31 October 2023
Board Games have the potential to be incredibly thrilling experiences. Here are three ways tabletop gaming can terrify you, including games with cursed themes, games that are intentionally unfair and how to set the scene for your horror game night
Written by Andrew Brassleay
How can you make a tabletop game horrifying?
Have you ever been scared playing a board game?
Sure, it’s easy for games to conjure up drama, tension even, as players root out a traitor, run dangerously low on time or resources, where one wrong move signals the end (or return to the start.) But what about fear?
There’s horror and then there’s horror-themed, with most games appearing to suit the latter. Be honest: Mansions of Madness, Dead of Winter, even Zombies! all are great fun, but have you ever felt your spine tingle because of the roll of the dice?
Additionally, why are movies, novels and video games seemingly more adept at the scare tactics?
‘Video games and movies have the advantage of audio and moving image perfectly in sync, while books have the space to be as detailed as they want and really get the imagination going,’ says Timea Farkas, a games user researcher whose PhD explored the design space of technology in analogue games, as well as board game experience immersion. ‘Board games, at first, might seem to be at a disadvantage, as there’s a limit to how much players are willing to read and, in most cases, images are still and audio is not in sync.’
Maybe that physicality is a barrier for true horror? Perhaps a movie or a novel’s lack of need for three-dimensional ‘space’ encourages you to engage more with the darker aspects of imagination.
This feels unlikely, seeing as how the Ouija board – which was originally marketed as a magic talking board in late 19th century America – can terrify its users and nowadays is treated as an object not to be used lightly, mainly due to its depiction in popular culture as occult.
Besides, plenty of other scare-filled sagas have leaned into a physical presence to state that the medium is the uneasy message. Take Mark Z Danielewski’s mind-bending, format-defying Creepypasta novel House of Leaves, whose narrators often goad the reader that the book that they hold is in itself cursed. Similarly, more than a few viewers of the DVD release of Hideo Nakata’s classic 1998 movie Ringu, who dared to watch Sadako’s full trippy video as a bonus feature, might have feared seeing the image of a dark-haired girl in a white shawl reflected at them in the black mirror of their TV screen after viewing.
Tabletop Games with Cursed Themes
One tabletop game that revels in the “cursed object” concept is The Mystery Agency’s Ghost in the Attic. Many mystery games are appealing for how they delve into the darker mysteries of humanity, and this puzzle game is no exception. Ghost in the Attic stands out for containing a fitting 'prop' of a board game – one that isn’t essential to play in order to solve the riddle, but is central to the scares. Upon opening, the game is literally padlocked; scrawled warnings are written on the box and a faded newspaper clipping states that the game was recalled following a spate of deaths, where corpses were found at the bottom of their opened attic door the day after playing.
Once the padlock code is solved, the game within the game it nothing special, a hammy, long-winded roll-and-move, typical of the era. But that only adds to the game’s lore and realism, helped on by super storytelling, hidden pieces and tell-tale signs of a vengeful spirit trapped in the game itself.
Indeed, playing this period piece – and its surrounding exploration into the unknown, with its own physical Easter eggs to uncover – is a creepy experience. The rational mind says all is OK, but there is unease as you roll the dice and play, the unshakable ‘what if?’ question that refuses to go away…
‘I definitely wanted it to be scary and to make you think twice before opening the box,’ says Henry Lewis, founder of The Mystery Agency and Olivier Award-winning writer and performer, the artistic director of the team responsible for The Play That Goes Wrong and BBC’s The Goes Wrong Show. His background in theatre and world-building helped ensure an unsettling saga.
‘The most important element was the story that you read in the newspaper article before you open the box, so you know the backstory and the significance of this particular artefact,’ Lewis adds. ‘The faded Ben Day dots give the box an authentic feel, so it looks like something really printed in the 1950s. The sticker on the side tells you this object is unique and the chain and padlock around the box suggest there’s something inside that mustn’t be allowed out.’
Tim Hutchings agrees that story is vital. He's the author of Thousand-Year-Old Vampire, a journaling solo roleplaying game in which the player chronicles a bloodsucker’s autobiography, beginning with their shift off this mortal coil, through centuries of inhumane acts until their inevitable destruction. It’s a journey of doom-laden, existential dread: as the years pass, our personal vamp’s memories are lost, the gaping void of time swallowing all meaning, love and desire. Now we play out a different type of curse: that of immortality and playing out a story of losing your humanity.
