‘Tower of Madness’ Challenges Players to Investigate a Lovecraftian World Without Losing Their Marbles

Reading Time: 11 minutes

As investigators in Arkham, you must visit a series of horrific locations, trying to solve their mysteries and save the world before Cthulhu arrives and wraps you in his terminal embrace. Insanity is only a dice roll away, and you’ll be forced to complete your investigation …. without losing your marbles (their line, and it’s a good one, but not mine).

What Is Tower of Madness?

Tower of Madness is a press your luck dice-rolling game with a stress-inducing dexterity element. It’s for 3 to 5 players, aged 14 and up and plays in less than 45 minutes.

Tower of Madness Components

In the box, you’ll find:

  • 1 Base tray
  • 1 Tower
  • 1 Roof
  • 30 Horrors (plastic tentacles)
  • 40 Marbles
  • 22 Spell cards
  • 22 Location cards
  • 10 Investigator cards
  • 5 Custom dice
  • 5 Unnatural influence tokens
  • 5 Tracker boards
  • 1 First player token

The only proper place to begin in a discussion of the components is the tower. It is very high quality, the art on it is beautiful and perfect and it has lots of little details to make it seem very realistic. The Horrors (or tentacles) are fantastic and really add to the creepy madness of the theme. This is a game that I saw a playable demo of a year and a half ago and I thought it was fantastic then. If anything, the finished product (and especially the tentacles) are better than before – something I didn’t think would be possible, given how great and meticulous the prototype was. You can imagine the insanity emanating from slimy, writhing, green tentacles. The whole thing is an attention grabber that will make people stop and stare, wondering what you’re playing at your table. (When they ask, just stare at them with the glassy eyes and shout “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!”) Within its walls, it holds marbles, which will dictate your fates.

The cards are all excellent quality, heavy and crisp. Spell cards have a somewhat disturbing back side, a top down view of a tower room that has a squirming pink mess of indeterminate biomatter, replete with eyes (too many disturbing and staring eyes) on a Book of Spells. The fleshy feelers continue on the business side of the card, surrounding a special ability that a player can use if they are sane. Rotate the card 180º and the card grants a different benefit for a player who has lost their sanity.

The location cards are on point, ticking off many of the important locations in Lovecraft Country. There’s Sentinel Hill, the Strange High House, Arkham Sanitarium, Innsmouth Docks, and Miskatonic University, among others. Each has a point value, framed in the upper right, and an effect at the bottom of the card, which players must abide by when playing for that location. Last in the cards are the Investigators. There are two sets, one for regular and one for advanced play. Both sets have a sane and an insane side and all cards have the same bonus on them (roll a pair of Elder Oak dice and get an unnatural influence token). The advanced cards also provide a player power that lasts throughout the game.

The five custom dice are all identical, each with the same six, unique faces. In ascending numerical order of faces, there are symbols representing a gate, heart, and mind and then a yellow sign, elder oak icon, and elder sign. The unnatural influence tokens are chunky, nicely sized cardboard, each with unique artwork and a special benefit. The first player token is also nicely sized and is double-sided, with the pink, gooey, tentacled and eyeball mess from the spell cards on one side and a mosaic of a Great Old One on the other.

Each player will get a tracker board, which not only tracks round progress, but game progress, as well. It’s a place to store your marbles and the thick cardboard and cutouts, along with dice rolling reminder, make it an excellent piece of player interaction.

Blue Discovery dice, white for Spells, red for Madness and green for Doom. the Yellow is benign and serves as tracking the highest investigation score.

Finally, there are the marbles, there are forty, in five colors. The first color, yellow, is only assigned to a single marble. Yellow represents the lead investigator and it goes to the person with the current high score in the round. The other 39 marbles are up in the tower, just waiting to rain down on the investigators. Blue marbles, of which there are 12, represent Discovery and each one is worth three points at the end of the game. The 11 white marbles allow a player to get a Spell card for each one collected and red marbles portend Doom; collect four and go insane. There are an unlucky 13 of them in the tower. It wouldn’t be fun unless things could go totally wrong, that’s why there are three green Doom marbles in the tower. If all three come out, the world ends.

