Looking to get someone a fun horror-themed gift for Christmas? It’s a golden age of both horror and board games, why not mix the two?
Two cultural trends that seem to be blooming at the same time are board games and horror movies. It’s a cardboard Renaissance, and the proliferation of both the quantity and quality of the products mirrors the horror genre film offerings. Both the movies and the games are getting more nuanced and polished. You’d have to be blind to realize that the world has graduated past Monopoly, Risk, and hell… even Settlers of Catan. The number of board games on the market, even the horror-themed ones, can get a bit daunting when shopping for a new game. There are so many zombie and Cthulhu themed games out there, so what to get?
I have put together a roster of really fun, and really different game experiences. They range from the light, quick, and social party games to some really “crunchy” heavily themed and atmospheric properties. There’s a little bit for everyone here. All prices represent rough Amazon pricing. And who knows what kind of Black Friday bargains may await!
Dead of Winter
From Plaid Hat Games (About $40)
Dead of Winter is perhaps the most atmospherically and thematically solid horror board game out there. Remember The Walking Dead at the peak of its popularity? Well, this game embodies that. This is a cooperative survival game that pits the players in a colony, socked in for the winter, and surrounded by zombies. The colonists work together to gather supplies, build defenses, and rescue survivors… with the big twist that there is probably a traitor in your midst. In addition, each player has a secret motivation, that when played out might look rather traitorous, even if the motivations are more selfish than treacherous. That added wrinkle ramps up the whole table dynamic, where trust and suspicion get twisted up, and the whole experience can be described as …. nervy.
The game also features a Plaid Hat Games mechanism called “Crossroads” which gives a whole lot of great backstory elements filled with dilemmas and decisions that add depth and storytelling to the game. There are a whole lot of zombie games out there, and this one is far and away the best. The artwork is wonderful, and the available characters to play include a whole town’s worth of citizens, including a drunken mall Santa, a golden retriever, and a ninja… because what community doesn’t have a ninja living in town? This is one of the more complicated games on this list, but if you’re willing to sit down and learn the rules, you will be rewarded with a fantastic game experience.
Mansions of Madness (about $80) and Arkham Horror: The Card Game (about $35)
From Fantasy Flight Games
Mansions of Madness is a Lovecraftian Journey through a series of mysterious encounters that usually lead to an apocalyptic confrontation with beings beyond the comprehension of mortal humans. This plays very much like the role-playing game The Call of Cthulhu, and it substitutes a tablet application for the game master. It’s a brilliant way of having a cooperative player vs. environment game; everybody playing gets to experience the story as it unfolds, as the app reveals the story, one turn at a time.
The players are investigators, each of whom has a set of skills and attributes that can contribute in different ways to uncover the mystery and deal with the horrors that they encounter. The game includes a whole bunch of board tiles that are interchangeable and get brought in as the investigators reveal what’s behind that creepy door that has all that blood issuing out from underneath it, or what is at the bottom of that well with the foul odor. This is also a game that can be played as a solo adventure since the opponent is the application, which is a very nice touch.
Fantasy Flight Games is a game publisher well-known amongst board game enthusiasts for producing games with a ton of production value and visual polish. For Mansions of Madness, they pull out all the stops for this game. Hundreds of cards, tokens, map tiles and figurines are included, so this is a bit of an investment of a game. You also will need a tablet or a laptop to execute the story. The mechanics of the game are smooth, and the application runs an ominous soundtrack and the necessary sound effects to set the proper mood.
For those of you who want their full dose of Lovecraft, but don’t want to drop $80 for Mansions of Madness, Fantasy Flight has Arkham Horror The Card Game that is very similar in feel and production to Mansions. They both spun off of the root board game Arkham Horror, but that game is so big and unwieldy that its offspring are the easier games to play. The original Arkham Horror is also made, but I swear it takes about an hour just to set up the board. Too much of a good thing!
The background for the card game is very similar to Mansions of Madness. It is the 1920’s, in the New England town Arkham, and there are some very ominous things afoot. Once again you are a paranormal investigator, who gets pulled into conflict with ultimate evil.
