Microgames have become hugely fashionable over the past few years. Each attempts to provide players with a meaty and involving experience with the minimum of components, and some appear to have succeeded while many have come close or failed in their attempts. Love Letter, in all its various versions, is really the poster child for this type of game, and they represent a great way to get into the hobby without having to spend a fortune or install new shelving. Tides Of Madness is the latest release from Portal Games to aim its sights firmly at the microgame market, and it also hitches a ride on the whole Cthulhu thing, whose ubiquitous presence in the gaming scene is either due to it being a gripping and atmospheric alternative world…or the simple fact that it is out of copyright – take your pick!
Exploring new worlds? Open the Portal!
Portal is one of those publishers that seems to turn out consistently interesting games, almost all of which are quirky and original. Titles like the wonderful Imperial Settlers have helped to establish Portal’s reputation, and it is firing on all cylinders at the moment with Cry Havoc making serious gamers go moist around the edges. Tides Of Madness may be at the other end of the scale, but the Portal logo promises that there is some good stuff inside, even with only eighteen cards to play with. Designed by Kristian Čurla, Tides Of Madness is a reworking of his 2015 release Tides Of Time, refining the earlier game and adding an extra twist that has the possibility to drive you mad.
A subtle hint at the madness that lies within…
Despite being a microgame Tides Of Madness does not skimp in terms of component quality. The eighteen cards are large, glossy and beautifully illustrated to show different places and inhabitants of the Cthulhu world, and even the instruction sheet (yes, a single double-sided sheet) has been set out to evoke the oppressive atmosphere of the subject. I am no Cthulhu devotee, but I am happy to get involved in a game’s theme, and I felt attracted to Tides Of Madness before I had even read the rules. The Madness Tokens are big enough not to get lost, made out of good quality but thin card and, for good measure, there is a generous scorepad, big enough to get you through many games, and even a pencil – if only all publishers took this amount of care over the smaller details.
Straight from the art! How are the cards?
I need to come back to the cards, though. They really ooze quality, and the mood they convey is dark and oppressive. I should to state again that I have only ever had passing acquaintance with the world of Cthulhu, but really felt drawn into the atmosphere of the game and was happy for this to happen. The graphic design is one of the most attractive factors of Tides Of Madness, a definite strong point.
The cards look great, but beware those tentacles!
Given that the rules only occupy a single sheet of paper, Tides Of Madness is pretty easy to pick up and get playing within five minutes or so, and we managed to do just that. Each of the eighteen cards either belongs to a particular suit or is wild. The suits represent aspects of the mythos of Cthulhu – Races, Locations, Outer Gods, Great Old Ones, Manuscripts – and most of them have an ability that will give you victory points at the end of the game if you can match them up with the appropriate cards. However – and this is crucial – eight of the cards also have a Madness icon in the form of tentacles which will add to your collection of tokens, and if you ever have nine of these at the end of any of the scoring rounds then you instantly lose the game. It sounds like a pretty standard instant-win condition, but actually the trick is to caress the edge of madness, especially as some cards can actually reward you for going close to insanity.
Can I play with Madness? Yes, but try not tableau your mind!
Tides Of Madness is at heart a pretty simple drafting game, which is part of the reason it is so easy to pick up. If you have played 7 Wonders or Seasons then you will recognise this mechanism where each player chooses a card and then passes the remaining cards along. The game is played over three rounds, at the start of which each player has five cards in hand. You choose one, place it face down on the table, both players reveal their choices and then swap hands, and when all five cards for the round have been played the scores are added up. The main gist of the game really is as simple as that!
Collect nine of these and it’s game over…in a bad way!
The scoring rounds are where the fun really happens, and players need to keep their sanity about them because careful decisions need to be made here as well. During the scoring each player takes a Madness token for each card in their tableau with a Madness icon, and the player who gained the most tokens during the round can choose either to gain 4 VP or to discard a token. Gaining the victory points will give you a warm and fuzzy feeling, but remember that having nine tokens at the end of scoring instantly loses you the game. The cards are then scored and at this point you can go mad if you have not been careful.
Planning for the future? Best to extend!
