Horror is an oft-sought after genre within board gaming. Sometimes this desire comes with dismissive undertones, with onlookers wondering how a board game can be “scary”. Often, though, this yearning is entirely sincere. People love horror, people of all types. Queer folx, for example, have latched onto the genre’s themes of otherness since Nosferatu, often relating to the “monster” that is portrayed over the purported heroes.
So that brings us to the question of “can board games do horror?” The answer is pretty obviously yes, though I want to take some time to really unpack both what the genre means, and how it can best be explored in board gaming over other genres. Sure, board games can’t really do jump scares (unless a Jack-in-the-box is a board game?) but horror is not simply one component of one medium. Horror is about everything. Let’s dive in.
So before we can discuss what horror can bring to the medium of board gaming, we should explore what it brings to other mediums, and how they all differ from one another.
The most prominent medium in today’s society is film. I would say the average person thinks of horror films before they think of any other type of horror, and honestly, it’s for good reason. First, film is multi-sensory. It can combine sight and sound to heighten its experience. From jumpscare stingers to pulsating scores, adding the sound to the visuals transforms a sometimes flat or plain goofy experience into a transformative one.
(BOO! See? Jump scares don’t work too well outside of movies…)
Second, film has the added benefit of being a perfect time frame for a story like this. Literature, video games, and television shows run too long to keep up the scares for their runtime. Not only does the shortened time frame create a more focused experience for horror, but it also makes it so the entire story and the entire release of tension can occur all within the span of two hours. Giving an audience the chance to leave the tension that you’ve created for a week between episodes (as is the case for television) lets them break the reality you’ve spent so long trying to shape for them.
Third, film is a passive experience. Most people struggle to engage in horror when it is something that they have to propel forwards themselves, whether it’s a horror video game, a haunted house, or a phone call to a doctor’s office. With film, though, because all that people have to do is sit and engage, the ability to be able to engage is much lower. The chance of people completely rejecting the experience goes down.
Finally, film has the ability to thrive in both singular and group settings. Obviously, the effect of watching a home invasion movie at night, alone, has a pretty profound effect. However, because of the power of horror and the vulnerability that we experience watching a film that shakes us to our core, horror is often a group experience. “I won’t watch that alone!” Even outside the companionship, though, horror films make a ton of money in theaters because it’s just fun to get scared with a group of friends.
So that’s the main four factors that the medium can have on horror. Now before we jump to board games specifically, I want to quickly discuss horror literature, as it will play a big part here with board games. Horror books are single-sensory, long-form, passive, and singular. Because horror books are such solo experiences, it can be hard for them to have the group effect that film can have. Also, because they’re dusty old pages, the ways in which the scares are delivered are quite different: they’re quiet, often making the reader sit with a creepy image or an unsettling idea for long stretches of time, opting for a more ethereal horror than a literal one.
So now that we’ve set the scene for the factors mediums change for their successes, let’s talk about horror in board games. Let’s start with senses. Even though board games are inherently a multi-sensory experience, I wouldn’t necessarily call them multi-sensory for horror. In board gaming, it is the text that is read that creates the horror more often than not. But there are some exceptions. Nyctophobia utilizes lack of sight as well as touch, letting players fumble their way through a tactile maze to escape a killer. Mansions of Madness tells an above-average Lovecraftian tale with its map exploration and lore dumps, but the 2nd Edition’s app adds some fantastic audio ambience to the experience.
Now let’s talk about length. I would say, very loosely, board games and film are experienced in about roughly the same amount of time. This gives each format a similar narrative arc and pacing to one another as well. It gives the short-term scares time to breathe between each instance, but keeps their frequency up. It also gives time for true dread to set in. Although there are many options for dreadful experiences, I feel The Night Cage builds dread better than any other game. Instead of taking the labyrinth of mythology and making readers explore its depth through The Navidson Record, The Night Cage places its players right in the center of it and asks them to get out. I think this line from the introductory paragraph of the rulebook states it best:
“Worse still, you’re beginning to suspect something else is moving in the suffocating darkness – just beyond the flickers of your candle. And it despises light.”
Board games being a group experience is where some of the strengths of the medium can turn from rock-solid to player-dependent. First, you can have a lack of narrative connection. If I’ve never seen (or actively disliked) the film Alien, I might have a hard time engaging with the ludonarrative of Nemesis. Second, you can have a disconnect of gameplay from the theme. I really love the setting and general plot devices behind Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror, but I don’t feel their gameplay makes them stand out as anything but a Pandemic clone. Third, you can have a complete lack of interest in gameplay. Fury of Dracula might be the best game ever made, but I’ll never know, because I despise hidden movement games.
Finally, and I think this is the biggest issue with horror being group focused in board gaming, is that there is so much reading! Even with friends of mine who are working actors, reading this text blind, out-loud, never comes out as sexy as it should. Flavor text is best experienced with solo play, but at this point, it can sometimes feel like reading with some extra steps. And plus, without sounding too harsh, most flavor text is not very good. I’m no Shakespeare myself, but the reliance on tropes and oft-repeated genre trappings makes even the most engaging flavor text come off as droning.
The final factor that shapes horror with board gaming is that it is an active experience. Players must push forward of their own free will. This often manifests itself in a more tense manner than one of pure horror, but certainly not always. Kingdom Death: Monster is a prime example of a game whose entire purpose is to try and survive insurmountable odds with a macabre setting where players can really feel the game pushing back against them, and merely the ACT of thinking about playing the game feels tense.
To end here today, I want to shout out some of my favorite horror board games, and explain why I think they are the true pinnacles of the genre, and exactly how they succeed as horror titles.
The hidden traitor mechanic has been used in many games over time, but never to the effect it achieves in Battlestar Galactica (BSG). In the game, players are working together in order to escape the Cylons… except someone (or someones) around the table are working for the Cylons. What makes this experience better than a smaller game like, say, Werewolf, is that its increased playtime and added complexity allow players to get comfortable. It is often in these moments of comfort that players will jolt up and realize just how relaxed they’ve become with one another, only to swing back to a heavy state of paranoia.
If you are a fan of long ludo narratives with ebbs and flows of excitement over high octane gameplay, check out BSG. Or, for those of you looking for a more easily available version, check out Unfathomable, which is effectively just a reskin.
AH:TCG takes all the issues that I have with all other games in the Arkham Horror universe and fixes them: the long yet simple turns; the dry and uninspired flavor text; the boring implementation of the theme. Taking the general gameplay of Arkham Horror / Pandemic and turning it into an explorable mystery with tight combat and some pretty scary plot devices livens up the formula and sends it to heights it never could have reached before. Without spoiling any of the plot points or settings for the expansion content, what this game can do with a few cards rivals the storytelling of both film and literature.
If you have a small, consistent group of players that love cosmic and body horror as well as a unique and engaging deck building mechanic, do not sleep on AH:TCG.
If you know the name of the main character of the film Alien, understand the joy that can come from the crappy fifth sequel in a beloved horror franchise, or even know where the term “Final Girl” comes from, you need to to play Final Girl. No other board game has even come close to sending up the genre as well as this game does. By having a large variety of maps and killers for the titular Final Girls to outsmart and kill on their way to saving victims, this dice-based survival horror game brings in references to dozens of famous horror films from recent memory: Alien, The Thing, The Strangers, Poltergeist, Halloween, etc. What’s even better, though, are their original killers that go out of their way to emulate the films that they were inspired by, like their ‘80s mall killer advertised in their upcoming Kickstarter.
If you love high production quality, games bleeding with theme, and rolling a ton of dice, Final Girl is the perfect game for those who love cinematic horror.