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Go to the Big Book of Madness page
8 out of 8 gamers thought this was helpful

The BIG BOOK of MADNESS is a very cleverly devised game from French game designer Maxime Rambourg. It is graced by some rather elegant illustrations by Xavier Durin, known in the board gaming world as Naïade.

I was quite disappointed at Essen a year ago when IELLO showed me the Big Book of Madness, explained how it played, and then told me it was only available in German, so this year at Spiel I was very excited to see that it had been published in English and even more happy when I obtained a copy to play and play and play and, well play, and then review, and then play again.

The BIG BOOK of MADNESS is a cooperative game in the deck-building genre for 2-5 players aged 14+ which takes between 60-120 minutes to play

The players are students of magic who have found an impressive tome. On opening it, accidentally of course, they discover it is actually a prison for a whole bunch of monsters that if released could easily cause Lovecraft-style madness to spread amongst the populace. Each player either selects or is randomly given a Hero/Heroine card (Magician Sheet) that has a Player Aid on its reverse side – there are 8 of these to choose from and thus there are enough Player Aids for all players to share – and 4 White Bordered spells (these are specifically for the players:- Growth, Combustion, Telepathy and Ice), all other spells are black bordered and collected during play.

The Grimoire, the aforementioned impressive tome, has to be set up for each game. There is one final page which is used for every game and then 12 Interior and 4 Cover pages from which the 5 book pages and 1 cover are randomly determined and placed on the right half side of the Lectern (the book at top middle of the board); this is how the Grimoire for each game is set up. Each page has Curse/Element icons on it from the four main elements, Fire, Earth, Water and Air, showing the three which will be required to defeat the next monster; you keep defeating monsters until you get to the last page and have to defeat the final foe.

There are four phases to each player’s turn and depending on the number of players it is possible that some players will have an extra turn; there are six Rounds in the game and a Round ends when the players have defeated the current monster. It is also possible that not all players will end the game as they could go mad during play. Characters go insane when their players pick up too many Madness cards and end up with a compliment of Madness cards in their hand and no element cards.

Every Spell has a cost to cast it and that cost can be multiplied but the spell can only be cast once per player’s turn. So for example Combustion costs 1 Red (Fire) element card and destroys a card in your hand, thus you could destroy a Madness card or you could spend more than 1 Fire Element card and destroy equal to that number of cards in your hand. Once you cast the spell you turn the Spell card sideways (like “tapping” in MtG) and you can only turn it back at the beginning of your next turn.

Your character card has a special ability, the details of your starting Element cards and three slots where you can put Support cards; each special ability is different so it makes sense to plan amongst you prior to starting and decide who will play which character, this is perfectly legal as long as you don’t set up the Grimoire, look through it, and then decide on characters. Role players should look at the Grimoire and its Curses as the GamesMaster and the monsters as encounters on the way to the final end game villain.

Players can have many cards in their deck but can only hold 6 cards in their hand at the end of their turn. If they have more than 6 they have to discard cards down to 6 and if they have less they have to make their hand up to 6. If they do not have enough cards in the deck to make their hands up they have to take Madness cards which are then shuffled into their discard pile and a hand of 6 dealt. If you ever end your turn, after making it back to 6 cards, holding 6 Madness cards you are knocked out of the game. If all players are knocked out the Grimoire wins.

Players can always converse with each other and offer advice. They cannot actually swap cards but they can play Support cards onto their character and these can be used by any player on their turn (but obviously only used once and then discarded) as if they were part of that player’s hand. The Monster phase is where the characters suffer the effects of the Curses. The Invocation board is numbered 2-5 and Curses are dealt onto these (2 Curses on the 3rd space) at the start of each new Monster. The players have a turn each to destroy whatever Curses they can by using the cards in their hands and in Support to equal the necessary Elements to defeat the Curse (as shown on the Curse card).

If they fail to defeat the first one in the line then when the Monster phase begins all players suffer the consequences. Curses do not have to be defeated in the order they appear but for each one that isn’t defeated as it is reached the characters suffer. Sometimes, even with Support, the players cannot defeat a Curse on their turn, in which case they should do all they can to help the other players, if there is no collaboration then there is no victory. This is actually one of those good cooperation games where all players win or all players lose; there is no separate winner who has more points than the others.

