(2016 – Funforge Games, Passport Game Studios)
Designers Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc first worked together on creating Mr. Jack, a two-player deduction game where one player took the role of Jack the Ripper, secretly hidden amongst eight different characters, while his opponent played as the Investigator, attempting to reveal Jack’s identity before Jack either escaped they city, or daylight arrived. Even 10 years after its initial release, Mr. Jack stands as one of the best two-player head-to-head deduction games on the market. Since then, Cathala and Maublanc have collaborated on such titles as Cleopatra, Dice Town, Cyclades, and Madame Ching. Their newest release, Pocket Madness, uses a Rummy-style mechanic with a unique twist, themed around the Lovecraftian mythos of the Ancient Ones.
Pocket Madness is a small card game, essentially made up of 70 tarot-sized cards and a pack of cube tokens. In the game, players will attempt to rid their hand of cards by playing either sets of 3-of-a-kind, or a straight run of 7 cards (there are only values of 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 in the game). All of this is themed around the Cthulhu mythos. Thematically, players are investigators seeking out to unveil the true nature of the Ancient Ones. On a turn a player can either investigate (draw new cards), open a portal (play a set of 3 cards) which gains him a one-time use special ability, or publish his research (play a straight run of 7 cards). When a player publishes his research, his opponent’s go a bit insane from reading it, and all receive a madness token. Additional madness tokens are given if previous publications have been made during the round. If a player is able to rid his hand of cards, he clears his mind, removing half of his accumulated madness and the round ends. Once a round has ended, if any player has 10 or more madness tokens, the game ends and the player with the least amount of madness is the winner.
– Portal Cards
– Location cards (six 6’s, seven 7’s, eight 8’s, nine 9’s, ten 10’s, eleven 11’s, and twelve 12’s)
– Madness tokens
At the beginning of the game, the seven Portal cards are placed in the center of the table. Each card represents a portal that can be opened to one of seven Ancient Ones, and each contains a special action a player can take if they control that card. During the game, players will be able to discard three cards of the same value in order to take control of the corresponding value’s Portal card.
The Location cards consists of places where rumors are said to contain clues of ancient myths. These cards are comprised of value’s 6 through 12, and each value also directly correlates to the number of cards with that value in the deck. Therefore, there are more 12’s in the deck (twelve of them), than there are 6’s (six of them). At the beginning of the game, all of the location cards are shuffled together, and each player draws two cards. Then, 17 cards are drawn and place to the side. The draw pile is then flipped face-up and the 17 previously drawn cards are placed back on top of the draw deck face-down. These cards are then shuffled together again, and are then splayed out below the Portal cards so that players can see each one (the 17 cards are mixed within these splayed cards, face-down).
Finally, the Madness tokens are placed near the center of the table and a start player is determined and the game. After setup is complete, the play area should look something like this:
Essentially using a Rummy-style mechanic, players will attempt to force their opponents to take Madness tokens, by either playing a run of cards (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12), or by getting rid of all cards in their hand. At the end of a Round, if a player has 10+ Madness tokens, the game ends and the player with the least amount of madness, wins. On a player’s turn, he can perform one of three actions; investigate, open a portal, or publish his research. At the end of his turn, he can also seal a portal, if he chooses. Let’s take a look at how each of these actions work:
I. Investigate – At the beginning of each Round, the center of the play area will have a full set of Location cards, as seen during initial setup. 17 of these cards face-down, while the remaining majority are face-up. When a player chooses to investigate, he can choose to take 1, 2, or 3 cards from the row, and add them to his hand. Note however, that the player must always take the leftmost cards when investigating. So if a player chooses to take 3 cards, he’ll need to take the 3 at the beginning of the row.
You may think to yourself, “Why would you not take all 3 cards every time?”. But as we’ll see in a bit, players are attempting to rid the cards in their hand, therefore taking cards that you don’t necessarily need can be to your disadvantage later on.
II. Open a Portal – As players continue to investigate (add cards to their hand), they’ll eventually come across enough clues (have the correct cards in their hand) that will allow them to open up portals to the realms of the Ancient Ones. On a player’s turn, he can play a set of 3 cards of the same value from his hand in order to open a portal, taking the matching Portal card from the center of the table (or stealing it from another player) and places it in front of himself. The player can play up to three different matching sets of 3 cards on a single turn. Whenever cards are played from a player’s hand, they are played in front of themselves so that all players can see them for the remainder of the Round. This can help those of you who like to card count.
Each Portal card contains a unique special ability that can be used in the game. These abilities can be used when a player is done visiting the realm, and chooses to seal the portal; using its action are returning it back to the central area. This is done as the last step of a player’s turn however, so we’ll take a look at these Portal cards in a bit.
For instance, on Player A’s turn, he chooses to play a set of three 8’s. Apparently, he’s been searching for clues in Lomar, the Dark City. Playing a set of three 8’s opens the portal here, revealing the realm of the Ancient One, Shub-Niggurath. Player A takes this Portal card from the center of the table and places it in front of himself.
III. Publish Research – Eventually, players will want to publish the research they’ve amassed from their investigations. On a player’s turn, he can choose to play a run of all seven values (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12), placing them in front of his play area. Doing so will plunge the other players into madness. Was it the amount of typos and bad grammar in your publication, or the disturbingly, mind decaying revelations of such foul beings? Who really knows.
A player can play up to 3 runs of seven cards on a single turn. When the 1st run in a round is played, each opposing player gains 1 Madness token. When the next run is played amongst the players, each opposing player gains 2 Madness tokens, and so on. For instance, Player B chooses to publish his research by playing a run of 6-12. Since this is the 1st run played this round, Player’s A, C, and D only gain 1 Madness token. During a later turn, Player C publishes his own research (playing a run of 6-12 himself). Since this is the 2nd overall run played this Round, Player’s A, B, and D all gain 2 Madness tokens a piece.
