I’m back from my holiday and amazingly we are right into the Halloween season as 2016 enters its final few months. And I’m starting of this Tabletop Tales with a confession…
I’m just not that into Halloween!
What started as a Celtic pagan harvest festival was “adopted” by the Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Gregory III sometime around 731-741AD and presented as Allhallowtide – a triduum to pray for the souls of the dead. Somehow this religious observance was morphed into folk dressing up as Bart Simpson and guising round the neighbourhood, chapping doors in what is the most blatant example of over-commercialisation ever.
It’s not just that; I don’t really get horror – which is celebrated at this time of year – either. While people are hiding behind the sofa, jumping out their skin, I’m usually front-and-centre ending myself laughing. The first time I saw The Exorcist as a 14-year old I viewed it as one of the best comedies I had seen in years!
That said there is no denying Halloween’s influence on the world. From a commercial point of view, Halloween is second only to Christmas in terms of its financial worth to retailers worldwide.
And tabletop gaming is no exception. And since the collective at That’s Not Current are rejoicing in “31 Days of Terror”, its only right Tabletop Tales joins in.
Fact is, tabletop gaming, parlour games and card games have historically been associated with the spectacularly spooky and obscenely occult – Tarot cards anyone? When you boil it down, the Ouija board is at its heart a tabletop game, with origins going back to China in 1100AD. Arguably, it is closer to Christianity’s Allhallowtide than the modern day spook’tacular Halloween. It was actually mass-marketed by American businessman Elijah Bond in 1890, patent and all. Amazingly, the trademarks on the Ouija board first copyrighted by Bond over 120 years ago still hold today, with them being in the possession (pun indented!) of board gaming giant Hasbro!
Both H.P Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe have had unprecedented influence on board games over the years, with some of the biggest games of the recent boom featuring the “Cthulhu Mythos” as an element. It is so prominent that even the massive popular Pandemic from Matt Leacock – a co-op game about fighting off diseases – has released a “Call of Cthulhu” version.
There are simply countless tabletop games of a Halloween-esque nature out there; games that are rich in atmosphere and tension, games that are built on suspense and carry a supernatural or occult theme. So I have decided to list 10 that are really worth checking out – in no particular order.
(Richard Launius, Kevin Wilson / Fantasy Flight Games / 2011)
A co-op dice game, Elder Sign sees a team of up to eight players taking on the roles of investigators racing against time to prevent the imminent return of the “ancient one”. Set within a supernatural infested museum enriched by the Cthulhu mythos, players must use their occult knowledge to locate the “elder sign”, fighting off the Ancient One’s minions before the time runs out. The game is a tense affair with variable paths to victory, and also many pitfall leading to swift defeat.
Letters from Whitechapel
(Gabriele Mari, Gianluca Santopietro / Fantasy Flight Games / 2011)
One player takes on the role of the infamous Jack the Ripper and must “deal with” five victims before being caught by the rest of the players who work together as detectives. This murder-mystery game requires great memory and deduction skills on the detectives’ end, while the Jack player must be meticulous in is actions, targeting “the wretched” of Whitechapel. While the game can be very heavy to digest, its police-procedural infused with the brutal legend of Jack the Ripper provides an intriguing game, full of misdirection.
(Antoine Bauza / Repos Productions / 2008)
From one of my favourite game designers, Ghost Stories is another co-op game that is more family friendly than others on this list. Playing as Taoist monks, the players are tasked with protecting the village from Wu-Feng – the lord of Hell – and his legions of ghosts in their quest to recover the ashes that will bring the lord back to life. With a grid board, players move their markers to exorcise the ever spawning ghosts, using dice to play out combat with “tao tokens” used to modify roles. With multiple paths to defeat and very few to victory, this game is brutal! The game difficulty can also be increased to provide an even more enduring challenge if you are brave/crazy enough.
(Keith Baker / Atlas Games / 2005)
Also a humorous approach to horror games, Gloom sees players assuming control of an Edgar Allen Poe inspired family of eccentric misfits who compete to impose as much tragedy on their character as possible before they achieve the respite of death. Featuring an innovative design, utilising transparent cards, players play cards on their characters to lower their self-worth score, while simultaneously playing cheerful cards on their opponents. The player with the lowest total family value score wins. Overall, a very accessible, twisted, humours hand management game. There is even a stand alone Cthulhu version!
Level 7 [Escape]
(Will Schoonover / Private Press / 2012)
Playing as a captive of Subterra Bravo – a top-secret underground military base filled with the horrors of science gone wrong – the goal is simple; escape! Accommodating up to four players, you have to decide whether to work with your fellow prisoners of go it alone as you try to evade the terrors of the labyrinth-like base. With a choice of game modes, Level 7 [Escape] is a simple game of managing your player and navigating the board staying out of the way of enemies through the use dice and cards. While not a perfect game, it is an incredible tense experience and really creates a genuine sense of fear.
