Review: Big Book of Madness
Play Time: 60+ Minutes
Reviewed By: Dillon
Big Book of Madness was released in 2015 from Designer Maxime Rambourg, and published by IELLO.
Big Book of Madness is a cooperative game in which the players are taking on the roles of wizards who have opened a mystical book, and unwittingly unleashed terrible monsters that they must attempt to defeat and contain or else face complete destruction.
Big Book of Madness takes quite a few cues from other cooperative games and puts together some very interesting mechanics to create something that is pretty unique. The basic concept is that each of the monsters has a set of curses that must be dealt with in a limited number of turns. Not dealing with curses leads to penalties and over time those penalties can ramp up to create a lot of tension!
There’s a healthy portion of theme in the game that resembles Harry Potter – and even though I’m not a fan of the series, I think it also helps to set this game apart from some of the other modern competitors to it in the cooperative game space.
Does Big Book of Madness do enough to set itself apart from the growing market of cooperative modern boardgames? Keep on scrolling to find out!
Intermediate Game - A Bit TrickyWhile Big Book of Madness isn’t overly complex, it does take a few familiar mechanics from other modern boardgames and mash them together. The result is that if you and your buds have played one or two games with similar mechanics, Big Book of Madness will come very easily.
On the other hand, if your group is unfamiliar with mechanics like exhausting cards, or deckbuilding, there will be a bit more of a learning curve. The easiest difficulty level is recommended here and actually gives quite a bit of room to make mistakes and learn on the way, but a veteran of other modern boardgames will go a long way to helping a new player get up to speed.
Big Book of Madness is an example of one aspect of board games that TODO-iello? consistently nails. Put simply, this game’s components are excellent, and provide just-the-right-amount of bits for the game.
Starting off, in just checking out the box cover, the player can easily see the effort that was put into applying theme to this game. Even as someone who has only seen half of one Harry Potter movie, I was pumped to get this game home, open it up and be a FRIGGIN’ WIZARD.
Opening up that same box is where this game won me over before even cracking the rulebook open. Take a look:
The insert. Is. Perfect.
Most board game collectors who have more than 5 or 10 games have at least one (and probably multiple) games with miserable inserts. Inserts that you immediately take out when you open up the game and throw it out with the rest of the punch sheets. At that point you’re left with an empty box and tons of room for components to slide and shuffle around in. Gamers go to tremendous lengths to rectify the issue by cutting out foamcore, or buying whole separate organizer boxes to hold all of the components.
It sucks. There’s no getting around it. Now, granted, there can be some therapeutic satisfaction in creating the perfect storage solution, but in my opinion this type of solution should only be necessary once a game has a few expansions and you want to organize everything in one simple location.
The designers of Big Book of Madness responded to the regular madness of storage solutions and awful inserts with an exemplary effort – and it makes the game a joy to unpack and put back together at the end. There are quite a few components as well, of varying sizes and shapes, and it still just all fits back in perfect.
The attention paid to the insert and box is recursive as well, with nearly every component in the game oozing theme and solid quality.
The book and pages that contain the monsters are all very well done with some interesting looking monsters and incredible artwork. Each one of these also quickly conveys which curses each monster will bring as well as the next page showing what is coming up next. The design here of using a book is outstanding, and the way the cards are laid out as such create a wonderful match of theme to mechanic.
Big Book of Madness’ wizards are also extremely well-done, with each exuding different kinds of cool along with unique abilities and starting decks of elements. This makes it easy for even the most anti-Harry-Potter fan to set aside their favorite nerd-fandom and give the game a go
The board is rather small, and folds up very easily. The iconography on the board makes coming back to the game after a while and getting set back up quite simple. This is one area where I think the game could have gone with a bit more and had a larger board that had spaces for the available upgrade spells and elements, but it’s hardly necessary.
These element cards are what will be getting shuffled and in your hand for most of the game. They are made up of 4 groups of elements and each having a value of 1-3. We all thought that these cards could have differentiated the 1-3 values just a bit more, but again, a very minor gripe.
Big Book of Madness also gives each player a starting set of spells and there are options to upgrade them as well. These cards will be getting exhausted/tapped and having them shaped as square is another genius decision – it allows the player to lay them out and turn them without bumping the rest of their cards or having to leave additional space so they can be turned. It’s a seemingly minor detail that I didn’t even realize until writing this, but it’s a very smart move and one that should be copied by other designers in the future!
The one area where Big Book of Madness faltered a bit was in the rulebook. As with most rulebooks, it’s often difficult to pinpoint individual points of difficulty – but looking back over the initial few games and the learning experience, it’s easy to sum up a feeling of whether it was effective or not.
Overall, it seems like the theme is trying a bit too hard to creep into the rulebook as well and it ends up creating less space for really useful information and examples. A good example of this is the concisely written summary cards on the back of the wizard sheets (another great decision and saves cards used specifically for both!) – these cards are very easy to reference, but leave out some of the little bits that each step has. Madness cards have bits of specific rules sprinkled through the book. We went a whole two games before realizing they could be cured by spending two elements!
Even setting the game up the first time we had questions about the placement of the curses – are both spaces on the 3 spot filled up, or is one filled, then 4 then 5 and then the remaining spot for 3? We eventually figured it out, but the time it took to find some individual rules definitely cut down on some of our initial excitement to play the game.
Midway through our first game, we were sailing smoothly and having a blast – but for a game of this weight it seems like it could have been easier in a few places to get going.
Cooperative games very often resemble solitaire games for multiple players. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s very easy for a cooperative game to have little room or incentive for actual cooperation. In Big Book of Madness, each player typically has a hand of 6 element cards, and a few spells at their disposal. It would have been easy to leave it at that, with each player taking a turn, casting their spells, spending their elements and moving on to the next one.
