Some games, they're pretty inoffensive looking. Everybody loves Monopoly when they start out playing board games, but what of those board games that although presented as a fun group activity, just creep you out a little? Maybe not immediately, but when you connect it with stuff you've read in your life about godawful stuff that was real? Or maybe it just presents the dark and disturbing in a way that tries to be funny but in the end you're not sure how black you like your humour or without any sugars. These are the five darkest board games I've come across, for reasons that will become clear soon enough.
Oh, it looks innocent enough but when you consider that surgery is serious business, and that the patient wakes up and screams in agony when you touch the sides... you realise that you might have thought of yourself as a Dr. House or Blackjack but really you're just Doctor Nick from The Simpsons. I could go into how this is meant to be a children's game and because it's presented in a bright and colourful way it's not really more violent than Warhammer 40,000 - but Operation is quite the chilling game when you play it as an adult because if you've been through real surgery like I have you really worry if you're going to get a professional M.D. or just a guy who played this game as a kid.
The gruesome aspects aren't enough to make this game contain adult themes as a theme - it actually gets worse when you consider that you get more money for performing more expensive operations - calling into questions of medical malpractice and health care fund debates. This is a game made well before its time in hiding a very subtle satirical message about the medical services industry behind the disguise of a children's plaything - if Monopoly is the symbol of capitalism pre-GFC, this is the board game that represents to me in a way, the problems in America with health care funding and the whole debate over privatised medicine. Whether one prefers health care to be nationalised in your country won't be discussed here, but Operation is one of the unsung games in terms of board games we play as children which without us knowing teach us messages about the adult world and how it works.
I don't mind Operation either, not only has it got excellent theme and original mechanics - but I can't think of any board game that's really utilised a mechanism like it before or since. It's also really fun to play, even if you don't have children. I'd recommend buying it for your now adult medical student college attending son or daughter as a joke, at least once. Not only will you embarrass him or her, but you'll give them some idea about how difficult surgery really is on a small scale, and maybe even question their motives for entering the profession.
4: Don't Wake Daddy
This game is really unintentionally creepy. Not in a "the Daddy looks dead" sort of way, but a childhood subconscious, possibly Freudian fear of not wanting to displease the father figure in the family. I only played this game once as a kid in 1996 I reckon, and when I actually WAS a kid I felt kind of strange towards my father, not knowing whether I could trust him or not. Turns out most of the time I could, but come on. It was 1993 when the government hadn't banned spanking yet in Australia - it was an era of peace in my Land Down Under no doubt, but when I was small most kids my age feared one thing, spanking. It actually really hurt, and for once in my entire life I can acknowledge the government made the right decision to ban this form of discipline, because it could be abused in certain circumstances where it could be abused as a tool of fear based control. That's what made Don't Wake Daddy even more terrifying than the pop-up father that startled the hell out of you. Don't Wake Daddy was the Call of Cthulhu of my then young generation, it's mostly forgotten because most of us don't want to remember this outright horror of a game that reminded us too much of the consequences of angering our own parents.
3: The Game of Life
This game is full of value judgments, perhaps worse than even Monopoly. Monopoly isn't dark, it's just absurdism crossed with capitalism. The Game of Life however, it's a game I never want to play again. It's real life reduced to a oversimplified, 1960s version of what we are expected to live our lives like. The game rewards you for getting married, as opposed to not doing so. The game rewards you for being a millionaire, but gives you no option to be a Mother Theresa. I've known gay men who played this game even just once as a kid and were offended. Well maybe just one, but that's beside the point. The Game of Life is perhaps an even more irredeemable blight on board games than Monopoly, and I know for a fact more people would prefer to play Monopoly than this cardboard and plastic horror of a Russian Roulette wheel that hurls you either into success and wealth or poverty and the Retirement Home by sheer chance. You have to play the game by its rules and its value judgments, which is why I rank it as even more harmful to children than Warhammer 40,000 - which doesn't make this list because it doesn't contain adult concepts one may or may have in the past encountered in real life. The Game of Life is an ugly lie that teaches children rigid understandings of what real life actually works like, and that money and marriage is the sole purpose of human existence. By comparison Rick Priestley when he came up with part of Warhammer 40,000 he had no illusions about teaching young people a message about life, most lessons learned by Warhammer 40,000 are learned outside of the game's rulebook anyway. Good Lord this game makes me angry. In fact I'm willing to take back every statement against Monopoly I ever made after remembering this piece of anti-feminist, anti-dignity rubbish. Because you might lose Monopoly but you never lost your dignity and integrity did you?
