This is Part 2 of 3 in an article series on horror in tabletop games. Part 1 can be found here.
In my research for The Presence i sifted through existing titles, looking for what could be learned from successful horror titles. There are a large number of released games with horror themes, but does that mean that the horror experience comes through? Just like with films there is a spectrum. Some games just use the horror theme, while others build on it with the experience created by the mechanisms. Both are of course okay, but the former would not be a good example of horror. Examples of these include Horrified (2019), Mysterium (2015), Ghost Stories (2008), Zombicide (2012) among others.
Time to look at (my personal opinion on) some games that attempt to do proper horror, what we can learn from them, and how they will have influenced our design of The Presence.
Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004)
Probably the most commercially successful horror-game, although a bit lower in BGG rank at 622. It has sold innumerable copies in many print runs and seem to offer an experience that a lot of players love. Betrayal is a light affair (BGG weight 2.39) with relatively simple mechanisms, offering exploration and an adventure in a haunted house. Each player controls a character (a theme we will be returning to) and take actions on a board.
The core twist is that each session uses one of many different scenarios that hide a specialized set of rules from the players initially, and throws a ‘betrayal’ at them at one point, where the game is no longer cooperative. One player is pitted against the rest to produce any number of different experiences.
Does it succeed at being horror?
It does many things right. There is suspense, the fear of the unknown and a dynamic narrative. Players are vulnerable and the game is unpredictable and dangerous.
It is however very focused on the narrative and not as
focused on creating agency and meaningful decisions.
The large degree of randomness means that you are rarely in control of your own fate. This works well in a film, but in a board game it creates frustration. This works well for the type of player that weave the story being created through these events in their head, but distances other players from their character and from the game due to the feeling of lack of agency.
The major reason that Betrayal fails at being horror in my opinion is the somewhat cartoony and family-friendly theme. This widens its audience but sacrifices immersion and realism to do so. Realism is important to
create feelings of fear. It fails grabs you and pulls you into its world. Betrayal does many things right, but will for most players be limited in emotional impact.
The top-rated horror game on BGG (rank 19 at the time of writing this article). It has had two widely successful kickstarters and is available in stores. It is a commercial success, but in another way than Betrayal. With a BGG weight of 3.40 it is a heavier game, and will appeal to a smaller group of hobbyist boardgamers.
The game features beautiful art with a dark theme, and plays out a story on a spaceship invaded by aliens, very much inspired by the movie Alien (1979). The game features hidden motivations where each player has different hidden winning conditions, creating tension between the players. Although the players need to cooperate against
their common foe, winning is individual and not shared.
Does it succeed at being horror?
Yes, but not for everyone. The game does more things right than Betrayal, most notably a higher focus on realism in its theme, and a much larger focus on the relationships between players. It uses hidden motivations to create tension, making the dread not only about the random threat of the aliens, but even more effectively about who
can be trusted.
Good horror is not only about monsters, it is about how humans behave to each other in the face of danger. The game realizes this and plays it up effectively. Despite this, it is not universally liked. There are large groups of players that do not like it, mainly due to the large degree of randomness that controls the aliens and the ship events. These players feel like they lack control of the narrative, just like Betrayal, and for that reason are not immersed in the game.
Kingdom Death Monster (2015)
A niché beast of a Kickstarter-game with a hardcore fan-following, it currently stands at BGG rank 67 and with a weight of 4.26 it is a very heavy affair. This game is more extreme in all ways than Nemesis, with a high price and a complex ruleset. The game has been called by some ‘an excercise in fun paperwork’. Due to its high price, dark theme and inclusion of sexual and adult elements it is very divisive. Among popular games this is probably the most controversial.
The game is a combination of squad-management like in the video-game XCOM and boss-battling like in Monster Hunter, and even the playtime is extreme. Played only as a campaign of up to 30 2-hour sessions the game is the pinnacle of niché. At its core it is a tactical combat game where weak characters in loincloths and with stone weapons are pitted against a powerful monster as their only chance to survive. This is a splatter horror, where weak characters throw themselves at the world and the world rips off their limbs and sends them to their death in grotesque and horrible ways. Players have access to a whole settlement of characters, so once a character dies they can simply select a new individual from the settlement.
