Home > Games > And Now a Look at Mad Scientist University

And Now a Look at Mad Scientist University

What with Christmahannukwanzaayuladanivus coming up, people have begun scrambling about like ants in a recently-stomped sandbox searching for original-looking gifts to buy.  As it happens, I have a suggestion on that front.

Not too long ago I got the opportunity to try out a very interesting game called Mad Scientist University.  It’s been available from Atlas Games for a couple of years now, but with the influx of independent card games we’ve been seeing lately, many folks might have lost it in the shuffle.

I think one of the most interesting things about it is that even though cards are used, it’s NOT actually a card game.  This is more of what we’d call a storytelling game.  As the name implies, players each take the role of a student at a university full of mad scientists.  Three to seven people sit and take turns as the Teacher’s Assistant (or TA), handing out a card to each other player.  Each of those cards has a single Unstable Element listed on it such as Mud, Kitty Litter or a Rubber Chicken.  The TA then reveals the randomly selected Insane Assignment, which can be anything from winning an election to mapping a black hole.  Each player must then come up with an explanation of how they can use their Unstable Element to complete the Assignment.  Whoever the TA decides has the best plan gets awarded an Insane Assignment card.  Then another player becomes the TA and another turn is begun.  Play continues for at least three rounds, at the end of which whoever has collected the most Insane Assignment cards is declared the winner – and has thus beaten their fellow mad scientists to the top of the class!

This game was a lot of fun to play.  Of course, being an incorrigible ham probably helped me out a great deal with that.  Taking on the role of a megalomaniacal college student is not for the easily stumped or embarrassed!  Thankfully, I myself have very little in the way of shame.

I very much like the way in which the game promotes the idea of the players throwing themselves into their roles, the TA in particular, who’s encouraged in the text of the rules to behave as an insane demagogue!  You certainly don’t see THAT in every rules document.  The rules are also presented quickly and simply, on the underside of the game box – which is pretty small and easily portable; after all, the only things you need to carry are the cards.  This means you can pretty much just read the rules and get going without having to deal with much of a learning curve.

I can see this game working pretty well as a gateway to get friends and family members interested in new and different kinds of games, though it helps if they’re inclined toward the Weird to begin with. There’s also an expansion planned called Spring Break that looks like it’ll bring in some new and interesting twists.

When my friends and I played this game, we had a very good time with it, though you should keep in mind that the more players you have, the longer the game will take.  In our second game we were at the upper limit of seven players and I found that quite a few folks were about ready to move on to something else by the time we got into the second round.  I should point out, however, that we were all veterans of RPGs and were rather specific and grandiose in our descriptions.  There was also beer involved – though, granted, a few of the players said the beer enhanced the experience for them rather than detracting from it.

All in all, the only problem I really have with this game is that the suggested retail price of $24.95 is a little bit steep.  However, that said, I still recommend it as something you may want to look into picking up this holiday season.  With the massive number of games out on the market, finding one that stands out AND that encourages the use of the imagination can be a real challenge, and Mad Scientist University does both in spades.

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Music by Kevin MacLeod
  1. whopkin1
    December 1, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Absolutely love this game. A major favorite with my friends, especially since you can play just one round and have a great time. We like it more than Apples to Apples since it’s just more entertaining, but at this point we’ve seen almost all the goals. Need moar!

    • December 2, 2009 at 8:54 am

      Yeah, even for the one round we played in the second game (well, 1.2 rounds, maybe) we had a really good time with it. There’s a downloadable card list for the upcoming Spring Break expansion at the Atlas Games web site and it looks like it’s going to be pretty interesting!

  2. Edwardo
    December 1, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    I second this game. I picked it up at DragonCon years ago when Zack, the affable creator, was selling it on cardstock in a paper envelope. It’s nice to see that his hard work paid off, and it’s a game well worth paying for.

    • December 2, 2009 at 9:05 am

      Heh! Yeah, in the interest of full disclosure I should probably mention I role-played with Zach a couple of times back in those days (or at least attempted to – now that I’m thinking about it I believe we ran into some scheduling issues and I can’t remember if we ever managed to get a game going or not) and I remember those paper envelopes you’re talking about! I just wish it hadn’t taken me so bloody long to try out his game! 🙂

  3. December 8, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    Hello Jim,
    Thanks ever so much for the review. I agree that at the upper limits you do have to wade/wait through a lot of stories, in which case you could split into teams or (as it seems ye did) cut down on the number of rounds. Curiously, I found alcohol to increase patience in that regard; since you found the opposite, further experimentation is obviously in order.
    Not sure when Spring Break is actually going to hit shelves, but it’s the next thing on Atlas’ production line.
    We played one night of Deadlands, in which I was a British “great white hunter”, and you were a gentleman interested in collecting Hoyle’s books. Sadly, we never made it further than that; lots of failed attempts to start new campaigns in that house.
    Zachary Anderson
    Dean of Mad Scientist University

    • December 8, 2009 at 7:56 pm

      Yes, I concur! Much more experimentation! 🙂 Thanks very much for commenting! I hadn’t thought about the teams aspect, we may want to try that next time we have a bajillionty players. Definitely looking forward to Spring Break, whenever it emerges! 🙂

      I think I remember that Deadlands game! I was actually GMing that one and I believe Nick’s PC was the one trying to collect the books. I remember trying to start up a campaign at least twice and never quite getting it off the ground. I had more success with other campaigns after I moved but I’m sorry we couldn’t continue that one.

  1. December 1, 2009 at 1:30 pm
  2. February 20, 2015 at 9:32 pm

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