First Impressions: Mountains of Madness
from Rob Daviau
TL; DR: a real blast of a cooperative “exploration” game that messes with your mind. It might generate a lot of belly laughs. Or freak people out.
Theme: Explore an ancient city behind impassable mountains. Try to escape with your minds (somewhat) intact.
A Few Neat Things:
*good game concept that plays pretty quickly without lots of corner case rules
*high quality components including a little prop plane miniature
*clear rules with examples
*twisted little bits of the game design reinforcing the theme
*an excellent board game homage to Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”
Why Did I Buy It?
Friends were eyeing this for a while. It got good reviews. Someone almost bought it for a prior board gaming get together. But they didn’t. Due to a sudden and unfortunate last minute cancellation of both SeaFall and Charterstone, I picked it up on a whim on Saturday 10/20. We immediately played it twice. It’s a good game. As with all things vaguely Lovecraftian, things went terribly, terribly wrong. And funny.
Okay Lovecraft isn’t funny but using humor to deal with things traumatic is.
This is a board game of exploration, facing challenges, gathering relics and escaping the Mountains of Madness. All while players act out and role play insane characters trying to reach a decision to overcome challenges to get what they need to conclude the expedition. Fortunately, the insanity “discussion” is timed so it only lasts roughly 30 seconds. Unless the leader extends it.
Which sometimes you need. Especially after you start to play you think:
“Wow what an intense 30 seconds!”
“But we need more time!”
And the madness? The madness that *every* member of the expedition faces? Hilarious! Sometimes crippling, sometimes amusing, and often changing.
This is the genius part of the game. In true Lovecraftian fashion, you go insane and your madness increases. It’s woven into the rules. You can even get a higher level madness!
It may be wrong that sometimes this is desirable. It’s also funny.
The interactions were where it really got good. I wish I could share. You just had to be there -oops you couldn’t be – I’m sorry let me say it was delightful. The memories will still echo in our minds for years to be trotted out at opportune, if not embarrassing moments (for some).
Mechanically, you move across a board holding Challenge tiles that you have to overcome to advance or just explore with. Players have hands of Equipment cards that you have to use to overcome the Challenges. You do so by trying to coordinate resources when you reveal the Challenge. You only have 30 seconds to hold the discussion though! While that timer sand runs, everyone acts out their assigned Level 1, 2 or 3 Madness. (I can’t even describe how zany this got.)
There’s an interesting Leader mechanic that provides tokens to allow you to suppress, extend, avoid or ameliorate certain parts of the game. The Leader changes every round too. I liked this part. It made you think as a group how to try to beat the game. It also put everyone in charge. Briefly.
The goal is to return with enough Relics that your Expedition is a success. But if you have too many accumulated Injuries(an otherwise useless card added into your Equipment deck) once you escape, it’s not a success. Your characters might be denied tenure or worse. Figuring out how to beat the Challenges and escape was, well, challenging. There’s also a slight twist* in the components – an evil twist – that added to the difficulty. Also, we got the Challenge rules slightly wrong, which led to an unfortunate feeling that the game was too hard after we played it twice. Yet for all that, everyone had a lot of laughs, and most of us agreed we’d play it again.
The Rule We Missed:
Since this was an impulse buy, there really wasn’t time to watch a playthrough. Which, amusingly enough, was not really available to our gaming group for, say 35-40 years of board gaming.
My friends and I have been playing board games for about 42 years apiece. (We all started around ages 8-12.) Six of us played the game that evening with some slight rotation of players. Our designated reader (Lisa) went through the document carefully. We’re good, thorough game players who read all the rules out loud at the table before we started. We make sure/made sure as a group that we understood each section and the components as we went. So we thought.
Of course, actual play is where you find out how the game really works. Usually there’s one rule you don’t get quite right until you play the game repeatedly. This one rule was a little bigger than most.
We missed it. Someone (Kevin) who was waffling about playing again admitted that he’d now consider trying another session after Allen found the error.
What was it?
Resolution Phase > Overcoming a Challenge > Success
“If you successfully overcome at least one of the Challenges on the Encounter tile, you gain the reward shown on the bottom right corner of the tile.”
We didn’t get those rewards the first two times playing through because we interpreted it to mean that you had to win both challenges. In fact, we only fully succeeded on both Challenges with three Challenge tiles in two game sessions. So we lost big time with that error.
With the real rule in play though, it will make a difference. It felt harder to beat Mountains of Madness than Pandemic on hard mode. Now it should be accomplishable – we think.
Rules aside, the best part of the game was the Madness. For me. Okay the expression of madness. It’s too funny when there are simultaneous interpretations of insanity that so throw off a player that it’s disturbing. I don’t want to spoil this part of the game too much. Let’s just say that there are cards that distribute certain traits that you roleplay when you’re coordinating resources. Two of them collided in one moment. After the game ended, we couldn’t stop laughing while recapping the crazy things that happened. That’s a hallmark of a really good game in my book.
The Odd Side Note
And here’s another amusing part. There were blank Madness cards meant for you to be able to write your own. (We’re going to!) However, they weren’t well explained in the rules. When two of us got dealt them in the first game, we interpreted them! We didn’t just think “huh what does this mean?” We didn’t go back to the rules since we’d already read them.
My friends and I? We’re creative. We invented what that Madness was. Confirmed it with our independent monitor and second round player Viola. I chose snow blindness. My character thought he was snowblind and couldn’t see anything – so of course I couldn’t see which Equipment cards I was handing over. Andrew – a literalist – interpreted the lack of text to mean a moment where an insane person thought they were sane. Brilliant!
Worth a play or several. Definitely better, as my friend Andrew noted, toward the end of a gaming day when everyone is punchy and not up for games with too many crunchy rules anyway. Nevertheless, no matter what you do, that way lies madness. Of a good natured, belly laugh sort.
And please report back even if you’re in Bedlam.
*SPOILER & WARNING FOR VISION DIFFICULTIES
There is a part of the game that’s evil. Evil as in “gawdamnit you fooled me!” It also will be difficult, possibly frustrating for anyone with bad vision, color blindness, nystagmus, etc. If you have a concern about a vision issue, read on please.
Challenge tiles for different board sections have two (later three) different Challenges printed on them consisting of a number and a visual symbol. The symbols are a gun (in green), books (blue), tools (yellow) and crates (red). The higher up the Mountain you go, the more difficult the Challenges. Makes sense right? Except, apparently to increase the difficulty along with perceptions of increasing insanity, the higher tiles change the color of all the symbols. So books are, for example, no longer blue. Then there are three Escape tiles that are played after the plane “launches” to escape the continent. Those have three Challenges printed. The colors are gone – it’s just an outline – of the symbol, and it’s distorted…
Talk about insanity. That way lies madness, and not of a roleplay type.