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Go straight to R’lyeh: Do not Pass Go

(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in December 2019)


There’s only so long you can desperately hold on the memory of Halloween and accept that, yes, Christmas is approaching. It’s that season of tasteless jumpers, overpriced Brazil nuts and endless tides of sprouts, and an ideal time for friends and family to get together. Sometimes through choice, sometimes enforced.


Over Christmas, Board Games are an ideal way to pass the time and to find something to fill the dull soul-destroying monotony and awkward silences, but where can your regular horror fan go to satisfy their cravings to both thrash Auntie Margaret and get their regular fright fix?



And before you say it, Monopoly can get stuffed. I don’t care if you have treated yourself to the new “It” or “Stranger Things” variants - It’s still a game deliberately weaponised to make you hate the people sitting next to you, friends or family, regardless of which topical “Stephen King’s Derry, Maine®” skin or “Upside Down Counter Variant™” they’ve stuck on it. And the only true horror is that Hasbro have released “Monopoly for Millennials” in which (LOL) you can’t afford real estate. Yeah, really.


So, in time for the Festive Season, here’s my list of recommended board games with a horror theme. Every single one is an absolute (ahem) cracker.


Mysterium



Have you ever played a game of Cluedo and thought, “This is all very well and good, but what I’d really enjoy is a variant whereby the murdered Doctor Black has returned as a ghost, and can only pass on from this mortal realm by helping the investigating detectives solve his murder – and this can only be achieved by the aforementioned ethereal quack influencing their dreams”?

Me too.


Our initial entry is by far and above the most “casual” game on this list. It’s possible to explain the rules in a couple of minutes, and gameplay – for all but one player. Secondly, it’s co-operative so either everybody wins, or everybody loses. This means it’s less likely to be responsible for any impending familial rivalries resulting in a still furious Auntie Pam only getting you bath salts next Christmas.


The Detectives are against the clock, with only a set number of turns to deduce the murderer, murder location and murder weapon. The Ghost player is unable to speak to the detectives, his only tool being a series of abstract illustrations with which he’ll try to push them towards the correct conclusions.


For both the ghost player and the detectives, games of Mysterium can be as hilarious as they are frustrating. Because of the random and vague nature of the pictures that the ghost is armed with, it can be a real challenge to point the investigators in the correct direction. What sounds like a straightforward task can become hilariously difficult.



As an example; Let’s say the murderer was killed by a knife. He’s got a piece of artwork that he considers ideal; a guillotine with glinting blade. Easy, right? The detective is presented with the picture and, immediately jumping to the wrong conclusions, picks up on a minor detail in the same picture – the wooden frame of the guillotine clearly matches the rectangular shape of the toolbox, so the ghost must be hinting at that, surely? All the ghost can do is silently lay down more pictures, hoping beyond hope to push the detective down the correct route.


What makes it an ideal party game is the conversations it’ll promote afterwards. You can end up spending much of the evening in discussion rejoicing and celebrating the correct decisions and laughing about the poor ones. (“The pool of water was clearly suggesting the swimming pool. Why the fuck did you think I meant the master bedroom?”).


The supernatural theme is vague, admittedly – almost an afterthought. But nonetheless, it’s an evocative and thematic skin for a simple and fun party game. And, what’s more, it’s by far the cheapest game on this list.


Players: 2-7 / Game Time: 40 – 50 minutes / Complexity: Low


Mansions of Madness: Second Edition



What would Lovecraft think now, to see his works of primal existential horror as Pop culture? To see his Great Old Ones as anthropomorphised cartoon T-shirt designs, plush toys and action figures? That’s a question for another day, but what would probably concern him more is “Why are there so many non-white people around these days?” because he was, after all, a massive, massive racist.


Anyhoo.


The market is literally saturated with Cthulhu mythos themed games at the moment - Arkham Horror, Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, Munchkin Cthulhu and Cthulhu Gloom, to name but a few. In a great many cases, they've just slapped tentacles on another game and relabelled it. However, my favourite from all of these was always Mansions of Madness which has now been replaced by the far superior second edition.


Each player assumes the role of an investigator from a brave team of plucky individuals thrust into the world of the Cthulhu Mythos.



Each player has different strengths and weaknesses, and the most efficient team will be one where there's a reasonable mixture of characters (fighters, thinkers and spell-casters) who gel together well. It's altogether less Dungeons and Dragons, and more D'endrrahs and Dagons.

Whereas the first edition of Mansions of Madness needed a player whose sole job was to maintain the rules, reveal the map and control the plot and monsters, the second edition does this through an associated app (iOS, Android or Windows) which does the legwork for you. There are some individuals who feel that the hybrid of board game and computer game is an abomination, but in my mind it's an absolute revelation.


In the main, it means that all the players are working together and that nobody feels left out. And unlike Nemesis, the next game in this list, it's properly co-operative. The team are working towards the same goal, and there's a genuine sense of achievement with each victory.

The team will work through various scenarios of varying difficulties, exploring rooms, solving puzzles and conquering monsters – all the time trying not to go horribly, horribly insane.

