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And Now a Look at Mad Scientist University

December 1, 2009 8 comments


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
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