When I first saw Tower of Madness, a hobby board game that mixes the Cthulhu Mythos with the classic board game Kerplunk, I assumed it was just a gimmick.
Having now played the game I can happily say it’s much more than that. There’s a real game here.
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What do you get with the board game Tower of Madness?
Tower of Madness was designed by Curt Covert and published by his company Smirk & Dagger Games. It features art by EJ Dela Cruz, Jen Santos and Brian Valenza. It was originally published in 2018.
The best way to see what you get in the box for this game is to watch my Tower of Madness Unboxing Video. I personally think it’s one of our most amusing videos, especially the part about sticky dice.
For those who haven’t watched the video:
Inside the box, you find a nice glossy rulebook. There are only seven pages of rules here but quite a bit of text. While there are lots of examples and pictures it feels a bit like a wall of text. There are a good number of examples and though the rules are quite exception based, they are pretty clear overall. We did find ourselves referencing the rules quite a bit for the first two or three games. A summary on the back of the rulebook or on a separate sheet, showing the different marble colours and the Unnatural Influence rules, would have been a nice addition. The rulebook that came in my copy of the game was tucked into the insert and pretty badly bent which was disappointing.
In the box, you will also find a bag full of green tentacles. What I found most interesting here is that almost all of the production pictures of this game are edited so that the ends of the tentacles don’t show sticking out of the tower. One end of these is cool and sculpted but the other end is just a green stick. When the tower is built you see both ends sticking out all over. I don’t think this is a problem, I’m just somewhat amused that they took the time to edit the sticks out of the photos. The tentacles themselves are made out of a solid yet slightly flexible plastic that I don’t expect to break easily.
Next is the tower and it’s topper. This piece is the highlight of the game. It’s extremely well made, nice and thick with great artwork on it. The holes for the tentacles are colour coded and easy to see. The best bit, that I didn’t realize when first unboxing the game, is that the tower is magnetic! It easily folds up for storage and you can then assemble it in a second. The roof is a bit more fiddly and also magnetic. I fumbled with it at first but now that I know how it’s meant to go it’s also nice and quick to set up.
Under the tower is the base. This is a hefty chunk of black plastic. The tower fits well. The sculpting is interesting. There’s a spot to put the green marbles when they come out. Nothing to complain about here.
There is also a baggie with various counters and tokens. It was cool to see that these were pre-punched. Making this game even quicker to get to the table. The tokens are nice and thick. Player boards are of the same cardboard and also already punched out. These have various notches and grooves to hold marbles. The box also includes a bag of marbles. These are all cat’s eye style marbles in white, blue, red, green and yellow. With many red, white, and blue, but only three green and one yellow.
Location cards were found under the marbles. These are square cards with some great evocative artwork on them. There are some text and icons on the cards and both are very large and clear and easy to read even from across the table. Then there is one more deck of cards. This contains character cards and spell cards. The spell cards are notable because they have both a sane and insane side. The card quality is solid.
Finally, we get to the sticky dice. Yes sticky. The dice that came in my copy of Tower of Madness were stuck together by some unknown substance. They came apart easily enough but were noticeably coated in something. Something sticky enough I could pick up a die by pressing against it with the tip of my finger. This is and was gross. When I complained about this online Curt from Smirk & Dagger contacted me and said it was a known manufacturing issue and that I should clean the dice with soap and warm water. It took A LOT of soap and warm water and soaking to get these dice clean.
All of this stuff is found inside a nice solid black plastic box insert that does a great job of holding all of the components. Everything fits back into the box great and stores well either vertically or horizontally.
I ran into one more production issue when assembling my tower for the first time. My copy of Tower of Madness was missing one Tentacle. I triple checked for this worried that I had misplaced it during the unboxing, but no, I was short a green tentacle. Now Smirk & Dagger was kind enough to send me a replacement but I was definitely disappointed by this.
Overall I think Smirk & Dagger needs to have some words with their manufacturer. A bent rulebook is annoying. The sticky dice problem is just disgusting. Plus the fact I didn’t even have a complete game was just disappointing. At this point, I was already disenchanted with the game before even playing it.
Tower of Madness proves to be more than just a re-themed Kerplunk.
The first thing you have to do before playing a game of Tower of Madness is set up the tower. This is not fun. Unlike Kerplunk you can’t just shove tentacles anywhere, there are specific holes you have to fill on each side of the tower and it’s easier to say than to actually do. The first couple of times it took me forever, until I learned the trick of looking through the tower from the top or bottom when doing this. Even then, it’s not a fast process.
Once the tower is set up gather three to five players and have each of them pick an investigator card and take a player board. There are introductory investigators that are all identical or advanced ones that each have a different special ability. If you are playing with experienced gamers just use the advanced ones. A location card deck is made with a number of cards based on the number of players. The clock tower location is put on top.
On a player’s turn, they are going to roll the hopefully cleaned up and non-sticky dice. Players are trying to roll one gate (1), one heart (2) and one mind (3) on five custom dice. Each roll players must lock at least one die on their player board. There are spots for the gate, heart and mind and two other spots for discovery dice. All that matters on the discovery dice is what number they show. The other symbols on the dice, Yellow Sign (4), Elder Oak (5) and Elder Sign (6) exist to trigger investigator abilities or location effects. Player’s can continue to roll and re-roll, locking at least one die every turn until they can no longer place a die.
