Wednesday, 23 May 2007

The Horror in the Game Box

It sucks to be really into horror and really into board games given all the crap that comes out with various zombies, vampires, and other horror images slapped across cardboard surfaces.

The horror genre in board gaming is a graveyard of half-assed, poorly designed titles that traffic more in sophomoric jokiness and crude mechanics than in the atmosphere and frisson that the genre offers in other mediums such as film and literature. Every time a new horror-themed game arrives I feel compelled to try it even though I realize that it’s just going to be another disappointment, having weathered abominations such as THE TESTIMONY OF JACOB HOLLOW and WHEN DARKNESS COMES. This weekend at Atlanta Gamefest 11 I got to try White Wolf’s new game MONSTER MAYHEM with a full group including Frank and Sandi Branham (two of the biggest horror junkies I know) and although we had fun as a group the game itself was a complete disaster of clich├ęd, overused, and amateurish mechanics dressed up in faux-Famous Monsters artwork. Some novel concepts such as each player’s monster requiring a different type of sustenance (zombies eat brains, vampires drink blood- you get the picture) and a city full of scurrying victims seemed like a great setup for a fun game but it boils down to stat numbers and die rolls with little or nothing interesting to do. The clunky gameplay- it’s one of those games that relies on 8-sentence paragraphs of text to tell you what your fundamentally basic special power is- immediately relegated this disaster to the pile of failed horror themed games. But it could have been great- the concept of classic monsters running amuck could have been great, and who doesn’t want to see a mummy fight a zombie?

It strikes me that horror games like MONSTER MAYHEM have a few key points where they fail, and one of the primary ones is that it seems that designers of these games (such as Twilight Creations) depend on the theme perhaps a little too much to carry the game- I mean, if you’re into George Romero pictures you’re going to want ZOMBIES, right? And sure, ZOMBIES is a fun enough game with the right crowd but mechanically it’s pretty dull stuff- not to mention the fact that the game is usually twice as long as it ought to be. Horror is such a broad and rich theme with the potential for countless interesting game applications- zombie games are practically a genre unto themselves these days but there’s also haunted houses, possession, werewolves, witchcraft, vampires of several different persuasions, and any number of other possible material for games to cover. However, simply dressing up a game in horror drag doesn’t really cut it with me and I think there are far too many games that reek of this approach. Even though BETRAYAL AT THE HOUSE ON THE HILL collapses under the combined weight of boring gameplay and “buggy” execution it at least had an interesting concept wherein the villain or other horror-causing agent was unknown until halfway through the game- a fun mechanic that rendered the first 50% of the game useless. And of course, BLACK MORN MANOR did pretty much the same thing years earlier also couched in a fairly routine and uninteresting structure.

I believe that another reason that horror in games fails so often is that the game medium simply doesn’t lend itself to the psychological, emotional, and sometimes deeply personal reasons that horror film and literature work on us. Games strike me as a much more egalitarian medium wherein the audience is able to largely shape the tone, direction, and outcome of a narrative or situation. Films and literature are much more dictatorial and there is also a lot more control over what is given to the audience on a very discreet level. One of my favorite scenes in any horror film is in Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA, when a girl looks out a window into the night and the night responds by opening its eyes. It’s an incredible scene that works on a deep psychological level (that sublimated fear we all have walking by a window at night) and there’s a conjunction of visual, audio, and compositional elements that work in concert to create a near-perfect instance of horror. The things I find really scary in films are things that create a sense of almost surreal displacement, like the scene in Werner Herzog’s 1979 NOSFERATU where Dracula attacks Johnathan Harker. It’s very subtle, but you can see that the set was built with a smaller-than-average door so as to make Klaus Kinski look out of place and supernatural in a very subtle way. These are examples of things in horror that games just can’t reach or likely even begin to approach because the mediums are just so different. I also suspect that real horror, terror, or fear is impossible in gaming largely because the medium simply works on a more logical, processional level than a film or piece of literature does.

Could it be too, then, that horror games can’t be very horrific because we’re playing and interacting with friends as much as we are interacting with the medium? Sure, we can see a film in a group of people and comment and cajole throughout but we aren’t directly involved in how it unfolds, in the act of recreating it. In a book or story, the author gives us a verbal framework with which we generate imagery. With film, there is a complete package of light, sound, image, and word that is essentially reproduced for us by mechanical or electronic means. Even in video games like RESIDENT EVIL or SILENT HILL where there is a level of interaction and control over outcome it is possible to experience fear and terror (of course I’m thinking of the “dog scene” at this point). Regardless of setting, we still experience those mediums on a personal, intimate level. Yet gaming is more communal, social, and interactive. I think this was one area where MALL OF HORROR was _almost_ great- the zombies were very much a sideshow to the actual drama and horror generated by human nature and greedily trying to survive whilst resigning your fellow humans to die at the hands of the undead. I think the designers really captured the social element of films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD extremely well while also incorporating them into a social game.