The artwork is really, really good and the quality is absolutely top of the line. When you open the box, everything is punched and ready to go, it’s a serious first class game … with awful things like madness and death waiting for you on your way to the finish line.

How to Play Tower of Madness

Setup

The tower goes together first. It ships and stores flat as a single piece and, when you assemble it, there are magnets along the edges that help lock the tower in place before placing it on the base tray, making sure to match the opening of the tower with the ramp of the base tray. The Horrors are placed in the tower by consulting a diagram in the rulebook or by inserting the color coded holes in the tower – insert in green holes for those orthogonally transecting the tower and green rectangles for the Horrors that criss-cross the tower diagonally.

(Note: there are reports that the magnets don’t do a good job of holding the tower closed, that it wants to pop open once the marbles are added to the tower. The sample I received was inclined to do this, so I can verify those claims. However, Curt Covert of Smirk and Dagger recommends putting the tower together and then gently (emphasis on gently) flexing the tower in a diamond shape, one way then the other, to stretch the laminate out a bit. Covert’s advice works very effectively. Since doing this, I’ve not had a single issue with the tower. Once you break the laminate in a bit, the tower will stay shut.)

Once the tower is built and the Horrors inserted, the marbles are added with the exception of the yellow Lead Investigator which should stay out. Pour them in and then gently shake the tower to guarantee that the marbles are distributed into the voids. If one or a few fall through, just place them at the top again. When you’re done, add the roof so that no one can peek in to see marble placement.

Give each player an Investigator card, either randomly or by choosing, and a Tracker board. Shuffle the Spell cards and give each player two. Set the Unnatural influence tokens near the tower, in the middle of the play area and choose a first player. This mortal soul gets the first player token, the yellow Lead Investigator marble, and the five dice.

The last task is to assemble the location deck. Depending on the number of players (or how difficult of a game you want to play), a determined number of location cards are randomly shuffled into a deck. On top, the first location every time, is the Clock Tower. The game is now ready to play. Check with your players to find out who their characters are, if they have a special power, and if they are seeing things yet.

Advanced investigators

Gameplay

The game is played over a number of rounds determined by the number of players and the difficulty. Players must visit each location before the game ends — unless the world ends first. If the players complete the final location, the player with the most Discovery points (determined by location cards and blue Discovery marbles (and any Investigator bonuses)) will be the winner. However, if the third green Doom marble drops before the final location is completed, the world ends and everyone is consumed. If, however, an insane player causes the last Doom marble to drop by pulling a Horror tentacle, they win.

During each round, the first step is to reveal and read the next location tile. Each (except for the first round) has a special rule, which should be related to everyone. It will be in play for that particular round only.

An investigation, failed …

Next, each player, beginning with the first plater, takes their turns. A player will roll all five dice, hoping to solve the investigation for a location while scoring the highest discovery score for the round. The player may re-roll dice, but each roll, they must bank at least one. An investigation is solved when a player rolls a gate, heart, and mind face. They track the investigation by placing these dice on their Tracker boards. Dice also have a number on each face, so if a player solves the investigation, the other two dice show their Discovery total for the round (a maximum score of 12 points is possible). Whoever is leading the Discovery score each round should take the yellow dice to show that they are the Lead Investigator and mark their score on their Tracker board.

 

If a player is unsuccessful in their investigation, that is, they are unable to roll a gate, heart, and mind, they must take a horror from the tower. Any marbles that fall when the Horror is drawn must be placed on that player’s Tracker board, with the exception of Doom marbles, which are placed on the tray base. Note! Some marbles are good! Not all of them, of course, but you can have fun in Arkham!

The yellow marble shows a high investigation score, but this player is soooo close to insanity.