Fury of Dracula (3rd Edition)
(Frank Brooks, Stephen Hand, Kevin Wilson / Fantasy Flight Games / 2015)
Originally a 1987 release, Fury of Dracula has seen a further two editions, with the third the most complete version (and only one readily available). It is a classic Dracula adventure, with one player playing as the infamous Count and the other players playing as unique hunters. Using hidden movement and deduction gameplay elements, Dracula must spread his influence score to 13, leaving traps on his trail for the hunters who must deal 15 points of damage to Dracula. While the game is relatively simple, the rules are very convoluted and it does take some digesting. However, it is quite easily the best Dracula themed game about, with a rich design and great replayability.
Mansion of Madness (2nd Edition)
(Nikki Valens / Fantasy Flight Games / 2016)
Another Lovecraft inspired game, this was originally released in 2011 with the 2nd edition just arriving this year. Presenting a truly unique co-op gaming experience, the game is played with a pre-designed story that provides a specific combination of area and plot, directing the monsters that will be encountered and the puzzles that need to be solved. The 2nd edition comes with a companion app that drives the narrative and directs the flow of the game, with the main appeal being that investigators (up to five players) go into each scenario blind, with no idea of objectives. Not only is this a fantastically spooky game, it’s one of the best story driven games on the market. It’s only downside is with a RRP of £79.99, it’s a very expensive one!
(Corey Konieczka, Nikki Valens / Fantasy Flight Games / 2011)
A spiritual sequel to 2005’s Arkham Horror, this is another game set in the Lovecraft inspired universe of Mansion of Madness and Edler Sign. Yet another co-op game battling against the “Ancient One”, the players play globetrotting investigators working to solve mysteries and ultimately protect the world. Heavily narrative driven, the fear of the unexpected and lack of clarity are the strength of this game, with random mythos card decks controlling the objective and obstacles of the game. Like its cousins, it is a completely immersive game that keeps you on edge. Perfect for a Halloween games night!
Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
(Jonathon Gilmour, Isaac Vega / Plaid Hat Games / 2014)
I have not played this game, yet it greatly appeals to me and for a long time has been one of my most wanted. I recently got the stand alone expansion that has just been released (The Long Night) and that’s how I’m spending my Halloween weekend and will be reviewing it in full next week on Tabletop Tales.
Dead of Winter is a zombie apocalypse meta-cooperative survival game, where each player has their own agenda, and one player is potentially a traitor. The game plays out by fighting to survive long enough to complete a randomly drawn team goal by scavenging for supplies, fending off zombies, maintaining your colony and progressing your characters secret objective. While it’s a lot to digest, the mechanics are pretty simple. The strength of the game lies in the sheer brutality of it, where an encounter with a single zombie could cause a domino effect of devastation. If that wasn’t enough, there are “crossroad cards” that direct the narrative and present choices to the players that has the potential to drastically change the game.
Betrayal at House on the Hill
(Bruce Glassco, Rob Daviau, Mike Selinker / Avalon Hill / 2005)
Arguably the definitive game for Halloween – Betrayal at House on the Hill see’s the player explore a haunted house. Very easy to play, the players design their own house with the tiles available and then adventure into the unknown, with one player secretly selected as the traitor. With six unique and colourful characters to play as, the goal is simple: root out and defeat the traitor. However, players will also have to overcome the frightening spirits and omens that appear as the game progresses. It feels like a darker version of the Cludeo, providing a very fun, suspenseful and engaging game that has just the right amount of strategy to be easily accessible by all.
Kickstarter Camping of the Week
As an added bonus, each week on Tabletop Tales I’m going to highlight a Kickstarter project that is worth your consideration. And what a perfect place to start following the last Tabletop Tales, with Exploding Kittens creator’s Elan Lee & The Oatmeal launching a brand new campaign. Presenting Bears vs Babies!!
Enriched with the same outrageous humour and art style as Exploding Kittens, Bears vs Babies is perfectly described by the designers: “Bears vs Babies is a card game where you build handsome, incredible monsters who go to war with horrible, awful babies”. Pledges start at $25 + $3 shipping to the UK, with the NSFW expansion pushing it up a further $10. It’s expected to land in June 2017 and (at time of writing) has achieved 14400% of its $10,000 goal with a total of 38,469 backers and $1,440,038 raised. Check it out.
Next Week: As mentioned, I will be keeping up with the horror theme by bringing a hands-on look at the new stand-alone expansion to the Dead of Winter…Dead of Winter: The Long Night.