08 April 2022
All Hallows Eve, all the time. We talk to a studio making almost exclusively spooky themed games and ask – who is that behind the mask?
Words by Christopher John Eggett
It’s Halloween. The doorbell rings. And then, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on, you do one of two things. If you’re in the US you go to the door and provide the children who have made it through your front lawn – now a suburban plastic graveyard – with a huge amount of sugar and comment on how good the costumes are. In the UK, you say something like “oh no, we forgot,” and quickly turn the lights off, pretending you’re not home.
Okay, it’s not that cut and dried, but the frivolities of the American Halloween Experience™, as brought to you by TV at least, seem like an exciting event that we’ve just not invited ourselves to this side of the pond. Which is why a company like Trick or Treat studios couldn’t have the same incredible success in the same way here. A company that started out in the, frankly unsettling, world of Halloween masks wouldn’t be able to make the full-bodied leap into the world of hobby gaming. We sat down with Chris Zephro – one of the co-founders of Trick or Treat studios – to discuss the company, and their bright and gory future in the hobby.
Like many great stories, it starts with a URL, “Trick or Treat Studios?” says Zephro, when we ask about the company’s name, “Justin and I just thought it was a cool name for our company, which in the beginning had a very strong focus on Halloween and to our shock and amazement, the URL was available.”
WHEN THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD
“We wanted to start with masks because both Justin and I were huge fans of monsters and masks growing up as kids and we felt that the mask industry was in a really sad state,” says Zephro, “all of our favourite mask companies were either out of business or they moved all production and design to China and the quality and design integrity was terrible. There was a big underground market for masks and we thought that the timing was good for a mask company to offer masks to the masses that focused on quality and design.”
A quick visit to the company’s website takes you through a whole world of eerily real horror creatures and faces from TV and film. Michael Myers from Halloween, the Pig from Amityville and, er, Alice Cooper happily line up in wonderful, rubbery glory.
“We started in latex masks, that is for sure,” says Zephro, “but now we consider ourselves a Costumes and Collectables/Gaming Company. The road map for where we wanted to go was written from the beginning and we haven’t deviated from that plan.”
We asked what the weirdest thing the studio sells, “that depends what you consider weird, believe me, our definition is very different from others,” says Zephro, “in terms of introducing new horror based products that have never been publicly available before, I’d probably say our soap and wrapping paper collections. Others would probably say the one-to-one scale Dolls from the Child’s Play franchise and Annabelle. The one to one scale Freddy Gloves are pretty weird as well.”
We ask about how these surprisingly realistic masks are made, “they are 100% handmade from sculpt to paint. Latex masks cannot be made from machines, so everything is done with human hands and incredibly talented artists who sculpt, cut, paint and hair all of our masks,” says Zephro, giving us a little insight into the craft of their products.
Which leads us back to gaming, with their lifelike Dungeons & Dragons masks, “we have the license for both the game and the cartoon from the 80s,” says Zephro, “we started with the Beholder, the Mind Flayer and Venger. We’re working on Drizzt now and we’ll start on some classics from the Monster Manual shortly like the Pit Fiend and other classic monsters.” It’s certainly an unexpected prop to bring out the next time you’re running a Fifth Edition game.
“Tabletop games were always on plan,” explains Zephro – a lifelong gamer with a collection that is, recognisably for many of us in the hobby “totally out of control.”
Once the path was set, it was simply a case of making the most of a hobby that the team at Trick or Treat Studios already loved.
“I attend GenCon virtually every year and know the players and the industry inside and out, so when the time was right, I reached out to my favourite Designers and away we went,” says Zephro.
Naturally these games are, in some way, based on horror or horror-movie-adjacent themes – but what makes the cut for Zephro?
“They absolutely have to be games that my game group loves,” he says, “my group has been the same group of folks for almost 45 years – we know what’s good and what will sell.”
This sense of what’s good, also comes from retail-savvy members of the group, “Mel Nash and Frank Kaehler have and currently own games stores for almost 50 years. As far as themes, yes, we like a good horror, film noir and monster-based fantasy game and that will be consistent across what we offer for sure.”
You can see this in the announced games from the studio. Blood Orders (reviewed here) sees you play disgraced vampires in a bluffing and action programming game in the search for fresh blood. Troll Fest is a Bruno Faidutti designed fantasy rock band simulator with card drafting, and the upcoming Creature Feature from Richard Garfield sees you play the agents of famous movie monsters in a golden age trick taking game. These are, you may have notices, not small names and with a clear design focus.
What is the ‘manifesto’ of the studio, we ask, “bring cool monster focused games to the market that feature amazing artists and my favourite game developers. Just like Trick or Treat Studios, if we wouldn’t have it in our personal collections, we won’t make it,” says Zephro.