In this variant, Fantasy Flight has made this a Living Deck card game. It is unlike collectible card game like Magic The Gathering, in that you are given all the cards you need to play with, but you can supplement the game with mission decks, with each supplemental addition extending the story campaign of your characters… if they survive, that is! Also, like Mansions of Madness, it is a cooperative game of players vs. the game mechanics. Arkham Horror replaces the interactive digital application that Mansions uses, with a deck of scenario cards that will reveal the story plot points that need to be overcome and the villains and monsters that the investigators must defeat.
This is a game that can grow, and if you enjoy it, has the ability to extend the story and continue the adventures that you have started. Also, because the game is card based, this is an easily transportable game for travel! Both of these games are wonderful if you enjoy a bit of RPG in your board gaming, and they really do feel like a horror-mystery story that is tailored to your experiences.
From Pandasaurus Games (About $30)
The Scariest Things just recorded our Trope Talk episode, where we discussed one of the all-time classic horror movie tropes: Being chased in the woods. This game simulates the panicky flight of teenagers running from an axe-wielding psychopath. It is also probably unlike any board game you’ve ever played before. It does this by having the players playing effectively blind. This is a game played by feel, and it includes blackout sunglasses for all the players to eliminate their vision.
Up to four people play the hunted, plus one person who can see what is going on is the hunter. The hunter will set up the board, placing the getaway car, the unfortunate pawns, the killer, and a forest of trees onto a gridded peg-board like play surface. the players need to navigate the board game by feel and find their way back to the car before the killer catches them. The hunter will guide the hands of the players to their pawns, and they can feel to either side of their piece to determine which way they want to go and will need to talk amongst themselves to plot a way out of their maze. The reactions of players finding out that they are right next to the killer are priceless! This is a game best played with a horror soundtrack in the background. The hunter is also encouraged to do their best to jump scare the players… but you can play it straight if you wish.
This new addition to the horror board game landscape made a huge splash at GenCon, the biggest gaming convention in the U.S. The game was designed by a young woman, Catherine Stipple, who wanted to play a game with her blind uncle, who very much enjoyed board games, but was always at a disadvantage. The tables are now turned, and the game provides a uniquely scary gaming experience. It is a wonderful testament to the ingenuity of a new wave of game makers. However, it should be emphasized that the hunter role is a bit of a directorial role, and the person doing it should play it like a movie director… there to frame the story and provide the antagonist, but in the wrong hands, the game would feel a bit uneven, so make sure you have someone who likes being a game master to take that role on.
Who Goes There?
From Certifiable Studios ($55… but right now HARD to get)
Who Goes There? beautifully captures the story of John Carpenter’s The Thing in a board game setting. For those of you in the know, the movie was based on the 1938 John W. Campbell novella “Who Goes There?” The Antarctic base has uncovered a horrible alien monstrosity in the snow, and it has the ability to take the form of other living things. The goal of the game is for the characters to get on the helicopter to safety… and that is also the goal of the infected Thing monsters!
The game starts out with every player taking on one of the characters from the story, each of which has slightly different skills, and each with character decks tailored to their skill sets. For those of you familiar with the movie (and if you are a fan of this blog how could you not be?) the familiar names of Commander Garry, McReady, Blair, Norris, Dr. Copper, and Clark are present, along with two characters from the book, Kinner the Cook, and VanWall the builder. Everybody starts out the game, clean and uninfected. However, events unfold during the game, exposing characters to vulnerability, and eventually infection from the THING.
Like Dead of Winter, in Who Goes There? trust becomes tricky, and paranoia runs rampant. In my play sessions, it was amazing how quickly people start getting suspicious of each other, and what once was a collegial all-for-one degenerated into accusations and begging. But, keep this in mind, all in a fun way. The infected players have to determine how cool to play things, and whether to aggressively try to take over, or play the subtle game and ensure that at least one alien gets on that chopper.
Who Goes There? was a Kickstarter game, and it received a whole lot of support, and Certifiable kept hitting their stretch goals, and came up with a really winning product, with really fun graphics, and top-notch custom dice and tokens. There is a similar game The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 which also was released this year, and won the licensing rights to the film, and the play structure is similar. I haven’t yet played that game, and I hear it’s pretty solid, but I like the art of Who Goes There? better, and my understanding is that the infection mechanics are better in Who Goes There?