It comes down, really, to the simple suggestion that horror is something very personal and internalized- even if we vocalize how much something scares us or if we shout at a sudden shock. Horror is a genre defined by its shocks, its atmosphere, and its ability to function as both a psychological stimulus and analyzer. Yet are we ever really scared when we flip a tile or roll a die to prevent a character from dying? Do horror games really invite us to explore what disturbs us or why? As for atmosphere, how much is really possible when we’re sitting at a table engaging in small talk, shuffling pieces around, and reaching for the box of Crunch n’ Munch?

It would seem though that if we can read a really atmospheric and haunting story like the August Derleth/HP Lovecraft Pastiche _The Lurker at the Threshold_, with a tremendously horrifying vignette that finds the protagonists pursued by these milky, streaming white hands, then we ought to encounter a sensation of horror when we imagine the goings-on in a game like ARKHAM HORROR. I think the flavor text in that game is particularly well done and pretty evocative in its sometimes amusing vagary (“You look into the jeweled skull and realize that there is no point in life. Lose 2 sanity.”) but does it really scare us? Not really, even though the stakes in a film and a game are basically the same and there’s no real threat of danger. And of course, few are the people who would be bothered or disturbed by the art in such a game, let alone by what they might imagine as they play through it- I find myself laughing a lot more in a game of ARKHAM HORROR than feeling sensations of dread or doom. It’s not a negative mark on the game, since it is obviously intended for fun and amusement but so too are horror films and literature.

Games like ZOMBIES also fall into a common trap in horror game design of overdoing the humour element- no doubt, horror and humour can be great partners (witness the sublime SPIDER BABY or even SHAUN OF THE DEAD) but in gaming there have been so few attempts at serious horror that it’s disappointing to the potential of the theme diluted by designers who have seen too much ARMY OF DARKNESS and not enough Val Lewton. Getting back to MONSTER MAYHEM, I thought that the overwhelming coolness of having proper gothic horror monsters running amuck was practically ruined by the uncredited designer or designers’ insistence on incorporating “modern” or “urban” material like a “Crack Addled Whore” and a “Street Smart Pimp” as victims. Sorry, but I just don’t find a vampire hunting down a “Crack Addled Whore” to be very funny, and it certainly doesn’t speak to the things I love about horror. I love the trashiest of the trash horror films but I love “classy” horror much, much more. I’ll take the original HAUNTING over SAW, thank you very much.

So what of the “good” horror games? I’d rank FURY OF DRACULA and ARKHAM HORROR as the best in the genre, easily. Yet I think FURY OF DRACULA is much too epic and broad in scope to really bring out the discreet elements of horror that are so elusive to board games. In its favor, it has a system that generates mystery, suspense, and surprise and there is sufficient lip service to the same themes that make the novel the masterpiece that it is. ARKHAM HORROR, to me, isn’t really much of a horror game at all despite the Mythos elements- it’s much more of a two-fisted pulp adventure, which is completely fine with me. I do think the inevitable approach of the Great Old Ones adds a fun sense of dread and pending doom, but there again I never feel “scared” by it, let alone seriously threatened.

How could horror games be better? A couple of months ago, David Ausloos, a young Belgian designer sent me the rules for a zombie game that he had been working on called DARK, DARKER, DARKEST. Aside from the totally kick-ass title, the game actually sounded very intriguing and it really demonstrated that he understood where games like ZOMBIES and other horror titles went wrong- and where films like DAWN OF THE DEAD get it right. The game has three “acts”- an initial phase where the players must work together to break a zombie siege, a second part where the cure for the plague has to be found, and a third act where it was time to get the hell out of there. Throughout the game (I’m assuming as I haven’t played it), there are shifting alliances engendered by completely situational ethics in addition to non-stop zombie attacks. The story provides a tense, dramatic scenario. The possibility of death lingers throughout the game. But will it be scary? Will it be a true horror game? It definitely has potential, and I feel safe to say that it won’t be another MONSTER MAYHEM.

In terms of design, I think that for one thing, the designers of these games have got to stop leaning so hard on the theme as a selling point and deliver a better game, a full package to complement the themes and ideas of their material with mechanics that illustrate and give structure to the theme with thorough narrative. I believe that interaction that brings out the larger psychological themes is absolutely critical, like in MALL OF HORROR- you can’t rely on tiny plastic figures or flavor text to make the game “horror”. Narrative is an essential ingredient as are high stakes and the possibility of death, since all horror is ultimately about death in some form or another. The things that work in film and literature- suggestion, psychology, creation of atmosphere- _should_ work in games yet so far no game has really delivered on this potential. It may be that the game medium simply can not.


hughthehand said...

Good article Michael. I like horror films that deal with supernatural stuff, or vampires, werewolves, but I am not into stuff like Saw. To me those are just What's grosser than gross? films.