Here we get into the adult concept filled but still playable by children historical games. I could have devoted this entire slot on my list to the entire genre of wargames, but I don't think that's actually responsible of me as a critic or a writer who analyses the worth of a board game. Wargames by their nature are simple to complex games of toy soldiers, but they have varying degrees of historical accuracy depending on the game, which makes it really hard to dismiss an entire genre of board games on the basis that it encourages war. Rather, I think wargames in board game or tabletop form prevent wars. They keep wars confined to the kitchen or living room table, where the guns can't hurt anybody anymore. In a game like Battle Cry the South's guns might well roar again, but the guns are useless now, mighty weapons turned into the impotent Nerf guns of toy-like historical reenactments. Historical wargames are not a genre I am an expert on, nor do I dismiss them. They serve a purpose to entertain, and to an extent they teach about war without flinging a young man of enlistment age into a real one where he might not need or want to be.
Which is why in this column I'm not going to bring up wargames, not even Warhammer 40,000 because as I've mentioned Warhammer 40,000 is a satire, a cartoon parody of war and violence and the political climates that drive it. Instead I want to mention a different sort of historical game for the last two slots, both games which are playable by children and not directly aimed at adults.
I speak of course of Samurai, which is in my opinion one of the great Eurogames. It's a Eurogame, but damn it it's a fun Eurogame. It is also not a wargame, it is a historically based tile laying game that through the game mechanic of claiming territories without dice combat attempts to replicate the brutal warlord clan actions of Samurai sweeping across the landscape of Japan as if the farms of the peasants in Feudal times were simply theirs for the taking. No violence is implied in Samurai, no blood is shed, even imagined like it would be in a wargame. Instead, the violent action is present in the seizing of property and land to take possession of valuable resources. This was what Akira Kurosawa made Seven Samurai for - an apology for the terrible oppression his Samurai ancestors committed towards peasants in the days when Samurai still had power over those who had little of it. It was a time before guns, and the terrible consequences of death dealt by a trigger and not the skill of a sword or an arrow. Death by a sword or an arrow to me reflects a time when those skills of warfare were trained to a mastery of combat, making the warrior utterly responsible for their actions of claiming territory by brutal force and putting the lowly and weak to the sword.
This is no wargame where you roll dice to see which plastic men survive - this is an utterly brutal and ruthless game where you must rape and pillage before the other player rapes and pillages resources before you can. It's pretty dark. But not as dark as...
Most historically based games are nowhere near aimed at children, or at least complex Ameritrash or Eurogames. For children, the closest to a historical game you get until you're fifteen or so is Risk, a game of global domination. The destruction left in your wake as you play Risk is anonymous, impersonal. You do not weep for the families of your plastic armies you send to the frontlines of Asia to see if you can hold it.
But there are some games aimed at children that are far more nuanced about dealing with the concept of death in a board game. I am talking about Wizards of the Coast's Guillotine, which as soon as I got hold of it chilled me to the bone as I realised this is a game, from WizKids - normally the place that makes happy colourful cartoony games with no violence - where you are placed in the French Revolution and you control the assembly line of nobles, aristocrats and the martyrs who await the inevitable as they have an appointment with what Charles Dickens called "The razor that shaves close". Which if you haven't figured out is the instrument of capital punishment which is referred to in the title.
Sacre Bleu... I have never seen a children's game that comes with a cardboard standee guillotine which stands at the end of a line of cards, a line at which the end really is The End. I bought this game because I read A Tale of Two Cities, and there's even a card that references "'Tis A Far Better Thing...". There's bribery, corruption, and you're rewarded for collecting the heads of the most powerful people in France. You are also punished for beheading the weakest and most vulnerable.
This is possibly the most awesomely insensitive treatment of human suffering I've seen since The Bed Intruder Song. There is no other game like it, and no other card game has so far dared to introduce a mechanic as darkly compelling as the Guillotine at the end of the road, your potential victims brought to the unkind machine by the horse carts that hurl them into the abattoir that is their impending doom. If you're not put off teaching your kids about the French Revolution's bloodier bits, or your kids grew up with the Horrible Histories books - give this one a try. Hell, give this one a try regardless. Because it is one of the cheapest board/card games out there with an utterly original, however macabre, mechanic.
And couldn't we use more of that?