From Atlas Games (About $20)
Gloom is a Gothic spooky game, that is decidedly light on the horror, but heavy on the fun atmospherics. This is heavily influenced by Edgar Allen Poe and famed illustrator Edward Gorey. It’s very grim, but equally amusing and endearing in character. The object of the game is to inflict the maximum number of maladies and misfortune upon your selected tragic family of eccentrics.
Your opponents are similarly trying to inflict insults upon the injuries of their families, while also trying to cheer up your ill-begotten family. The first and most interesting thing about the cards is that they are mylar translucent cards that stack on top of each other. I will also admit that they have a curious smoky aroma… which I find adds to the overall mustiness of the theme. OK… that’s an odd take, but I stand by it.
Despite all the morbidity, Gloom has a fun and twisted sense of humor. It looks and plays like a darkly comic children’s book, full of rhymes and puns. The unfortunate events that can be played on your characters are events liked “Was Crushed by Cabbages” or “Was Distressed by Dysentery” or “Belittled by Bellhops”. The great fun in this game is how you get to narrate the misfortunes of your family as you unveil the cards. There is usually a chorus of “Ohhhhh, that’s too bad.” And then followed quickly by “But then she was Married Magnificently!” (Which is not what you want to have happened to your characters who you want to die dismally. See? Even I get caught in the alliteration!
This is a favorite game that my niece and I play, and she loved it from the time she was eleven years old, so this is one of those family friendly horror-themed games. It is rascally and morbid, but amusingly so. Again, a great travel game due to it being a card game. It also has many expansions to expand the Gloom. (About $20)
Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space
From Osprey Games (About $40)
Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space is both at once a very basic game, and an abstract game at the same time. You are on a poorly lit spaceship, and something horrible has gone wrong on the ship. The players are divided into humans, who are trying to get to the escape pods, or aliens, who are trying to catch them and eat them.
This is a concealed movement and a concealed role game. Everybody gets a cool dry erase board map that you track your position, and the location of the exits. At the start of the game, nobody knows who is an alien or who is a human, and you don’t know where any of the other players are on the board.
The map is divided up into hexes, with white hexes denoting that you can move silently (and secretly) through, while the more numerous grey hexes force you to draw a card that might force you to announce there is a noise (you) on the hex you just moved on to. However, here’s the fun rub, some of the cards allow you to LIE and announce any hex you want, to try to throw other players off your scent. If you’re a human, you obviously don’t want the aliens to find you, and you are trying to avoid them as best as possible. The aliens know where the escape pods are, though, and they can deduce who just be making a run for the nearest exit. And, as an added complicating matter, sometimes the escape pods are locked down, and will force the humans to race to another location.
So the game becomes a huge game of blind man’s bluff. Or, perhaps that old swimming pool game of Marco Polo with dire circumstances. Is that splashing really a distraction, or is that actually someone near me? The game board has a very spartan aesthetic, but it is a very intense game. This would not be a game to be played while drunk or stoned, as you will lose track of vital information in a hurry!
From Space Cowboys (About $50, Modules for $25)
Time Stories is more than an individual game, but a board game engine, that just happens to have a horror-themed first module included in the base game, entitled “The Asylum”. The system is a powerful blend of role-playing, storytelling, puzzles, and a race against the clock. The players are time travelers trying to prevent anomalies from occurring in the timeline (Dr. Who minus the Tardis.) That’s the thread that allows the players to play all kinds of Time Stories, be they High Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mysteries, Alternative History, or in our case… Horror.
The beauty of the game is that it relies upon the travelers looking at clues, and then re-telling what they have found, in their own words, back to the other travelers. Your pick your traveler’s “shell” or character specific to the module. The travelers will be presented with obstacles and opponents, and some truly treacherous traps and puzzles. But unlike most games, failure IS an option. Often times you will uncover a clue and then realize that you can’t handle it yet, and it overwhelms you, and your timeline runs to its end. And you will run out of time. BUT… you get a Mulligan… you can start the mission over again, with fresh knowledge about what you’ve found. So the game is hard, but not punishing.
