11th Jul2018

‘Mountains of Madness’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

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Of all the themes in board gaming, one of the most popular to emerge in the past few years is undoubtedly that of the Lovecraftian world of Cthulhu and his demonic/fish creature minions. From Mansions of Madness to Pandemic: Cthulhu, this theme commonly explores the border between what is real and what isn’t, with the increasing madness of the hero characters often at the centre of any game play loop. In Mountains of Madness, the idea of increasingly odd behavior as the result of dark influences is taken to the next level, with players expected to act out the madness effects that afflict them.

Primarily a party game, Mountains of Madness combines a basic party movement mechanic and occasional dice rolling with real time hand management and objective resolution, mostly with great success. The game is played on a large, attractive board that is easy to setup thanks to very clear, attractive labeling on all of the decks of cards as well as the tokens that are placed on the board. These tokens are sorted into clearly marked areas and placed randomly on the board – a few will be returned to the box in each game.

There are also randomized equipment cards, as well as a stack of relic cards, a stack of injury cards and three tiered madness decks, the latter of which are randomised and placed face down. Depending on player count, each player will be dealt a number of equipment cards and potentially, a starting madness card. The first player is passed a cardboard sled and a stack of leadership tokens, which are made from chunky plastic in the style of poker chips. This player is the leader for the current turn, and she will have a deciding say in any disputes for the current turn.

Actual game play in Mountains of Madness is deceptively simple. The current leader takes the nicely crafted airplane model and places it onto any coastal space (for the first turn) or any space adjacent to the space currently occupied on the following turns. The objective of the game is to reach the top of the mountain whilst both avoiding injury and simultaneously collecting relic cards. The balance of relic cards minus injury cards determines the players final score, with scores like zero (or less) up to about three representing either failure or a mediocre outcome and scores above four resulting in success of varying degrees – right up to the nearly impossible score of eleven.

Let’s not get carried away however, because Mountains of Madness contains lots of outright failure situations that can occur relatively quickly. Most of these situations relate to the loss of leadership tokens or the cumulative effect of receiving too many injuries. The party will likely end up accruing injuries and madness cards as the result of facing challenges, which are printed on the back of every token on the board (and on the board itself, should a space ever be revisited after the token is removed.) Challenges represent the real meat of Mountains of Madness, so I’ll explain them in a bit of detail.

When the leader moves the plane to a new location, she picks up the token and places it face down in front of her. As soon as she flips it, she also starts the sand timer that comes bundled with the game. The players then have thirty seconds to discuss how they will meet the challenge by placing their equipment cards in a shared pile on the leaders sledge. Each token has a number of coloured challenges relating to equipment of four kinds. Players must cumulatively place cards worth a value that is equal within the range shown – for example, a token might ask that players achieve between seven and nine points of weapon cards.

Successfully meeting any one of the requirements will yield the bonus shown on the token (for example a specimen, or an opportunity to heal an injury) whilst any failure will result in one of the players (chosen by the leader) having to take a madness card. On that note, completing these challenges would be relatively easy were it not for the fact that madness cards affect the players whilst going through the challenge process. As a party game, it can be quite a laugh forcing players to hum any communication, or to skip certain words whilst trying to be effective. Mechanically, there are a few cards that go a little bit too far into the realms of nonsense, but basically they are an effective way of making the game progressively more difficult as the players ascend the mountain.

To counteract some of the negative effects of the madness cards, the current leader can spend a leader token to activate one of several abilities from their own character card. Unfortunately, as the players pick up relics, they must also begin to blur out their abilities one by one. The cumulative impact of obtaining madness cards (or higher level ones) at the same time as losing access to player powers makes the experience tense, but watching the pile of leader tokens and the injury deck wither away really amps things up - Mountains of Madness can be as as stressful as it can be funny and exciting, which makes for a fairly unique combination.

Mountains of Madness is a game that occupies a slightly weird space, in that it is definitely a party game, but it’s also relatively heavy compared to most of the games that occupy that space. It offers a strange blend of slapstick player behaviour with a heavy theme and quite a challenging experience. It’s hard to know whether it’s more rewarding to succeed (and play seriously) or fail and have more fun doing it. The game is well presented and easy to setup, with decent levels of randomisation due to the way that tiles are placed randomly (and because some are not drawn at all) and because of the use of multiple decks of cards. You will see recurring madness cards from one game to another, but it won’t happen as commonly as you might think due to the way that madness escalates from one tier to the next.

As a slightly heavier party game for three or more players (three is the minimum count, which is a shame) then I don’t think you can go far wrong with Mountains of Madness. In addition to the random aspects and numerous ways to lose that I’ve already mentioned, there is also a strategic edge around winning the game based on how you choose to tackle the mountain. Do you go directly upwards and shoot for a quick finish, hoping to pick up a few relics on the way whilst avoiding injury, or do you take a slower route, ensuring lots of relics but perhaps introducing more risk?

I think that what makes Mountains of Madness such a viable option is the fact that it does play in a few different ways – either casually or as a more serious proposition. It also appeals to fans of both the Cthulhu mythos as well as those who don’t know anything about it, which is unusual. Arguably, on the downside, the theme is a little bit watery as a result, but I personally don’t think that the game suffers as a result of that really – no one is really going to care about why they have to keep their hand on their head, as long as they do it! As a result of the flexibility and ease of play, I recommend Mountains of Madness more highly than I thought I would.

**** 4/5

A copy of Mountains of Madness was supplied for review by Iello France.

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