Dale Yu: Review of The Big Book of Madness


The Big Book of Madness

  • Designer: Maxine Rambourg
  • Publisher: IELLO
  • Players: 2-5
  • Ages: 14
  • Time: 60-90 mins
  • Times played: 5, with review copy provided by IELLO


Big Book of Madness had been a long time coming… I had been hearing about it at IELLO promotional events since about 2004.  Well, that’s a slight exaggeration – but probably since early 2014!  The teaser was some awesome art, a big book, and the promise of the next great cooperative game.  I thought I was going to get to play it at GenCon 2015, but as it turns out, it was not quite done, and just more teasing art at the promo event.

Finally, at Essen 2015, the game was ready for release, and I was glad to get a copy to try.  Just writing that should cause you to double take, because as you probably know, I’m honestly not the biggest fan of co-operative games.  The mere fact that I was looking forward to trying it out tells you that I’m either getting really soft in my old age or the hype had gotten to me and I needed to see what it was all about.

In The Big Book of Madness (BBoM), players take on the role of student magicians who somehow manage to find the Big Book of Madness, and despite all the signs telling them not to do so – they open the Big Book and unleash the evil that was trapped inside the covers.  On each of the six page-spreads of this book, the students find a monster, the curses that come with the monster, and the rewards/punishments for defeating/not defeating it.  There are four different covers, twelve different interior pages (choose 5) and a single final page that is always used.


Players can choose their student in the game, the game comes with 2 students in each of the four elements (air, earth, water, wind).  Each comes with a different special ability as well as a different set of starting cards.  Players start the game (and each round) with a hand of 6 cards, drawn from their evolving deck.  There are also three areas for cards in Support around each character card.  Any cards in Support are considered to be in a communal hand – and these cards can be played/modified/whatever by the current active player.

an example student

an example student

Each player also starts with the same set of four basic spells.  There are more advanced spells that are available each game, chosen from a larger pool, and these are set up near the board – one level two spell of each element and one level three spell of each element.

the 4 basic spells

the 4 basic spells

The final component to set up are the Madness cards.  You choose a size deck as directed by the rules (30 in a 4 player game) and place them on the board.  These are fairly important as they can be added to your deck to gum it up.  Even worse, if the deck of Madness cards should ever run out, you lose the game!

The game is played over six rounds – and in each round, the students will face a different monster from the BBoM.  The players will win if they are able to defeat the monster on the final page of the book.  The players lose if the Madness deck runs out, if the players cannot defeat the final monster, or if all the players are eliminated because they have gone mad.  There is a circular track in the center of the board that help you track the different phases of each round.  The players have 5 turns each round to try to vanquish all the curses of the monster and defeat it.  Each player has four different phases on his turn: Refresh Spells, Monster Phase, Action Phase and Recuperation Phase.

To start the round, you expose the next page of the book and see what the monster is.  When the monster first arrives, there is an automatic event that happens upon the turning of the page.  Additionally, there are three curses (one each of three different element colors) that are invoked by the creature.  Furthermore, depending on the round of the game (and the difficulty level chosen) – you may also get one or two multi-colored curses as well.

On a player turn, the first thing you do is refresh your spells – any spells that had been rotated to show that they had been used – are turned back upright; they can now be used again.  Then, you move the book on the monster track to the next number.  If there are any curses face up under that number, their bad effects take place as soon as the book reaches their number.  Note that space 3 has two curse areas under it, so you could possibly take two negative effects if you have not cleared these curses by then.  If you reach the final space of the track, you would check to see if you have won against this monster (more on this later).


Next you move to the action phase – where you can use five different actions.  You can you as many actions as you like, but there is a cost to take them, and you must spend Element cards from your hand or from the support pool for each action – and remember, that in general, you start each round with 6 cards.  Your action choices are: Activate a spell, Learn a new spell, Acquire element cards, Destroy Curses, Cure Madness.

Activate a spell – use one of the four spell cards in front of you. Pay the cost in elements as shown on the card and then do the card’s action.  You may pay up to three times the activation cost of the card, and for each overpayment, whatever action is modified by the number in a white circle is done that many times.

All players start with the same four basic spells.

  • Growth – cost [1] green: Draw [1] card
  • Ice – cost [1] blue: Place [1] card from your hand in support
  • Combustion – cost [1] red: destroy [1] card from your hand
  • Telepathy – cost [1] yellow: One other player takes [1] Action

Learn a new spell – At the start of the game, one level 2 spell of each element and one level 3 spell from each are chosen randomly.  The level 2 spells are all available at the start of the game, and once purchased, the corresponding level 3 card is available.  The cost for any spell is simply 2 elements of the matching type (from your hand or the support pool).  When you buy a new spell – if you don’t have room, you must discard one of your current spells as you have a maximum capacity of 5 (I guess that you don’t have any extra room in your brain for more than 5).  You can use a new spell as soon as you learn it.

some of the more advanced spells

some of the more advanced spells

Acquire element cards – at the start of the game, the majority of the Element cards in your deck as basic cards – each provides you one unit of an Element.  There are, however, level 2 and level 3 element cards, each producing 2 and 3 units of the pictured element.  In order to gain a level 2 element card, you must spend 2 elements from your hand (or the support pool); you must spend 3 matching elements to gain a level 3 element card.  The newly gained card is placed in your discard pile – you will not get a chance to play it yet.

Destroy a curse – there will be between 3 and 5 curses for each monster in the game, and you can destroy one of them by paying the four elements shown on the card (either four of one type or one of each of the four types).  You could use cards in the Support pool for this cost.  The destroyed curse is removed from the game, and as a reward, you get a level 2 element card of your choice added to your discard pile.

examples of curses

examples of curses

Cure Madness – you can cure a Madness card from your hand or the support pool by paying any two elements of the same type.  This cured Madness card is returned to the Madness deck – which is generally a good thing because exhausting the Madness deck is one way to lose the game.

