Ghoulish games: Board gaming’s undying relationship with the horror genre

It’s a perennial favourite among the gaming enthusiast, from zombie hordes and haunted mansions, to murderous slashers and the escape room scene – the horror genre (or spooky, gothic, spine-tingling – whatever you want to call it) it all just seems to work on the board game platform.

Just as board gaming has risen in its popularity among mainstream audiences looking to spice up their evenings with some of the party game favourites, or families turning to some of the light-hearted titles to keep children entertained and the arguments at bay, so too has the medium gained a footing as another mode of social commentary. 

There’s no escaping this room – board games are today as much a part of modern culture as film, TV and literature. Particularly for 2020, it’s a genre that hasn’t found itself shut out over lockdown. Board game shops remain open where cinemas are closed, games tell different stories with each play whereas you’re probably starting to run out of series to watch on Netflix, and a roll of a die can place you at the centre of a good story, the same as any book.

So it makes sense that board games can, too, become a medium on which our collective fears – cultural or societal – can be played out. Over and over, with different scenarios, game plays and results, each time.

“As with most areas of modern culture where horror is popular, it’s a safe way to experience things that might frighten us,” says Becky Ottery, owner and director of Reading’s Eclectic Games and expert on the tabletop gaming scene.

“A great number of the horror titles in the market are co-operative games, or at least hidden role or one-vs-many affairs. It’s that banding together element that is the antidote to the potentially bleak, frightening, subject matter.”

The popular Betrayal at House on the Hill, an award-winning Avalon Games title, is one such game in which players find themselves within a haunted mansion, building their own haunted rooms, until they are betrayed by a single player. The many must then work to defeat the traitor among them before it’s too late.

Meanwhile, Jaws brings all of the elements of the classic Spielberg monster film to the table as it pits three against one in a tense tabletop adaptation of the 1975 thriller. Beat the beast from the deep and rescue Amity Island from its carnage, as the race intensifies.

“Zombie Dice from Steve Jackson Games, Arkham Horror The Final Hour from FFG, City of Zombies from Thinknoodle Games (Maths by stealth, and way more fun than an educational game has any right to be), One Night Ultimate Werewolf (or Vampire) by Bezier Games, Horrified, and The Thames Murders from the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective line, are all popular games with that horror element to them,” lists Ottery.

Granted, you’re not likely to get the jump scares of your classic Halloween fodder, but aren’t the best ones the ones that stay with you (And we’re looking at you, Atmosfear) long after the game is up? The unease of an escape room, coupled with the relief and accomplishment on the other side, is something rather addictive.

“There are fewer titles where you play the serial killer, crazed cultist or suchlike,” continues Ottery. “And where you do, it’s inevitably played for comedy, as with Mad Scientist University, Nefarious, Give Me the Brain, and similar titles.”

Then there are the titles in which the ‘monster’ is never revealed. And it is a game like this, like Thames & Kosmos’ ever popular EXIT: The Game series that really do pit your wits against the unseen entity.

“EXIT and Unlock titles are good for a ‘stay at home Halloween’, says Ottery. “EXIT has The Cemetery of the Knight, The Pharoah’s Tomb, The Abandoned Cabin, The Catacombs of Horror; while the Unlock series features a variety of individual spooky puzzles, plus the repeated presence of Professor Nosides, a very disturbing clown.”

It’s likely the co-operative, task accomplishing, puzzle solving elements, pitted alongside those more chilling, psychological aspects at play that have helped the Thames & Kosmos EXIT: The Game series to the success that it has seen over the last few years.

The company has in fact sold more than 160,000 units this year alone, and has seen the game become so popular that it now plans on launching a raft of spin-off ranges of EXIT puzzles and advent calendars, as well as the usual annual roll-out of four new titles.

“I love playing EXIT games with my teenage boys, as they aren’t typical gamers but they love the tension in the story line behind the games, which helps to make a thrilling experience for everyone,” Jo Drage, sales director for Thames & Kosmos UK tells ToyNews.

“I have saved one of our new releases The Stormy Flight for Halloween, as my boys are a bit old for trick or treating (and not that it’s even allowed this year), but still like to have a scary, spooky time.

“The game is perfect at around 90 minutes, for their attention span, and as a co-op game, it avoids the typical teenage family rows, too, as we all have to work together.”

Priced at £13.50 each, the EXIT: The Game series is an accessible escape-room style series of games that heighten the tension through themed plays across 17 titles.

“The Haunted Roller Coaster or The Sinister Mansion has gamers try to escape from a spooky experience, or face an unknown but scary fate,” adds Drage. “Inka and Markus Brand, who have written the series really do bring a fresh approach to each game, making each experience feel new and exciting.”

The ongoing success of the range has also spawned a new venture for Thames & Kosmos in its production of a series of Adventure Games in which users can choose different routes while solving puzzles to encounter different adventures and rescue their friends while escaping themselves. A little adversity seems to go a long way in gaming.

As a genre, horror within board gaming isn’t hard to find, and such is its popularity, it certainly isn’t reserved for the Halloween season alone. 

“We don’t see a major uptick in people buying spooky/horror/zombie themes just because it’s Halloween,” says Eclectic Games’ Ottery. “The most we get around that is about a 100 per cent increase in queries on whether we stock Ouija boards.”

And we’re sure she could make a killing.

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