Players have Spell cards that can be played at any time during the round, according to the timing text on the card. Only one card with a specific timing text (“At the beginning of your turn,” “Before drawing a Horror,” etc.) may be played each round. Additionally, players may acquire Unnatural influence token(s). They may also be used at any point in the round but, unlike the Spell cards, the tokens must be returned at the end of the round. (There is an exception on one token, which may be kept for two rounds.)

After all players have rolled and solved their investigations and scored Discovery points – or drawn a Horror – the player with the highest score is deemed the winner and awarded the location card and the points it bestows. If everyone failed the location card, it is discarded, unless it is the final location, in which case it must be challenged again.

During play, if a player gathers four madness marbles, they go insane, which is a condition they are unable to resolve for the rest of the game. Their only goal is to now raise Cthulhu. They flip their investigator cards and use the insane side of any Spell cards they have. They no longer roll any dice and on their turns, they draw a Horror tentacle every time.

Spell cards, equal opportunities for the sane and insane.

Play continues until players have made it through all the locations. If this occurs, the player with the greatest points wins. The game also ends if all three Doom marbles fall from the tower, in this case, everyone dies and loses. That is, unless, an insane player pulled the horror that caused the third Doom marble to fall. In that case, that insane player wins and basks in triumph because, surely, Cthulhu will kill them last.

Why You Should Play Tower of Madness

Tower of Madness is, first and foremost, a dice-rolling game. Each round, you’ll roll to try and solve your investigations (gate, heart, mind) and score highest on the other two dice. Often, the location cards will conspire against you and, if not, your opponents might. On top of all that, there are spells to contend with. So there’s no guarantee that you’re getting through a round with your sanity intact. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll have to pull a horror from the tower. Older gamers will make the connection to Ker Plunk, but Tower of Madness has fewer skewers and is not transparent, making tentacles pulls a perilous undertaking.

That’s OK though, because the tower and its tentacles are clearly the star of this show. It’s gorgeous and frightening and just fascinating to behold. Truth be told, I’ve left it assembled and ready to play in between games on my table, just because I like looking at it. Good games tell stories and the Tower of Madness’s clock tower, with its creeping, green tentacles, frozen in mid convulsions, is one of the best opening scenes I can remember. You see it and you can’t help wondering what comes next.

Location cards

It’s a light game with enough take that to be worthy of the Smirk and Dagger moniker, maybe a bit more. There are almost more ways to lose than there are to win. You can go insane, the Doom marbles can all come out, one of your competitors can destroy what seemed like a solved investigation for you — it can easily go south for you. However, and I can’t stress this enough, it’s still a really good time. I’m not normally a big fan of take that mechanics, but I really enjoyed those in Tower of Madness. Maybe it was because there was enough luck involved, the take that elements didn’t seem too far removed from the rest of the game or maybe it was because I was so caught up in the theme, we all seemed doomed anyway. Regardless, we had a great time every time we played it.

Removing horrors from the tower may not provide results in the beginning of the game. It’s not uncommon for the first half dozen or so to result in no marbles dropping. That’s OK because the game is long enough, you don’t want a lot of marble drops early on. However, as the game goes on, as players are forced to take red Madness marbles or as a green Doom marble falls, the game becomes more tense and serious. It’s my feeling that this is when it becomes more enjoyable too.

Basic investigators

I feel like Tower of Madness does a good job of staying immersive in the Lovecraftian theme, even if you’re just rolling dice and trying to avoid marbles falling from the tower. The idea of investigation, locations, and insanity all work together to keep players within the storyline. Tower of Madness is awfully heavy on luck, but I don’t care. It’s fun to immerse yourself in that theme and just see where the game takes you. Once, early on in a game, someone pulled a tentacle in the third round and all three green Doom marbles fell out. We immediately lost, but as we came to the realization of what had happened washed over us, I imagined Cthulhu rising from the waves and fixing us with a black gaze as we quickly lost our minds. It was a fun gaming moment. I anticipate Tower of Madness becoming a new table favorite during our run up to Halloween.

Tower of Madness retails for $59 and should be available next week.

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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.

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