As far as board games though...
It may be that the game medium simply can not.

I semi agree with that statement. I don't think you can ever achieve the "HOLY CRAP!" scare/wonder factor out of a board game, I believe it is possible to have a good one. The RIGHT designer just hasn't done it yet.

Shellhead said...

I love this topic, and your pithy post covers a lot of interesting ideas.

At a fundamental level, it is impossible and possibly even undesirable to scare people while they are playing a board game, no matter how thematic. The best that a designer can probably hope for is suspense. I think that there are three essential elements to creating that suspense: theme, uncertainty and elimination.

Theme is obvious. A game about horror is going to need a horrific theme, like monsters, murder or torture. But there have been a too many games that missed the mark, pasting a superficially scary theme on to a fairly abstract game. For example, Reiner Knizia's "Vampire", which is just about making sets from six suits of cards. Or maybe the theme was there, but realized in an awkward manner that made the game more tedious than tense, like Twilight Creation's notorious "Zombies!!!"

Uncertainty is important, because fear of the unknown is such a basic fear, and found in so many horror movies and books. This uncertainty can be random, like drawing monsters from a cup in Arkham Horror. But it is probably better when the uncertainty comes from secrecy, where a player is secretly moving monsters or committing atrocities, like in Fury of Dracula.

Most important of all is elimination. You can't truly cause fear in the players of a boardgame, because there is nothing crucial at risk. They are not in physical danger. So the next best thing is elimination. The player is at risk of being eliminated from the game. It's even better if there is some kind of direct identification involved, like when a boardgame has role-playing elements where players control characters. Personally, I like it best when the game is a cooperative one with elimination, so that most or all of the players can be worried when one of them is in "danger" of being eliminated. Intruder, Slasher Flick (1983), and The Vesuvius Incident are all good co-op games with elimination, though they have more characters than players, so the loss is not as harsh at first.

Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror and Fury of Dracula are superior horror games overall, though they come up a little short of their potential with elimination. FFG's Fury of Dracula doesn't actually have elimination for the heroes anymore, though the penalty for losing in combat to is so harsh that it practically guarantees that the hunters will lose. Arkham Horror investigators are very rarely eliminated before the short and yet somewhat tedious endgame, so elimination is only somewhat painful.

Shellhead said...

Re: Monster Mayhem

Before we got switched over onto a different game that is now known as Vampire: Dark Influences, my co-designer Dave Raabe and I were working on a version of Prince of the City which will never see the light of day. However, two elements of our game are now being used in Monster Mayhem. We were as surprised as anybody.

Specifically, our game had a variable map layout for each game, and the encounter deck included 18 victims, including a drug dealer and an "escort." From what I understand, Monster Mayhem also has a variable map setup, and 30 victim cards, including a pimp and a crack ho. Hmm.

I talked to Dave about this just last week, and we don't care enough to do anything about this. We knew that our Prince of the City would never get published, once we heard that White Wolf advanced money to Mike Nudd. And we were lucky that they saw some other good ideas in our design which managed to survive the transformation to V:DI. And we got paid. Still, it is disappointing that a couple of our cool ideas were used in such a cheesy-looking game.

alan polak said...

Yes some good points. I always considered Saw part of the splatter genre like Hostel; it's not really horror. I think though that horror exists both as a genre and an emotional and physical response to stimuli. To date games have only used the genre; you mention things like Zombies and Mall of Horror. They take the familiar settings of the genre, the mall, the haunted house. The other kind of horror is, I think _very_ difficult to reproduce in all but the most skittish of players. Film and books are I think primarily solitary experiences; even if you are in a cinema full of people you are still experiencing it 'alone'. This is the key an I think you're right-it is due to the social aspects of gaming that prevent this kind of response. Even the best RPG is probably going to have a hard time generating genuine fear. Now when you talk about Arkham Horror and Fury of Dracula I think we are talking about suspense or apprehension rather than horror. You bowl into Prague just after midnight hoping to god that Count Dracula isn't going to jump you. But even if he does it isn't the same thing. There is no sense of jeopardy exactly because its a game with your mates.As an aside if you _could_ do a truly scary game. How many more times could you play it?

Shellhead said...

Alan Polak: As an aside if you _could_ do a truly scary game. How many more times could you play it?

Great question. The only truly scary "game" that I can think of would be Russian Roullette, and the replay value on that is very limited.

More realistically, you still have a point. If somebody (maybe at White Wolf or Chaosium) managed to come up with an extremely thematic game with compelling descriptions and components that managed to be even a little scary... it would still lose that impact after a few games. I mean, how many times can you watch even the scariest movie before a certain detachment sets in?

Michael Barnes said...

SAW, HOSTEL, VACANCY, and such movies are nothing more than mainstream versions of those Japanese GUINEA PIG movies from a few years back. Torture porn.

alan polak said...