SIDE ORDER OF BLOOD
Blood Orders is the first game released from the studio, we asked about how it came about, “it was designed by my friend and fellow game group member Nick Badagliacca,” explains Zephro, “we tested and played it to death, hence it made sense for it to be our first game out of the gate. It features incredible artwork by my friend and artist, David Hartman. David’s sideshow monkey art is some of my favourite and I’m not alone. Rob Zombie used David in a ton of his projects including the music videos for ‘American Witch’ and ‘Lords of Salem’.”
Another title coming from the studio is the amusing dexterity flicker World Z League, “I asked David Gregg if he had any games he’d like to publish and he mentioned a rubber band game that had a Western theme. After playing it, I thought retheming it to a post-apocalyptic zombie theme would be cool as well. David agreed and World Z League was born. It was a huge hit at GenCon. And it was great to see my favourite game reviewer Tom Vassel having a blast with it,” says Zephro, “who doesn’t want to fire rubber bands at Zombies?”
The game is very much as it sounds, flick rubber bands at zombies and try to survive. It’s the kind of game that’ll see hard rotation on some kitchen tables.
“I’m a big fan of David, he made a wonderful deck builder called Night Fall. In fact, every time I played it, I thought the Universal Classic Monsters would be a great theme for the game, so I reached out to David and asked him if he would do a game based on his Chainmaster mechanic if I got the license to the Universal Classic Monster,” says Zephro, “The answer was yes and that game should be coming out in towards the end of 2022 with artwork by Daniel Horne”
In addition to all this, there’s a hidden movement game coming from the studio, as well as some other surprising entries. The hidden movement game is being designed by the great Emerson Matsuuchi, and is based on the 1978 Halloween film.
“Banana Chan (Betrayal at Mystery Mansion) is doing a Cooperative Game based on the Child’s Play Franchise and Happy Death Day. And Scott Rogers (recently of Alien: Fate of the Nostromo) is doing a cooperative game based on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” continues Zephro, “by the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a game we’re doing based on an original IP, LA-1 by Richard Launius. Think Arkham Horror meets Blade Runner. It’s everything I wanted Arkham Horror to be and in a very cool dark post nuclear setting.”
If this dazzling list of designer names doesn’t do it for you, then the upcoming Reiner Knizia title should cement the company as serious players in board game publishing. We asked about the single game, and were told there were two Knizia games coming, “yes, two of them in fact. A really fun family game with a sort of yahtzee based mechanic called Zombie Mania and a reskinning of a classic movie making game called Nightmare Productions. The art on both of these games is going to blow people away. And like all of our games, we feature artists who are legends in the horror world, but have never done tabletop games before.”
For a fledgling company (in terms of releases, if not their own engagement) we had to ask, how did they get so many big names on so quickly.
“You’d be surprised how many designers will come on board if you just ask,” says Zephro, “I’m sure it didn’t hurt that we had the engine of Trick or Treat Studios behind us and that we offered a very generous designer agreement. We always take care of our artists, sculptors and designers, as they are the lifeblood of our company. Also, our licensed games are really good and the IP are key elements of the designs, not just pasted on themes.”
We ask, as always, what’s next – to which Zephro replies, “we’ve only just begun!”
TRICK OR TREAT PARADE
Some of the upcoming titles from the new horror-movie-themed studio
Two to four players battle it out in a bluffing-meets-action programming game (with a bit of light deck building). Take control of locations, turn new victims and collect influence and – unsurprisingly – blood to build your empire. With stunning vampire art across the game this is a great place to start.
What if you did School of Rock, but everyone was a fantasy monster? Well, nearly everyone. Some are fantasy people too. Manage your rock band, hold concers and arrange light shows in this Bruno Faidutti game. Players will be collecting cards so their performance is in perfect shape for the festival at the end of the game.
Richard Garfield of Magic: The Gathering fame brings us a set collection game, with a poker twist. The game sees you play as the agent of gold age movie monsters. Bluff your way to landing the perfect lead role. A straightforward game of collecting Frankenstein’s monsters and making sure it pays off for you.
World Z League
A party game night shoe-in, although, as it’s a zombie game there might be a decomposing leg in that shoe. Flick elastic bands at zombies in a hope to survive, or at least bag enough to win the top prize in the Zombie Shooting Association’s league. As simple as it sounds, it’s very much one worth a pop-shot.
Reinier Knizia arms us with dice in the hope that this is all we need to hold back the tide of zombies pouring from the graveyard. In a classic ‘reroll or stick’ system players will be pushing their luck with the undead. Get rid of the zombies first and you win, while getting to keep your brains.
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