Never before has the experience of walking into your school library and opening an interesting book been so treacherous. Unfortunately, you and your fellow wizard companions miscalculated the danger ahead as you decided to seek The Big Book of Madness in the college library and peer through its contents. You realised too late that the book was used as a prison for terrible monsters that became unshackled upon the book’s opening, and it’ll take a gargantuan co-operative effort for your party to strengthen your arsenal and learn new spells in order to defeat the oncoming threat and seal the book to ensure your sanity stays intact.
The Big Book of Madness is a co-operative game for 2-5 players which generally takes 60-90 minutes to play. Each player takes on the role of a brave yet naive wizard student of the Elementary College who is forced to master the power of the elements in order to survive the oncoming wrath bursting from the titular Big Book of Madness.
The game, designed by Maxime Rambourg, comprises of six rounds where monsters come forth to cause harm and plunge the players further towards insanity. By destroying a monster’s curses, players can triumph and gain considerable bonuses, and if they conquer the monster in the sixth and final round, victory is ensured. However, if curses are not dealt with, they can have serious repercussions and potentially create a losing scenario. They say it’s important not to judge a book by its cover, so let’s dive deep and note what this game has to offer.
A Novel Production
At first glance, you’ll notice that a great effort was made in the production and component design of The Big Book of Madness, and these elements are most definitely the game’s strongest assets. The colour palette utilises a mix of muted and vibrant colours that contrast well, and the art design stays true to the game’s juvenile theme with its mystical cartoon-style approach. The rules booklet is also well laid-out, with each page fittingly using backgrounds that have pages with the game’s monsters peering out of them.
The game even uses a miniature wooden tome to be used as a turn marker, along with a blue wooden hat for keeping track of the current round. The ‘book’ itself is represented by a variety of large Grimoire cards, with four cover pages and 12 interior pages to ensure you’re not facing the same monsters every time, and the final page which determines whether your party succeeds or fails in sealing the Big Book of Madness.
Each Grimoire card has its own unique monster design which adds to the excitement (or suspense) of seeing what the next page has to offer, and the game also includes eight player cards, each displaying their own character that specialises in a specific element type.
The Textbook Definition
The game can be played on three difficulties, with each difficulty determining the amount of curse cards that must be dealt with per round. Each player starts the game with four basic spells and a player card which serves as a support pool for storing cards that other players can use. These player cards come with their own special ability which can prove to be quite useful when the situation calls for it, and they also determine the player’s starting deck of Element cards.
Element cards come in four variants (water, fire, earth and air) that are each valued one to three, and they are used during a player’s turn to perform a variety of actions. Each round comprises of five turns; at the start of each round, the monster is summoned and an initial blow is dealt to all players, and multiple curse cards are placed on the board which have various disadvantages once the turn marker lands upon them.
The party needs to destroy all curse cards on the board before the fifth turn ends in order to defeat the monster, avoid further setbacks and obtain a bonus. During a player’s turn, they have the opportunity to play Element cards from their hand in order to do various actions, whether it be learning new spells, using spells to aid themselves or other party members or obtaining stronger value-two or value-three Element cards. Each element type has a Level one, two and three spell available to learn, with the later levels costing more to activate, and each player can possess a maximum of five spells.
Once a player has decided that they’ve completed enough actions, they draw/discard until they’ve six cards in hand and the turn is passed. At first it might seem like the best strategy is to use as many cards as possible during your turn as you’ll always have six cards in hand once you’re done, but the game counters this through Madness cards, which you’re forced to take every time your deck runs dry.
These cards clog up your hand when drawn and can be returned to the Madness deck by discarding Element cards, but they’re a constant source of danger for two reasons. If a player’s hand is nothing but Madness cards at the end of their turn, they’re immediately eliminated, and if the Madness deck runs out at any point, the entire party succumbs and loses the game. Some effects also let you put cards in your support pool, which can be a great benefit as other players can use Element cards placed there during their turn or even remove Madness cards for you.
Book Club Discussion
The Big Book of Madness presents interesting scenarios where you have to consider which action is appropriate for the given situation, and co-operating with your teammates is key as the spells you learn can greatly benefit them, primarily through card draw, giving them the cards they need or curing Madness cards. A great example of an action that promotes creative resolutions to difficult problems is the Telepathy spell which every player starts with, which lets a teammate do up to three actions on your turn depending on the Element cards you spend.
Need an Earth Element card to clear a curse? Activate Telepathy and have a player use a spell of their own to place one in their support pool for you. Being able to utilise the support pool in such a way is great for promoting communication regarding what each player needs to complete actions during their turn, as you may have exactly what a player needs to complete a critical action. Each individual action or spell isn’t overly complex by design, but it’s how these actions interact that create intriguing problems and clever solutions.
Since you can afford to lose to monsters for the first five rounds, it will often be worth considering not destroying all the curses on the board in order to build up momentum for future rounds. However, it can be easy to let this mentality take over, and you might not realise until too late that the accumulative downsides of curses are too much to bear for your party.
Madness cards are also interesting as they often punish players for drawing too many cards or not filling their deck with enough new Element cards, and there will be times where you need to play it safe and cure some Madness cards instead of clearing a curse or doing other important actions.
In terms of difficulty, while I would suggest to play a game on the lowest difficulty once to familiarise yourself with the rules, the game becomes significantly more interesting when played with the medium or hard difficulties, as the Madness cards tend to deplete faster and losing to the first five monsters on purpose becomes less and less of a viable strategy.
No game is perfect, and there are a couple aspects of The Big Book of Madness which may have an impact on your overall opinion, depending on personal preference. If you’re the type of person who likes to sleeve your board games, not only is there four different card sizes in the game, they’ll no longer fit in the box’s insert if you sleeve them, which is an unfortunate oversight. The larger cards, used for the player and Grimoire cards, are also prone to sliding around in the box unless the provided plastic sealable bag is used.
While the game allows for five players, it’s not particularly recommended, as it means that each player gets to take only one turn every round and it becomes more difficult to work together as a team. The game shines with three players, as this way only one player takes just a single turn during each round. While you won’t come across every curse during your first game, many of them happen to be pretty similar, and after 2-3 games they’ll begin to feel a little repetitive. This is also somewhat true for the spell cards; the game still comes with quite a variety in each element type, but they all tend to follow similar design patterns and the excitement of uncovering new spells wears off after a few plays.
The game does benefit in the replay-ability department if your playgroup is constantly changing however, as the teamwork dynamics tend to shift depending on the attitudes of your fellow party members. The deck-building aspect of constantly improving your Element cards and thinning out your deck is mainly there to support the game’s other mechanics, so while it’s perfectly serviceable, it’s definitely not a selling point of the game by any means.
Final Thoughts on The Big Book of Madness
Overall, The Big Book of Madness is a competently-designed game with great production quality that will most certainly impress while on the table, while also truly testing your playgroup’s co-operative skills. The game isn’t revolutionary by any means and stays true to many of the tropes of co-operative games, but the game’s style allows it to establish itself as a great option for those seeking a visually appealing game that emphasises teamwork above all else.