There are certain lines drawn between what might be called “casual” games and “serious” games – the latter being the type of thing you come to after having had some caffeine and with a readiness to bust your brain plotting out the most effective way to move little pieces around to accumulate points, and the former being, well, charades.
Mountains of Madness attempts to bridge this divide with a wonderful setting and, more or less, succeeds in doing so. You and your pals, up to 5, are a troop of people who’ve chosen the right place to dig for alien relics – a mountain full of mysterious auras that will slowly drive everyone insane. In most games, the insanity would act as some sort of points mechanic, or an obstacle that affects your pieces in some way. Not here, no. The madness truly infects you, the player, pushing you to do things like spin around or keep your cards at a distance or even leave the room at certain points. As the game requires intense communication, much of the madness that afflicts you interferes with your ability to tell everyone else what supplies you happen to have. This, of course, leads to frantic guesses and held breath as the donated supplies are revealed to see if your group survived, or better yet, if you’ve found something.
And Finding Something is, indeed, the goal of the game. Namely, you have to find a certain number of things before you all go insane or succumb to nasty injuries. In the games I’ve played, it’s usually the injuries that win out in the end after we’ve spent too long driving ourselves nutty on the mountain slopes. But because the outcome, due to randomized tile placements and a vicious die, is never certain, it’s not like other cooperative games where you know you’ve lost well before the last piece falls. You’re all in it to the very end, and escaping the mountain alive, even if you failed to get enough relics, counts as something of an achievement.
The game also contains a number of clever mechanisms to make sure everyone gets their moment to shine, like a rotating “leader” marker that forces a different player to make key decisions every round. This keeps the affair from being “quarterbacked” by one spirited soul who believes they know exactly where to go. There’s also a good chance that you’ll be useless on a given challenge, and being forced to rely on your insane friends to see the group through is all kinds of fun. Lastly, because the whole group moves as one, there’s no real downtime. Phones don’t come out, people don’t wander off to check the game on the TV or hunt for snacks. Once you start climbing the mountain, you’re invested till the end (which isn’t all that long).
So is there anything that doesn’t work?
I’d say two things:
There are some madness cards that aren’t all that fun, and because these specifically don’t hamper your communication abilities, they feel more like an annoyance than something goofy. Ideally, everyone should be laughing as they try to overcome every challenge. From what I’ve seen, these “dull” madness cards aren’t game breakers and, as there are many, many madness cards, could even be removed as you find them and the game would carry on just fine.
The tile layout of the mountain changes every time you play. This is mostly a good thing, though it does mean that it’s very easy to happen upon challenges at inopportune times, where rewards actually get you nothing and you’re just trying to succeed in order to, well, not fail. It’s not all that fun to throw a bunch of cards down and see that you’ve gained an award that does nothing just because certain cards didn’t happen to shuffle their way to the top. Once in a game might be fine, but when it happens three or more times, that’s a lot of meh moments to suffer through.
Still! You won’t be suffering long because the game moves fast, and you’ll quickly be on to the next challenge, wondering if your eyes haven’t started deceiving you and glancing askance at your colleague who’s just started talking nonsense. For these mountains are mad, and they’re fun, no matter if you’re hardcore board gamers or no.