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Mountains of Madness has several hallmarks of a classic Iello game: beautiful artwork, a decent play time, and Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.
Okay, so this is something really different. This is one of the most beautiful games to hit the market this year, and the production leaves very little wanting. Unique character boards with male and female sides, fantastic weighted poker chips for the leader tokens, amazing board art, and a very cool pre-painted airplane miniature for you to move around the mountain of madness. Plus it’s co-designed by Rob Daviau, who has had his hand in some amazing, highly thematic games. I love cooperative games, and I love Cthulhu themed games (as I’ve avoided most of the ones that look dumb, I don’t feel like the theme is overused yet). This one allows you to step into the role of an investigator delving deeper into the influence of the other worlds that twist your ability to think straight. Let’s investigate (pun intended) how the game works.
Each turn, the players decide which space to move to on their airplane, revealing the underside of the tile covering that space. The tile will show two symbols and numerical values. At the same time, players also flip over a 30 second timer, giving them that amount of time to contribute cards from their hand to the leader board, face down. Players must collectively contribute cards of each symbol totaling the amounts identified on the underside of the tile. For example, the tile may read “8-11 Tools. 10-14 Crates.” If cards show a range, anywhere within that range is acceptible. Once the time runs out, the leader of the round reveals the cards face-up to verify the correct cards were contributed. Players may succeed on both, one, or neither of the symbols shown. They are rewarded if they at least succeeded on one, but they must suffer a penalty for each symbol they did not contribute a correct value of cards towards. Players are never allowed to discuss the cards in their hands unless the 30-second timer is running.
Succeeding on certain tiles allows you to grab precious artifacts that you are trying to rescue. However, as these artifacts are probably cursed from the great otherworlds, each one you receive forces you to grab a madness card, ranked from 1 to 3. Failing at tasks also forces you to grab a madness card. If you grab a higher level madness, you discard the previous one. These madness cards are what really drive the game. They force you to behave erratically during the timed phases of the game moving forward. For example, a level 1 madness might tell you that you need to shake everybody’s hand before you can start talking during the 30-second timed phase. A level 2 madness might tell you that you must walk circles around the table, still not peeking at other players’ cards. A level 3 madness might tell you that you can no longer speak numbers, or that you cannot speak the names of the four articles you are trying to contribute.
In a surprise twist, this beautiful game that looks like it could have won thematic experience of the year becomes …a cooperative game of “Curses”? Yes, but don’t stop reading now! Yes, players are forced to behave strangely by the game. Speaking in odd manners, not speaking at all, being forced to speak as if through a sock-puppet on your hand. However, it does add to the thematic experience of the game. In no other Cthulhu-themed game do YOU as the player feel the effects of the madness being driven upon your CHARACTERS. This is an interesting, new experience that is worth learning more about. Let me finish the overview, and I’ll give you my likes and dislikes so you can decide if it’s worth looking into further or not.
The board is broken into several levels of challenge: the coast (easiest), the mountain (medium), the city (hard), the edge of madness (like it sounds, kind of a big deal), and then the escape route (still difficult, but small new little tricks). As you work your way up, you must get new artifacts but avoid receiving wounds. After you ascend to the mountain top, you must face three Escape space encounters, and win the game if you have more artifacts in your possessions than wounds received from failures. There are more specifics to the game, but many I will outline in the Likes and Dislikes below.
-An interesting way to integrate Curses/Quelf. Many games have you yell stupid things or behave in odd ways in order to get a laugh out of the players. For many gamers, these forced actions do not really generate much humor. In fact, you could say they just make you mad. This game does certainly have a similar feel, but in an odd way, I really like it. As I said, you as a player are affected by the madness you receive, either by carrying Cthuloid artifacts or by failing at dangerous events in your journey.