Instead, the designers drove the idea of cooperation right into the core of the game – and it’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of it. The biggest simple way they implemented this was through the concept of a Support Pool.
Each wizard has their hand of cards, but they also have 3 (by default) places where they can set element cards, their Support. Once they are moved to the Support, these cards are now available to be used by anyone else on any turn, even themselves on a later turn.
This is brilliant, and creates so much room for very interesting gameplay decisions. Given that each round of fighting a monster in Big Book of Madness is made up of 5 turns, it’s entirely possible that a player will only get one turn to make something happen. If you know the wizard to your right is loaded with fire and air, but has little water or earth, the support pool lets you set a few up there that will give them access to their hand AND your extra cards when it is their turn.
The main method for getting cards up to the support pool is through the use of spells. This basic water spell lets you spend some water elements and exhaust the spell and then put a few of your other cards up in support to be used later.
Other spells continue create plentiful opportunities for cooperative play, and will be very much needed given the short rounds where a monster has to be fought. The basic air spell lets you spend air elements and give one other player one or more actions that they can do ON YOUR TURN, before play returns to you.
It’s in combining these spells, and actions, that the dynamic and lively gameplay of Big Book of Madness comes to life. Once the players get the basics down they will quickly find themselves tossing actions to others, refreshing spells, drawing cards, and helping each other out constantly.
The other reason why you’ll find yourself getting into the team spirit is SHEER NECESSITY. The rounds in this game are incredibly short, and each monster has a set of curses that must be removed to defeat it. Every turn where a curse is left and your group moves to that curse it hits you and your whole team will suffer some kind of penalty. If all of the curses aren’t removed by the last turn, then a new monster will come out and your team will get hit with an even bigger penalty for leaving curses.
Big Book of Madness has an ebb and flow of difficulty, and if you aren’t careful in managing it, the tide will overwhelm you. The Madness cards are another way that this happens.
Each game will have a fixed number of total madness cards depending on the number of players. Every time you have to shuffle your deck to draw you add one madness card from the pile. If it shows up in your hand, it’s taking a valuable space that you would rather have an element card. You can use your fire spell or other spells to destroy a card, including a Madness card – but if you ever run out of madness cards in the pile, it’s game over. You can also spend two elements to CURE a madness card which puts it back in the pile – but those elements are valuable and it’s rare that you’ll have opportunities to spend them easily, where they wouldn’t have another better usage elsewhere. Also if you ever draw a hand full of 6 madness cards, your team loses the game.
The Madness cards are really one more cool mechanic that separates Big Book of Madness from other cooperative games and they fit in thematically as well.
Difficulty level can be easily adjusted, just by using the chart that sits on the game board. This changes how early the multi-curse cards are laid out in addition to the monster curses. If the beginner difficulty lets you settle in the surf a bit early and get used to small waves, the middle and higher difficulty levels start to deluge your team right out of the gate.
Designing the game around this very simple modifier was a great move and it allows the game to play to a variety of different experience levels.
Big Book of Madness exudes the perception of offering a ton of replay value. There are eight different wizards, each with a unique ability that changes the game a bit for them, as well as a varying starter deck. There are quite a few pages of monsters that make up the random book. Even the curse cards have different penalties that hit you when you don’t complete them. The advanced spell cards are also different as well, and each game you’ll almost assuredly see a different setup of available cards.
It was a strange feeling, then, when somewhere during the fourth or fifth game there was an overwhelming sense of “same-y” that each game was starting to have. For all of the variety that the game seems to have, the actual difference in gameplay seemed quite small.
That said, every game has been incredibly enjoyable – and once we bumped to the second difficulty, we also found each game coming down to some smart plays in the last round to finish with a win.
Almost every one of the buds here have commented on how Big Book of Madness begs for an expansion. We think that another mechanic or resource would really help mix things up and shore up the replay value of an excellent game framework.
Being on a team, needing help, and helping out. The limits that the game puts on you in terms of time and how much an individual accomplish force the players into a constant need for teamwork at 3 players and above. Big Book of Madness is a boardgame that takes the word cooperative VERY seriously, and it turns out that much better for it.
The sheer fun that is had putting together the puzzle pieces of a move with your friends is an experience to be had. I’ve played quite a few cooperative games and have a hard time looking back to point out another one that truly sings quite the way this one does when a whole team of players is looking around the board at the others and trying to find opportunities where they can help each other.
Even writing this I’m feeling a bit sickened at the amount of Kumbaya going around, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t true. I’m sure a quarterbacking player or two could make it much less-fun, but in a group of players who are all in the game for enjoyment and winning instead of min/maxing, there is tons to love in Big Book of Madness.
The ending of the game is often very tense, however we did find ourselves wanting something just a little bit different for that climactic battle at the end. A final monster could be a great addition to raise the stakes just a little bit more and add another level of preparation required when going through the rounds of the game.
Big Book of Madness challenges the current tabletop gaming definition of Cooperative by pushing it to a new level of interaction between the players. It delivers consistent challenge and fun with a consistent, great dose of theme.
What we Loved
Focus on Cooperative play and mechanics, requiring teamwork to find consistent success.
Exciting theme that pulls the player in immediately, and mechanics that remarkably fit the theme.
“Book” design of monsters setting up unique series of challenges.
Spells delivering a tremendous degree of interactivity in almost every player’s turn.
What we didn’t Love as much
Rulebook overstepping itself a bit, creating the illusion of more complexity than actually exists.
Climax of game could use just a bit more bite and differentiation from the other rounds.
Begs for a bit more actual variety in repeated play-throughs.