Agreed. Was thinking back to Stoker's Dracula, a proper horror novel. What is it about that book? The way it's written, the single point of view. The almost total absence, in comparison to the size of the book, of the books titular character. The fact that we as readers know full well that Dracula is a vampire doesn't change the books sense of dread, foreboding, and yeah I guess horror. Thinking of Arkham Horror. You see exactly where the monsters are, you know whats coming, its just too 'in front of you' for it to be scary. The curtain gets pulled back in a game. Writers and film makers hide stuff. Look at "Alien". Way more scary because you don't see the alien clearly. "Aliens" is totally different. You see way more of the creature. It's still scary but it's not quite the same. Would be great to play in first time though....

Shellhead said...


Arkham does lose some tension by having monster stats clearly displayed on the back of the tokens. A couple of our regular players keep wanting to leave the stats face-up when we play, but the rest of us insist on face-down, so we are looking at the thematic artwork instead of the bare stats.

However, the Dunwich Horror puts some tension back in the game when it actually makes an appearance, as his stats are powerful yet different each time he fights. The old Intruder game was similar in that respect, in that the monster evolves over the course of the game, and is quite capable of manifesting a previously undiscovered ability right at the onset of combat.

dbuel said...

The fundamental problem is that in many ways, horror is about hopelessness. Meanwhile, if you make a board game about hopelessness, like playing three Marines in "Doom" without the errata, people bitch.

Ken B. said...

Like I said when we started on this topic in a previous blog post, I agree with you that at its heart the medium of a boardgame cannot inspire true horror. You're looking at plastic bits on mounted board. Even when you put some horrific stuff on those minis, they're still just inch-high minis.

You *can* capture suspense, though, and I think that's about as close as you're going to get as far as inspiring anything like horror. The very first time we ran Scenario 2 in Siege of the Citadel (the one with the Ezoghul running everyone down) we had some real tension, screaming for each other to get out of the way, fleeing headlong down the wasn't actualy terror per se, but it was some great tension.

I don't think you can have that tension without the threat of elimination, or a sense of the impending game end. Everytime you re-spawn in Doom, you know you're drawing closer to the game end, creating tension even though you aren't truly eliminated; ditto Fury of Dracula.

Games where you can be eliminated create that tension if you're invested in the game; to be killed is to be removed from the play experience, and that's about as close as you can get to feeling "scared" in that sense--you've become invested in your game avatar and what happens to him or her.

Jack Hill said...

I think I like your article better than mine.

Personally, I am quite happy to play a decent game that is horror-themed. We see so very few of those. And I believe that Black Morn Manor did spectacularly well for an 80's game. It is still enjoyable, if just a bit clunky.

I even almost like Betrayal--although the Betrayal is in how badly mangled the final rulebook is. The game you get in the box is barely playable. The first third of the game is useful, but it is spent building up strength.

I believe the only two games I've really played that ever truly gets across an element of horror is Werewolf. The suspicion, retribution, raw deceit, and betrayal that accompany horror are there.

But the only game to really handle fear and trepidation is Lord of the Rings. There is that moment when you turn over a tile and it could totally screw you. There is that tiny inkling of fear that you see on a good horror actor's eyes as he reaches for a doorknob.

I've always suspected that a good model for a zombie game would be to follow Night of the Living Dead closely. Use an unorthodox winning condition like "everyone who lives, wins". Then pepper the game with situations that both make it necessary to cooperate and work together, and sell each other out to survive. The Dutch game you describe sounds like it might be quite close.

robartin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr Skeletor said...

I think the solidarity part is the key.
Get a bunch of mates together and watch the scariest film imaginable - If people are cracking jokes and making comments throughout the film, it ain't going to be scary. That's why horror boardgames never work as actual scary pieces.

Michael Barnes said...

Great comments all around guys- great discussion.

Thinking about tension and suspense, I believe that SPACE HULK, with its ingenious mechanical duplication of the "motion detector" element in ALIENS is one of the most suspenseful elements in gaming...sure, you know it's probably going to be Genestealers...but how many? And they're really god damned dangerous...

Alan made some great comments about suggestion, particularly in DRACULA...even when he's not on a page- or even in a chapter- the presence of the character is felt throughout the novel.

I really think THE EXORCIST is one of the great horror films because the horror in it is almost entirely in the anticipation of it...the film is very much a spiritual journey in preparation to confront the ultimate evil. Throughout the movie, in suggestion and in brief images, we're shown the potential as well as the out-of-placeness of this evil entity- yet the film plays out almost like a standard, non-horror drama. I can't imagine a board game being able to approach that sort of horror- even in the hands of the most brilliant designer.

Dbuel mentions hopelessness...that's actually a pretty common emotion in gaming, not just in horror- it's in WAR OF THE RING for example. A great example of hopelessness is that feeling in a game of DESCENT when you know there's not a chance. But it's not the same as _helplessness_, which is more personal and arguably more horrifying at least on an internal level.

