H.P. Lovecraft’s universe of horrifying monsters and Arkham, Missouri-based adventures is possibly the most popular theme that board games draw inspiration from in order to craft conflict and challenge. From the classic Arkham Horror to the humorous and knowing “Obligatory Cthlulhu Expansion” for Smash-Up, it seems that every corner of this universe has been explored. Is there really room for yet another game of Madness?
If you don’t think so, you might want to read on. This may not go the way you think.
How It Plays
Despite the ominous name, Mountains of Madness is almost more of a party game than anything else.
Your goal is to escape from the Mountains of Madness while fighting off madness and injury. It’s a cooperative game, and everyone must work together if you hope to survive. In order to escape, you’ll need to explore the mountain and collect relics, then reach the mountain peak and escape safely.
The mountain is made up of tiles, and each tile has on it a challenge and some potential rewards. The core aspects of gameplay lie in these challenges.
In order to complete the challenges, you’ll have to play cards from your hands, as a group. You’ll be given a target number (or numbers) or a range for two of the four symbols, and your totals must fall within the listed range. The first catch is you only have 30 seconds once the tile is flipped to communicate with your teammates and determine which cards each player should play, if any. As soon as a single card is played on the table, everyone must go silent.
The second catch is that everyone has a Madness – sort of like an inverse player ability – during those 30 seconds. These Madnesses force players to behave a certain way, ranging from mild (speak in a foreign accent!) to absurd (if someone says the word “tool” you have to scream and stop talking for the remainder of the challenge). Madnesses come in 3 levels, and typically the higher the level, the more they interfere with communication.
Completing at least one of the tasks in a challenge nets you the reward – often those useful relics, but also healing, scouting, and other abilities – while failing a challenge penalizes your team and pushes you closer to the edge of insanity.
As the game progresses, the challenges become more difficult. The number ranges become tighter, and the tiles mess with your perception by changing up the color of the icons. That’s on top of the increased level of madness, and some other effects.
Eventually, you’ll reach the Edge of Madness, and if you’re still alive you’ll have to face 3 Escape challenges to leave the mountain. Even then, you can only claim victory if you have collected more relics than you have injuries in your equipment deck. A scoreboard tells you how well you performed – or perhaps better said, how much horror you avoided.
Good luck out there. I hope you can escape the Mountains of Madness. But it’s unlikely you’ll make it back without some scars.
Who Thought Lovecraft Could Be So Silly?
If you’re like me, you might’ve tried to overlook Mountains of Madness. There’s certainly no shortage of Madness games, and even if you enjoy the theme you might wonder what possibly could be new about this iteration. More unspeakable horrors, more sanity tracks, more nearly-impossible-to-win scenarios?
But even if you’re tired of Cthlulhu, even if you were never interested in Lovecraft in the first place, you might consider giving Mountains of Madness a try. As it turns out, it is quite different than I expected. In fact, what convinced me to try it out in the first place was my friend describing it as a “Lovecraftian party game” – and while it has a bit more complexity than your average party game, the descriptor is not far off.
This is a game that centers on communication. The actual challenges are not difficult, even under time pressure, as long as you communicate with the other players and actually work together. Unfortunately, even without Madnesses in play, the communicating part is difficult. In fact, when I teach new players I usually do a practice round of the 30-second challenge with no madnesses in play and no actual stakes so people can start to see what is required. The first time around is usually a train wreck, but it’s enough to get things to “click,” or at least start to.
In most game groups, this will be a solvable problem. Players have to figure out that they must be assertive and clear – not just shouting they can play cards, but stating numbers and colors specifically. You’ve got to learn to trust each other and listen to what the others are saying, because more often than not you’ll have plenty of cards to meet the challenge, but you can’t just throw every card on the table. Many rounds have been lost thanks to someone either ignoring or just missing a directive and blasting the total way higher than it needed to be. You’ve got to figure things out, and since time is limited and everyone has their own hand of cards, you can’t rely on one person telling everyone else what to do. Everyone’s got to step up, and to that end if you have a more timid player you may need to encourage them to speak up. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or clarify numbers or call someone to focus.
All this is before you mix in the madnesses. These are inverse player powers; things that hinder communication, upping the difficulty of resolving each challenge. The simplest things can be distracting; even perhaps the easiest madness to deal with, speaking in a foreign accent. But these madnesses range from something that straightforward to things more silly or even devious – only speaking when asked a question, for example, or when making eye contact. I’ve had to give everyone high-fives at the start of a round, and I’ve had to yell everything I say – both troublesome in their own unique way.
Thinking of this game as a party game is the probably the best way to present it to a new group. Though there are definitely levels of strategy and cooperation required, the silliness factor has a big effect on the experience. The game looks incredibly serious, from the somber box cover to the atmosphere in every aspect of the graphic design. If you’re in the mindset for a serious strategy game, the goofy madnesses could really throw you off.
You definitely want people to loosen up for this game. It’s more fun when people are throwing themselves into their parts. Most of the madnesses are pretty innocuous, although a few might push some player’s comfort zones. You can always pull the worst cards (I’m not a huge fan of the face-petting one myself), and a few blank cards are thrown in so you can make up your own. All that being said, if you’ve got players who aren’t ready to do a little improv or be a little silly, you may want to look elsewhere for a co-op.
At the same time, this isn’t just a silly party game all about being goofy. There’s plenty of strategy and a wide learning curve you’ll need to climb in order to get good at the game. Losing doesn’t prevent you from having fun, but as you grow familiar with the madnesses in play and the more efficient ways to explore, you’ll improve your score. Some of the madnesses function on specific game knowledge – such as using the names of the characters, or the titles of the cards instead of the values – and those are pretty challenging to deal with until you’re aware of what’s required to deal with them. Your communication skills will also improve – knowing what numbers to say quickly, knowing what to listen for, knowing what to look for on the table – especially within a particular group, and if they don’t you have the wrong group for this game.
This game’s biggest challenge to overcome is the odd mix of serious tone and strategic gameplay with the overlay of complete goofiness. I enjoy it, as does my gaming group, but I could see how the mix would fall flat for players who lean one way or the other.
I also think there’s a question of longevity. I’ve played a half-dozen times or so and enjoyed myself each time, but I could see the entertainment value wearing thin after a few more plays. I don’t know if it will sit on my shelf for the occassional play, or if it’ll move on to a new owner once my group has mastered it in another couple plays. That’s okay with me; not every game has to be played again and again. As for this one, I think it’s worth it while it lasts.
What it provides is a unique experience, a fun party-ish game with strategy, a challenging co-op that truly requires everyone to work together to succeed. Lovecraftian themes may be overdone in the board game industry, but this game provides a new and clever twist that’s worth checking out, even if you’re not a Lovecraft fan.