Tides of Madness (Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designer:  Kristian Čurla
  • Publisher:  Portal Games
  • Players:  2
  • Ages:  10 and Up
  • Time:  20 Minutes
  • Times Played:   > 10 (On Review Copy)


Tides of Madness is the sequel to Tides of Time, a game I reviewed last year and put in my Top 10 of 2015.  But Tides of Madness, which features a Lovecraftian theme, adds a new twist: certain cards, while powerful, can also cause you to go mad.  If you accumulate too many Madness Tokens, you go insane… and lose the game.

Like its predecessor, Tides of Madness is a brilliant card drafting and set collection game packed into just eighteen cards.  I’ve loved my plays so far, and the additional strategy that comes from managing the Madness Tokens leads me to liking Tides of Madness even more than Tides of Time.  Most people I’ve played with have agreed.  

Tides of Madness will be released at Gen Con.  It can be preordered from Portal Games for Gen Con pickup.

Tides of Madness: Discovering the Ancient Ones, all in just 18 cards…

“You take on the role of investigators trying to discovery ancient knowledge—secrets beyond the grasp of time… beyond the grasp of the human mind.  You will contact mysterious cults, explore hidden locations, encounter horrific creatures, and learn unspeakable words.  The horror of this knowledge may prove too much to bear for their weak minds, and some of you may be lost forever to madness.”

In addition to the cards, the game comes with twenty madness tokens, a score pad, a pencil, and a rulebook.  The rulebook is especially cool: it is printed on antiquated-looking paper and has the feel of reading an old notepad.  

TOM Other Components

Tides of Madness consists of three rounds in which players draft cards to explore and learn about the Ancient Ones.  The goal is to have most victory points at the end of three rounds, but there’s a twist: certain cards give you Madness Tokens, and if you have nine or more at the end of a round, you lose.

The game is centered on just eighteen cards.  All cards have an ability, and in most cases that ability is a scoring objective.  Fifteen cards have a suit: three each in Races (purple tentacles and stars), Locations (red towers), Manuscripts (green books), Outer Gods (yellow spirals), and Great Old Ones (blue scrolls with a pentagram).  Three cards do not have a suit, and eight cards feature Madness (as shown by a tentacle on the left of the card).  

TOM Cards

Many of the scoring objectives are similar to Tides of Time.  For example, players can get points from (1) each card they have from certain suits, (2) from gathering certain sets, (3) for majorities in suits, and (4) for suits they don’t have.  But there are also several other new cards:

  • Necronomicon: One point for each Madness Token.
  • Miskatonic University: For each majority of other suits, gain four points.  
  • Shub Niggurath: Double the points from your previously-played card.
  • Dreamlands: This card is a wild suit, plus take one Madness Token from your opponent.

Each player takes five cards at the start of the game, and the remaining eight cards are set aside as a draw pile.  Players take turns drafting the cards, playing them face up on the table simultaneously after they are selected and then handing their opponent the remaining cards.  Once each player has drafted five, the round ends, players collect Madness Tokens for each card with the Madness icon.  The player with the most Madness this round may either score four points or heal one Madness by discarding a token.  Scoring then occurs.  Scoring is controlled by the ability of the cards.  

The following example will illustrate scoring:
TOM Scoring Example

The top card gives seven points for a majority in Locations (the red towers).  Given that this player has two out of three Locations, he probably gets those seven points.  He would also get seven points for a majority in Great Old Ones (the blue scrolls), but he doesn’t have any so, he won’t get points.  He gets three points per Race (the purple tentacles), but he has none.  He gets one point per Madness Token, and he collected three, thus earning three points.  Finally, he gets three points per Location, and he has two, so six more points.  Thus, his first round score is probably 16, depending on what his opponent has showing and how many Madness Tokens his opponent collected.  (Remember, the most Madness Tokens gets four points or the ability to heal one Madness.)  This would get noted on the score pad with the pencil that comes with the game.

Before the next round, players check to see if they have nine or more Madness Tokens.  If a player does, he loses.  If both players do, the game ends with no winner.  

After victory points are calculated, but before the next round, players simultaneously choose one of the cards to keep.  This card is theirs for the rest of the game, and it will be scored in subsequent rounds.  Players also return one card face-up to the box and draw back up to five cards.  The second round is then played as normal and scored.

This process is repeated for round three, so in round three each player should have two cards from previous rounds.  Unless somebody died from Madness, the player with the highest score at the end of the third round wins.

My Thoughts on the Game

As I said above, Tides of Madness, like its predecessor, is a brilliant card drafting and set collection game packed into just eighteen cards.  I’ve loved my plays so far, and the additional strategy that comes from managing the Madness Tokens leads me to liking Tides of Madness even more than Tides of Time.  Most people I’ve played with have agreed.  

As with many Portal games, the most striking element of the game is perhaps its artwork.  While I’m not normally a fan of Lovecraft or Lovecraftian themes, this game’s artwork is stunning, and it captures the mythos well.  And it isn’t just the cards: the rulebook itself has a cool presentation, as does the box.  The back of the cards are identical to those from Tides of Time, which surprised me, but maybe Portal has something up its sleeve (maybe linking the two games?).  

Tides of Madness is much more than its artwork: the mechanics are clever.  The game offers a tense duel between two players, especially when it comes to managing your levels of Madness.  Like its predecessor, the game is an exercise in both psychology and calculation: much of it is anticipating your opponent’s picks (“I want this card, but it is only worth it if I get this card too!”) and evaluating the state of the game table.  That was true in Tides of Time, but now it is even more important in Tides of Madness, as monitoring the number of tokens you’re accumulating is critical.  As many as 24 Madness Tokens could enter any given game (though it is typically less), and you have to make sure that not all of those are on your side.  In addition to playing this several times, I’ve watched several more plays, and not managing the Madness Tokens is the ultimate rookie mistake.  

There are plenty of opportunities for players to block each other’s moves, and as is generally the case with drafting games, sometimes you need to pick the card your opponent needs, not the card you really want.  So far, I’ve found that the more experience player has a significant leg up.  There is virtually no randomness — all of the cards will be played at some point, it is just a question of when — and most decisions are made knowing exactly what the other player is holding.  This does add a memory element to the game, but it is manageable.  

Back when I bought Tides of Time, I was concerned about replayability, but the issue never materialized.  After dozens of plays, I still haven’t tired of it, and Tides of Madness has even more depth.  Tides of Madness fast — our plays are now less than 10 minutes — and it works well as a filler.  In the end, you can get a lot of plays out of the $12 MSRP.

If you didn’t like Tides of Time, I doubt this will change your mind, unless perhaps you’re drawn to the theme.  But if you were a fan of Tides of Time, Tides of Madness is certainly worth picking up.  This is sure to be one of the better microgames this year, and Portal Games and Kristian Čurla deserve kudos for creating such a fun experience.  

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris Wray
  • I like it.  
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…
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