It's interesting that the discussion is turning toward elimination again, and I agree 100% that it has to be in a horror game for it to get a little closer to being "scary".

Jason Lutes said...

Great analysis all around. I tend to agree that the best we can hope for on the tabletop is tension and the feeling that something is at stake. The Werewolf example is apt, and connected to what gives Mall of Horror its spark -- self-interest and paranoia are built into the game mechanics. Nice to be reminded about Intruder and Slasher Flick! Anyone remember Nightmare House? I'd love to see a boardgame adaptation of John Carpenter's The Thing that makes full use of a Werewolf-style psychological angle.

I don't see the social aspect of boardgaming as an insurmountable hurdle to experiencing horror, though. One of the scariest experiences I've ever had was playing the old "Masks of Nyarlathotep" RPG campaign around the kitchen table in high school. We all had bad dreams for a while after that. I think a game can be truly horrifying, but the tangibility and definitive rules we associate with a boardgame lock the experience too tightly into the realm of the known.

Calling Arkham Horror two-fisted pulp is right on the money. There's nothing remotely scary or even creepy -- and certainly little Lovecraftian beyond some surface labeling -- about that game. Three hours of rolling on equipment tables and whacking monsters does not a horror game make.

alan polak said...

yeah Space Hulk is tense tense tense. unknown number of _incrediby_ deadly enemies that carve through your men like butter....Ah the good old days. Chainsaw Warrior tried something similar with the house decks and variable stats, and equipment. Firing that laser lance at Darkness, if you managed to get to the end of the game, was the most stress of my teens next to puberty. So maybe it needs to be really hard to win in a pretty hopeless situation; space hulk is hard as hell too. War of the Ring is tough as FP, not that it's close to Space Hulk in terms of tension _although_ watching Frodo corrupting his way into Mordor can be tense when you have to pull another corruption counter. Maybe thats it. You have to reveal blips to destroy them, you have to draw a counter each time you move in Mordor, you end up giving Dracula his cards while looking for your own. You hang yourself in all these games. So maybe it starts with a mechanic that means you engineer your own trouble??? This is a great discussion BTW. Could this be Ameritrash's second game after milk and pickles?

simon said...

I'm not a horror buff, but in my oppinion especially mystery draws its tension from hiding information. With boardgames you can't really hide info, because people have to understand the game before/while playing. You could add random events, but that doesn't necessarily horrify people, even less so when people know all the random events.

Another element used in thrilling movies is confusion, which can be achieved by spinning a complex tale with some twists.

Now to incorporate these two elements in a boardgame I think you'd need a complex ruleset and might want to include a blind mechanic, that is people don't see all of their opponents' moves. That's the reason why the RPG Cthulhu is able to create horror at least in a small scale.

Unfortunately I don't think a boardgame with complex rules and hidden information (which allows cheating) would be accepted by many gamers, especially in the age of internet crybabies. But maybe you could wheedle FFG.

Matt Thrower said...

Really interesting article, and I agree with much of what you say.

For me the reason horror games tend to fall flat is because they lack any sense of danger or threat. A film or a book has the capacity to fool you into believing there is some sort of danger afoot, partly because of the larger box of tools at their disposal and partly because the audience is effectively isolated into individuals who can't turn to each other for support.

One reason why FoD works for me is because it actually manages to generate a real feeling of threat to the hunters - the Dracula player is awesomely powerful, in control of vital information the hunters don't have and able to dictate the pace and progress of the game to some extent. The game is balanced because the hunters can work together - but from the hunters point of view it doesn't feel balanced, whatever the reality might be.

Actually pulling that trick in game design is an astonishingly rare thing though. I'm not aware of any other horror title that manages it.

Mike said...

Something I think you're missing about horror games is that, just like horror movies, they get less scary upon repeated playing/viewing. You can intellectualize all you want about why a scene from Nosferatu is scary but after repeated watchings does it really give you the same kind of chill that you first felt when you didn't know what was going on?

I agree with you about Mall of Horror. It does a great job of capturing the human pschology of the survival-zombie movie. I don't much care for the whole security camera part of the game because it doesn't make a whole lot of thematic sense nor do I like that the only place you can get items is in the parking lot -- WTF it's a mall?! I also wish it could take the negotiation/character aspect and blend it with some actual zombie killing: something like the group leaves one guy outside the safe room to be swarmed on by zombies but yet that character manages to find a chain saw and take a few zombies down with him.