The players keep their known spells face up in front of them to help the other players see what is available and to assist each other with suggestions of what to do based on the spells available. Players can usually have only 5 spells, beginning with four and gaining another, but one character has the ability to hold six spells. When you spend Element cards to activate the spells you get no change, so using a 2 or 3 to activate a spell needing just one element can be expensive and oft destructive for the group.

At first with the Curses being quite easy to defeat it seems like the players will walk it but as they advance through the book the Curses get stronger and need more complicated sets of Elements to defeat them. Then, of course, the players have been adding Madness cards to their decks and so drawing Element cards into your hand becomes a lot tougher and the game takes on a new look. Once you have mastered the way to play there are a couple of modes that you can introduce to make it even harder to succeed. These do not change the rules or the way the game is played, they just make it tougher for the players to succeed by adding Madness cards to their hands from the beginning or changing the make up of the player’s Start cards (as shown on their character sheet). The Round track has three columns, one for each level of difficulty, Easy, Medium or Hard, and the level should be chosen before the game begins as it determines the number of Curses for each Monster and which Invocation section they are located.

Nearly every game we have played as gone down to the wire on the last Monster. We have either been fortunate to have just the right number of Elements or we have fallen short at the last hurdle. It is always a game of discussion and decision. I actually like this a lot and am as excited to play it now as I was to see it in English but even I have to admit that it is not a game to play too regularly, not daily or even weekly. it is best played then laid aside for a while and brought out when you have new players round or you are having a weekend gaming session and need an easy to play and explain game with enough substance to occupy the minds of core board-gamers and enough novelty to encourage new players to involve themselves in the cooperative aspect.

Go to the Mystic Vale page

Mystic Vale

13 out of 15 gamers thought this was helpful

This is a deck building game fairly consistent with other games in this genre as far as game play goes but it does include some differences that make it more than a worthy adversary to those games for space in your game collection. It uses AEG’s “crafting system” where the 36 Vale (Reward) cards, the player’s starting decks and subsequent Advancement cards are all printed on strong but flexible clear plastic which slide into sleeves to build the cards whilst also building your deck.

Each player chooses a similarly constructed deck, the cards of which are slipped separately into clear plastic sleeves. The Advancement cards show illustrations in either their top, middle or lower section that show through the clear plastic when slipped in with cards from the player’s own deck, thus building the card’s abilities. A 9 card grid is formed in the centre of the table from the Advancement cards along with Fertile Soil cards; players build their hands from these.

The game relies on players skills in deck building. There are no Dungeoneering or Adventure groups, no weapons or equipment that to be attached, just skill with a little amount of luck in the market-place, and even then your savvy can affect your luck. There is no real player interaction as you do not fight opponents in any way, neither can you steal cards from them. All of this means that games can be played and enjoyed in 30-45 minutes.

Definitely for players who enjoy deck building but want something a little more quirky and generally faster to play.

Go to the The Voyages of Marco Polo page
12 out of 13 gamers thought this was helpful

The Voyages of MARCO POLO: the Basic Game A German Game of the Year for 2-4 Players Aged 12 + Daniele Tascini & Simone Luciani for Hans im Glück

The Voyages of MARCO POLO is a resource management boardgame where the players are competing to gain the most Victory Points through clever use and manipulation of the goods available to them. This review is of the Basic game with mention of how it may change when all players are familiar with the game mechanics.

It is another of those games where the designer has, most probably after problems during play-testing, designated that at the beginning from the Start Player (chosen by whichever method suits the players) onwards each player gains one additional coin, thus going first gives you the most options (for your first Action) but also gives you the least money to activate the chosen option.