In the Recuperation Phase, you bring your hand back to exactly 6 cards.  If you have fewer than  6, you draw cards from your deck until you have 6.  If your deck is empty, you add a Madness card to your discard pile, then pick it up, shuffle it, form a new deck and draw from that.  If you have more than 6, you must discard cards, but note that you can never discard Madness cards to do so.   At the end of this phase, if you have 6 Madness cards in your hand, you have gone mad and are eliminated from the game.

Play then passes to the next player who goes through the same phases.  In that player’s monster phase, if the book token makes it to the Monster Resolution space – the game is paused and players check to see if they have defeated the monster.  This is easy enough to do – if there are one or more curses left on the board at this time, the players have lost to this monster; if there are no curses left on the board, then the players have won!  The right side of the BBoM has both a bonus effect (for winning) and a malus effect (for losing).  Apply the appropriate reward and then move the marker onto the number 1 space which then opens the next page in the book.  Play continues onward in the same fashion.

At the end of the sixth round, assuming the players are still in the game, the game will be won or lost depending on whether or not the final monster has been vanquished!  [Pro tip – the final page in the book ALWAYS causes everyone to get a Madness card as soon as it is revealed – so you need to have at least 4 Madness cards in the deck when opening the last page or you will automatically lose!

My thoughts on the game

My group has had a great time with this game – though we’re not normally the sort to play cooperative games, this one made it to the table a lot in the first month, mostly because it’s a game that requires the players to really decide things together as opposed to just having someone quarterback the action.

The game is very challenging. We barely win on the easiest difficulty level.  The game allows you to modify the difficulty of play by adding more curses per monster card and by changing the number of Madness cards in the game.  As any regular reader of this blog will know, my regular group is admittedly really bad at winning cooperative games, so you’ll have to take my claims of difficulty with a grain of salt.  Thus far, we’ve won once out of 5, and were within one or two cards of winning a second time.

I really like the way that the action moves around the table.  Some cooperative games have all the players taking their actions at the same time – and I find that this leads to quarterbacking – because inevitably someone has to “coordinate” all the player’s actions which often just turns into “you do this” and “he does that” and “she’ll do this”…   With BBoM, there is always an active player, but the team has to talk over what they want to do and in what order.  A big key is to grant another player an action on your turn (because they have the cards to do something or a specific spell ability that would be beneficial now…)

Timing is key in playing optimally.  You need to figure out which curses to suffer and which to get rid of – and if you are going to resolve a curse, trying to do so before you take the negative penalty from them!  Another factor that may sway how/when you defeat a curse is the reward of getting a 2-element card to your discard if you are the player that defeats the cure.  With the right timing, you can improve particular decks with the cards that they most need.

You also probably will have to decide which monsters to beat (i.e. defeat all the curses) and which to let go – and instead of focusing on removing the curses, trying to put cards in support or do other things to set yourself up for the next page in the Big Book of Madness. Most rounds start with an ideal flow of trying to get rid of the curses that will activate at the start of the next player’s turn.  Of course, having the double curse whammy in phase 3 of each round always mucks things up.

I think my group struggles with support cards; this seems to be the key to flexibility.  Whether this is using element cards from different players to defeat a curse, or perhaps throwing curse cards up into support so that a player can possible return them to the supply and thus extend the game.  We have also found that getting advanced spell cards is key to success.  The second level spells are pretty good, but the third level spells can be awesome.  The catch is that you have to spend the cards and actions to pick up the level 2 spells before you can even see what the level 3 spells are!  There is definitely a fair amount of opportunity cost in getting to the advanced spells, but this seems to be nicely balanced out, if not exceeded, by the better actions on those level 3 spells.

My only beef with the game is that I have not liked our 5 player games.  Others have also commented on this on BGG, and the head of IELLO and the game’s designer have rebutted those arguments and say it’s ok for 5.  My issue with that number of players is this:  Given the number of turns in any given round (5 for each monster), in a 5p game, the players will always have their active turn in the same spot in the round – i.e. whichever player goes first overall in the game will always be the first player to have a turn against each monster.  While that might be good strategy wise (as you can plan for that quirk in ordering and perhaps put someone with a useful special ability or spell in that position), it does potentially make the game less exciting for those last in turn order – when sometimes all the curses have already been defeated, thus leaving nothing much to do on your active turn.  This also can lead to an imbalance in deck compositions as it would be more likely for those players in earlier turn order to defeat curses, so they would be more likely to pick up the reward 2-element cards into their deck.

The game looks prime for expansions – this could be in the form of more spell cards, more monster cards or maybe even different characters.  There has already been one this year at Xmas in the IELLO Xmas card!

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Michael Weston (1 play): I enjoyed the game, but had exactly the same complaint as Dale. Our play as 5p, I was last, and the game got very (very) same-y by the end. My role was to do things to get cards into position for others to do things with on their turn. And if the reward for defeating a monster involved retrieving a card from discard (more than 1 did), more often than not I had just shuffled and had no discard pile. I haven’t checked the Geek for possible tweaks, but the obvious one is to rotate the start player, at least in a 5p game. I don’t see what it would hurt. But I’m more interested in trying it 3p and 4p. As for difficulty, it felt about right. We’d started figuring better tactics by the midpoint (though forgetting the “take a 2-card when removing a curse” rule until almost the end really hurt us) and I can see getting proficient enough to win the intermediate level. The expert level feels completely out of reach, as I think it should after only 1 play.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, Michael W., John P, Craig V
  • Neutral. Luke H
  • Not for me…


About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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