‘Forgetting is a major theme in the game,’ says Hutchings. ‘Forgetting who you are, where you came from, where you got this medallion. Your character can go through several lives, casting them off whether they like them or not.
‘My existentialism is muddy, but one might point out that the vampire does things and that's what defines the vampire. They must do things, whether the player likes it or not, and that is one of my delights in the game – your character betrays you.’
Horror Tabletop Games that are intentionally Unfair
Some horror media seeks to get under your skin by digging deep into our sense of mistrust and paranoia. John Carpenter’s The Thing exploited this, with viewers never quite sure which of the Antarctica-trapped cast had been transformed into a shapeshifting alien, a plot device used to full effect in its tabletop adaptation. In The Thing: infection at Outpost 31, players must deduce who at their table is working against everyone else’s if they want to survive.
‘A large part of the credit has to go to the movie itself for this,’ says TT:IAO31’s designer Joe Van Wetering. ‘I just did my best to take what was on the screen and translate it to the table. I know some people think it heavily favours the infected, but that is really the best way to create that tension. You really can't trust anyone.’
So, that’s using already-established chilling movie tropes and asymmetrical gameplay (where some players have an unfair advantage) added to the creepy device list. When all else fails, designers can also draw some truly gory images of eyeless heads and trailing intestines, such as how The Emperors of Eternal Evil illustrated Psycho Raiders, a slasher-inspired magazine game, depicting a group of friends fleeing from a bloodthirsty gang.
‘With Psycho Raiders, we leaned into wargame simulations as a way to instil dread,’ says co-designer Nate Hayden. ‘An example of wargame simulation would be in its historic balance of how a war may have played out. For example, Frederick the Great's Prussia will have a stronger set of troop deployment and skill than Austria historically; In playing out that battle in such a game, the Prussians have a greater chance of winning a battle. In Psycho Raiders, the Raiders are stronger than the Campers in almost every way.
‘The dread may be that this scenario could most likely be the same in real life. If I was attacked while camping, if the attackers were seasoned killers, my skill set, weapons and preparation would probably be much weaker than the killers, but there would be a chance that I could thwart their attack if I took advantage of anything available. The dread might be this dire imbalance.’
How to set the scene for your horror game night
How else can players add to the atmosphere of a dread-filled game night? Farkas says players can conjure terror themselves – if they put the effort in. ‘There’s an element of customisation unique to board games - players can decide how involved in the story they want to be. They could choose to dress in character, talk in character, customise their environment, use any audio they think best sets the mood and fill in any gaps in the story with role-playing. Of course, this might be more effort compared to where everything is readily presented – such as in a movie – and not all players might be as interested or wanting to get as involved as others. So, group dynamics are an important factor. Immersion can mean a lot of different things for players, from being absorbed in gameplay through the more classic interpretation of feeling submerged in the game world.
‘Instead of trying to make players forget their surroundings, bringing surroundings into the experience – as in Nyctophobia (a great example of how surroundings can be incorporated into design - as it is played in the dark with blackout glasses. This element really strengthens the ability to embody what in-game characters are going through) – means working with the strengths of board games, which is their tactility and physical presence in the environment.’
As for what designers can deliver, Lewis adds his own advice: ‘The key is to embrace the limitations of the format. Rather than how can we create a horror board game without being able to do x/y/z, instead ask what’s a horror story we could only tell through the format of a board game.'
But still, while what we’ve learned might leave us with a sense of disquieting unease, the search for a truly terrifying, bone-chilling board game goes on. Whilst there are many great supernatural board games for your haunted game nights, I’ve still not faced a game that’s brought me out into a cold sweat at night. After all, there’s nothing to fear in a bunch of cardboard and… sorry, wait here a second; I’ll finish that point, once I’ve investigated that banging noise coming from the loft.
Editor’s note: the above feature was originally published in Tabletop Gaming Issue 83. The feature was found open on Andrew’s computer and is believed to be the last thing he worked on before his disappearance. The police have still been unable to locate any means of accessing the loft, if one even exists...