For your first few games it is also suggested that you use the characters prescribed in the rules, thus Player 1 has Raschid ad-Din Sinan who never rolls his dice but instead chooses the desired number(s) when required; quite powerful you may think. Player 2 has one extra coin, making his tally 8, and the character Matteo Polo who has an additional die to roll each turn and can take a free Contract each turn if required and space allows. Player 3 is Berke Khan who can occupy already occupied spaces outside of the City without paying the generally assigned cost, and finally Player 4, Mercator ex Tabriz (there are specific cards of this character depending on the number of players) who gains one resource every time someone else (another character) visits the Marketplace, though it has to be the same resource as taken by the opponent.

On the face of it being able to turn your dice to whatever numbers you want sounds very powerful and indeed it does allow you to basically do whatever you want/can afford to. But the downside is that if the other players roll their 5 dice and score fewer than 15 they gain free resources to the value of the difference Raschid ad-Din Sinan does not, even if the player turns the dice to lower than 15.

Having an additional die each time sounds weak but is actually extremely powerful especially as the second part of the character’s abilities is taking a free Contract. It saves the player from wasting dice and money going on buying Contracts, though they still may if they wish, giving them room to visit more spaces than the other players.

Not paying for using an occupied space is quite good but it only counts in the lower part of the board, not the City. This is helpful but maybe not as good as it sounds, possibly the third best of the four start-up characters, Matteo being number 2 and the best being Mercator ex Tabriz as the player with this character starts with the most money, going last, and gains free resources as previously noted. In every game we have played using the basic game setup the player with Mercator has won and won by a large margin and the player who is Raschid has lost, so badly that Mercator hasn’t been far off lapping him on the score track, and we are all experienced board games players.

So hopefully you will have gleaned from those first few paragraphs that in our opinion and experience the setup game is biased and unbalanced, but it does do what you want it to do. It whets your appetite to play again using some of the other characters available and it opens your eyes to the possibilities of the game and how to understand and utilise the mechanics to your best interest. The game changes quite considerably, although obviously the mechanics are the same, when you introduce new characters.

The Characters all begin on the map in Venice and from there they may travel along the roads to various Towns and Cities. Movement is restricted by either or both the number of camels you have and the amount of money you have, once again the first player is even more limited on their ability to move as they have the least money. The roads are marked with Oases which are just spaces that count as a movement point spent and cannot be stopped on, the journey between Cities and Towns must always begin and end in a City or a Town. You may pass through a City or Town if you have enough movement points to get to the next one and once you decide to stop in a Town or City you lay down roots there by building an Outpost. The first player into each City gets a special bonus and all players with Outposts in Cities or Towns gets the bonus or the opportunity to use the bonus associated to that settlement.

I have mentioned Contracts a couple of times so let’s continue by looking at these. Contracts give you bonus points and cash and possibly other assistance in return for Goods. Each player begins the game with one Contract, except Matteo Polo who gets a free one as well. To fulfil a contract you need to spend the necessary resources as shown on the card. Once completed you keep the contract face down as there is an extra bonus at the final scoring for the player who fulfils the most.

Players also begin with two Goal cards each. These have two Cities or Town on them and may contain the same City/Town on both. They are also worth a number of Bonus points per card plus bonuses for each of the Towns/Cities on the cards that you reach. Therefore having to reach the same place for both cards is a boon but it also means you cannot get the full bonus for reaching all four places on the cards (as there are only three to reach). In general the places on the cards are quite far apart and on different roads which means that dedication is required to plot your route between them.

The Voyages of Marco Polo is a game with a lot of options but it is also about gaining the most points and to do this you need to obtain as many of the extra bonuses as you can. It is not usually a good idea to go head down after one specific possibility but on the other hand if you spread your actions too wide you will also struggle. You need to find that often mentioned happy medium which in some games leads you to discovering a routine which when followed almost undoubtedly brings success. If there is such a routine/tactic/strategy for The Voyages of Marco Polo we have yet to find it, other than as previously mentioned, the Mercator start character in the suggested game start setup.

The Voyages of Marco Polo is an excellent game with enough possibilities to ensure it is enjoyed each time it is played, with no “going through the motions” about it whatsoever. Highly recommended. Just one note of caution if you buy the German version (I believe Z-Man have the rights to the English language version) you can find the rules online but they will use a lot of your colour toner or ink as they are quite bright and colourful, rather like the game actually.

