The Big Book of Madness | Designer: Maxime Rambourg | Artist: Naïade | Publisher: IELLO | Category: Cooperative, Deck-building | Players: 2-5 | Year: 2015
Whether we talk about the many otherworldly terrors of Arkham Horror, the huge boss miniatures in Dark Souls, or the plethora of colourful kaijū from IELLO’s own King of Tokyo, it’s clear that giant monsters are getting increasingly popular in board games. And whilst I would hesitate to label The Big Book of Madness as IELLO’s first foray into the Cthulhu mythos (which is also pretty hot at the moment), the hallmark themes of insanity and giant tentacled horrors from beyond are certainly present and correct.
Combining a light-hearted slice of horror with that of a deck-building card game is a premise not entirely dissimilar from an earlier release titled Miskatonic School for Girls, but rather than a competitive card game, The Big Book of Madness is a cooperative experience where players either succeed or fail as a team. Cooperative deck-builders are a rarer breed than their competitive cousins, though between this release and the popularity of Aeon’s End and the Legendary franchise, it would seem that the subgenre has a bright future ahead of it.
The impacting visual design of this game is enhanced by its novel concept. You see, there’s a group of students at the local wizard college and in a moment of bone-headed rebellion they’ve only gone and opened a book. Not just any book mind you, these swots have opened The Big Book of Madness – stunned gasps! – and now they must try to close it before the evil within plunges the school and the rest of the world into never-ending insanity. Crumbs!
Like I said, The Big Book of Madness looks amazing. We might be getting to the stage where IELLO will no longer earn merit for this, but for now cast your eyes in wonder at the sumptuous illustrations that artist Xavier Durin (known in board gaming circles as Naïade) has created to bring this wizards’ school and its quirky infestation to life.
Every in-game asset is awash with sparkling colour and each monster is rendered on a card representing a page in the eponymous tome. Sneaky goblins, insidious slimes, and grouchy fire elementals burst forth from their papery imprisonment and the wizards themselves all look ready for action in their too-cool-for-school uniforms. It, as well as everything else in the game for that matter, looks terrific.
Accompanying the eye candy is an equally sharp game whereby players collect cards inspired by the classical elements of Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. These are the only playable cards that enter a player’s deck and each one, whether it be fiery red or earthy green, comes with a simple numerical value. Elements are used to purchase new cards, banish the curses that protect monsters, or activate the Spells that a player learns over the course of the game.
For example, Fire Spells are good at destroying unwanted Elements and curing Madness cards (more on those later) whereas Air Spells typically bestow effects on allies sitting around the table. Even better are the scalable costs that allow players to ‘overpay’ for their conjurations and thus enhance the effect that’s created. Activating Growth for 1 Earth Element for example allows that player to draw a card, but if they pay the maximum multiple of 3 Elements then they’ll be drawing 3 cards instead.
The interaction between Elements and Spells becomes a big draw in the fun factor of this game, though you must always be wary of making longer card combos because shuffling and resetting your deck will expose you to the Madness. Madness cards are dead weight and if you find your hand clogged with them then you run a serious risk of your character going totally crazy and thus being eliminated from the game.
Truth be told, I’m not a fan of deck-building games that burden your hand with useless cards in order to create balance. The mechanic makes a bit more sense here as the action is all cooperative and thus the players need something to fight against, but Madness still feels like a missed opportunity to add depth. Madness cards all have the same artwork, they have the same effect of being a dead draw, and despite a few neat applications with certain Spells, they’re actually kind of boring.
Nevertheless the gameplay here is quite elegant in its simplicity. Unlike other examples in the genre, the only thing that you’re really filling your deck with is a form of currency. Elements may look posh, but they just let you pay for things and the intuitive nature of that approach makes the game very accessible and easy to pick up. There are plenty of niggling rules that will cause problems in your first few games and depending on your copy’s printing, there are a few crucial card erratas to bear in mind too. Luckily the rulebook is nicely laid out and IELLO’s official FAQ is also exhaustive not to mention extremely helpful in answering common queries.
The game makes its biggest impact through its theme. The idea of harnessing magical power and then using it to fire off spells and neutralize curses is a good one and the visual presence of the Grimoire; whose pages turn over to reveal monsters, really helps the theme pop off the table. Turning those pages is an attractive hook that also helps convey the urgency of what is an addictive and very fun game on the whole.
The Big Book of Madness is also extremely hard to beat. Difficulty is essential for any cooperative game hoping to foster replay value and in this regard there will likely be many attempts and missteps made before a group of players finally manage to seal that evil book shut.
It’s a shame though that the game is also quite prone to moments of randomness and imbalance. Being a cooperative game means that balancing between the various Spells and abilities is not as essential as it would have been in a player versus player environment, but the ordering of certain cards can still have a rather ‘swingy’ impact on the state of play.
Not every Spell is used in-game and yet if the absurdly powerful Adrenaline or Frost Mirror Spells are at the top of their respective stacks, then chances are your game just got substantially easier. Not every Spell is made equal (the likes of Raining Frogs and Flowering can be outright useless) and it can be frustrating for those looking to craft a reliable difficulty curve for their group.
Selecting an effective combination of students is essential as each one comes with their own starting inventory of Elements and a unique special ability. Some of these boons, like the Water Sorcerer’s power to turn Air into Water, are both potent and fun to use, but some others can be pretty dull. The Water Sorceress is particularly situational without the right support for instance and the Earth Sorcerer, well… I’m not sure what benefit he has at all really.
Also problematic is the player scaling. Because the Grimoire is limited to a set number of pages, it means that larger groups of players are dividing the available number of turns between themselves at a rate where their deck will not develop as much. Whilst card combos aren’t incredibly drawn out here, the otherwise superb interaction between Spells and special abilities does create enough complexity to result in significant downtime between player turns. There’s a lot of interaction and Spell diversity in a larger game, but so too will it be long; likely too long for some groups to stomach.
Things aren’t always rosy for a team of two either though as there are many Spells whose effect only scales up when more players are present. Similarly, getting hit by the man-eating plant monster can pretty much equal an immediate loss for two players, so there are certainly moments that make you wonder why the designer didn’t employ a scalable model for monsters in much the same way as Spells.
In terms of production quality though, The Big Book of Madness is well furnished. The Grimoire board helps set the scene nicely and the additional wooden pieces like the little spell book that tracks turns is as charming as anything you’ll find in the box. Unlike most deck-building games the player cards here are of the small “Konieczka” variety, so there will be some players who struggle with the frequent shuffling. Also, pretty much every card in the game comes in some weird size with black borders, so life is made hard on those owners who like to sleeve things up.
It seems that I’ve been quite thorough in my dissection of this game’s failings, but in spite of it all I still find myself genuinely enjoying it. Granted, The Big Book of Madness is a game perfectly aimed at my tastes, but for smaller groups I can’t see the faults being severe enough to detract from its keen theme and involving mechanics.
This feels like a big game in a medium-sized box and if you become curious at what lies in store, I’d urge you to ignore the warnings and turn that dreaded first page. You know you want to!…