|Tides of Madness (2016)
|Meeple Like Us
Do you like the idea of Sushi Go but find it a little too twee? Does the idea of drafting a delicious meal leave you feeling emotionally malnourished? Do you still have a bit of room for Lovecraft in your already-diet? In the buffet of franchises that have been aggressively over-leveraged by board game developers, do you still hunger for a little bit of Cthulhu?
Well my friend, I may have just the game for you!
If you think of Tides of Madness as ‘Sushi Go if it had been sorted into Slytherin’ you’d be about 90% of the way towards understanding how it works. It’s a tense, balanced two player game of drafting cards against a backdrop of escalating insanity. Particular combinations of cards score well, and you’ll seek those cards until they drive you mad. Other cards represent dangerous knowledge that you simply cannot allow to fall into the possession of your opponent. Each time you select a card from your hand, you pass the rest over to your fellow dabbler in the occult to pick over the leavings and some of those will be rich indeed. You’ll do this over three full rounds, retaining one card from your hand as a permanent attainment with each new exploration that starts. The person at the end with the most points will win, perfectly in keeping with what Lovecraft notably wrote in his overwrought fiction.
That’s the entirety of Tides of Madness – cold war brinksmanship except with the looming threat of insanity rather than nuclear missiles. Sure, you’ll end the world just as effectively but at least you’ll be mentally separated from the eldritch fallout as a consequence of your own insulating layer of unreality. It’s like being a hardcore Brexiteer really, except with less disastrous consequences for the rest of us.
Many people reading this review will already be pretty much at home with how this works, because it’s the core of a dozen games. Card drafting is common, and most people with a bit of experience in hobbyist gaming will have likely played at least one game that made it a headline feature. There are some nuances here though in the way Tides of Madness approaches the job of investing you in your turn. The scoring chains in Tides of Madness are based on the matching of opportunities to the suits on each of the cards. Each of the options you have to choose from offers you unique opportunities for capitalising upon that.
The scoring context of the game then is one that is distinct to each player. However, the cards are also designed in such a way that you can’t simply focus on what you want without being deeply wary of your opponent. You may be seeking the red towers, but that doesn’t mean your opponent won’t see equal value in their acquisition. It’s rare, even with only two players, that you have free rein to collect the sigils that matter most to you. The chances are high that you’ll both want everything, but even if you don’t the cost of letting something slip between your fingers can be too much to reasonably bear.
The card drafting in Tides of Madness is interesting because the rewards are so large you shouldn’t willingly let an opponent claim them. If you collect the Nyarlathotep card you will get thirteen points for each full set of signs you collect, and that’s a lot of points . Your can’t let your opponent make a full set, and you know your opponent can’t let you make a full set. And your opponent knows that you know that they know… uh… well, you get the idea.
That means a lot of the time you’ll be picking cards just to keep them out of your opponent’s hand, perhaps only so they abandon a strategy in which they no longer have confidence in pulling off. Every card you pick though is going to shift the landscape of the scoring and thus unsettle the foundations upon which everything has been built. Cards are usually a scoring condition and progress towards an unrelated goal. The combination of these you put together will have its distinctive complexity. This is a lovely idea in theory but in practice it only takes two drafts before you see which cards are functionally useless. That Nyarlathotep isn’t worth anything if there are no cards of the ancient races suit available in the draft. You’d be much better picking a card from which you could realistically benefit. Otherwise you’re actively acting against your interests in the great gamble of the Old Gods favour. I think a game like this needs you to be invested in every pick of the card because there are only a few of these in each draft. Unfortunately the last few cards that come your way are basically the trash nobody wanted and it pumps an unhealthy dose of sedative into the blood-stream of the mechanisms just at the point they should be getting most interesting.
Acting as a counterpoint to this though is that some cards are adorned with the tentacles that act as signs of developing madness and you’ll have an interesting relationship to these over the course of the game. You get a bonus if you accrued the most madness in a round, but you lose the game instantly if you ever have nine or more. It’s a tightrope you need to walk very tentatively, There’s a very fine line between ‘winning the game of madness’ and ‘losing the game of Tides of Madness’. You might find your opponent discreetly giving you the opportunity to win there just so they can ensure that your final round is a desperate battle to not take more madness even at the cost of your own score. Sometimes, if you’ve been reckless, the last round of the game is a desparate struggle to simply stay in the game. You dig your heels in, screaming as you refuse to be drawn into the eldritch, shimmering portal that has opened up in the shady, unvisited recesses of your mind. You will not go gentle into that good night.
