In my experience, there are two types of board game players: those who play Monopoly, Scrabble, maybe Rummikub; and those who play everything else. I don’t want to hate on Ameritrash games, but to be fair, they’re named that for a reason. The world of board games is so shockingly vast that it would be literally impossible to play every great game, or even every type of game.
That being said, if you’ve never played a horror-themed game, you are missing out. Horror games are diverse, but they tend to be some of the most immersive games out there. Many include an exploration feature, and you feel your way through the mists of obscurity to discover the game along with your character. While other games may include this, it isn’t often you summon a flesh-eating ghoul or unleash the unholy wrath of a vampire upon yourself. That is a pleasure and terror unique to horror board games.
1. Theme and Atmosphere
All board games have a theme and create an atmosphere. Whether it is a tiny world of gems and emissaries like that created by Splendor or a vast intergalactic empire with dozens of worlds like those in Rex, the game creates an environment for the player to inhabit through theme and atmosphere. Theme is a bit of a fuzzy word that gets thrown around a lot in the gaming community, but it boils down to how the elements of the game mesh with the topic of the game.
Atmosphere has to do with how those elements immerse the player in the world of the game. Horror games are excellent at building atmospheres that spook, scare, and make you squeamish. Because horror as a genre is so thematic—think creepy music and fog machines in a haunted house—that translates really well to horror games in the art on components, the visuals of the pieces, and the general mystery or uncertainty that tends to characterize playing a horror game. If you want a game to suck you in (and sometimes chew you up and spit you out) then horror is the genre for you.
Another area where horror games excel is in the narrative. Because a board game can’t show what is happening to the player in the same way as a video game can, it has to weave the story for you through narrative. As an avid reader, I love a game that does this successfully—Lovecraftian horror games like Arkham Horror are particularly good at it—and get wrapped up in a good horror game just like I would a horror book.
Except here I’m the unwitting victim about to get disemboweled by an eldritch abomination. What’s not to love?
3. Player Dynamics
Many horror games are cooperative, which is my personal favorite style of game play. When it’s you and a team of your friends against a hungry zombie horde in Dead of Winter, you discover leadership qualities, work together, and sometimes stab each other in the back. Part of the fun of playing games is playing with other people, and horror games often bring out the best and worst in players as they scrabble to survive.
4. Problem Solving
Once we leave schooling, many of us aren’t required to perform complex or even simple creative problem-solving tasks very often. Horror games tend to pit the player against monsters, menace, and other factors that require creative strategizing and really get your brain working.
In Arkham Horror for example, you often have to choose between attempting to fight whatever horror you’ve stumbled upon or running away. You change the ending as you make choices like this, and sometimes those choices will come back to haunt you (quite literally).
You have to use both short-term strategizing—can I survive a fight with this thing?—and long-term strategizing—if I don’t fight it now, will I have to see it again later? Neither choice is wrong, but you will have to deal with the consequences.
5. Sense of Accomplishment
We humans are simple creatures. We respond well to basic cause-and-effect, action-and-reward scenarios. Let me tell you—solving a puzzle and barely escaping with your life (and/or sanity) intact in Arkham Horror or successfully bamboozling your friends and family at a game of Werewolf is so satisfying.
This is especially true when the game is hard or unusual or something really unique you’ve never tried before. That feeling of having completed or won something—even if it is a clever ruse being taken advantage of by the game industry—is a huge part of why we come back for more. Board games in general and horror games in particular are literally addictive, and you’ll see how true that is from day one.