I think that, assuming the rules for the haunt are correct, Betrayal at House on the Hill is a great horror game. Sure the first-half of the game is just a set up but a lot of horror movies are like that too (wandering into the old house, taking a trip up to the lake, getting invited to a party, sneaking into a closed bowling alley etc..) the charcters really don't know what is going on. The flavor text on the events and omens does make the game creepy until the haunt begins. As an example, there is a card that says your character has a vision where one boy is playing with another boy and then starts to beat him to a bloody pulp. This gives you a sense that "hey there is something about this house that isn't right". This game could have been really impressive if the cards were even more graphic but then it would have a limited adult market and Hasbro wouldn't have made the game.

Mood is also a factor. You wouldn't watch a scary movie playing at a food court in a mall would you? (Unless it was Chopping Mall, that would be cool). So if you are trying to play a horror game at a game group meeting when there are three other games going on all around you it's not going to seem all that scary. Take the same game, dim the lights a little and play some creepy music and you might capture a little more mood.

Michael I agree with you completely about the current crop of crap horror movies (Saw, Hostel, etc..) out there. The random grapic violence in these movies isn't scary and not all that disturbing because it's so over the top and pointless.

I just saw Hostel (no pun intended) last weekend and I sat there swearing at my TV. Yeah I know it wasn't my TV's fault but I was angry. Where is the subtle morality? Where is the hero with some actual personality instead of simply being the guy who survives? Where is the empathy I'm supposed to feel for the characters who die? Especially that Chinese girl: she loses an eye, concludes she is no longer pretty and so she kills herself? Really nice message...

And yet I wonder just how much of it is taste and how much is just us getting old because teenagers tell me they love these flix (much in the same way they like current crop of souless music). It's easy (REALLY EASY) for us to say the stuff is crap but only time is going to sort it all out.

Shellhead said...

Jason Lutes: Anyone remember Nightmare House?

Yeah. I still have my copy of Nightmare House, but I haven't played it in about a decade. The atmosphere of the game is terrific, but the fairly complex rules hurt the atmosphere, requiring players to frequently consult the rules.

After a few plays, I realized the fatal flaw of Nightmare House was the precarious balance. There is no such thing as a close game of Nightmare House. Either the House is grinding up the heroes into bloody bits, or the heroes are renovating the place with a frenzy that would put Ty Pennington to shame, shutting down the ghostly manifestations to a pitiful trickle.

Michael Barnes said...

You can intellectualize all you want about why a scene from Nosferatu is scary but after repeated watchings does it really give you the same kind of chill that you first felt when you didn't know what was going on?

It's true- but don't you still have an awareness and appreciation for the scene as well as an understanding of the context of its effect? Sure, the "thrill" is gone, but I can still see a scene like that and become completely lost in it.

I do think that with board games that thrill is more TALES OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, once you've been "surprised" by having an impromptu sex change, in the future it's just like "damn, not that again".

sneaking into a closed bowling alley etc

Please tell me you didn't just make a SLIMEBALL BABES IN THE SORORITY BOWL-A-RAMA reference, Mike. Please.

Matt- I think you really nailed it when you mentioned that films and novels occur to us in an assumed isolation, that really sums up what I was trying to get across. But then, could a solitaire board game duplicate that feeling?

And would anyone consider the Lament Configuration a game?

Mike said...

Please tell me you didn't just make a SLIMEBALL BABES IN THE SORORITY BOWL-A-RAMA reference, Mike. Please.

Ok... I didn't make a reference to SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-A-RAMA (not that your title wouldn't be entertaining) but deep down we both know that's a lie.

Thaadd said...

Before we got switched over onto a different game that is now known as Vampire: Dark Influences, my co-designer Dave Raabe and I

Ah-HA. The world is indeed small (or at least our little gamer circle). I used to work with Dave at the local sci fi conventions, where he would regularly wipe the floor with me in Vampire/Jyhad/whatever...

Ironically enough, I love suspense books, and games, but am an absolute coward with movies. PG-13 scares the hell out of me, sometimes. We're actually at the local con having a panel on Goreporn slasher movies this year, and I'm going to make sure I'm in the other side of the hotel.

I would like to play more of these Horror games though. If you have any, and are looking to have some fresh meat at any horror game night in town, I'd love to volunteer myself. Just don't play any horror movies in the background for ambiance!

alan polak said...

"And would anyone consider the Lament Configuration a game?"

I do but again you can only play it once right? Totally AT though!

Shellhead said...

Barnes: And would anyone consider the Lament Configuration a game?

Check out this site:

There is enough material there to run an entire rpg campaign based on the Lament Configuration and other puzzles designed by Monsieur Philip LeMarchand.

Shellhead said...

Thaadd: I would like to play more of these Horror games though. If you have any, and are looking to have some fresh meat at any horror game night in town, I'd love to volunteer myself. Just don't play any horror movies in the background for ambiance!

Thaadd, I probably own at least a half dozen horror boardgames that you haven't played. I host an AmeriTrash boardgame day roughly twice a month, and you're welcome to join in next time if you're interested. Our group mostly plays horror-related AmeriTrash. Last Saturday, we played Gother Than Thou, Mall of Horror, Strange Synergy, Fury of Dracula, and Arkham Horror. The closest we come to play scary background music is when we listen to some 80's music while playing Slasher Flick.