If a character succeeds in getting a gate, heart and mind they have succeeded in the investigation. Their investigation score is the total of their two discovery dice. This becomes their score for the round. If they fail, then they have to pull a tentacle from the tower. After this is done the next investigator goes. At the end of a round whoever has the highest investigation score takes the location card which is worth points at the end of the game.
Play continues until all of the locations have been investigated or three green DOOM marbles fall from the tower.
When pulling tentacles there’s a chance some marbles will fall from the tower. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, actually early in the game you want marbles to fall on your turn. The colour of each marble determines what it does.
Green marbles are nasty bad. Once three of those fall out the entire group loses (that is unless the person that caused the last green marble to drop is insane. In that case the insane person wins!)
Blue Marbles are discovery marbles and worth three points at the end of the game.
White Marbles are spell marbles and give you spell cards. These cards let you break the rules in some way and act differently depending on whether your investigator is sane or insane.
Red Marbles represent insanity. If a player ever gets four red marbles they become insane. They now use the insane sides of the spell cards, and on their turn instead of rolling the dice they just pull tentacles and hope to end the game by dropping green doom marbles.
There are also a variety of special rules based on the locations being investigated, individual investigator powers and the other symbols on the dice. The most notable being that if two Elder Oaks (5s) are ever rolled the player gets to take an Unnatural Influence token that they can spend to do things like re-roll all their dice, cancel another player’s spell, etc.
If players manage to get to the bottom of the location deck the sane investigator with the most points wins.
My overall thoughts on the board game Tower of Madness from Smirk & Dagger:
When I sat down and read the rulebook for Tower of Madness I was very relieved to see a real game here. It’s not just a matter of pulling tentacles and counting marbles. There’s a solid push your luck dice game hiding behind the gimmicky tower. A dice game that’s actually quite fun and can be very tense. I would almost go so far as to say that the dice mechanic in Tower of Madness is clever enough to stand on its own.
The problem is that by doing well in the push your luck dice game you don’t get to do the thing that is supposed to be so neat about Tower of Madness. When you sit down to play this game you expect to be pulling all kinds of tentacles and dreading what comes out of the bottom of the tower. Instead, if you are playing well, you just roll dice, and pass them on and hope someone doesn’t roll better than you. When someone fails at that part of the game, they get the fun of pulling things from the tower.
Not only is pulling things from the tower more fun than just rolling dice and getting some points, it’s also a great way to get points on its own. The majority of the marbles in the tower are actually good. Yes, there are quite a few madness marbles in there but there are a significant number of spells that let you pass them to other players or upgrade them from insanity to discovery points. The big threat of pulling from the tower are the green Doom marbles, which seem to come out quickly once things get moving.
Speaking of things getting moving, this is my other issue with Tower of Madness. You can’t play cautiously. If you play this like Kerplunk only taking tentacles from the very top layer and maybe a few early in the game from the bottom, and you try your best not to have anything fall, you are actually playing wrong. For one, as noted above, most of the marbles are actually good, and second I find when you play this way that when marbles do fall you get a ton of them at once. Even when playing less cautiously it seems that you never get a couple of marbles dropping, it’s always a deluge of marbles.
Having played a number of times, I now let players know this. I tell them to take tentacles from all over. I let people know that they want marbles to fall. I also stage the marbles a bit better, making sure to really shake up the tower before we start playing and sometimes only putting half the tentacles in, then some marbles then filling the rest. This has helped make the game more enjoyable, but it still has the problem of this part of the game fighting against the main dice rolling mechanic.
I have had really mixed results with this game. With most gamers I find they enjoy the dice mechanic and trying to gather investigator cards, but are far too cautious when it comes to pulling from the tower. When playing with non-gamers they have a hard time grasping the push your luck aspect of the dice game, and while they have fun pulling from the tower they never make good use of their spell cards and rarely win. The most success I’ve had is with a mix of gamers and non-gamers, where the two sides offset each other, with some players focusing on the location card points and others pushing their luck through the tower.
If you play to win in Tower of Madness, you end up missing the fun of the whole tower mechanic. If pulling from the tower isn’t a bad thing, then why make it only happen when you fail the first step of the game? There’s this feeling of disappointment when you succeed with a double six discovery score whereas that should be a moment of glory.
While I’m very happy that Tower of Madness is much more of a game than I expected it to be, I find it’s a game that is at cross purposes with itself. Due to this, I can’t suggest anyone rush out and pick this game up. This is very much a try before you buy to me. I’ve met people who love it. There are definitely people out there that will enjoy this game. I just wasn’t one of them.
In the end, I think I either wanted a much sillier light-hearted game, a real beer and pretzels game with lots of take that and laughing, or I wanted something with more depth where when you fail in the push your luck dice mechanic you are punished instead of rewarded. Tower of Madness falls in a middle ground for me and there it fell pretty flat.
Have you played Tower of Madness? What did you think of this mythos themed push your luck game?
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