Once the scoring is done players take their tableaux back into their hands, choose one card to go back onto the table (face down) and one to discard, keeping the remaining three in hand. The face down cards are flipped over, players receive two new cards each and a new round begins. In this way a player’s tableau goes from five cards in the first round to seven at the final scoring, and at the end of the game the player with the most points wins if nobody has gone mad.
Even the instructions contribute to the theme,
I mentioned above that Tides Of Madness is a drafting game – so far so normal, but what is quite unexpected is just how tense this makes things. Normally a bluffing game where you have to guess what your opponent is up to plays out with the cards face down, as in Android: Netrunner or Thunder & Lightning, which I reviewed earlier this year. What is so different about Tides Of Madness is that a player knows exactly what their opponent is about to receive and has to judge what they might be able to choose. Get up to about ten plays of this with the same partner and you will be past double-think into the realm of quadruple-think and more, and you will find that the decisions become more refined as you learn more about the game. Should you play the strongest card you want and hope that the weaker card you need will still be around later, even if that lets your opponent know what you are up to? Or should you play the weaker card first and hope to throw your opponent off the scent?
Brain burn? Fight to keep your mind!
The slow build of your tableau, from five to seven cards by the end of the game, is also intriguing, for not only do you have to play Tides Of Madness round by round, but you also need to work out some kind of overall strategy early in the game if you are going to put up a good scrap, all the time fighting to stay sane, and the way that the various cards interact with each other means that Tides Of Madness offers an intensive and brain-burny experience
“Mad”, “Sanity” – you get the hint!
Our personal experience with Tides Of Madness went something along the lines of the following – first game “meh”, second game “hmm”, third game “ooh”, after which my regular gaming partner said “I can see how this could become addictive”. It took all of half an hour to get to this stage, so it is possible to find new depths in this game very quickly indeed, and for it to sink its claws, sorry, tentacles into you just as quickly. On only our third game I chose to go with the Necronomicon that rewards you for Madness tokens, keeping it in my tableau, and spent all my time trying desperately to eke out extra points without quite going mad. In the second scoring round I had nine tokens, enough to lose instantly, but my opponent had Dreamlands in their tableau, meaning that they took one of my tokens and I survived by the skin of my brain cells, eventually going on to win. It was close.
Anything you Cthulhu I Cthulhu better!
I have played quite a few microgames, searching for that elusive combination of portability, quick play and depth, and Tides Of Madness is currently my two-player microgame of choice, taking everything Tides Of Time does and doing it better, while offering a genuine thrill at the feeling of dancing on the edge of disaster in every single round. In fact, I think I would go further and say that as a bluffing game between two players Tides Of Madness hits the target pretty much spot on and offers a play experience far beyond what might expect from only eighteen cards.
Pad and pencil too – now that’s attention to detail!
Tides Of Madness is certainly limited by the fact that it is for two players only, and some might be left cold or even put off by the whole Cthulhu thing, which is threatening to become very stale indeed, but those are really the only minus points that I can think of regarding this game. It will not ever give you the depth of something like Agricola, admittedly, but horses for courses and all that, and Tides Of Madness certainly has the potential to become one of those experiences that matures when the same players grow with it together, and that really is when it shine.
Tentacle temptation? Or just fishy?
Even if the theme does not thrill me, I must admit that I am glad I got to review this game. The box is small enough, but you could easily carry round all you need for a game in your jacket pocket, so Tides Of Madness is the perfect choice for gamers who only have ten minutes or so, but do not want to play something hyper-light, instead looking for something that they feel they can really get their teeth into. However, it is also a great game for putting in front of a new gamer, as it will take you all of twenty minutes or so to explain it and get in a game (or two).
It’s a gripping experience.
In conclusion, Portal have ticked every box while still having Tides Of Madness come in at around the £10 mark, and it improves enough on its predecessor to make it feel different. If you are considering buying this game then I would have to say that it offers exceptional value for money and a meaty play experience, so do not be put off by the “microgame” label. Instead it has great components and offers genuine longevity to those prepared to put in the plays, and each of those will only take you ten to fifteen minutes or so. It is not essential but is perfectly designed to fill a hole in many gamers’ collections, and it gets a solid 8 out of 10 from me.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.