-The Leader Tokens. Every round, you will switch who the leader is. You’re supposed to move around a miniature player board with a stack of poker chips on it, which is a stupid idea. The chips will slide off the board at least three times during the game if you do this. This was a really dumb idea. BUT, the use of the leadership tokens is interesting. You can spend one to increase the timer 30 seconds, or avoid one player’s curse for a round, or to temporarily increase your hand size limit. But most importantly, as you wither away the deck of cards to draw from, you must remove one from the game in order to shuffle the discard pile into a new draw deck. Certain successes allow you to put stronger, 10-value cards into the deck, so there’s also a slow deck-building element to the game as you reshuffle.
-Encouragement to use your leadership tokens. The aforementioned Rest action, removing one leadership token completely to reshuffle the discard pile, also replenishes all the leadership tokens you have spent so far. Therefore, at some point in the game, you MUST spend this rest action, so you’d might as well spend the leadership tokens for the temporary effects before you do so. I like that the game not only has some boosts for players, but has a system that encourages you to actually use them, instead of hoarding them like the last bit of rations on an Antarctic mountain.
-Punishments from the artifacts. In addition to the silly madness cards forcing you to communicate in odd ways, one of the biggest challenges of the game is that the artifacts you rescue give you unique challenges that no other player has. For example, you cannot use the leadership tokens for certain actions on a turn when you are the leader. Or, when revealing the cards at the end of a timed phase, when you are leader, you must discard the lowest value of a certain symbol before determining if the party succeeded at the challenges or not. This latter one, the discarding of lowest value symbols, makes the math so much harder to do when the players are trying to coordinate which cards to contribute. This is further exacerbated when somebody yells “I have three THINGS to contribute, but four of the other THINGS.” “Oh, and I have *holds up three fingers* Tools I can contribute since that one will get discarded.”
-There are little twists and turns to the game as you continue playing. I wouldn’t want to give away too much, but things you become familiar with in the symbols start to change as you advance up the mountain. Not only is the madness getting to you, and the effects of the artifacts, but the lack of oxygen up the mountian path is certainly contributing to the confusion. There are subtle effects in the game not seen in any other game that I greatly appreciate.
-The art. Few games floor me with their art. This one is really, really good. Some of the cards graphics look goofy, and the tiles you place on the board itself look a little uninspired, but the board itself, the cover, the investigators, and the overall presentation of the game is amazing.
-The insert. I love when a game comes with a really good insert, form fitted to keep everything in place and protected. The insert is really good, a stark white, which also adds to the aesthetic appeal, looking like the frigid antarctic tundra. Small touch, but appreciated by me.
-Rulebook needs clarity. The rulebook is laid out generally well, but there are certain things that are hard to understand. For example, the use of the leadership tokens could be clearer. It is not obvious upon first read what to do with the poker chips when they’re discarded, and when are they actually removed from the game.
-Fiddly rules could be streamlined for learning purposes. The leadership tokens are good in the game, however, it’s not explained well. In part, it could be simply because the way you use them is not always intuitive. Another example that makes the game difficult to learn from the manual is that you can fail at one of the two tasks, or both, or succeed at both. Each have different outcomes that new players must figure out.
-The ending feels clunky. “We escaped with tons of artifacts! Aww, but we had one more injury than number of artifacts. I guess that invalidates our entire purpose of coming to Antarctica. Might as well throw these statues out the window…” What?! Yes this win-condition provides a mechanical solution to make the game challenging, but the story doesn’t make sense. In fact, what is the story to this game? What city is it that we’re going to? What does the pinnacle “Edge of Madness” tile represent? What’s happening when we succeed here? It's not strongly themed in the Lovecraft world beyond a few small ways. There’s a thematic disconnect, and it’s most apparent with the win condition.
-The tiles show the different types of rewards you gain from them, but you don’t get to see what they are until the timed phase of the game starts, so it doesn’t feel like you’re working towards something. It just feels like a mad dash to make the right combination of card values. Once players are done, they say “Oh, I could have looked at what the reward was. But I’m not wasting any of my percious 30 seconds to do it before we walk in circles and stop using verbs and avoid all forms of eye contact.”
