In The Big Book of Madness, players are young Magicians at a school of magic which is absolutely definitely nothing whatsoever to do with Harry Potter. This is a highly co-operative game for 2-5 players, where you and your fellow Magicians must work together, plan carefully, and employ special abilities and spells to defend yourselves from a variety of monsters. It’s no pushover – The Big Book of Madness is a challenging deck-building game that keeps you under pressure from the very start.
The actual Big Book represented in the game is a grimoire which you and your school friends have accidentally opened without, presumably, the appropriate incantations. The result is that six monsters emerge from the book, one after the other, all in quite a bad mood having been cooped up in a parallel dimension for years on end with no access to wi-fi.
The Big Book of Madness – three-player game in progress
They are, understandably, dis-chuffed, and each launches a series of elemental curses at you. Your budding Magicians have to counteract each curse to avoid its effects, and to avoid a final damaging effect from the monster itself. Survive to the end, you win – The Big Book of Madness closes, and tranquility descends once more upon the land.
The Bits: Gorgeous Art and Lots of Cards
The artwork for The Big Book of Madness is by Xavier “Naiade” Durin and is up to his usual high standards – think Seasons, Isla Dorada and Tokaido. There are glutinous blob monsters and unmentionable tentacle-y things – it certainly sets the scene, although it isn’t enough to carry the whole theme, as we’ll see later. Production by Iello is also excellent; this is a nice-looking game all round.
There is a small board which is there simply to lay out the grimoire and the curse cards, there are no meeples, worker placement or area control in this game. It is all cards – normal-sized curse cards and tiny little element cards. Lots and lots of small piles of mostly small cards. And spell… tiles… which are basically just cards again, only thicker. And square. Just for a change.
Two of the eight Magician characters
Choose a Magician from the 8 supplied, each of whom has a helpful but not show-stopping special ability and a unique starting hand of element cards. Lay out your 4 basic spells (the same for each player), assemble the grimoire using a random selection of six monsters, and you’re ready to go. The variability of the setup is certainly a positive for the game.
As well as the 8 magicians for the players to choose from there are 48 curses (of which around half will come out each game), 36 Library spell cards (12 randomly chosen per game), and 16 monsters (6 per game). Plus – three difficulty levels, and more variations suggested in the rulebook. This means it’s possible to get a different experience on each play, just… not that different.
What Are We Supposed to be Doing?
Two of The Big Book of Madness’ 16 monsters, with success and failure effects
As each of the grimoire’s monsters bursts from The Big Book of Madness it throws up to 5 curses at you: Fire curse – boom! Earth curse – crunch! Water curse – er, splosh? Anyway, depending on the difficulty level you play at you will have to face 24-28 curses during the game.
To beat each curse you have to present the right combination of element cards to match it – 4 earths for example, or 4 fire, or 1 of each element for a “multi” curse. It’s rare that any one player will have the right cards in their hand, so everyone has to work together to deliver the right cards at the right times. To do this you need to make regular use of all your abilities, spells and actions, to prepare for what’s coming next.
The small element cards are the main currency of The Big Book of Madness. They make up your whole deck, and are used to buy spells (giving you new abilities), activate spells (use the abilities you have) and perform the core objective of the game – destroying the various curses that the monsters throw at you. Element cards come in three strengths, appropriately although somewhat unimaginatively marked with a 1, 2 or 3 on the card; it looks as though Naiade was away from the office the day they were designed.
Some typical single-element and multi-element curses
At the start of The Big Book of Madness you get mostly level 1 cards, but as you progress you can earn or buy stronger cards, which are absolutely essential for facing down later curses and healing yourself from the inevitable onslaught of Madness. Never miss an opportunity to grab a higher level card.
You can, and probably will, fail to destroy some curses during the first 5 rounds. It won’t lose you the game there and then, but letting curses slip past can have a compounding effect on your group’s mental health, as more and more Madness cards (the most common damage effect of curses) end up in your decks. However, if you miss a single one of the curses in the last round, YOU LOSE the game.
And even if you’re doing OK fighting off the curses, if your Magicians take on too many Madness cards and the Madness deck runs out, you ALSO LOSE. You soon realise when playing that managing – not necessarily destroying – Madness is as important as killing curses.
Individual Magicians can also “go mad”, which means that there is some player elimination in the game, but realistically if one player goes down in this way then their friends won’t be far behind.
What Does A Typical Turn Look Like?
