Table of Contents
|Tides of Madness (2016)
|Meeple Like Us
Tides of Madness is a taut and tense game of drafting cards and summoning Old Gods. It’s like Sushi Go: Sith Edition. It’s a perfectly good game – three and a half stars in our review is testimony of that. It thrives in situations where neither 7 Wonders or Sushi Go would be a good choice. There’s a lot of missed promise here though – it doesn’t have the distinctiveness of scoring that would have made it truly sing a song that could end the world.
Let’s say though you wanted to buy yet another Lovecraft game and add it to the thousands that already exist on your shelf. Would this be one that would be accessible enough to consider? Let’s cast these sigils into the abyss and see what swarms up to devour us from within.
Colour blindness isn’t an issue for play. While each of the different suits is identified by colour, it’s also accompanied by a large and vivid icon that has a good deal of differentiation via silhouette. The proportions of these are generous on the main cards, although not quite so large when it comes to how they feature into scoring conditions.
The only other component in play are the madness tokens, and these are meaningful only by quantity not by any inherent element of state.
We’ll strongly recommend Tides of Madness in this category.
There aren’t a lot of moving parts in games of Tides of Madness. All you really have is the cards for the draft, the ones that you’ve selected, and some physical madness tokens. As this is a two player game, there’s a reasonably small amount of game state of which you need to be aware – specifically, the cards your opponent has drafted and how they contribute to their scoring context. Otherwise all that’s needed is to assess the cards in front of you with reference to your hand and your own previous drafts.
In this, the cards are well structured in that they encode key game information in the same place and they can be compressed down to maximise information per ‘visual inch’. A full draft of cards can be layered in such a way as to offer all the key game elements in an easily visually parsed format. The art takes up a very large portion of the card though, with pride of place in terms of written information given to the name of the depicted location or elder god. This is presented in a font that is likely to be unreadable to people with visual impairments as well as a significant portion of those without. The names are often deeply complex, unintuitive, and presented with a drop shadow. This is a problem that will likely go away with familiarity since there are only a comparative handful of cards to learn but it will have a short-term impact on the convenience of verbalisation.
This ease of inspection is not quite so associated with cards in hand since they are large and unwieldly and laid out in landscape orientation. That makes them difficult to simultaneously examine and hold.
A game like this is usually intended to be played with cards drafted secretly, with hands exchanged but remembered. However, beyond the first draft which is ideally conducted completely covertly with no reference to the other hand there’s no real need for this. In fact, it mostly just punishes people with poor memories.
Most of Tides of Madness can be played completely open – certainly after the first card selection. That would have a tremendous impact on the ease of play with support from the table since it would alleviate the need for close inspection of a large and unwieldy hand of cards. Some mechanism would be needed to permit cards to be selected in secret, but that can reasonably easily be handled by a visually impaired player deciding from the open information, selecting underneath the table, and shuffling the rest back into a stack to be passed on. For most of the game this is going to have vanishingly little negative impact on play.
For a player with total blindness then, the game is likely to be fully playable if both players are happy to lose the implied memory component of drafting and the uncertainty of selection in the first round. Otherwise the need to maintain secrecy of cards results in play being impossible without sighted assistance since all the key information is printed. For players with less severe visual impairments the game is likely to be fully playable with close inspection, although doing this in hand will be somewhat cumbersome.
However, as this is a two player game it’s also important to take into account the statistics at work against accessibility – at least half of the players need to be sighted to an appropriate degree.
We’ll strongly recommend Tides of Madness in this category.
There is a reading level associated with play, and while it’s not excessive the solution is going to be ‘learn through familiarity’ and that’s going to put a pressure on memory. The only iconography used in play is representational of the different suits but there are still eighteen cards with occasionally sophisticated effects to remember. Numeracy requirements are a little higher since the perceived value of a card is going to vary depending on the scoring conditions you have, the conditions of your opponent, and the cards left to come out in the draft. Each individual card has a complex effect in the scoring calculation, acting as it does simultaneously as fuel for other cards and source of points in its own right. Usually.
That puts a lot of pressure on a player to make good choices with the information available, and in the uncertain circumstances of what another player is going to do. A card you are choosing may be intensely dependant on a card you just passed on, and if the other player correctly assesses your strategy you may find that you do nothing of value as a result. Part of your job in the draft is doing the same thing to your opponent. A lot of that is thinking through all the various possibilities and how likely they are, and that’s cognitively taxing. Remembering the cards an opponent has available is also dependant of your ability to hold in memory a representation of what you passed them. To alleviate a lot of the memory burden it’s possible to play with open cards for most of the game. This makes much of the memory load in play optional.
The game state isn’t overly complex, but it does have moments where it becomes quite febrile and in sophisticated ways. The Necronomicon gives a point for each madness token, which hugely influences the brinksmanship that goes into the bonus points awarded for those. Miskatonic College gives you the opportunity to score for each majority you collect, and that is a joker element in a game that is otherwise intensely proscriptive. One card doubles the value of your next card, and playing that well is as much about timing as it is about the draft. People react differently when these cards make their way into someone’s tableau and that has subtle, and not so subtle, influences on the game state. Game flow is reliably consistent and there are few synergies in the cards although plenty that work well together. There are no ‘explosive’ chains of effects here though – no escalating complexity as a result of canny intersections.
Scoring is straightforward, but it does require the evaluation of several conditions against a game state that may not be especially easy to parse. For example, the aforementioned Miskatonic College requires you to work out who has a majority in any of the five suits and while that’s not difficult it does need a bit of calculation. Most of the time though cards can be scored quickly, and then the total becomes an act of arithmetic.
We’ll tentatively recommend Tides of Madness for those with fluid intelligence impairments, and recommend it for memory alone if players are okay with open state for the drafts.
