In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.
Video games are an ideal medium for telling horror stories: They can provide just enough control that you feel responsible for people getting ripped apart by monsters, but can also strip that control away and force you into terrible situations. But what about board games? The layers of abstraction created by having to focus on rules and move pieces around a board—not to mention the need to have the lights on while playing—make horror-themed board games inherently less frightening, but they can still find creative ways to embody different forms of horror.
H.P. Lovecraft famously said that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” and Fantasy Flight’s Eldritch Horror taps that same dread by making it remarkably unclear what cards do. The game, which uses simplified versions of the ideas found in Arkham Horror and adds some new ones of its own, lets one to eight players control investigators (you can also easily control more than one for smaller games) trying to stop an Ancient One from awakening and wreaking havoc on the world. You’ll use and encounter lots of different cards during your adventure, but you can only look at the front of many of them, so you don’t know what effect casting a spell, being in debt, or making a dark pact will have on you until it’s too late.
You can try to get rid of your bad cards or play cautiously to avoid getting them in the first place, but that comes at the cost of advantageous actions you’ll need to foil cultists, defeat monsters, and close the gates that are tearing the world apart. As a result, you’ll have to deal with the hilarious consequences of having a character get her legs broken by an angry loan shark or transformed into a fish monster and returning to the sea. In every game we played, at least one character died or went insane, so it’s great that defeated players can just pick a new investigator and hop back in. Most of the time you can even visit the spot of your former character’s death and collect their stuff.
But even multiple playthroughs won’t give you enough knowledge to alleviate that fear of the unknown, as copies of the same card can do different things. Start incorporating the game’s many expansions, and things get even harder to predict. Strange Remnants, which launched in July, or Under The Pyramids, which comes out in November, also have cards with unknown rewards, forcing you to guess the right time to trigger them. Can you hold out and take on tasks that don’t provide an immediate benefit in hopes that, when they’re actually completed, you can get back in control of the board? Or is it best to devote your time to things with more obvious and direct benefits, like gaining a re-roll you can use to potentially save yourself the next time things go poorly? Weighing those odds provides much of the game’s tension.
Plaid Hat Games’ Dead Of Winter combines the horror of an unforgiving environment with the tension of paranoia. Two to five players control a number of zombie-apocalypse survivors trying to keep their colony alive while battling starvation, hypothermia, and the undead—well, most players are trying to keep the colony alive. Each person has a secret objective, which could be something simple, like stockpiling enough medicine to satisfy their hypochondria, or, if they’re a traitor with little regard for the lives of their fellow survivors, something far more destructive.
Each round has its own goal, such as gathering a certain amount of food, but the traitor can sabotage the effort by tossing in the wrong type of cards. It’s easy to figure out when there is a traitor in your midst, but it can be harder to determine who it is in large games where plenty of people are sharing cards. If you have a strong suspicion, you can vote to kick someone out of the colony, where they’ll have to do their best to sabotage you from the outside. If you’re wrong, the ousted player gets a new objective: vengeance.
This is standard fare for a traitor game, but Dead Of Winter is plenty interesting even when everyone’s cooperating. Its key feature is the crossroads system, where a card is drawn each turn that triggers if a certain condition is met. The result could be anything from the janitor character coming into play or someone returning to the colony from a scavenging run. The cards pose some number of players with a choice to make: Do you let a car full of survivors, some of whom are helpless, join your colony or turn them away and save your resources even though you know they’ll likely die? When the trucker’s bad diet catches up to him and he has a heart attack, do you risk being exposed to zombies to get him to the hospital? The cards both reveal the weird and sometimes terrible histories and tendencies of the characters while also providing a look at your real-world friends’ heartlessness, as it’s often best to place survival over compassion.
This entire column could have been devoted to zombie games, but I’ll just mention one more here, Asmodee’s City Of Horror. If Dead Of Winter is like The Walking Dead, a soap opera tale about survivors working together over time, City Of Horror is the free-for-all found in Dawn Of The Dead, where people are desperately trying to survive the beginning of an outbreak. This is a purely competitive game where three to six players each control three randomly assigned characters with all the nuance of a horror-movie stereotype. Each has a special ability or disadvantage; for instance, the thief can steal valuable cards from others while the grandmother can’t move.