There's a great sense of tension to each game, with players almost reluctant to travel off the beaten path and go it alone. In your typical game of Dungeons and Dragons, reading a mysterious book from a dusty shelf might teach you a new magic spell – in Mansions of Madness, it's likely to drive you insane. Or the book itself will try to eat you, that kind of thing.

It's not a cheap package, but you get a lot for your money. And Fantasy Flight, the makers, are adding expansions all the time, so you should never run out of content. The only real criticism I've ever had with Mansions of Madness is the quality of the miniatures; the heroic characters are fine, but the enemies (from cultists to deep ones to huge eldritch squamous beasties) are a bit flimsy and never seem to fit properly on their bases.


Still, that's a very minor criticism about a very thematically strong and atmospheric multiplayer game. Even those with just a cursory or passing interest in the works of Lovecraft should be able to get a lot out of this.


Players: 1-5 / Game Time: 60 - 180 minutes / Complexity: Medium


Nemesis



Not the game featuring the Warlock from 2000ad fame, but instead a tense sci-fi survival horror influenced by the Alien/Aliens movie (in the same way that George Lucas was slightly influenced by the Seven Samurai when he made Star Wars). This is the newest entry on the list, having only just been given a retail release. I was lucky enough to buy into the Kickstarter, and now my house is full of this game and its various expansions and accessories.


Players wake up from hibernation, the last survivors on an abandoned space-craft infested by vicious Xenomorphs. The situation is bad – the crew can’t remember the layout; the engines might be broken, and the ship might possibly be going in the wrong direction. Some poor bugger is going to have to venture off and fix it.


What makes Nemesis stand out from the plethora of 'figures moving on a map' games is the fact that every player is given secret objectives to achieve, and some of these goals may well contradict the ones that other players have. To this end, like Ash in Alien and Bishop in Aliens, you can't entirely trust your colleagues. Survival isn't enough – sometimes you can only win by screwing over the person next to you, and they won't even know it until the last minute.


I usually object to too much randomness in a board game – there are few things as frustrating as a well-thought out plan being thwarted by an unlucky dice result – but with Nemesis, the chaos is part of the game’s charm. It seems at times as though the game itself is semi-sentient, perpetually trying to impede and hinder you at every opportunity. The ship has caught alight, so of course the Fire Control room where you can activate the sprinklers is itself on fire as well. You've got no ammo left for your gun and you might possibly be infected by the alien life form, so of course the next room has the Alien Queen waiting there for you.


The best games should create miniature stories, and Nemesis is rife with them. If you survive, you'll do so by the skin of your teeth – or through your selfish sacrifice of other players. It even gets around the issue of players getting knocked out early (a huge problem in games with long playtimes with friends) by letting them take the role of the aliens.


Whereas one of the benefits of games like Mysterium is that it won't make your guests fall out with each other, cunning use of betrayal in a game like Nemesis can work to your advantage. Cousin Pete (and his over-fragranced fiancé of the year) won't be coming over next Christmas when he remembers the two of you were running from the Alien Queen and you not only locked the airlock but stole the last escape pod.


It's expensive, and the box itself is big enough to climb into and hide from aliens, but with the right group of players it's a brilliant experience. Every game of it plays differently, and a victory is a genuine achievement.


Players: 1-5 / Game Time: 90 - 180 minutes / Complexity: Medium/High


Fury of Dracula



This is the oldest game on the list, being the newest edition of a game originally released by Games Workshop back in the late eighties. It’s a hidden movement game where one player controls the eponymous Count, and the other players the esteemed Vampire Hunters Abraham Van Helsing, Dr John Seward, Lord Goldalming and Mina Harker.


Set in 1898, eight years after the events of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the players track the vampire across a map of Europe. Dracula moves in secret, and the players only know where he has been via rumours and clues - and the trail of destruction left in his wake.


It’s a cunning game of cat and mouse where Dracula attempts to evade capture for as long as possible, building up both his strength and the size of his vampire army. The heroes, trying to avoid this, are trying to locate him as soon possible – but ensuring that they are powerful enough to confront him when the inevitable encounter comes.


The vampire hunters need to work together to stand even a fighting chance of deducing where Dracula is hiding, and to eventually corner him when he's uncovered.



Combat is quick and vicious, with a system very much like that of Rock Paper Scissors. Because of the brutal (and semi-random) nature of the combat, games can end abruptly.

It's a great game, and the fact that it's been around for nearly thirty years with each iteration only slightly polishing the already excellent mechanics is testament to the quality of it. It's just as fun playing Dracula as it is with the heroes, with a thoroughly tense experience had by all.

Best played accompanied by a full bodied Red Bordeaux – it is Christmas, after all.


Players: 2-5 / Game Time: 60 - 180 minutes / Complexity: Medium


Other honourable mentions:


Dead of Winter – Post-apocalyptic zombies in a frozen colony, with some really weighted choose-your-own-adventure style choices. A desperate fight for survival in a hostile wasteland.


Ultimate Werewolf – A great, easy-to-learn, party game supporting anywhere between 5 and 75(!) players. This game has been around forever with regular rereleases improving it each time, and – importantly for Christmas games – is easily enough to play after you've had a drink or two. Or nine.

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