This is a Lovecraft game that lacks all the real bite of Lovecraft – it’s basically a thin theme on top of a perfectly enjoyable game of card drafting. The push and shove of the madness mechanisms adds an interesting tension to play, but aside from the final denouement when you find out how close you skirted to the line between sanity and insanity it doesn’t have a lot of emotional heft. It can be frustrating to lose a game because you went too far over the line (or were pushed there) but it can also be funny to see your plan unravel because of your own hubris. In most cases if you’re at risk of losing as a result of madness it’s because you chose bonus points over healing sanity.
Other than this, the only thing players can do to get in each another’s way is ‘hate drafting’ – taking cards they know someone else wants just to deprive them of the points. It’s more targeted here, but the impact is also reduced because in the end it only comes from one direction and to emphasise it too heavily is to run the risk of losing. In a larger game, lots of people may be trying to undermine you and as a result it can be disproportionately effective as a strategy. Here it usually ends up being a zero-sum game and that disincentivises it somewhat.
We’ll recommend Tides of Madness in this category.
The cards are large, which is fine, and oriented in landscape, which isn’t. This means that a card holder isn’t going to be an appropriate compensation since you’ll probably only be able to fit one or two cards in there while retaining the key information. For each card you need to see its suit and its scoring instructions and these are located along the top on two separate corners. This makes in-hand management difficult if players wish to retain the secrecy of the draft.
However, a compensation that we’ve discussed in several categories already is playing with largely open state. This isn’t always appropriate for the first card you pick since that has to be done from a position of imperfect information, but it has a powerful normalising effect on play otherwise. Failing this, the key difficulty is in the heavy rotation of cards between players since it will involve folding them into a stack and unfolding them into whatever physical layout is comfortable.
That makes verbalisation difficult because it’s going to have to relate to a game state that is spread too wide to be comfortable. Again the solution there is perhaps to play with open state. In that case, all you need to worry about is awkward pronunciation and making sure that the selections are simultaneous and secret. That can be handled in a number of ways – secret indication on a piece of paper for example.
We’ll recommend, just, Tides of Madness in this category.
Well, it’s a Lovecraft game and as such it has a certain cultural inaccessibility – enjoying his works depends on your ability to look beyond the odious views of the man and the way they were represented in the original literature. None of that is expressed in the design of Tides of Madness but we all know it’s there in the background. It’s easier to do it here than in a lot of games simply because the Cthulhu Mythos is not well expressed in its design. Still though.
A plague that is common to Lovecraft games too is the reductive view of ‘madness’ as expressed through a shallow sanity meter. This can be a stigmatising element of games for those where mental health and its representation is important. Still, you’re as likely to find a Lovecraft game that doesn’t reference Cthulhu as you are to see this change. It’s just a lazy shorthand that has no real thematic heft and could easily be represented by something like ‘horror’ or ‘dread’ or ‘cosmic attention’ without a single other thing changing.
The art in Tides of Madness is largely themed around places and eldritch creatures – what humans are present are mostly there as largely undifferentiated silhouettes. This means there aren’t really any representational problems, but also it emphasises a key feature of the literature which is that humanity is tiny and insignificant. There are two goals achieved with one artistic decision and that’s great.
While Tides of Madness only supports two players, it’s also relatively cheap at an RRP of £13. It also comes in a small box that makes it very portable – it was for that reason that I bought it in the first place. It fit nicely into our travel luggage when we were off in Romania.
We’ll recommend Tides of Madness in this category – if you have a problem with Lovecraft, it at least doesn’t try to shove it in your face.
There is an expectation of some literacy, and while the necessary game elements can be committed to memory there are eighteen cards for which this will need to be done. Play is possible with a crib sheet, and most of the card effects are straightforward enough to ease the difficulty. There’s no other formal need for communication, so we’ll recommend Tides of Madness in this category.
Tides of Madness has a strong profile across the board here, but that depends on players being willing to sacrifice a little of the purity of the design with open play. As discussed above, all this does is normalise the memory element so that nobody is disadvantaged but it has a massive positive accessibility impact. The awkward form factor of the cards and the amount of physical swapping is going to have a major impact on play otherwise. This isn’t so much an intersectional issue as a cross-sectional issue – many of our grades would be significantly harsher if players were unwilling to do this.
As is often the case with a two player only game, the mathematics of accessibility are a little skewed. Statistically speaking there is less likely to be an abled player available to offer assistance if required. For a game like this where many of the grades depend on playing with open state, that is going to be a significant problem. If two players with impairments in the same category are playing, it would be necessary to consider what implication this is like to have for feasible play.
Tides of Madness plays reasonably briskly, and since it’s played over rounds it permits for players to take breaks or even play over longer periods of time if necessary. ‘Saving’ the game is as simple as making a note of what cards have been kept between rounds, and then separating the ‘active’ cards from the others. Otherwise, there’s no scope for players to drop out of play but plenty to ‘postpone’ until a more convenient time.
If you’re willing to be flexible on what a drafting game involves, Tides of Madness achieves a very strong performance here. If you’re willing to be flexible. If not, the visual parsing, state management and memory burden would lead to a very different and far more critical accessibility profile. That’s a decision that players are going to have to make for themselves though.
This does raise an interesting question though as to where the line is acceptably drawn in accessibility support versus the expectation of game design. Drafting games depend to an extent on people remembering what cards are floating around the environment. To what extent is the need for a good memory reflective of skilful play and to what extent is it an inaccessibility?
We gave Tides of Madness three and a half stars in our review – it’s fun, tightly designed, and has an interesting madness dynamic that gives you a few options beyond the ordinary when it comes to deciding how to play. We might not be able to muster much enthusiasm for it over other drafting games of its kidney but it is notably more accessible and that might be the thing to commend it to your attention.
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Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
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