I already have your work e-mail address, from when you helped me get a replacement order token for A Game of Thrones last December. So I'll send you a more detailed e-mail shortly.

Michael Barnes said...

I'd like to see Tom Vasel's review of the Lament Configuration...I bet he'd change the theme for his group.

[redtext]"The Lament Configuration is a fun game about fishing that some people will really enjoy although others might find that its mechanics are not their cup of tea. Has anybody seen my soul?" [/redtext]

Matt Thrower said...

But then, could a solitaire board game duplicate that feeling?

Bear in mind that I did say that's only half the equation - you can play tricks in a book and especially in a film that's just not possible in a game.

But that said, I think it could work. Way back I used to play Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. I can remember being very freaked out by "House of Hell" the first proper horror title in the series. If it can work in a book, it can work in a game on the same principle - hook 'em in so they want to keep turning the pages/cards. Throw in something to make them identify with the character and then suddenly drop a nasty surprise on them.

I've never played Arkham Horror but I suspect it doesn't work very well as a horror game simply because it eventually reduces everything to combat stats that can be squared off against if you've got the firepower. The player needs to feel more in danger than that, and that they're playing against something genuinely mysterious.

Shellhead said...

Matt Thrower: I've never played Arkham Horror but I suspect it doesn't work very well as a horror game simply because it eventually reduces everything to combat stats that can be squared off against if you've got the firepower. The player needs to feel more in danger than that, and that they're playing against something genuinely mysterious.

Arkham Horror falls short of its theme, but then it would pretty much need to, since that theme includes eldritch horror and total insanity. Compared to other horror board games, it is one of the best. However, it could have been even better if there had been a way to conceal the identity of the Great Old One until the final battle.

Black Morn Manor sort of managed that level of mystery, by having one player start out as an evil minion. The minion player would randomly draw the monster for the game, then stock the deck for that scenario by removing certain unrelated cards. Unfortunately, characters frequently switch from good to evil and back again over the course of the game, so eventually the secret can slip out long before the end game. And the end game can get dragged out for a really long time as weakened characters easily slip back and forth between good and evil.

Betrayal at House on the Hill, for all its flaws, does a great job with that mid-game revelation. For the first part of the game, players are co-operating (or possibly acting selfishly) while exploring the house and gearing up. Abruptly, the traitor stands revealed as one of 50 horrifying scenarios begins to unfold. The quality of the game from that point on is unreliable, as individual scenarios vary in quality, and certain configurations of house layout and character status at the time of the reveal can have a major impact on the outcome.

Shellhead said...

Barnes, your Lament Configuration has nicely skewered a certain nicey-nice reviewer. But in all seriousness, I could see a Lament Configuration game being playable.

Each player would play a character, with a little character sheet card with a few stats on it. These characters would search for LeMarchand boxes around the world and attempt to acquire them. Whoever collects the most wins the game.

However, with each acquisition, a character would need to resist ever greater temptation to try to solve one of these puzzle boxes. Solving a box would carry a small chance of gaining valuable knowledge, but most likely result in mutilation and death.

Players would have the option to perform despicable acts that would increase their chances of acquiring boxes, including attacking each other, but this would also weaken their resistance to temptation.

Jack Hill said...

If Tales of the Arabian Night would almost work as a horror game, why didn't anyone do a paragraph horror game?

Actually, why did people stop making paragraph games? I miss them.

Mr Skeletor said...

I can remember being very freaked out by "House of Hell" the first proper horror title in the series.

That book was an absolute bitch to complete. Bloody brilliant though!

Apotheos said...

Come on Jack.

We know why they stopped making paragraph games.

Any way you look at it, gameplay always turned out like a choose your own adventure book. It was perhaps the worst one trick pony mechanic in the history of gaming.

I might be overstating that a bit.

mads b. said...

I know it's in no way a horror game, but Knizia's LotR can be a nail-biting experience. Every time you draw a tile you dread the consequences and especially near the end game the suspense can be almost unbearable.

What I think gives this game a sense of "horror" is the fact that your opponent (the game) plays by other rules than you do which makes the battle uneven. And furthermore I think that playing against a game mechanism gives LotR a sort of "otherworldly" feel which can be if not frightening then quite suspenseful.


Jason Lutes said...

Apotheos: I totally disagree -- I don't think that was the reason at all, and Tales of the Arabian Nights is by no means a one-trick pony. Choose-your-own-adventure (i.e., "interactive") gameplay has proven very profitable in the computer game market; in fact, I don't think it's an accident that the decline of paragraph-driven gameplay in print coincided with the rise of the ability of home computer games to do all that "work" for you. Plus, creating and producing a paragraph game as complex as Tales of the Arabian Nights takes an enormous amount of commitment and effort, something not for the faint of heart. Gamebooks were enormously successful for a very short time in history -- not because once you'd played one you'd played them all, but because they fulfilled a need for solitaire interactive gameplay that would soon be completely subsumed by the computer gaming market.

