The Colour Out of Space Alert
There’s something fishy going on with Mountains of Madness, and I’m not talking about the Innsmouth look. Rather, it’s the sort of game that seems determined to pull in multiple directions at once. On the one hand, it proposes a serious take on H.P. Lovecraft’s most recognizable work, complete with eerie illustrations, a map that promises that unknowable mysteries will be unveiled upon summiting its highest peak, and not even one disproportionately attractive librarian toting a tommy gun.
On the other hand, it’s also a real-time puzzle game that makes you speak with a foreign accent, pet a neighbor’s face, and stand on your chair. Which is to say, it’s got a tonal problem the way Lovecraft had a compare-nonwhites-to-animals problem.
Let’s start by taking a look at the game’s “normal” side. Don’t worry, things will grow more peculiar in a moment.
For the most part, everything in Mountains of Madness is window dressing for a bunch of stressful timed puzzles. You’re presented with a map of an Antarctic ruin, from coast and mountains to ancient city and beyond. Or perhaps that should have been written in capitals and italics. BEYOND. There’s also a little airplane miniature, a dogsled board with leader tokens to spend, and minor power-ups to earn or abilities to blot out as your character grows more weary.
None of these things are particularly important, at least not right away. When it’s your turn as expedition leader — a state of affairs that Sir Ernest Shackleton would have spat upon — you’ll move the plane to a new location, flip over its tile, and start panicking.
Without experiencing them firsthand, these timed segments aren’t anything particularly special. Each tile reveals a test and a potential reward, something along the lines of, “We need eight to ten books and five to nine tools, and if we pass one of these tests we get to take a sample card.” From there, it’s up to your merry band to toss the appropriate cards into a pile.
This is where Mountains of Madness first exposes itself as hell-bent on being very, very frustrating. Not only do the expected conditions apply — go over or under the target quantity and you fail — but the game also tasks you with observing a number of idiosyncrasies. For instance, you can only talk until someone throws in a card, then it’s a mime’s guessing game to determine what else your motley crew requires. So much as utter a cussword and you’ll be penalized one of your precious leadership tokens.
It is also, of course, timed. At a mere thirty seconds, there isn’t much room to wiggle, at least not unless you’re willing to spend a leadership tokens to flip over the timer. At the very least, this does lend each test a sense of hysteria as everybody blubbers over one another to figure out what they can contribute. You need ten to twelve guns? Well, assemble them quickly from a five, four, eight, and ten, but imagine each of those numbers being shouted at once and you still have to try and complete a second test before the timer runs dry.
The major complicating factor of these timed segments comes in the form of madness cards, and this is where Mountains of Madness transitions from a vaguely unpleasant experience to downright weird — though not in an entirely bad way.
Basically, holding a madness card means you’re beholden to its instructions while racing to complete a test. The best of these are a delight to see in action, and elevate the entire experience with a dose of out-there silliness. It’s fun to discover that one of your friends is speaking in rhyme, holding their cards above their head, or — more deviously — being forced to exclaim, “I have an idea!”, only to pause awkwardly for a few moments afterward. Less so when someone begins stroking your face, responds only when you use their in-game character’s name, or respond yes to any binary question. Oh, and it should be mentioned that none of these may be discussed or revealed.
There’s nothing wrong with these splashes of curious behavior, no matter how out of place they tend to feel among the game’s more serious elements. If anything, they give the timed portions a sense of joy, and it’s often desirable to take a worse madness card because it might replace your current dull one. Surely nothing could be worse than being forced to slide off your chair and onto the floor. That’s what you’ll think until you draw the card that makes you to keep your eyes shut.
Rather, the problem with Mountains of Madness is that it’s simply unpleasant to play. Take, for example, any decision made outside of the timed segments. For the most part, they’re either painfully obvious, such as deciding when to shuffle your deck, or entirely nonexistent, as is the case whenever you move around the map without any sense of what you’re stumbling toward. The game only comes alive during the timed segments, and those are so brisk that they tend to disappear before they’ve even begun. Much of the time, the flurry of activity accompanying each test is so frantic that it masks your compatriots’ odd behavior.
I’ve given a lot of thought to why I dislike the real-time element here when one of my favorite games is Space Alert, and I suspect a lot of the reason comes down to how each game respects its sense of place and humor.
Space Alert has a reputation for unfairness, but also no small amount of cred as a deeply funny game. It gives you ten minutes, throws a dozen problems at you, burdens you with quirky rules, and then slaps your butt and wishes you the best of luck. Not entirely unlike Mountains of Madness, then. The difference is that Space Alert absolutely revels in its more madcap half. Mistakes are gleeful, an investment of a mere ten minutes that often concludes with a fiery explosion. But as crazy as those ten minutes were, they also gave you some wiggle room, ways to massage the outcome, and just enough breathing room to coordinate with your fellow players. When your ship finally went kablooey, it was most likely your own damn fault.
Mountains of Madness, on the other hand, commits three major mistakes. The first is that because its timed segments are so infuriatingly short, there’s no room for the laughter it so clearly hopes to evoke. Each test is over so quickly that the madness cards are robbed of their comedic value and cast solely as additional obstacles. Second, none of what you’re doing is actually interesting. You’re matching icons and counting sums, not coordinating in any meaningful way. It’s speed arithmetic from hell, not a team-building exercise. And lastly, rather than letting you panic and make tragic missteps in a consequence-free environment the way Space Alert does, each error piles one grueling punishment after another on top of your heads. Being buried alive may seem thematically appropriate, but it sure ain’t fun.
If anything, Mountains of Madness may be one of the least-fun titles I’ve played in a long while. The madness cards do their best to mitigate this with the occasional giggle. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a madness card wherein it was written, You must enjoy this game.