Much like our list of terrifying video games from earlier in the week, I’ve decided to tackle the subject of creepy tabletop experiences by going for the gamut of scary game experiences on the tabletop. The jump scare is rare in this space: In tabletop, it’s all about the anxiety. Can I make it? Will I have enough resources? Will we survive? Can we survive? Your fear of and obsession with the unknown is exploited by tabletop designers early and often – to nightmarish effect. So here’s the tabletop games, some new, some classics, most likely to make your halloween as frightful (and straight-up anxiety inducing) as you’d like it to be.
Assigned to a fictional research station orbiting Saturn’s moon Titan, you’re beset by an illness of unknown origin that’s seemingly driving crew members mad – or possessing them with a malicious alien intelligence. Dangerously, they’re still very much human – and it might be impossible to know which of you is infected. It’ll be months in the cramped, claustrophobic, and catastrophically fragile environment of the station before your relief ship arrives with more supplies and a chance to evacuate. Meanwhile, you need to keep this station running and stay alive at all costs. Can you do it?
Dark Moon is a simplified, re-themed version of the fantastically popular, but also fantastically over designed, Battlestar Galactica board game. It plays in a little over an hour but gives the same experience. One player is a traitor, but the players aren’t sure who that is. Either the team wins, or the traitor wins, and you only have so many chances to figure out who that traitor is before they’re able to catastrophically destroy the station and everyone on it. It’s an atmosphere of paranoia, fear, and sheer, gripping anxious terror.
Mordheim is a long-ago cancelled Games Workshop fantasy skirmish game focusing on a small band of mercenaries in the Warhammer Fantasy universe. It has had a cult following ever since, and an active community creates homage games and updates on the classic rules. Hell, that legacy is strong enough that it’s getting a revival as a PC game. It has middling to decent middling skirmish mechanics and at-times frustrating balance, but it’s all about the story. The variety of warbands reflects the sorts of weird, awesome design that shows up a lot in the Warhammer universe, but it focuses on long-term play. Over the course of the game, you hire mercenaries into your warband and they gain experience, permanent injuries, mutations, and all manner of other weirdness based on random tables rolled throughout. Sure, your wizard might be awesome, but one bad greatsword swing and off goes his leg. This leads to players balancing winning at all costs with withdrawing from the field to preserve their fighters, or deciding to risk the life of a single character in order to grab a chest of gold or warpstone and flee the field. It’s the kind of game you get stories out of you’re still telling years later.
(If you’re curious about the PC adaptation of Mordheim, I streamed a bit of the early access beta recently.)
Betrayal at House on the Hill
I hesitated to include this one, because it’s an at-times overrated classic with a lot of continuing popularity. But the truth is, somewhere in the designing of this game, a lot of weird goodness and mechanical subversion went down. Betrayal should by all accounts be a bloated mess of intersecting subsystems, statistics, convoluted movement rules, and uncontrollably random card draws. In it, you team up with a few friends to explore a haunted mansion, finding randomly laid out rooms, gathering odd occult objects with strange powers, increasing your three statistics. At some point during the game, an event triggers – and one or more of the players becomes “The Haunt.” What The Haunt is, well, that’s entirely random. There are a huge number of them – from demonic possession and time travelling ghost to serial killer or mad bomber – and each comes with a raft of secret mechanics for each set of players: the now-loyal team and the new enemy. That set of odd, convolute stats and item cards you increased and collected earlier now becomes vital, but there was no way to know what you’d need before now. You have to suddenly use whatever it is that you got before to try and win, whether you’re the new bad guy or not. It’s a strange, unique gaming experience where you never quite know what to expect.
A perennially popular and rather unique roleplaying game, Dread casts players as the participants in a horror tale and the game master in the role of both director and monster. Heroes are responsible for their own fortunes, and the game ranges from campy summer horrror ala Scream to scenarios of existential Lovecraftian doom. The game’s incredibly simple core mechanic is what makes it unique among horror games: A jenga tower. When a player attempts an action with a chance of failure, they have to pull a block from the tower. When the tower falls, that player dies – either directly from doing their action or soon after. It’s one of the only jump scares in tabletop games, as the sudden fall of a tower catches players off guard and causes gasps or groans of anguish. While that might sound gimmicky to some, it’s not. It’s terrifying. The constant bane of horror games is the occasional off-color joke that breaks the mood and leaves even the game master unable to get the tension back. Dread addresses this with constant recourse to pulling blocks from the tower. That simple act makes everyone remember that not only is death constantly on the table, it’s practically inevitable. Someone’s going to die during this thing – is it you?
Letters from Whitechapel
This one’s an asymmetrical game using hidden movement set during Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror in Victorian London. One player is the ripper, striking each night and then sneaking back through the city to his lair. The others are the police squad trying to catch him, maneuvering their pawns across the map in order to blockade jack, find his trail, and execute an arrest. Over the course of a the game the detectives get a better and better idea of where Jack’s lair is and how to catch him, leading to the climactic final few nights, where Jack tries to outwit the police on his tail and the police try to narrow down what clues they remember, and can gather, into a guess at where the Ripper’s true location lies.
No fancy story here or long explanation here, I don’t want to spoil a thing. You’re a team of scientists out to cure four deadly diseases ravaging the earth. This is one we’ve been excited for since we found out about it last year. The twist here is that it’s the awesome cooperative board game Pandemic with terrifying permanent elements that change the game each time you play. It’s like a season of a TV show, with events like permanent character death, rioting and collapsing cities, and an unrolling story arc thrown in. It’s a unique, amazing experience you’ll love.
Thanks for reading, tabletoppers, and as our horror columnist Devan Sagliani is so fond of saying: stay scared.
(Of box corner tears, broken book spines, and dropped minis, that is.)