Long time, no write, so here's an addendum to our beloved (or not) packomaniac series, with Maxime Rambourg's The Big Book of Madness, which I recommend to everyone.
Now, as a gamer, I've been aware and liked a lot of different deck-building games (i.e. where you need to modify your deck of cards that you use to play the game throughout the game, in order to improve your play) but the ones I've tried so far have mostly been lacking that little something that would have pushed me into acquiring one of them for myself. Last autumn though, I visited the friendly neighbourhood gaming store in Oulu (where I no longer live, so not sure if it warrants the "neighbourhood" of the previous clause...) and was recommended The Big Book of Madness. Well, naturally, I didn't buy it, as the the box was somewhat pricey, I had lots to carry already and I actually just popped into the store to see if they carried something else entirely and was just browsing the other items for the sake of browsing, since I no longer visit the store in question all that often.
The box stuck in my head though, so after some research on the interwebs, I decided that I might actually be interested in giving it a go and asked after it in the Joensuu equivalent of the Oulu gaming store, with no luck, as they didn't have the particular game in their selection. Also, being a customer in a store in a city I don't frequent meant that I was treated as a game-illiterate person - with questions such as "is the game being played against the other players or you know, together with them" being asked; which I answered with "oh yeah, it's a co-op deck-builder, for sure, and I saw it in the Oulu-branch store a couple months back", hoping to show my game-savvy with my vocabulary. In the end, I left the store empty-handed, for, as mentioned before, they didn't carry it.
So, my next excursion to Oulu saw me visiting the store in the hopes of being still able to find it. Unfortunately, I didn't. Luckily though, I had my husband along with me, and he did. So, I got it.
The first test-play was confusing, as the rules seemed to be omitting things (although, now that I've learned the rules I see that they're just avoiding too much repetition) and the game contained a lot of different aspects one had to take into account during play. The second run went much better and me and my husband managed not only to actually finish but also to win the game. Yay for us! (Also, the first test run had four players, all of whom were confused and kept asking questions and there's just the one rulebook to turn to and it always difficult to find stuff in a rulebook the first time through.)
The story of the game goes that the players as newbie spellcasters in a school of magic get bored with the basics and decide to take on a bit of forbidden reading, which leads to all sorts of things breaking loose and madness ensuing - should maybe have picked up a book with a little less obvious title to begin with, I should think. In any case, the goal is to close the book, which means reading it from beginning to end and endeavouring to conquer the monsters by destroying their respective curses within the allotted turns to receive bonuses, or to suffer penalties, should any curses still remain on the board. So yes, the game has a board, which is basically used for showcasing the challenges (i.e. curses) brought about by each new monster that is revealed from the pages of the book and to maintain the timetable - the turn sequence - for destroying the curses.
In the beginning of the game each player chooses a character to play with - each character has a specific starting deck to work with as well as one character specific skill, but other than that, the character choice does not affect the play in any way. It is recommended in the rules that the players coordinate the choice of characters so that the starting cards and skills work well together. With more than two players I should think any character combination would work, though, as the skills and starting decks vary considerably between the different characters. For me, it's a little disappointing about the characters that they are merely game devices with mechanics - while the cards do have character art, the characters don't have names, flair or anything else that could be seen as personal for the character in question - although that of course is merely a matter of imagination and immersion to be expanded upon by the players.
To destroy the curses the players use element cards - water, fire, earth and air - of which one needs four (or more!) to destroy a single curse. Usually one needs elements of the same kind, but once the game progresses (or is made more difficult from the start) the multi-element curses appear. The multi-element curses are maybe easier to destroy than the single element ones, but their effects are often worse, so if the players cannot amass the correct set of cards, the results can be maddening, pun intended. Apart from destroying curses, the element cards act as currency for any other actions as well, such as purchasing new cards and new spells, using spells and curing madness cards. The element cards have values from one to three, so one needs to keep on improving their deck with the higher value cards while trying to get rid of the lower value ones, to keep them from cluttering your hand of six cards drawn at the end one's turn.
Each player also has a set of spells to use during their turn, which refresh for the next time the player takes a turn - these are kept visible on the table, and can be used so long as the player is able to pay for their cost. The basic spells are cheap and the same for everyone, but there are also new spells available for purchase, the more powerful of which are also more expensive to use, naturally.
And then, there are the madness cards, which come along to hamper your deck and may even remove a player from the game completely, should a player draw only madness cards into their hand at any point of the game. The madness cards can either be cured or destroyed - but if they are destroyed, they do not return to their respective draw deck - and should it run out of cards to draw, the game is lost.
The monsters in the book, or the grimoire as it's also called in the rules, bring about three different curses to be placed on the board as well as an effect that takes place immediately when the monster is revealed - usually something nasty. The next page of the book shows the bonus and penalty for success or failure to destroy the curses and the monster along with them, as well as the colour of the curses the next monster of the book will bring. Now, you don't actually need to conquer any of the earlier monsters - if you can live with the penalties - as the only victory condition is to conquer the very last monster of the book. The book is constructed anew for each game, so there's some variation - although not endless as there are only so many pages to alternate with.
The one small bag of tokens come into play only when so dictated by a curse - so far in my experience, when a curse adds another card to the pile of cards needed to destroy the other curses on the board.
The co-operation with the other players works in a couple different ways. First of all, each player has a spell from the beginning of the game, with which they can give a single action to any other player during their own turn. Secondly, it is possible to put cards in a player specific card pool, which can then be accessed by all the other players as well - either for extra element cards, or for curing madness cards. Moreover, the more powerful spells available for purchase also contain co-operative features.
All in all, it is a very good game. I love the graphics, the theme and the mechanics (now that I've learned them) and although I've only played it a couple times now, I think it'll become one of my favourite games to play with the husband and friends. Oh, and it also packs beatifically, with neat places within the plastic-inside-the-cardboard for everything, and bigger things on top of smaller things so the smaller things don't fall out. Perfection.