T.I.M.E. Stories feels like an incredibly elaborate choose your adventure novella, if you remember those wonderful softcover books, but with a much more mature and potentially sinister twist. The artwork is astounding, and each module brings a different artist to the table, art that suits the genre of the module. Fortunately, the Asylum is one of the strongest modules, and it comes with the game. Another module, Expedition – Endurance, summons up polar horror tales like “The Terror”, “The Thing”, or “At the Mountains of Madness.” The scenario titled “The Marcy Case” plays like a Walking Dead zombie outbreak.
The downside is that each module only gets one play through. Finish the scenario, and it’s done. So it behaves very much like an RPG module. Finish one, get another. In some ways it plays a lot like the Escape-Room type adventures that have become quite popular as of recent, but with a lot more content. It isn’t the kind of game where you would want to replay the whole story again, once you’ve beaten it, as you’ve learned all the secrets. That said, it is a unique, immersive, and rich game experience, with the ability to change up the genres. This is an event type game, something you set T.I.M.E. aside for… a special occasion board game, if you will.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf
From Bezier Games (About $13)
On the opposite end of the spectrum of gaming is One Night Ultimate Werewolf. This is a PARTY game. This one is best played with as many people as you can get together. If you’re looking for an entertaining game for six or more people, this is a great one to break out. One Night Ultimate Werewolf pits a group of villagers who against a band of werewolves who are hiding amongst them. The players are either a werewolf, a villager, or a special character. The goal of the werewolves is to survive the night without any werewolves being identified. The villagers win if either they identify at least one werewolf (and therefore kill it) or if there is no werewolf. (Which is unlikely but possible)
This is a fast-moving game of bluffing, deception, switcheroos, and deduction. The game uses an application to narrate some directions of the actions for each character, as during the night round the characters wake up (open their eyes) one at a time, and get to do their special actions, giving the chances for the werewolves to identify each other, and some of the villagers to switch cards, so you can’t be sure that the role you started with is still the role that you have once daybreak hits. Also, there are three additional cards in the middle of the table, such that some roles will not be used, so the deduction gets pretty tricky to figure out who is who, and who’s telling the truth.
These games get very animated and full of laughter. The games are short… only about half an hour each, so you can get several plays in during an evening. A warning though, if you have a bad poker face, or have obvious tells, this is not for you. If you can bluff like a champ though, this is right in your wolfy wheelhouse! And, it can be had for as little as $12.50 on Amazon! (Such a deal! Stocking stuffer!)
Fury of Dracula
From WizKids (About $40)
Dracula is loose in 19th century Europe and is terrifying the countryside, turning humans into vampires and generally making a mess of things. A dedicated team of vampire hunters, however, is tracking the vampire lord, and are looking to put a stake through his undead heart. Can the hunters put an end to his nefarious plans? Fury of Dracula is an asymmetrical secret movement game.
The asymmetry comes from the fact that it is one player (Count Dracula) vs. a team of hunters. Dracula starts from a secret location in Europe, but he leaves evidence of his travels behind. The hunters use their best deductive logic, and a variety of resources and teamwork to try to get on the trail, and pursue him into a fight to the death. Dracula is not easy to catch, however, and he will leave minions and traps in his wake to slow down the hunter’s progress.
Dracula will track his own progress apart from the prying eyes of the pursuers, sneakily working his way around the board. The hunters have the numbers on their side and access to the speed of modern rail, but at night, the Count has the advantage. The risk factor goes up greatly for anyone trying to find clues after dark. Along with a similarly themed Letters from Whitechapel (A Jack the Ripper deductive detective game) this game is designed to reward the clever and logical game players. Fury of Dracula has a more satisfying concluding act compared to Letters, in that you win by putting a stake through him in combat, and not just finding him, as the goal of Letters has. The game is currently between editions so it may be difficult to find the latest version of this, but it a testament to the game that it is into its 4th edition already. The new edition is gorgeous, however, and the WizKids specialty of miniatures will give you fully painted minis, if you have the patience to wait until January when the new version comes out.
So, there you go… if one of these games doesn’t catch your attention, then perhaps you would want to get the old classic Ouija Board (But if anything goes wrong, I will deny everything!):