Go to the Nefarious page


9 out of 11 gamers thought this was helpful

NEFARIOUS: The Mad Scientist Game

A Mad Boardgame for 2-6 Insane Scientists aged 13+

NEFARIOUS is designed by Donald V Vaccarino for Magellan & USAopoly

When you look at the box and then examine the components the first word that comes to mind, before reading any of the rules or anything about the game, is “insipid”. Thus it is quite a shock to the system when you realise that NEFARIOUS is designed by the creator of the excellent, highly colourful, deck building game, DOMINION.

The artwork is very good, being cartoon style, and the idea of the game – each player being a Mad Scientist out to Rule the World through the crazy inventions – is good fun; it’s just that everything looks so sterile it is more reminiscent of a hospital than the laboratory of an insane scheming MENSA minded lunatic (not that I have seen too many mad scientist’s laboratories, except on television and movies of course). Yes it could be argued that a laboratory would be whited out and sterile and then this would probably fit the bill, but (as I have said about TV and Movies) mad scientist’s labs should be filled with crazy fun oddments and lots of interesting whoosits that have no real purpose other than to look intellectually interesting – at least that’s how I think they should look.

So first impressions are, to repeat, Insipid and Sterile, and the game hasn’t even started yet. So, knowing that you can’t judge books (or games) by their covers, we dived in head first and read the rules ….

There is a short 8-page rules booklet (short in size and in volume) which has 7 pages of rules, examples and illustrations, that needs pages 3,4,5 and 6 to be read and understood before you begin. Because the rules are so brief they cannot be skimmed over, you really need to read every word otherwise it is easy to make errors by presumption.

The idea of the game, at least the unaltered game, is to be the first to score 20VPs by inventing unusual and weird creations. I say “unaltered” because there are TWIST cards that alter the rules, a little like in FLUXX except that once two TWISTS are in place at the start of the game they remain there throughout and are never changed or removed and the rules differences they make remain in place.

There are 36 Twist cards and only 2 are used per game so whatever the number is of possible variations 36 to the power of 2 or something like that, never was a mathematician mad or otherwise; just take it from me that there are a lot of variations of 2 different cards for every game, and thus, as the saying goes, each game is different! Actually, although it may sound like a good idea to have so many possibilities it also seems to be a shame that only 2 of the 36 cards are used each game and many people we have played with have suggested that we should think of a way to change the rules to allow for some fluctuation in the use of the Twist cards.

Every player has 4 Action cards, one each of Espionage, Invent, Research and Work, which are also incidentally the names of the four main areas on the playing board and each turn the players secretly select one of these for their Action. Players also have a set amount of money, $10 unless changed by the Twist cards, and 3 Invention cards which they can look at but should keep secret from the other players, though to be straight it really doesn’t matter too much whether the other players know what inventions you are considering making as there isn’t a lot they can do about it. Lastly the players have 5 Spies each (meeples) which can be placed onto the board via the Espionage Action. After the initial set up there is no hand limit for the Invent cards you can have; all 4 of the Action cards are always available, again unless the Twist card says otherwise; by now you should be beginning to realise just how much influence the Twist cards have on the game.

The game states that “Players in Nefarious act simultaneously” but that isn’t the actual case. Each player does select their Action card at the same time and does collect any money due to them at the same time but then the Action cards are activated in a specific order: Espionage, Invent, Research and finally Work. Each of these has its own specific ability. Playing Espionage allows you to place Spies on the board, either with a cost or without depending where you wish to place them – the cost is shown on the board and on the card. Playing Invent means that the player has enough cash to pay for one of the Inventions (cards) they hold. Inventions cost cash and apart from giving VPs may also have special abilities that will affect all or some of the players. Choosing Research puts $2 in your bank and gives you another Invention card and finally going to Work brings in $4 – you need to visit the Bank fairly often to get enough cash for your Inventions.

