We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes
Eighteen cards. Four tokens. One pad for keeping score. A single golf pencil.
That’s how I introduced last year’s Tides of Time, Kristian Čurla’s then-unique microgame about the dawn of civilization as glimpsed through the world’s tiniest lens. It was a bijou of a game, as clever and elegant as it was petite.
Now we’ve got Tides of Madness, which at first glance appears like little more than the inevitable Lovecraftifying that has gripped so much of this hobby. But let’s take a closer look.
If the first glance in Tides of Madness’s direction makes it seem about as unwarranted as a sequel to At the Mountains of Madness, then so does the second glance. From trousers to top hat, this initially appears to be the same gentleman, though this time his frock coat glows an unearthly blue when held under an ultraviolet lamp. Both players take a hand of five cards, draft one for some benefit — perhaps to earn points whenever you claim a combination of elder sign scrolls and green books, or to pick up a sizeable wad all at once if you have more pink tentacles than your opponent — and the round concludes once everything has been claimed, both players tallying their score and grumbling about which cards they ought to have taken.
Even the twist at the heart of Tides of Time is present and accounted for. Rather than beginning anew upon reaching each of the game’s three rounds, you instead claim cards permanently or drop them from the game altogether. So if you believe your opponent is going to continue earning points from towers thanks to their fixture Unaussprechlichen Kulten, perhaps remove a tower from circulation. Then again, perhaps they know that you know that they’re hoping for more towers, so who’s tricking whom?
Cerebral duplicity of that sort is in high supply in both games, and it only gets better as you learn the cards, relying on different appearances from the deck as the match progresses. It’s good stuff, and every bit as clever as the original if only because the cards are nearly identical.
With one crucial difference, anyway. While it’s certainly true that the cards are largely similar, with the Hanging Gardens swapped out for the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Old Man’s Pass not getting quite as much vitamin D now that it’s been recast as R’lyeh, Tides of Madness manages to stand on its own by putting its money where its mouth is. Or its gills somewhere near to its mouth, as the case may be.
The big change is that just under half the cards are now lovingly fondled by tentacles. And these are no mere fetishist homages. Rather, in addition to tallying points, the end of the round also sees you picking up madness tokens for each betentacled card. Take a whole bunch of these tokens and you’re presented with the choice of discarding one of them or earning a few points — but earn too many and it’ll be an instant game over for you, presumably as you devolve into a fish person.
This single simple change transforms Tides of Madness from mere duplicate to the superior offering. While your opponent nitpicks over points and frets about matching card suits to bonuses, you can stack as many madness tokens on his side of the table as possible. He might use the Necronomicon to leverage his piled-up insanity into a bunch of points, but none of that is going to matter if he ends the round so addled that he can’t speak except when babbling Dagon’s praises. Then again, maybe he’s entirely conscious of what you’re trying to do, and he intends to force the Dreamlands into your hand to force the occasional madness token onto your side of the table instead.
As before, the cerebral chicanery continues. To mirror my review of Tides of Time, Tides of Madness excels at being a close-matched duel of wits within as few as 10 minutes — except this time it’s even better. To transliterate it into the appropriate parlance: Tides of Madness fhtagn!