It's more than a Halloween thing.
As long time members of this site will know, my love of horror movies has been well documented. As one might suspect, that passion extends to board games. Just about anything outside of the overused zombie and Cthulhu fare catches my eye, but even some of those games end up in my collection regardless. I buy horror games year round, play them year round, and am more than happy to play them during the Halloween season once the rest of the world is on my level. When I saw the Top 5 Halloween Games thread in the forums, I felt I had enough to say to merit getting back behind the keyboard and, as one of the sites top horror enthusiasts, put together something more concrete.
First, a few notes about criteria and what, for me, makes for a great horror game. Most importantly, it can't just be a coat of paint. You're not going to see Arkham Horror (or even Eldritch Horror, which I'm actually quite fond of) on this list for that reason. I have plenty of unpopular opinons on the game, but I don't think anyone can argue that it doesn't have any more tension than any other Pandemic-like co-op or that it's really more of pulp adventure game than it is one of skin-crawling terror. No, I want my horror games to give me the same feeling l would get if watching a movie with the same subject matter. I'm looking for something that is less about characters and plot and more about a visceral reaction, something that hits me more as a person than a gamer. The games that are able to accomplish this are certainly rare, but they do exist and these five games are the ones that I feel do it best. Finally, this is very much my list with my favorites. I don't expect it to be yours.
Love them or not, jump scares are a horror movie staple. Nyctophobia is the only board game I've played that has the capacity to generate them. One player takes the role of an axe weilding maniac and attempts to hunt down the other players as they make their ways through the dark forest in hopes of reaching the safety of the car. The twist? The maniac is the only player who can see the board. The other players wear black out glasses and literally have to feel around the modular 3D board to find their way out. More so than any other game on this list, Nyctophobia lives and dies by who you play it with. It's a singular design, make no mistake about it, but the maniac player should be taking full advantage of the situation. During my most memorable game of Nyctophobia, Al (the killer) quietly made his way around the table, got right next to my ear and menacingly said, "I'M GOING TO GET YOU." I shot out of my chair, which in turn caused everyone else to shoot out of theirs. Plenty of games can build stress and tension, hallmarks of watching scary movies, but a well-played game of Nyctophobia is genuinely scary.
4. The Bloody Inn
Even without its theme, The Bloody Inn puts you off balance with its rather strange mechanics. It's the kind of game that takes half a play before you start wrap your head around it. This little card game may be a thinky one, but you won't be able shake the feeling of just how fucked up this game is. See, The Bloody Inn has you play as a family of innkeepers. The object is to be the richest family member by the end of the game. Problem is, running a legitimate business is not very profitable. The family decides that murdering their guests and robbing them is a much more lucrative venture, though a code of honor dictates that they won't take anything until the body is buried. However, police officers frequently come around and you don't want to have any unburied corpses lying around when they do. With only two actions per round, there may not enough time to dispose of your kills in time. There is, of course, another option, that being to bribe the officer to help you kill more later or to simply murder them. It's easy to find yourself with a mountain of corpses with no where to put them with more police officers on the way. The tension runs incredibly high as does the inescapable feeling that everything the game is asking you to do is wrong. When I introduce folks to The Bloody Inn, I always wait to the end and then I drop the real bombshell on them: The game is inspired by a true story.
Mark Chaplin and Toby Farrands's love letter to Alien may have only been released just this year, but it's already earned a lofty position amongst my favorite horror games. While there have been many games over the years to pull inspiration from James Cameron's significantly less terrifying but still excellent sequel, Lifeform goes back to Ridley Scott's original masterpiece. While the H.R. Giger aesthetic may be missing, everything else is intact, the labyrinthine ship, the ship's cat, a malfunctioning android and, of course, one unstoppable alien killer. While the rules may seem dense due to how many situations can arise, the gameplay moves along at a brisk pace, maintaining a high amount of tension from start to finish. Even when any surviving crew manages to get aboard the escape shuttle, there's still a chance they'll find the alien stowed away and waiting for them. The cardplay is whip smart, frantic for the humans and scheming for the lifeform, nailing the survival horror genre better than any other game I've played.
2. Fury of Dracula (Third/Fourth editions)
If Alan Moore is to be believed, we are at, have just past, or are approaching the point in which overexposure robs Lovecraft's creations of their capacity to terrify and instead reside in the pop culture landscape where they will inevitably become little more than punchlines. I tend to agree here, especially when you look at the examples set by Frankenstein's monster and Dracula. Despite being anything but scary in 2019, Fury of Dracula still earns a place on this list because how it manages to capture a horrifying core element that makes Bram Stoker's novel effective over 100 years after publication. A group of hunters, determined they may be, are facing off against adversary with powers beyond their imagination, something that is more likely to kill them than they kill it. I've always said that any edition of Fury of Dracula is worth playing, but this is something that only the more recent third and fourth editions properly capture. With the options at his disposal, Dracula has always been more than cunning when it comes to the hidden movement end of the game, but could then be punched to death with bare hands due to a silly, sloppy combat system. Now when the hunters feel confident because they've finally caught up with the infamous count (fair and square, I might add, now that the frustrating teleportation abilities have been removed on both sides), they may find that they've bitten off more than they can chew when they encounter Dracula in a fight. Fury of Dracula has been an essential classic for many years now, but the most recent iteration has truly perfected what was already a masterpiece.
1. Camp Grizzly
Camp Grizzly is a game that I took a chance on some years back and now, years later, I don't think there's another game in my collection that I have such a strong relationship with. The game has to be ordered from the publisher, either from their website or from Amazon. For what you pay for it, you might be disappointed when it arrives. There's an undeniably cheap quality to the box, the board, and the components. And yet I find what the average board gamer would call "issues" to be endearing and appropriate given that the game is heavily based on the Friday the 13th franchise. Camp Grizzly isn't so much a game as it is an experience, an activity more than a strategic exercise. It's as if every time it hits the table it tells the next story in a series of slasher flicks, and like the movies that inspired it, each one essentially the same plot as all the others but still packed with unique memorable moments. The recently released expansions (still hard to believe we finally have these things) fill in any gaps in the F13 tropes, covering ground from A New Beginning, The New Blood, and even jump-the-shark elements like Jason X. I've said it elsewhere, I'll say it again here: Camp Grizzly is a spot-on slasher movie simulator, and if we're judging games based on how effectively they achieve what they set out to do, it's a perfect one.