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Sanity is more than a number in Mountains of Madness

The new must-have party game from the co-designer of Pandemic: Legacy

A pyramid of cards sits face down on the game board representing the mountain itself. A sand timer sits to one side.
The player party in Mountains of Madness is represented by a miniature airplane.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Our team of Antarctic explorers had just left the relative safety of the coast to venture into the mountains when things got weird. I asked who had the weapons we needed to face the challenge and the player to my left screamed and then went mute. Another player slid onto the floor and curled a finger over her lip like a fake mustache. That was the only way she could get the player to my right to acknowledge her. Doing basic math in that chaos was proving difficult.

As the sand timer ticked down, the last of our 30 seconds, my team slammed their contributions onto the sled in front of me. I wondered just how badly we'd messed up.

Welcome to Iello’s Mountains of Madness, which designer Rob Daviau describes as “a Cthulhu game where the players feel crazy, not the characters.” The co-designer of Pandemic: Legacy was hired by Iello to develop a game based on the H.P. Lovecraft novel of the same name, but wasn’t sure how he’d differentiate it from the many other games based on the Cthulhu mythos. He’d been planning on using familiar mechanics like managing supplies and coping with cold. But he was inspired to try something new by his experiences working as a project manager coordinating employees in Montreal, Germany and China who all spoke English as a second language.

“We could talk and I would be very, in my mind, clear of what we were going to do and then two days later no one had done anything I had talked about,” he said. “I said ‘This is what it’s like to go insane.’ You’re talking and everyone agrees but everyone's agreeing to something separate and you don’t know what reality is anymore.”

Daviau threw out his original concept for Mountains of Madness and instead developed a strategic party game about communication. A group of three to five players work together by pooling cards representing four basic resources. Cards placed face down on the mountain require that they accumulate 10 or 12 books along with nine tools to succeed. Teams can fail by just not having drawn the right cards, but most of the challenge comes from dealing with the fact that your group is quickly going insane.

Play with five people and everyone starts with a Madness Card. Cards indicate some sort of tick the explorer has developed during the expedition, which only manifests during the stressful Encounter Phase, during which the team has 30 seconds to meet their tile’s goals. I spent the time scratching my head to deal with bugs I was hallucinating. Another player was a cheerleader and had to give high fives to all the other players as soon as the timer started.

Success meant accumulating resources that could make future goals easier or collecting specimens and knowledge needed to win the game. Those latter two come with a price, forcing the player holding them to trade up to a higher level of madness. Fail to meet one or more of the tile’s objectives and you’re forced to roll a die of maladies that include hurting your score or sacrificing tokens that could otherwise let you take helpful actions, like getting an extra 30 seconds during the Encounter Phase.

A pile of value ten cards, including an Elder sign, an alien device and the Necronomicon.
Players will collect items throughout the game to keep in their hand. High-level challenges will require exotic materials.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Players take turns acting as leader, deciding what tile to flip and how to use resources, and trying to wrangle their fellow players into completing the objective. Daviau said that although he’s come to learn that he's a better game designer than a project manager, he's still not sure what the best strategies are for leading a team through the Mountains of Madness.

“Some people are like dictators,” he said. “They say ‘I’m going to talk, don’t talk,’ and they just point to you and that sometimes works, but you run out of time if they're dealing with everyone’s insanity one at a time. Some people don’t lead at all and that can be very chaotic. I discovered that often the worst team members are the married couples.”

If you don’t think you can handle the downsides of the die roll, you can opt to upgrade your madness. That might seem like the right decision, until you start having to cope with level two and three madness cards which go from distractions to serious impediments to coordination.

In one game a player was “super shy,” meaning he would only share his cards if everyone else was closing their eyes. More than once that caused people to mess up what cards they put in. Late in my first game I was unable to say what values or types of cards I had in my hand and could only share their proper names like “pencils” or “dogs,” titles that the rest of the group had long ago tuned out as irrelevant fluff. Players aren’t allowed to discuss their own madness, though there’s a lot of groaning when particularly nasty ones get drawn. It’s up to the rest of the party to figure out what they need to do to communicate and that takes precious seconds off the timer. It also makes Mountains of Madness almost as much fun to watch as it is to play.

A group of explorers walks over an ice bridge into an alien chamber.
Work in progress cover art for Mountains of Madness.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

“You’re spending so much time trying to figure out what they’re doing that you’re not paying attention to what’s being said or everyone's ignoring everyone else and just talking and then don't realize that no one else can actually communicate,” Daviau said. “Either way, you’re not getting done the very simple thing of figuring out how do we get two cards to add up to seven. As you go up, it just gets more and more confusing.”

While the madness cards are the game’s most significant mechanic, there are a few brilliant design choices that add to the theme. Daviau said he made the resource cards valued at two to six instead of one to five because it would be more confusing. As players ascend the mountain, the colors and shapes of the various resource symbols start to shift, the text appears on different parts of the cards and even the formatting of the requests change. At the peak, dubbed the Edge of Madness, you might struggle to figure out what you need by staring at the blurry, rainbow-colored images of a gun, book and set of tools printed at weird angles.

“I tried to make everything feel not comfortable,” Daviau said. “I want players to get to the end and say ‘What just happened?’”

Mountains of Madness costs $39.99 and will be available in October.

Polygon was on the floor at the 50th annual Gen Con tabletop gaming convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can find all our stories here as they go live throughout this week.

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