IV. Seal a Portal – Once a player has either chosen to investigate, open a portal, or publish his research, as the last step of a player’s turn, he can additionally choose to seal one of the portals he’s visited. By sealing a portal, the player will resolve the special action listed on one of the Portal cards in his play area, returning it then back to the center of the table. Players can only seal one portal per turn. Since there are more 12’s than there are 6’s, it makes sense that the 6 valued Portal card contains a more powerful special action, with each successive Portal value having a weaker (though still useful) power. Let’s take a look at the seven different Portal cards, and what they can provide:
Gug – On the far left, sealing Gug’s portal will allow you to pass on your turn. There may come a time in the game when you wish not to investigate (drawing cards), and don’t have a set or run in your hand to play. Gug allows you to instead pass your turn, possibly waiting for other players to draw cards from the location row on their turns, leaving your with better options later.
Shoggoth – At the center, sealing Shoggoth’s portal will force all of your opponents to draw 1 location card as their action on their upcoming turn. This can be very helpful if there’s a particular face-up card you want, or if you’re attempting to play a run/set or get rid of all cards in your hand on your next turn before everyone else.
Nyarlathotep – Try saying this name 5 times fast without sounding like you’re sneezing. On the right, sealing Nyarlathotep’s portal allows you to take any 1 cards from the location row, whether its face-up or face-down.
Dagon – On the left, sealing Dagon’s portal allows the player to immediately play another full turn, beginning with choosing to investigate, open a portal, or publishing research. He may even choose to seal another portal at the end of this next turn.
Shub-Niggurath – On the right, sealing Shub-Niggurath’s portal allows the player to choose an opposing player. He then gets to look at that player’s full hand of cards, removing a card of his choice and adding it to his own hand.
Azathoth – On the left, sealing Azathoth’s portal allows the player to randomly discard a card from each of his opponent’s hands. This can really screw with the other players attempt to create runs and sets on their following turns.
Cthulhu – And finally, the main attraction himself, Cthulhu. When a player seals his portal, that player can remove 2 cards from his hand, then distribute them amongst two different opponents, or give them both to the same opponent. This is a huge advantage, especially if the player is planning on getting rid of all his cards soon. As we’ll see next, players with a lot of cards in their hand when another player has run out of cards, won’t be too….shall we say, sane.
End of a Round:
Players continue to take turns in clockwise order, until one of two things occur. Either the location row has run out of cards to draw from, or a player has discarded all of the cards in their hand. In either case, the current round has ended. If the last card of the location row has been drawn, each player (including the player who just drew it) will take one final turn, giving them the opportunity to open portals or publish their research, as well as seal portals. After all players have taken a final turn, each player receives 1 Madness token for each card remaining in their hand.
If instead a player has played all of the cards from their hand, the round ends immediately. Other players are not given a final turn. The player who got rid of all of his cards gets to clear half of his Madness tokens from his play area (rounded down). So if Player B ended the round by getting rid of all of his cards and he currently had 5 Madness tokens, he would remove 2 of them, now having a total of 3. All opposing players receive 1 Madness token.
At this point players will check to see if any player has 10 or more Madness tokens. If so, they’ve reached a level of insanity that is beyond limit. The game ends and the player with the least amount of madness wins. Otherwise, all player discard their Location cards, a new Location row is created using the same rules as during initial setup, and a new round begins. Players continue playing round by round until at least one player has 10+ madness.
Pocket Madness is a very simple take on the Rummy-mechanic. The initial approach may seem to draw as many cards as you can to play as many different sets and runs as possible, however the threat of the location deck running out and you having a stack of cards in your hand will all but eliminate that idea. Instead, there’s some interesting variables in play, though nothing that will break the game’s filler mold. Publishing research is probably the best way to place madness on other players, but it will also take the longest. Playing sets is much easier, and the special abilities are pretty neat, but which ones are you likely to get the best value out of? At the same time you don’t want to draw too many cards on your turn, as having extra cards you in your hand will extend the amount of time needed to rid your hand of cards. Ridding your hand first allows you to half your current madness. It’s a pretty cool balancing act, but doesn’t stray from its Rummy roots.
If you’re a fan of the Lovecraftian mythos or you have family members who enjoy it, but aren’t heavily into the hobby, Pocket Madness is very easy to teach and learn, and contains an interesting take on the lore. Personally, I couldn’t tell you the difference between Shub-Niggurath and Nyarlathotep, but the idea of investigating, opening portals, and publishing research that would drive my readers insane somehow fit well, even though all I was really doing was drawing cards and playing sets/runs.
While the gameplay itself is quite clean and straightforward, the setup of each round is a bit of a chore. The shuffling aspect is no issue at all (and one I find pretty cool with some cards facing down and other face up), but the splaying of close to 60 tarot-sized cards, so that players can see the values of each face-up one takes more time than it seems it should in a game that won’t last more than 30 minutes at most. Everything else about the game is quick and active, so this downtime seems almost like an intermission of sorts in between rounds. I’m not really sure how it could have been changed, as being able to see the face-up cards in the row is part of the brief amount of strategy in the game, but I figured I would make a note of it.
Pocket Madness is an interesting little card game, and one that will most likely please the Cthulhu assembly of fans. It’s short and simple enough to teach, and the Rummy-style mechanic will feel familiar to players that aren’t necessarily hobby gamers. While quite a bit different from Cathala and Maublanc’s previous collaborations, it rests nicely as light filler card game.
If you’re near the Wilmington, NC area, feel free to check this game out and more at our community’s FLGS, Cape Fear Games.