Does it succeed at being horror?
Yes, especially the first few times one fights a specific monster. The target audience is different than Nemesis. There is no focus here on the relationships between characters, but rather on the experiences they go through while trying to survive. You do not have a personal avatar, but rather watch a group of characters live through the horror of their world.
It does this through game-mechanisms that is a mixture of random event tables and a complex card-based
boss-battler system. There are still a few ‘gotcha’ effects and highly impactful random events that takes away from its strategic success, however.
The horror here is about tension and stakes. The characters are very weak and the monster is powerful and unpredictable. Unlike Nemesis, having fought a certain moster once or twice a strategy emerges which means that players get better and can beat the odds. It creates an environment where the players experience high stakes, but the outcome in a fight is often due to their own mistakes. It retains immersion and engagement for those who want to understand what they did wrong and overcome the danger. It also means that this AI transcends normal cards-and-dice uncertainty into knowable uncertainty, which is a key aspect of horror.
To some extent you have control of your own fate. You are free to make your own mistakes. This is important.
This War of Mine (2017)
A very different title that currently sits at rank 168 with a weight of 3.30. While not explicitly claiming to be horror it deals with the most realistic subject in this list of games: the horror of day to day survival as a civilian in modern war. It is a resource-management game where you need to tend to your small group of survivors and help them survive the siege of an urban center in eastern europe.
What makes this game different is the large focus on tragic realism and mental struggles of its characters. Your character can succumb to depression or guilt in addition to starvation or a stray bullet. You will experience and see horrible things, and can choose to intervene at your own peril or hide and let the events play out. This game is not for everyone.
Does it succeed at being horror?
Kind of. In a different way then the previous two titles. It manages to capture horror, this time through narrative and realism. It brings the player down to eye-level with the world of its characters and uses its small story-snippets to do direct storytelling together with narrative through mechanisms. In this way I think that it comes closer to film or books than other boardgames, as the mechanisms alone would not support the horror in this experience.
Something it does better than any of the previous titles is realism, the writing and characters are normal people and it manages to evoke empathy for them, and sadness at their losses.
The game is a base-builder and resource-gatherer but with a strong theme attached to the characters and actions. Like Kingdom Death Monster the characters are controlled by all players. It puts focus on the scarcity of food and water, as well as exposure to cold and disease. It heavily utilizes a ‘Book of Scripts’ that contain hundreds of story-snippets that are randomly encountered through all phases of the game, zooming in on small moments of the day-to-day experience of the survivors. The player often has to choose between moral outcomes such as whether to steal from others to survive, or to help a diseased neighbor with no expectation of reward.
What can we learn from this?
All games above have vulnerability, unpredictability and a focus on the unknown. These are key aspects of horror that raise the stakes and keeps players on edge. In all these games the characters are weak and can die adn the theme of the game supports this. In all games the player interacts with the world through the avatar of a character that provides a focal point for the narrative and immersion.
Nemesis focuses on the relationships between players and the hidden intentions of others around you. Why is this important? It highlights that effective horror comes from trust and lack thereof in a pressured situation, from the unknowable intentions of others.
Kingdom Death Monster focuses on risk and challenge. On learning the complex patterns of your foe through trial and error like a rogue-like videogame. Why is is this important? It makes the inevitable failure be experienced as more fair, and keeps the player immersed and wanting to come back to the experience even if they failed.
This War of Mine focuses on theme and immersion through mechanisms and story-snippets, its horror comes from realism. Why is this important? The more realistic and believable the setting and the characters, the more
the player is drawn in and allow themselves to empathise with the characters. This creates a connection between the player and the horrible events that affect their character.
In addition, none of the games above are universally acclaimed. They are divisive, with dedicated fans and others that actively dislike them. In a way this is similar to horror in film, and perhaps inherent in the genre itself?
To sum up, horror in a boardgame requires a lot of things to work properly. There are commonalities between all titles above, and while none of them do it all they do some things very well. As with film, horror can be very personal.
Thank you for reading, until next time: keep your lantern held high and watch the shadows closely..