What makes this even more interesting is that winning the madness for a round can win you four points, or let you heal a point of ‘sanity damage’. That can put you in the tense position of wanting to win the most tokens, but only to the point you can likely heal its impact below that insta-fail threshold. After all, if you don’t win then you’ve basically just gifted your opponent a chunk of points. That’s too much like being a good friend. If you can just keep one madness token ahead without slipping then you can skirt the abyss without conceding anything. You can cleverly wield madness in this way. Sometimes it’s like your opponent is not even paying attention to you. Sometimes it’s like that.
On the other hand it can be very entertaining to essentially drip-feed accomplishments to your opponent, secure in the knowledge your plan is to drive them mad through revelation of tempting opportunities. You might feign ignorance, relying on an opponent’s greed to drive them to the brink. Your comparatively miserly score doesn’t matter if you succeed in this sinister strategy. It’s within this context that even the dead, useless cards in your hand attain an additional value – as rest marks in the tempo of card drafting. You might take them just to poison the well for your opponent by extracting the only choice that doesn’t drive them to insanity.
This all works well enough, but not as well as it could. The scoring options, as interesting as they potentially are, just aren’t varied enough to really bring out the asymmetry the design implies. After all, for most of them you’re collecting suits and all that changes when a scoring card is played is the weight each player assigns to the value. In a game with a larger number of players you can rely on that to heavily texture the card-play in a way that adds layers of strategic depth. You don’t really see that with two players since there are so few cards in each draft that mostly you end up trading off advantages because you don’t have time to dig in for a siege. There are a number of cards with more genuinely innovative mechanics that do greatly change your incentives in a draft, but not enough. One for example doubles the score of your next card and that adds a timing element, a hard deadline by which you need to take advantage, and a distorted incentive for you and your opponent. As soon as you play down that card you hand your opponent a puzzle… ‘what card do I need to take to nullify that overwhelmingly dangerous trap?’.
When that happens, it’s like you suddenly shift into an entirely different gear of the game and that’s when Tides of Madness is at its absolute best. There just aren’t enough of those ‘wow’ moments threaded through the rest of the deck. There’s asymmetry in play, but it’s an under-utilised mechanism. I appreciate balance is a difficult thing to achieve the more weird and wonderful the mechanisms become… but achieving the difficult is kind of what I’m paying a designer to accomplish when I buy a game.
I might be pretty worn out by all the Lovecraft games out there, but I’m going to take a moment here to highlight just how lovely the art in Tides of Madness is. I’m not much of a fan of games that adopt a ‘show, not tell’ approach to the design of otherworldly horrors and I think that’s a pitfall that’s been largely avoided here. The horror is suggested rather than represented and it does this with scale, perspective and palette being drafted to create the overall impression of menace. For the most part, the aesthetic is successful in being sinister. For the most part. The Cthulhu Mythos otherwise is only a few words scrawled in an occult font onto the art.
Tides of Madness is certainly a tight, tense game where you’re constantly forced into the position of offering advantage to an opponent while you both pirouette around a decision space made murky and unknowable by the secret incentives of the draft. Every choice is an uncertain philosophical wrestling match where you’re each throwing the other into an erratic orbit through the reaction and overreaction to earlier choices you both made. It’s a nice dynamic. It’s comfortable and familiar, like pulling on a well loved pair of socks.
The thing is – Lovecraft’s world is not one that works well with comfort and it positively shatters when brought into conjunction with familiarity. Those that have some experience with games like 7 Wonders will find this recognisable territory, even with the quirks of scoring and madness. In such circumstances what you mostly have here is a theme that is merely a skin being worn by a whole host of other games you already know. Sure, that’s pretty horrifying but not enough to impart any real novelty to the experience. For those that already have Sushi Go or 7 Wonders, the only thing Tides of Madness really gives you is the asymmetry and the waltz of madness and I don’t think that’s quite enough. That is, unless you really want a small box two-player game that gives you the flavour of both. That just strikes me as an awkward niche, and if your collection is sophisticated enough to need a game like that it probably already has plenty of other excellent two player games threaded through it. Tides of Mandess suffers badly as a result of not exploring unfamiliar territory.
If it’s not familiar though – if this is maybe your first foray into card drafting – it’s a different story. For those that don’t have the aforementioned games and mostly play in two player situations, I would likely recommend this over both. That’s not just because neither Sushi Go or 7 Wonders are good at two players, but because I think this is mechanically a more interesting game without being structurally overwhelming. 7 Wonders has a tendency to lose players in opaque tunnels of strategizing where they arrive at a destination without ever really understanding the route. Sushi Go is light and breezy but ironically for a game about sushi there isn’t much bite to the decision making. Tides of Madness occupies a halfway house between those and as a result is simply a touch more interesting to play. That interest though is tightly coupled to novelty – there’s little meaningfully new in here, but new means a meaingfully different thing to different people.