In The Big Book of Madness your hand of six element cards, drawn from your deck of 12-20 usually, drives the game. Every turn you can do as many tasks as you have cards to pay for them, so you can use them to:
- activate your current spells
- ‘learn’ more powerful Library spells
- buy more powerful element cards to add to your deck
- remove Madness cards from your deck
- destroy curses
The problem is, you really need to do as many of these actions as possible on every turn, and with only 6 cards in your hand (and often less once the Madness cards start infiltrating your deck) the pressure is always on to get the absolute most out of every turn.
Cards “in support” are available for other players to use
The basic spells you’re given at the start of the game are used a lot, especially Ice (put one element card into support so other players can use it) and Telepathy (allow another player to take an action on your turn).
It soon becomes clear that water and air element cards are super-useful, because these are required to activate these two spells. An example of a pretty good turn would be:
- Discard two level 1 air cards to buy a new level 2 air card – all these go in your discard, but you know it’s going to be recycled next turn so hopefully they’ll come out so you can use them to defeat the air curse which is coming later. This leaves you with 4 cards to play.
- Because you have no water element cards, use your character’s special ability to treat your one earth card as a water card, and use this to cast the Ice spell which allows you to put another card (fire) into support. Hopefully another player can use this fire along with their own to defeat the fire curse which is facing you. Now you’ve got just 2 cards left.
- Discard two earth cards to learn a new earth spell which should improve your chances throughout the game. Because you’ve now used all your cards, you get to shuffle your discard and draw back six cards for the next turn, but you have to add one Madness card into the deck before shuffling.
This is very much an ideal turn. Often you don’t have the cards you need when you need them, and the ones you do have are no use against the curse you’re facing. Having no water cards mean you can’t put anything into support, and you may have three Madness cards amongst the six in your hand, leaving you with just three cards to play this turn.
Powering Up: New Spells
There are 12 Library spells that can be learned by the players during the game, each costing two of the matching element. These are increasingly powerful but none are exactly game-winners; they tend to be only slight improvements on earlier spells. I guess this was done for balance, but it does dull the excitement of getting down to the level 3 spells if you know it they’re only going to give you a slight advantage on your existing powers. No player can have more than 5 spells either, since learning a new one means forgetting and losing one of your others.
A selection of Library spells
One interesting rule in The Big Book of Madness is that you can power up spells by discarding multiple element cards to activate them up to three times. A Telepathy spell, powered up with a level 3 air card, can let another player take three actions during your turn. They could use one of these actions to also play Telepathy and let a third player take an action. With the right plays and the right cards, you can create some powerful combos and do a lot of damage on one turn.
These Monsters Just Don’t Stop!
As soon as you start playing The Big Book of Madness the first monster hits you with an attack immediately, and the first three curses follow hot on its heels. You’ve barely got time to think and you’re three curses down. Yes the pressure starts from turn one and rarely relents.
This fits the theme quite well – at first you’re running around like headless chickens, shocked by what’s happening, failing to beat curses, frantically learning new spells and trying to power up for further attacks. If you can survive the middle rounds you should be experienced, powerful and spelled-up enough to complete the last rounds and win the game.
Your Only Hope – Plan to Survive
It helps that you can see from the start of each round what curses you have to deal with, and the three the next monster is going to throw up, so you definitely have the opportunity to plan ahead. But you can never have more than one eye on what’s coming next because there’s so much fire-fighting to do now.
Sadly this means there are few surprises in the game. You always get 6 monsters whose curses are telegraphed a whole round in advance, even though you don’t exactly know which monster it’s going to be. And because their monster effects are quite similar, there’s no great excitement when the new round start and discover which monster it is.
And as mentioned before, you don’t know all the spells that are going to be available in the game, but none of them are super-powerful so they can be fairly uninspiring when they are revealed. This can make the game feel a bit more like project management than whizz-bang spell-flinging monster-fighting.
Verdict: The Big Book of Madness – Mad, or Just Bad?
+ Puzzly and very co-operative
+ Benefits from multiple plays
+ Lots of (modest) variability
+ Great art and production
– Lacks surprises
– Theme doesn’t come through too well
For now I’m going to keep The Big Book of Madness and give it more plays. It still feels a bit like maths homework to me, but I also feel there’s a better game waiting for me once I get to grips with it. It will be a great game to introduce to casual players who like the theme and are ready to move on from (say) Forbidden Island to something heavier, yet within a supportive co-op environment. However I won’t expect it to hold their attention for too long against more thematic, more exciting competition.
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Mancunian now living in Leicestershire countryside. Grew up with boardgames, miniatures wargaming, D&D, Traveller etc. Left it all behind for work and "normal life", now happily re-engaged with boardgames thanks to Gaming Daughter (age 12), Occasional Gaming Wife (age undisclosed) and friendly local group of boardgame chums.