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Mountains of Madness

Game designer Rob Daviau can boast sole or shared design credits on a long string of top-selling board games. He was responsible for the literally game-changing Legacy version of Risk (Hasbro) and the even more successful Legacy versions of Pandemic (Z-Man). Co-designed with Matt Leacock, Pandemic Legacy Season 1 (PLS1) was a massive success and has generated an entirely new category of board games. That said, Rob Daviau’s involvement hasn’t proved always to be a guarantee of success. After PLS1, many bought Seafall (IronWall Games) with high hopes only later to dismiss this competitive legacy game as a disappointment. And so it was with tempered excitement that I approached Mountains of Madness, published by IELLO and distributed in the UK by Coiledspring Games.

Mountains of Madness is a fully co-operative game for 3–5 where players are members of an expedition trying to survive and escape having together collected more relics than injuries. The expedition party is represented by an airplane that advances along the randomly placed tiles. Players each have a small hand of cards drawn from a deck with values 2 to 6 in four suits. Players cannot show each other which cards they have in their hand.

Each turn, the tile that the plane moves to is flipped to reveal that tile’s challenge. This will specify the total value of cards that need to be contributed to each of two suits in order to meet the challenge. For some challenges, the value specified will be a range (say, 7–9) but for others the value is a precise number. Players then contribute cards from their hands with the aim of collectively meeting that challenge. If they succeed in meeting at least one of the two challenges on a tile, they collect a reward; for every challenge they fail, they suffer the penalty indicated by rolling a custom die. One of the party will also draw a Madness card…

If you are an aficionado of the stories of H P Lovecraft, you’ll have been expecting from the name of the game that insanity would be making an appearance. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu has become almost as ubiquitous as zombies as a board game theme. In this game, we don’t really encounter the pantheon of demonic other world entities, but we do encounter Madness.

The mechanic of contributing cards to meet a specified target sounds mundane and trivially easy until you take into account the conditions under which the players have to operate. The problem is, players have only the 30 seconds it takes for the sand to trickle through an hourglass in which to communicate whether and the extent to which they can each contribute cards to the challenge. That’s quite tough, given that players aren’t allowed to actually show their cards. The Madness cards make this task very challenging indeed. When a player has a Madness card, they don’t reveal its contents but they have to follow its directions during that tight 30 seconds of communication time. In effect, the Madness handicaps that player.

There are 60 different Madness cards, plus blanks to encourage you to make some more of your own. Some are only slightly distracting; for example, ‘Too Quiet in Here’ requires the player to yell while speaking. Others, however, really burn into the time available. For example, ‘Working Together’ requires the player to shake all the other players’ hands at the start of the sand timer. Many of the Madness cards introduce elements of silliness of the kind you might typically expect to see in a party game and you probably wouldn’t be expecting in a Lovecraft-themed co-operative. Even when you’ve played this game a few times so that the Madness effects no longer come as a surprise, it is no less exasperating to deal during the incredibly short 30-second phase with, for example, a character who always answers in the affirmative any question that can be answered yes or no.

There’s other stuff involving leadership tokens (expended to buy penalty die re-rolls or an extra 30 seconds on the sand timer) but it’s the role-playing and dealing with the Madness cards that’s at the heart of this game. That makes this a much lighter game, both in terms of play and feel, than you might otherwise expect from the title, Miguel Coimbra artwork and theme.

Mountains of Madness can be played in less than an hour and it’s great fun, if sometimes frustrating, just don’t expect it to be another Eldritch Horror. You can play it as a family game and it's not hard to find a timer app that you can substitute for the sand timer if you find you all get too engrossed in coping with each other's Madness to notice when the sand has run out or if you feel the need to tweak the timer and permit yourselves a slightly less manic 45 seconds.

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