In a special Horrors Week edition of Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson dropped by to talk all about creepy board games. She broke down five games and the different kinds of horror they aim to replicate. Down in the comments, readers followed suit and provided even more spooky suggestions for your Halloween game-night gathering. Serotonin’s pick looks toward slasher flicks for inspiration:
The new Kingdom Death: Monster, which is up for preorders now, nicely models the slasher movie style of horror: a small group up against a single, massively powerful enemy who wants you all dead. The game plays out in a series of “hunts” pitting your four characters against a strange creature who will stomp the living shit out of you. In between, you try to keep your settlement alive and running.
My first session saw my character get his jaw mangled and another character receive an intestinal prolapse. The next session resulted in three of the four characters dying outright.
And Drinking_With_Skeletons suggested something more sc-fi:
Another good one is Legendary Encounters. It’s a deck-building game based on the Alien movies, and while it’s not explicitly horror, horrific things can and will happen. Maybe you’ll run into a facehugger and, unable to fend it off, be forced to add a chestburster to your deck—a ticking time bomb that’s waiting to kill you instantly. Or maybe you’ll fail to find her in time and consign Newt to a grisly death. Or maybe you’ll find yourself alone, your teammates dead, unable to take down Ash as you scramble to blow the also-trying-to-kill-you Alien out the airlock. It’s a great game that really captures the source material.
BuddhaBox was looking for horrific role-playing games:
I’m wondering if anyone has a favorite role-playing system for horror games? Personally, I find Unknown Armies to be pretty spectacular for offering several different kinds of horror. There’s the horror of the street-level campaign, where you have no idea what’s going on, just that you saw someone seal shut a guy’s nose and mouth, or that you saw a mugger run past you with what looked like words carved in his skin. There’s the horror of the global-level campaign, where you’re likely to have traded in your sanity for power. Whether it’s compulsively watching your favorite television program or taking insane risks for no good reason, the power demands that you adhere to its rules. I actually really like the explanation that they give for the powers: It’s not that having powers makes sense in your worldview, it’s that your worldview is so fundamentally warped that it can’t make sense if you don’t have powers. And the cosmic level? Well hell, that’s where you learn that everyone, even most of the good guys, is trying to destroy the world.
And never forget: You did it!
There are plenty more suggestions throughout the comment thread, so take a look if you’re in the mood for some terrifying tabletop action.
One of the games Samantha covered was the zombie-apocalypse adventure Dead Of Winter, which you might want to avoid, according to Merlin The Tuna:
I’m really not a fan of Dead Of Winter. It’s just so aggressively fine and often feels like it’s crossing the line into lazy. I think I’m grumpier about its fame than actually angry at it, but the times I’ve played, it’s been a flat game that struggles to justify its existence.
Because of how travel works (i.e. any could kill you instantly) players generally move one character to a resource location and just sit there searching for the entire game. And because of how noise works (plus the nature of the crisis and resource cards), it’s almost always one-character to a location. Meanwhile, the rest of the group sits in base, playing a static, mathy game of “We’re guaranteed to get exactly 5 zombies this turn, so we’ll build exactly 5 barricades, and nothing will change.”
Items a character searches for go into the player’s hand, meaning they frequently wink into existence in the possession of one of the player’s other characters—but must thereafter be handed off in-person as if they were physical options, which just feels like they borrowed rules from two different games. Actual characters are constantly accompanied by dummy “helpless survivors” which do nothing but tweak the game math to be not-broken. Traitors (sometimes) exist, but a lack of interactivity or the ability to conceal their actions leaves them feeling like vestigial elements, and while players each have a supposedly secret win condition, there’s very little reason not to cooperate with each other. The whole thing feels like a hodgepodge of ideas that are done better elsewhere, and a tremendous amount of the game boils down to “I stay where I am and do the same thing I did last turn.”
The Crossroads cards are a neat quirk and inject a vital and interesting bit of flavor text, but even they don’t feel very well integrated into the game. Each card has wildly different trigger conditions—“X character is in the game,” “Any character enters/leaves location X,” “Character A searches location B and possesses Items C & D,” etc.—but the player never actually knows what that trigger is. So taken in aggregate, Crossroads basically amount to a policy of “On about 40 percent of turns, something interesting happens.” You could read or play one every single turn, or you might see the person who would read yours glance around the board, recognize the card can’t happen, then shrug and get up to grab a beer. The writing is usually good (though there are inevitably a few stinkers that present dumb binaries), but they’re just so haphazardly integrated into the game.
Another of Sam’s examples was the popular Betrayal At House On The Hill, a game about exploring a weird mansion and eventually discovering that someone in your group is aligned with some malevolent force and out to kill you. Jefe Bergenstein recalled a really cool sequence of events from one of their playthroughs:
There was an awesome moment in one of our games where a player drew the card where she looked into a mirror and a future version of herself passed a gun through, with a note saying “You’ll need this.” Then, much later on, she drew the card where you see a past version of yourself in a mirror, and give them an item, which the only one she had was the gun, so she had to pass it through. We were pretty delighted by the circular loop that never explained where the damn gun came from!
In another Horrors Week feature, Patrick Lee took a look back at the stars of the Silent Hill series (rest in peace) and argued that Heather Mason of Silent Hill 3 was the only lead character complex enough to match the games’ brilliant setting. Several commenters took to the defense of other Silent Hill heroes. TheThinHam gave some love to Henry, star of Silent Hill 4:
To ever so slightly defend poor dull Henry, I always assumed his blankness was intentional. Even before he got locked away, he was a shy introvert with quiet, voyeuristic hobbies (photography), and then the apartment sapped away all of his personality. He’s a blank slate because that’s what he needs to be (the receiver of wisdom, right?), so while he’s not the most compelling character, there is at least a reason for it.
Tedthefed went to bat for James of Silent Hill 2, with some more Silent Hill 4 props thrown in for good measure:
At least James is characterized by the town and monsters. He and Heather are the only characters who fit the overall theme of the horror, soothe monsters embody their fears and hang-ups. And applying that logic to Heather is a stretch: There’s no real indication that she herself is especially scared of childbirth or rape, it’s more just fear of the creepy cult lady.
Henry is pretty blank, but I personally think the characterization of the rest of the cast makes up for it. Everyone else trying to isolate themselves (metaphorically) while Henry’s trying to escape his isolation—that’s a pretty good world of characters.
Yes, Heather is the most interesting of the Silent Hill protagonists. Both James and Henry are in games that have far more interesting plots, but they both have weaker significance to it and far more bland personalities. I know Silent Hill: Origins isn’t exactly well regarded, but I’ll say that Travis was at least likable and had a tragic story, if a somewhat flat personality. The dude from Silent Hill: Homecoming, though? Hell, I don’t even remember his name. Ruggedly handsome brunette dude #732?
It was Alex Shepherd, for the record. How anyone could forget such an outlandish name is beyond me.
That’ll do it for this week, folks. Thank you for reading and commenting, and have a safe and spooky Halloween. We’ll see you next week!