1931: Your scientific expedition discovers a new and intriguing mountain range in the middle of the Antarctic polar circle. Under these challenging conditions, the survival of your team will depend on your ability to communicate with each other and to coordinate your efforts to overcome each obstacle but what you discover on the way to the highest peak will strongly test your mental health. Will you even be able to understand yourself despite the madness that gradually insinuates itself into your mind?
Based on the novel by H. P. Lovecraft, Mountains of Madness is a fully cooperative game with a pinch of real-time gameplay.
As our expedition to the Mountains of Madness approaches, I can’t help but feel dread. If the tales are true, terrible conditions and mind-rending creatures lie between us and the discovery of the century.
So reads the scarred leather journal that appeared on my coffee table when I sat down to review Mountains of Madness, the Lovecraft-inspired co-op board game from IELLO. Or maybe it was always there. All I know for certain is if you get through Lovecraftian games like a ghoul through a graveyard, you’ll enjoy the fresh feeling of playing a non-Fantasy Flight property. You might however wish for a bit more depth in what can feel like a slightly too complex party game. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
To win the game, which has been designed by Rob Daviau, your band of merry madmen must find more Relics than they have Injury cards by the end of the game, and escape from the mountain. Relics are found by trekking across the board and tackling challenges, though the Relics themselves can drive players deeper into madness and impose permanent penalties on a player.
A Beautiful Madness
We unloaded our supplies onto the hard-packed snow of our camp. The full moon gave our untested equipment an ethereal luminescence, that was almost beautiful enough to distract from the biting wind and its whispered words.
Upon opening the Mountains of Madness box you’ll be hit by the stark white plastic tray, a good fit for the snowy scenery and the components, that all have their own space. Made with chunky cardboard, plastic and wood (in the case of the sand timer), they have beautiful consistent artwork and for the most part are satisfyingly solid (though my aeroplane figurine snapped off at the base, hopefully not a common occurrence).
Of particular note are the five double-sided player boards, with a male and female variant on either side with an appropriate portrait and name. All characters play the same, but it’s refreshing to see some extra attention in an area most developers might not have considered.
Those tired of the Mythos games’ typically dark and gritty aesthetics will be pleased with the lighter art style throughout. This extends to the beautifully detailed board, prominently featuring a sunset on an ancient city on top of the titular mountain. It’s not just a pretty face though. Nearly every component has a designated spot on the board, even the sand timer, which will be the source of much drama as you play.
Starting the Ascent
Cresting the snowbank we were confronted with a sheer wall of ice, and the stark realisation we would have to risk our lives to proceed. As I grabbed axes and pitons from our sled, my already unhinged companions descended deeper into complete lunacy.
Once everything’s in place, you’ll draw a number of Equipment and Madness cards depending on how many potential lunatics are playing. Your designated Leader takes the Sled board and Leadership tokens – in game presumably you’re in charge of mushing those huskies. The Leader then places the aeroplane token on any bottom-row tile, subject to discussion if they’re feeling democratic. They have ultimate authority on any decision though.
You’ll then start the Encounter phase by turning over the sand timer and the tile your plane is on. In later phases, you may instead face the challenge on the board itself if you’ve already faced the tile challenge. For this, your team plays Equipment cards to the sled to meet the value and suit shown before the timer runs out. You can even talk about your cards as much as you like until the first one hits the sled. Sounds easy, right?
Madness cards are the slick ice to this simple climb. Each one dictates a behaviour you must do when the sand timer is running. Perhaps you must face away from the table. Or repeat yourself. Or high-five everyone. Or repeat yourself. Failing to do this means the group loses a Leadership token. Run out of those, and you lose the game.
The only way around a Madness is for the Leader to spend a token per player to have them ignore it. They can do this whether the other players agree or not. And of course, every time this happens you get closer to losing the game.
Leadership tokens are also used for other abilities, like restarting the Encounter phase or refreshing cards. Seeing your Leader fritter away this dwindling supply is likely to drive you literally mad. But don’t worry, at the end of the round the Leader position rotates so everyone has a chance to move the plane and disappoint their friends.
Failing a challenge means a player chosen by the Leader either draws the next level of Madness card (going all the way to level three and getting more disruptive each time), or rolls the Penalty die. This could result in discarding cards, diluting your card supply with Injury cards, or again, discarding Leadership tokens!
Winning a challenge could mean healing an injury, looking at an undiscovered tile, or drawing a Relic card and getting closer to victory. Of course, this is a Cthulhu game. A Relic can also permanently stunt your abilities as a Leader or drive you further into madness.
If you’re very lucky you might find enough Relics to win the game, reach the summit of the mountain, and escape with the other inmates in your aerial asylum.
The Journey Home - Final Thoughts on Mountains of Madness
I sat on the hard, wooden bench in the rear of the plane, surrounded by the arcane artefacts we stole from that mountain. But for everything we took, we left a bit of ourselves in that ancient place. Even now, I could feel something eating away at me in the deepest recesses of my psyche.
I’d recommend Mountains of Madness to anyone who likes the Lovecraftian theme and has friends willing to get a little silly. The role-playing and social gamers amongst you will enjoy the various Madness cards and relatively simple mechanics that power the game. It’s fun to play and wonderfully mixes the daft with inevitable doom. It’s also a lot more casual than most other games based on Lovecraft’s work.
That said, set-up and gameplay is more complex than most other social games, and may disappoint people looking for a certain level of grimdark complexity. If your group isn't the most confident they may struggle to engage as the game needs. At least one person also must be willing to be ‘that guy’ and rules-lawyer discarding Leadership tokens as appropriate, which can drain the fun from a game quickly, or if no one’s willing to do it then make the game quite trivial.
Mountains of Madness won’t be the first thing I grab when friends are over, but for a certain bunch of Shoggoth lovers this will entertain even as it drives you mad.