Cthulhu and his mythos are far too often thrown around games and media for no reason and with little respect to the source material. Pocket Madness is no real exception, except in that it seems more aware of its disconnection from cosmic horror. It is an intentional parody that intends to put a fun spin on the Yog-Sothothery, as Lovecraft himself referred to his work. This effort isn’t as offensive to the mythos as other works, but it does highlight how much of a vague veneer this theme is. Pocket Madness is essentially a rummy variant, but one which sets you as investigators seeking to uncover the unknown without losing your sanity in the process.
As unfaithful as it is to the source material, Pocket Madness’ art style is surprisingly charming. The art has a ton of character of its own, and many of the small sight gags are outright hilarious, as are some of the reinterpretations of the Great Old Ones. Shub-Niggaroth, the black goat of the hills, is drawn as a literal giant black goat. With so many mythos parodies and adaptations around, Pocket Madness will have trouble sticking out from the hordes of Cthulhu-themed games, but unique style is a good start.
The game consists of 63 location cards ranged from numbers 6-11, the number on each card indicating the number of cards of that type in the deck. There are also 7 portal cards ranging from 6-12 representing the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods themselves, which you place face up for everyone to see. You then remove 17 location cards at random from the main deck and deal everyone two cards.
Afterwards, you flip the rest of the location cards faceup and combine them with the 17 removed ones, keeping the latter facedown after shuffling them all together and splaying them out on the table. You draw cards in deck order (as in, from the top of the deck) as you play, so that everything will be visible to everyone except for those few facedown cards.
On your turn, you take one action from a choice of 3. Persevering in your Investigations involves drawing either 1, 2, or 3 cards from the top of the deck. Opening a Portal has you melding one to three sets of 3 identical location cards and placing them face down in front of you. This grants you the corresponding Portal card, whether it is freely available or owned by an opponent, which will give you a powerful ability to use in-game.
There is an optional rule to let you utilize the portal’s power, and I highly suggest using it. These unique abilities make Portals much more valuable as a strategic choice, and without the rule, their only value is a means of getting cards out of your hand.
Lastly, you can Publish Your Research or put down 1-3 a runs of 7 different location cards. For each run you place down, every opponent takes a madness token, driven to their limits by the truths you have uncovered. These same truths do not touch you at all for…some reason. It seems odd that you are immune to the same truths despite being the first to uncover them, but this logical problem has minimal effect on the game. Each additional run you place down grants an additional madness token on top of the normal one, going from one to two to three for each run.
Trying to build the right sets as time runs down can be interesting, especially if a Portal’s ability suddenly upsets things. As for other players, there unfortunately isn’t much you can do to outwit them than take useful cards away from them, which might be useless to you. Even when you are only playing with one other person, it’s more effort to attempt to track their cards than it is to make the best sets you can while watching the clock.
Trying to manage your hand and picking the right moments to put cards down is where the game shines. There is much more reward in putting sets down late, but you could end up hurting yourself if things end before you are ready.
Rounds end under a few different conditions, each of which grant different rewards for the person who ends them. If someone draws the last card in the deck they get the chance to play out their turn and each other player receives a madness token for every card still in hand. If that player instead manages to empty their hand, the round ends immediately, and that player discards half of his or her madness tokens, and everyone else gains a madness token.
The game as a whole ends once someone accumulates 10 madness tokens, and the player with the fewest wins. This does not take very long at all, usually lasting two rounds or fewer. Unfortunately, nothing changes between rounds. If someone enters a later round with more madness tokens than another, that player will be incentivized to end the round early, but they may also feel the ending is predetermined. It’s only rarely that a game is ruined this way, but it can happen. Usually it’s just a way to extend the game a few rounds, and can actually add to the strategy as the rounds develop.
The madness tokens are small green cubes, which serve their purpose exactly as they need to. There are 40 of them, which makes it possible for you to run out at the maximum player count, though it is fairly unlikely. The cards are a nice stock; while they are too large to sleeve, you do not shuffle them enough for this to be a real issue. The size is intended to give more room for the art, which deserves space to let it breathe.
Overall Pocket Madness is a fun game, if not a terribly memorable one. The same basic skills you have in any rummy game still apply, not really modified by madness tokens or Portals. The most interesting change is the least thematic: being able to see the deck as you play. It creates the most tension and makes for some of the most memorable encounters, shaking up the formula for the game’s short runtime.
Designed by: Bruno Cathala, Ludovic Maublanc
Published by: Funforge
Age Rating: 8+
Time: 30 Minutes
Mechanics: Hand Management, Set Collection
Pocket Madness takes a known formula and with a few twists makes it something new. While the Cthulhu theme is largely pasted on, the artwork is full of life and style all its own.