I’ve played, and have never actually secured victory. The game is difficult, and adjusts cards and difficulty per player count. There is a fair bit of variety here, so I don’t think replayability will be a huge issue.

The game is simple. You play cards and act like a fool. That said, because of the experience the game creates, combining the end goal (more relics than injuries) and maintaining the pacing of the game up the mountain can be a challenge for new gamers to grasp. I think it’s okay to introduce to relatively new gamers because madness cards make the game crazy and social enough. Expect some to not understand the end goal, even after explaining it multiple times or even after finishing your first game. I recommend a bit of quarterbacking when with a brand new group of players, reminding why and when to use leadership tokens and things like that.

The meat of the game falls in those 30-second expedition resolutions, so if those moments aren’t exciting enough for you, I’m not sure the game will work. Perhaps this makes Mountains of Madness a try before you buy, but as far as unique cooperative titles go: you’d be insane not at least give this one a go.

+ Creepy and brilliant graphic design melds perfectly with theme
+ Theme of Lovecraftian horror represented accurately
+ Challenging, with tense moments which combine social interaction and cooperative gameplay
+ Beautiful box art and great art design all around

- Insert is good, but needs a tad more room for organization
- Objectives likely won’t be clear for new gamers

Mountains of Madness is a zany, atmospheric, and welcome H.P. Lovecraft-themed addition to the board gaming world. Expect confusion, weird social interaction, and plenty of challenge with a unique twist on cooperative gaming.

A review copy of Mountains of Madness was provided by Iello.

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