Not having much to do on your turn means the game moves quite fast, 30-40 minutes for a 4 player game, but it also means that there is less substance than you would expect from a Donald X Vaccarino game. Most of the time for playing is taken up by deciding which Invention cards to play as many of them have special effects that affect just the player, just the other players or all players. For example, a Gold circle with a number in it and either a Negative or Positive sign takes or gives that many coins to, depending on whether there is a series of 3 red arrows or a single green arrow, the other players and not the player (red arrows) or the player and not the other players (green arrow) or sometimes both symbols appear and thus all players are affected. I chose the Gold coin as an example because it says about the plus and minus signs and yet there are no plus signs on any of the cards, just a number or a number with a minus sign; the intention is obvious but omitted.

Quite often there are multiple effect symbols and these are often left to the player’s understanding of what makes sense than actually being committed to rule. For example a green arrow followed by a plus sign, an Invention card and a coin valued at 2. Our understanding is that the player of the card gains an Invention card AND $2, but the Invention card is angled and has a distinct shadow that could be mistaken for a diagonal slash which would mean that the player of the card gains either an Invention card or $2 because putting a slash between symbols gives the this or that option.

The confusion, if there is any, for as I say commonsense, and finding another card with a slash to make a comparison, should be obvious, is further added to by the last page of the Rules booklet featuring 6 “Special” cards which to be honest seem not to be any more “special” than many of the other Invention cards.Why choose these 6? Why choose any 6? Why not explain every card (there are too many is the answer to that one) but then why give extra explanation of some cards and not of others ?

There is a perfectly good illustration that shows how the Invention cards are played and what each relevant part of the card is, so a partial explanation of some of the possible cards is unnecessary and a little confusing as you are now checking every card to see if it is a “Special” one instead of just playing it when you can afford to.
When you play Espionage you can place Spies on the 4 squares of the board. As you have 5 spies it is presumed that you can have more than one spy on each square and thus gain the advantage of that square twice, though this isn’t covered. When you have a spy on a square during the Action phase if any of your adjacent players (ie those sitting directly to your left and right – counting across the table as directly next to) play the Action on which your spy sits then you gain 1 coin for each (not from each) of them that plays the same card from the Bank. Example Brian, Mike, Fran & Chris sit round the table in that order. If Mike has a spy on Work and Chris and Brian both take the Work Action then Mike gets 2 coins. If Fran also chose the Work Action it wouldn’t affect Mike, though because she is sitting opposite Mike and thus also between Brian and Chris, Fran would also get 2 coins. We therefore assume that if Fran had 2 spies in the Work space she would get 4 coins, 1+1 for each spy. Having spies on the board is a way to make extra money, but we have played several games where the game has been won by players concentrating on getting money from the Bank via the Work space (especially when the Work pays 6 instead of 4 Twist card is the rule) and building Inventions and never sending a spy to the board.

One sentence in the game makes perfect sense but is not an actual game rule, which is quite hard to understand. It states “There can be no inventing without preliminary research!” It would make a lot more sense if you couldn’t choose Invent unless you had a spy on the Research space, and once you had built an Invention that spy went home, job done! But that’s not the case. You do not need to have Researched anything all you need is money to make an Invention and thus so many games are won by the player who has been lucky on the draw of Inventions and who has managed their money better, the remainder of the game is just fancy chrome that occasionally throws a spanner in the works

NEFARIOUS is a game in Limbo; it is between being a gamer’s game and a family game, not quite satisfying either camp.It can be a bit more fun if all the players act up and put on silly mad scientist accents but the overall impression is that the graphic designer (the person who decided on the wishy-washy colour scheme) couldn’t be bothered to put in a good day at the office then the players won’t either. The game mechanic is okay, not great but playable. The artwork is fine, but pastel shades aren’t interest grabbing (the game is about Money not Monet), the rules are brief and intelligible (with a little commonsense) and the idea is solid. The visual appearance of the game just doesn’t draw players to it.

Most of my negativity comes from seeing and playing so many games each year which means I am always looking at games critically. For me, with so many lightly negative points, I suggest that you play with friends who play board games occasionally rather than being avid boardgamers. If you do this then these minor idiosynchrasies will not even become questions.

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