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The works of H.P. Lovecraft have strong ties to tabletop gaming. Even if you don’t know his name, even if you’ve never heard of Cthulhu or Azathoth or Nyarlathotep, the Lovecraft mythos has spread its tendrils through so many forms of media that you’ve undoubtedly come across a game or a movie or comic book that can trace a direct influence to this author. His purview was the weird, the unknowable, and the downright maddening. Lovecraft submitted that there might be things in this world that are dangerous to know, and if learned could lead to outright insanity. This is why, with so many games out there devoted to Lovecraft’s works (Fantasy Flight alone has published several games with dozens of expansions) I find it strange that so few seem to really focus on this core tenet of his. Mountains of Madness by Iello, however, pulls this off beautifully.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore the ridiculousness of games like Eldritch Horror, but the concept of madness in those kinds of games don’t amount to much more than a secondary life meter, killing you off in a slightly different way if it hits zero. The characters in Lovecraft’s stories were not superheroes, they were simply people. Often they were people that were in over their head. With that in mind, the kinds of power fantasies that other games bring to the table don’t quite ring true for me. How does facing a literal god, shooting it in the face with a shotgun, and somehow winning (?!) make any sense in this world? Mountains of Madness gives you no illusions. If you make it out of this alive and with your mind intact, you will be doing so by the skin of your teeth.
Inspired by one of his most famous works At the Mountains of Madness, you and your friends are members of a scientific expedition to Antarctica. You work your way off the coast (where things are kinda weird), up the mountain (where things are getting weirder), through an ancient and alien city (where things are super weird), and atop the summit, a.k.a. the Edge of Madness (where things are actually pretty nice–just kidding they’re horrible) before attempting to fly away and escape. Each location you visit will involve a challenge, and the actual gameplay here is pretty simple.
You’ll all have a hand of cards representing different types of equipment (tools, books, weapons and crates), and each location will require a certain amount of some of that equipment. Once the tile is revealed you’ll have about 30 seconds to discuss what equipment you have and who is playing what. Then, when you’re ready, you play the cards face down in a pile. Most importantly, once anyone plays any cards, no one can speak until the time is up. If you came up with the right combination of cards for at least one of the challenges, then you get a reward. Mess up a challenge however, and you’ll have to take a penalty. This gets pretty frantic on its own, but things get even crazier when you start drawing madness cards.
These cards are the crux of the game. They’ll give you some kind of quirk that will affect your ability to communicate during encounters (those 30 seconds when you’re discussing what cards to play). At lower tiers these are pretty easy: things like speak with an accent or make everything sound like a question. The level two and level three madness cards are a completely different beast. You might have to keep your back turned from the rest of the group, only turning around to play cards, or maybe you’ll only be able to say yes or no. They’ll range from the difficult to the downright preposterous and they turn what starts as a straightforward task into a monumental achievement.
These cards are also what makes the game seem true to form. One round might have you speaking in rhymes asking if anyone has any weapons, the person to your right completely ignoring you in favor of the person to their right, who is standing ten feet away for some reason, and meanwhile the person to your left has just screamed and won’t say anything for the rest of the round. And the game specifically tells you that you cannot discuss what your madness card says, so you can’t ask for any sort of help dealing with it. If someone does bring up your unusual activities, the rulebook suggests you feign ignorance and proclaim to have no idea what they’re talking about.
Every time you fail a challenge you’ll have to choose whether to give someone a new madness card or roll the penalty die, which might lead to worse problems. Hearing that, you might think that the best way to play this game is to avoid going mad. That makes the challenges easier, which makes you less likely to fail them, which makes you less likely to go mad. Simple, right? Well, it’s easier said than done. The hitch is that the very thing that you’re searching for, those ancient relics, will immediately earn you a madness card if you find them. And this is the second point that aligns so well with Lovecraft. Like I said earlier, knowledge is dangerous in Lovecraft’s world. We think we need it, we certainly crave it, but it can do lasting harm to those who aren’t ready for it.
Mountains of Madness gets madness right. It’s such a simple idea – take an easy task and make it harder – but the execution is flawless. While you might never feel the kind of dread playing Mountains of Madness that a Lovecraft story might elicit, and the game doesn’t exactly follow the original book to the letter, you will genuinely feel like you’re starting to go mad. And that’s a more Lovecraftian experience than punching Cthulhu will ever be.
Do you know of any games that handle the Lovecraft mythos in a unique way? Let us know in the comments!
Want more board game goodness?
- Watch Becca’s How to Play Mountains of Madness video!
- Take a peek at the games we called the best of 2017.
- Check out the games we can’t wait to play this year!
Image credits: Shea Parker