I love the potential that paragraph-driven games bring in the theme department -- and I loved TotAN the last time I played it -- but the basic mechanic of looking things up in a book every step of the way is too clunky. If there's going to be a next generation of story-driven boardgames, I hope its designers will employ modular elements like cards in new and interesting ways.

Mijjy said...

Perhaps all this is why horror as a gaming genre lends itself so successfully to RPG's (though I could not be arsed to play them myself.)

Is there any recent(ish)vampire releases over the years you can think of that avoided entirely the background White Wolf's Masquerade system?? Kind of hard to do as it has incorporated/integrated/stolen just about every vampire theme about from Blade to Hammer Horror to Max Schreck to Anne Rice's "Mills & Boon" offerings, even Vampire Hunter D makes his influence felt. And then the influence works in reverse with movies like "Underworld" coming straight from the RPG. I'll keep buying (& not playing) the vampire games (& movies) in the meantime anyway.

Zombie movies have always had a sense of humour about them. Watching zombies fall of elevators, get shot in the head etc. Though over successive years, the zombies have gone from shambling hulks with a bad bite to being able to run the 1/4 mile in 15 seconds flat, the savage bite remains. I suppose most zombie games should remain true to that whether you're Ash with a Boomstick or mentally going to pieces in a mall.

If you discount Underworld or the most excellent "Company of Wolves", most werewolf movies are just re-hashed Lon Chaney servings.

Anything by Lovecraft has really only a single source of information. People can make stuff about to add dimensions to Cthulhu, but do the extra bits really ring true?? Other games based on the writings of a single author suffer the same fate.

Still, just as Neil Gaiman will some day write the perfect book, so to will someone, one day, design the perfect horror game that somehow blends the history/source material, the atmosphere, the narration / player involvement & the mechanics.

This is probably a 1/2 finished comment, but it'll do for the moment, LOL.

Rliyen said...

If you discount Underworld or the most excellent "Company of Wolves", most werewolf movies are just re-hashed Lon Chaney servings.

Or in the case of Dog Soldiers, a retelling of Rourke's Drift, with werewolves as the Zulus.

Michael Barnes said...

10 points for bringing up Neil Jordan's _very_ underrated COMPANY OF WOLVES (starring Danielle Dax?!)...that's a terrific werewolf picture, likely the best up there with AMERICAN WEREWOLF and THE HOWLING. DOG SOLDIER ain't bad either.

Regarding the Masquerade/World of Darkness setting...I more or less hate it. But you're right, it's informed quite a lot of (in particular vampire) horror material.

That's one of the things I really love about's just old timey Victorian/Gothic horror...none of this "crack whore" bullshit.

alan polak said...

For those who love "Company of Wolves" check out Angela Carter's book The Bloody Chamber. It has the short story Company of Wolves and a brilliant piece called The Werewolf. Actually the whole book is brilliant. Re. Lovecraftian type horror I wonder how Tannhauser will fit into this debate. Looks very 2 fisted/Raiders/Hellboy like.

Rliyen said...

I wonder how Tannhauser will fit into this debate. Looks very 2 fisted/Raiders/Hellboy like.

I'm certainly hoping that the game is something like Raiders/Hellboy. I love that genre.

Mr Skeletor said...

Regarding the Masquerade/World of Darkness setting

I always thought it was a brilliant setting, which meshed in everything really well.
The goths that normally accompany the game on the other hand I can do without.

Michael Barnes said...


Anonymous said...

Quick (very late) comment: I think the best that a board game can do is create tension rather than horror (as per the earlier Space Hulk comments) by implementing partially hidden information which can drastically affect the game.

Another example of this would be the Nemesis expansion for Hybrid. The big bad Nemesis comes with three tokens that you move around the board so the other player doesn't know which is the actually aberration until they have LOS (at which point it is hopefully close enough that the tearing of a new one can begin). Good times!

aka. Washu! ^O^ said...

Late reply (finally picked up Dark Darker Darkest!), but I think *immersion* is a key factor in horror. That's why an RPG can evoke horror more easily than boardgames. Rolling dice... consulting rulebooks... moving tokens... looking at a stat on the back of a chit... that's not exactly the immersive experience a *good* GM can bring to the table. That's not to say you can't make an immersive boardgame. Paragraph-based games have the potential. Certainly Arkham Investigator, a Mythos-based SHCD PnP, has that inkling. Paragraph-based games, however, have the drawback of lack of replayability -- but that hasn't been a problem for SHCD fans, has it? Maybe a horror novelist and a CYOA should design a game!