Characters roam the board in search of the vaccines that will allow them to be rescued and food that will give them points at the end of the game. When multiple characters are in a location with undead or resources, they vote to see who will be eaten or who will get the goodies. That means there are plenty of alliances made and broken. Movements are plotted out in secret and then executed before you know where zombies will roam or supplies will be dropped, though standing atop the water tower or using some special abilities or cards will allow you advance knowledge. That knowledge is power that can be used as currency, but you’re not allowed to actually show the other players the card you’ve seen, so there’s always a possibility of deception.
All of the action takes place within four turns, so the game is fairly fast-paced. Even if a character dies early and you think you’ve fallen behind, you can catch back up with a little luck and a lot of ganging up on whoever’s in the lead. It can sometimes be advantageous to have some of your characters die if you can’t gather enough medicine to get them all rescued at the end, letting you focus on gathering up points or at least making sure your opponents wind up as zombie chow.
Wizards Of The Coast’s Betrayal At House On The Hill is about the horror of discovery. When the game begins, each of the three to six players is exploring a house aimlessly, not even really knowing why they’re there. You move and you flip a random tile to reveal places you probably don’t want to be in, like the furnace or an operating room. Some rooms have useful items, some have things that will attack you, and some will launch you into other areas of the haunted house. Each time you flip an omen tile, there’s a chance of discovering what actually is haunting this house, which could be anything from a hungry vampire to a ghost in need of exorcising. But the really terrible discovery is that one of the players is actually in league with the monster. The game then divides into two parts, with the traitor running off to read a book laying out his objective while the rest of the group discovers what they need to do to win.
Because the goal is unknown before this point, you haven’t had much chance to plan before you have to contend with the serious threat of a rogue player. It’s also not clear what the villain’s objective is. Do they have to kill everyone and the best thing you can do is run away from them while trying to gather the magical components needed to cleanse the house, or is their primary goal to fulfill some ritual of their own and you have to fight them to keep them from winning? Sometimes you’ll get lucky and be well equipped for what’s needed once the traitor activates, but because of all those unknowns, I’ve found it to be one of the harder games for the cooperating team to win.
Privateer Press’ Level 7 [Escape] is about managing fear itself. The game puts one to four players in control of a hapless human trying to escape a facility where aliens and shadowy government figures are experimenting on civilians. It plays out similarly to Betrayal At House On The Hill, with players flipping a random set of tiles to form a map as they explore and those tiles having a mix of positive effects, like offering healing or items, or dangerous events where you have to complete some sort of challenge or risk harm to yourself and others. The game offers a series of scenarios chronicling the characters’ stories from waking up after being spewed out of a containment tank to their final confrontation with the alien scientist running the facility. Each level has its own objective, some simple, like finding the elevator that will take you to the next floor, and some complex, like engineering ways to make the aliens and human soldiers fight so you can steal uniforms needed to pass yourself off as staff.
Your fear level is the game’s defining resource. Terrified characters are faster and stronger while calm ones can think more rationally. Aliens find human fear delicious and are drawn to the most terrified things on the board, which is usually your characters but can be the soldiers if you engineer the situation well enough. You can play cards to raise or lower you fear levels, which can counteract enemy actions or increase one of your skills needed for a challenge. You’re constantly changing the game’s equilibrium. But the randomness of the event cards and exploration tiles can disrupt even the best laid plans and send aliens scurrying through the ducts to devour you or throw the whole facility into lockdown mode so you have to make a mad dash for the exit before time runs out. Casualties are common, but if you get killed or left behind, you can just choose some new random traits for your character and start the next level as a fresh face on equal footing with your party.
Horror board games may never make you jump or scream like a video game, but they do have the advantage of letting plenty of people get involved for a night of some spooky fun. Plus when you get devoured by Cthulhu, turned into a zombie, or scared to death by aliens, you might lose, but at least it makes a pretty good story.