31 October 2016
We run down ten of the best tabletop scares for this Halloween
The very best scary board games capture that same feeling as some of the classics of horror cinema: fear of the unknown, distrust of your fellow human beings and shock at the depths that humanity can sink to. And that’s just when someone suggests playing another branded version of Monopoly at your game night.
Joking aside, the tabletop has some of the best scares to offer – and the last few years have expanded the genre with bold new mechanics, innovative use of technology and grotesque artwork that often matches up to the best of HR Giger or Junji Ito.
Unlike the guided narratives and often isolating nature of video games, the best scary board games rely on seeding uncertainly between you and other real human beings – if there’s a traitor among you, you’ll have to judge their real-life reactions and possibly risk accusing your allies to avoid ending up dead. Or worse. In co-operative situations, it’s often every person for themselves – even if you’ll have to work together (until it suits you) to make it through.
With Lovecraft continuing to provide ample inspiration for designers and zombies rising again each October, tabletop horror has rarely been stronger. Take a look at our rundown of ten must-play board games that you should pop on your table this Halloween below.
Arguably the greatest Lovecraftian game of all time, Eldritch Horror challenges a group of players to save the world from encroaching cosmic horrors of Cthulhu and his ilk while hanging on to what remains of their sanity. Each round is often a grueling struggle to survive as cultists attempt the rituals needed to awaken the Old Ones and the investigators try and avoid various other brutal mishaps, from revenge-seeking loan sharks to amnesia or physical injuries. The atmospheric text on each of the cards adds to the fantastic theme and feeling of the game while also typing back to Lovecraft’s expansive Mythos. Not before or since has a game so accurately captured the seeping dread and uncanny fear of Lovecraft’s influential fiction – and the game’s various expansions mean that you’ll be battling the tides of nightmares for hours to come.
Dead of Winter
Zombies games are two a penny, but Dead of Winter stands out from the shuffling crowd thanks to its fantastic use of secret objectives to encourage the alone-together unsteady co-operation of its players. Survivors hunt for resources such as food and fuel to stay alive during the harsh fallout of a zombie apocalypse, but while sticking together is needed to make it through as a group, each player is also attempting to win the game on their own – often by sabotaging the progression of the entire colony. The social mechanics are helped by accessible core gameplay and fantastic art and components. It’s a game guaranteed to leave you with stories to tell – if anyone is willing to speak to you afterwards, that is.
Often described as backwards Cluedo, Myserium puts one player in the ectoplasm-covered shoes of the deceased as a speechless ghost attempts to reveal their killer, place of murder and the item involved by transmitting visual clues to a number of psychics. The use of the multifaceted pictures clues is similar to Codenames or Dixit, as the dreamy images attempt to point towards a specific aspect relating to one of the suspects. For example, did you hand that psychic the picture of the gun on the blue background because the gun is important, or just because it features the colour blue? The psychics aim to identify their own individual suspects before the final act, which sees the group gang together to identify the single killer. It’s a fantastic spin on the deduction elements of tabletop classics – although it does mean that the ghost player can’t speak for the duration of the game. (This might be a good thing for annoying party guests.)
Barely requiring an introduction, Pandemic is the iconic co-op disease-curing game that challenges a group of players to cure four diseases before they wipe out humanity. Legacy takes it one step further by introducing permanent changes and consequences for taking certain actions or losing games across its internal 12-month timeframe, represented by either one or two rounds a month. It’s this permanence that makes it ideal for Halloween, as the feeling of loss if your named and customised character is killed and you are forced to tear up their card is a level of attachment and loss that few games have managed to equal. Of course, there’s also a new Cthulhu-themed spin-off of the original Pandemic if you’d prefer to battle alien space monsters or can’t deal with the idea of saying goodbye to your beloved medic.
Betrayal at House on the Hill
Embodying the spirit of the old Scooby Doo cartoons (before they all joined a pop band or whatever it is kids watch now), Betrayal allows a group of explorers to venture into the titular haunted mansion and slowly discover the house’s horrors, from bloodied rooms to laboratories and creepy children’s bedrooms. The house is different every time, as tiles are placed as each new room is entered, and items, events and omens discovered are similarly randomised. At some point, picking up an omen will spark one of a number of haunts, which take inspiration from B-movie horror films to literary spooks and more surreal adventures. Normally, this means the co-op game becoming an asymmetrical showdown between a traitor in the group and the remaining survivors. During one game, the traitor shrunk their companions down to the size of mice and set loose cats to try and eat them. The survivors had to find a toy plane to escape from the house before they ended up as food. The latest expansion, Widow’s Walk, adds more haunts and some interesting twists to the simple but engrossing gameplay.
Mansions of Madness Second Edition
Mixing up the haunted house setting of Betrayal with the Lovecraftian nightmares of Eldritch Horror, Mansions of Madness’s second edition takes the epic narrative-driven co-op game to another level through the introduction of an app that takes the place of the opposing player and allows all the humans to fight for survival as a group. Players explore the eponymous building and its spooky rooms, hoping to avoid the monsters hidden within as they try and solve a number of mysteries. At almost £100, the game is a big investment but with hours upon hours of gameplay, literally hundreds of components and plenty of stories to tell, it’s a price worth paying.
Fury of Dracula
Based on the legendary creation of Bram Stoker, Fury of Dracula pits one player as the blood-sucking Count against their friends, who are attempting to hunt down and kill the bloodthirsty vampire. The group chases Dracula across Europe during the day, but the Count moves under the cover of night, slipping away to an unknown location as he continues to try and drive the continent into darkness. The hidden movement game is an absolute classic, and was reprinted in a third edition not long ago. With Games Workshop and Fantasy Flight announcing that they will dissolve their partnership next February, this might also be your last Halloween to grab the game before, like its title character, it disappears for good.
If you love the Adams Family or hate people, you’ll be sure to like the macabre card game Gloom. Players take over control of a family – all of whom look like they fell out of a Tim Burton movie – and attempt to cause as much suffering to its members as possible. From relatively kind occurrences such as debt and disease to more outlandish ways of causing misery, the idea is to build up as much sadness as possible before finally granting the sweet release of death and racking up the points. There’s a sick sense of humour throughout, as cards like Pursued by Poodles pop up next to more downbeat entries. Subsequent expansions have expanded the game’s scope to work with up to seven players, meaning everyone can suffer together.
If you’re looking for a zombie game with a little more complexity, Zombicide brings the undead to the world of miniatures. Players take on the role of survivors, while the brain-hungry walkers move and attack automatically as dictated by a specialised deck of cards. The base game comes with ten scenarios and plenty of maps, with later seasons taking the action to a prison and adding new types of zombie. Meanwhile, the many, many figures included with the game really demonstrate the overwhelming nature of a pack of the risen, while the map tiles and hundreds of equipment and weapon cards mean no game should play the same twice.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf
Fast and simple, but no less brutal, One Night Ultimate Werewolf is Bezier Games’ spin on the party game classic. Up to 10 players are given secret roles – including one person as the dreaded lycanthrope, plus those with special abilities such as the seer or troublemaker. Those not related to their pet dog then attempt to deduce who the werewolf is and lynch them before the entire town is howling at the moon. Unlike the original Werewolf, UONW doesn’t involve eliminating players so everyone gets to play to the end.
If you like this article then be sure to check out the October 2018 Halloween issue of Tabletop Gaming magazine featuring the latest 20 spooktacular games. Find out more here
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