-The game has a slight deckbuilding element to it, but the deck never really gets stronger. You just have to reshuffle it at some point. This leads to players having being stuck with some terrible hands of cards and seeing many of them for the majority of the game. While it is a game where everybody does get to contribute, some people can feel like they’re barely doing anything helpful.
-Several of the madness just don’t have the same oomph. For me, this is the driving mechanism of the game. Everything else is fine. The card value combinations makes for a slightly interesting cooperative experience that requires precise communication, but it’s not enough to pull the game. The madness cards are uneven: some of them are incredibly difficult to still even cooperate. Others are barely noticeable by other players, making the experience easier. It’s difficult because I simultaneously want the decks of curses to be thicker so there’s more variety, but I also recognize that some of them are just better than others, so adding 30-45 more curses would probably dillute the decks with less significant curses to endure.
-It’s really not for everybody. I find the game overall to be a funny, enjoyable experience, but it unfortunately checks a lot of boxes that people don’t want checked. Acting goofy. Lovecraft mythos. Real-time. Cooperative with speaking restrictions. There aren’t things everybody wants, and I recognize that. I would enjoy playing this one more, but I would have a hard time finding the group that it will fit perfectly well with.
-Lower side of middle. The game mechanisms themselves are only okay, and while I enjoy it, I’m not clamoring for the next time I get to play. The curses are where it’s at, but some will be easy to “solve” after a few plays, leading to “Oh, Jeremy has this one. He can only talk when I say ‘buggle bear’.” Still, it does something that hasn’t been seen before, so I think this would have a lot of success teaching to newer people, rather than playing it with the same gaming group repeatedly.
Who would it be good for:
-People who like real-time challenges. You must enjoy real-time, because if you don’t, this game will bother you to no end. I would warn you about Cthulhu burnout, but honestly, this game didn’t really feel thematic in that universe. Besides madness, there’s not really much that ties this to the Lovecraft mythos, so you need not worry about that. If you’re into cooperating with high levels of stress that you can find funny, good, try this one immediately. If all that sounds awful to you, I can promise you that it will be exactly that way for you.
-Now Boarding by Tim Fowers. This is another cooperative, real-time game with short bursts of timed rounds that require players to work together. Players must make as good of a plan as they can before starting the timed phase, revealing some new passengers, and carrying out actions on airliners to get passengers to their destinations before they explode in anger.
This game is good. But it’s not great. It has the potential to be great, but the thing that really brings it down for me is that ultimately, the engine of contributing cards to match values on a tile in 30 seconds is not that interesting. Due to the luck of the draw, you might not be able to do the tasks at all. I do love the thematic idea of going mad, but if it were implemented over a slightly more interesting engine, I think I would honestly love this game. It’s a lot of fun, but highly group dependent. If people aren’t buying into the silliness, then you’ll be anxious for it to be over so that you can play your typical cube-pushing, farming, eurogames where you don’t have to close your eyes every time the action phase begins. Seriously…playing cards with your eyes closed in 30 seconds is super hard! But if that sounds like the kind of funny, strategic party game you want to jump into, I really encourage you try it out. See if a convention, game store, game café, or friend have a copy available to try. It’s so unique that I want to reward it for trying something new. Maybe something else will be built on the ideas tried here that will speak to me more, but it was fun overall.
If you like this style of review, we follow a very similar format on your podcast, Meeple Overboard, and also enjoy gaming discussion and brief, non-gaming discussions every 30-minute episode on the show. Check us out at shoutengine.com/meepleoverboard. Have a great one.
Thanks. Your review has been extremely helpful.
I had reservations about the game and have now made my choice.
Thanks. Your review has been extremely helpful.
I had reservations about the game and have now made my choice.
I'm glad to be helpful. I'm guessing you're choosing not purchase it? But if you can find it available somewhere to try, I do recommend it's worth the experience. It's fun, but I know it's not going to fit in my collection, in part because Mysterium already fits that strategic-party game and has such beautiful art too.