The Little Box of Horrors
Halloween is a time for costumes, and a time for games. When you’re ready to find some fear, don’t tell a ghost story. Live one. The scary board games below go well with ones we’ve mentioned before, mainstays like Horrified, Mansions of Madness, and Arkham Horror. They’ll give tabletop newcomers a good scare and a better tale to tell, whether around a campfire or your gaming table.
The Classic with a new coat of blood
Perhaps the most iconic scary board game is Betrayal at House on the Hill. It’s been around in various forms for nearly two decades, inviting players into an eerie mansion to discover secrets, traps, and traitors. Split into halves, Betrayal gives you a horror film stereotype to play, like the young girl, the jock, or the hapless soccer mom, and sets you and your friends off on a slow-burning adventure one tile at a time. With the game-twisting haunt always closing in, you’ll have to decide to brave descending the basement stairs, or spending the time to crack the strange safe.
Every character comes with starting stats matching your meddling kid, from speed and strength to sanity and intelligence. Those numbers not only fit your character, they’ll bring you into the moment, visualizing how your poor priest’s newly broken ankle will keep him from escaping the creeping monster. Or maybe you’ll be smart enough to parse a sudden vision, leading to that most valuable of horror movie items: the shotgun.
Depending on what your gaggle of doomed cliches found, Betrayal’s second half, known as the haunt, will generally split off at least one player to become . . . just about anything you can imagine. Maybe they’ve secretly been summoning swarms of blood-sucking bees, or perhaps the house itself has taken flight to realms unknown, tasking the remaining players with finding some way home. Many haunts are wildly unbalanced, putting one side or the other into a desperate struggle to survive, with life and death coming with little warning and lots of theme. Lest you be concerned about player elimination, the haunts are often over swiftly, with the ghosts cheering on their living friends for the win.
Betrayal is the scary story you tell in the dark: the shocking, frightening, and sometimes downright funny experience shared with your friends and family. Not complicated, not too long, and now available in a shiny 3rd edition, this is the haunted house you’ve been waiting for.
A Bit of Social Deduction and Cosmic Horror
Unfathomable puts itself right out there in the title, a giveaway that what you’ll be doing here is unsettling, twisted, and potentially terrifying. You and your friends are setting sail on what amounts to an even more cursed version of the Titanic, a doomed vessel haunted here not by icebergs, but by eldritch horrors.
What makes Unfathomable a scary board game isn’t just the subject matter or the fishy fiends that rise from the depths to doom you, it’s the unknown. One or more of the people you’ve embarked with already belong to the dark, trying to sabotage the ship instead of saving it. Every round sees you fending off strange creatures, pooling resources and actions to keep the ship afloat, all the while wondering whether your pal that just refilled your drink is worth trusting.
In that, Unfathomable shares its soul with Ultimate Werewolf, a party-style game perfect for fall nights at the campground or the graveyard. If Unfathomable adds a ship, monsters, and strategy, Werewolf gets right to the point: who’s going to get devoured, and who’s doing the dining? You’ll pass role cards around, do some light Q&A, and try to catch someone speaking a little too quick, or licking their chops.
Werewolf doesn’t overstay its welcome, letting the chomped come back in for a new round in mere moments. The rules are simple, the strategy entirely in who you can convince to trust you before you sink your teeth into them. And you’ll have plenty of people to bite, with the game expanding easily to as many as you’ve invited to your full moon fest. Special roles come out to play with higher numbers or more experienced players, though I often find it’s great keeping to the basics: a little lie, a big bite, and a new round.
When it’s time for a spooky social deduction night, both Werewolf and Unfathomable make for good companions. The latter is a larger endeavor, and comes wrapped in cosmic horror, but if you’re feeling a little Cthulhu with your cleverness, it’s hard to say no to those rotten waters.
Dance with the Dead
Rotten things come from the ground too, and while Zombicide as a franchise embraces the campier side of scary, you can skip that and go right to horror’s heart with the Night of the Living Dead: A Zombicide Game edition. Here you’ll re-live the classic flick, taking on a role as one of the movie’s characters and doing your best not to wind up as zombie chow.
The Zombicide system guides you through the titular night, as your crew holes up in a ragged house to resist the oncoming dead. You’ll search for items, fortify exits, and generally hope someone doesn’t get bit. If things go wrong, there’s always a chance a lucky roll will get you out alive.
Combining a simple rule set made for memorable moments with a film full of’em gives you a great way to pull in would-be gamers looking for a horror hook. Once they’ve survived, or died horribly, you can tempt them into regular sessions with the rest of the Zombicide universe, and from there to the whole dungeon crawler genre. Like any good graveyard, this one’s full of opportunity.
If you prefer your zombies with a complete campaign, Resident Evil 3: The Board Game is as deluxe as the dead will get. Taking its cues from the video game, Resident Evil is a fully cooperative experience, letting you relax on your traitor targeting to deal with a nasty tension deck, whose game-altering tricks, undead creatures, and puzzles to solve, stir up the scary. All this to get out of Raccoon City, as cursed a place as ever existed in any media.
Beyond its horror bona fides, Resident Evil 3: The Board Game refines the systems introduced in the first two titles, elevating the game into streamlined survival horror great for those making the hop from a screen to your gaming table, this time targeting those with a love of controllers instead of cameras. You’ll get story, progression, and all the scary trappings needed to send you sprinting from start to finish. With a campaign nearing the twenty hour mark, Resident Evil 3 can build a game night habit all on its own.
All these scary games deal with the spirits, demons, traitors. The physical and supernatural manifestations of terror. To those who want to venture into true darkness, I present the chains of fate: Candy Land. Like some sinister trick, certain versions of this seemingly light game about a romp through Candy Kingdom contain a dastardly secret: a card deck that, once shuffled, is never changed, binding its players to a certain end. You will draw the orange, the double-red, and the ice cream cone, and there is nothing you can do about it. Your destiny as third place finisher mired in the Chocolate Swamp is a cruel certainty. What, in our free-will emphasizing lives, is scarier than that?
Candy Land will haunt your nightmares. Play it if you dare.
The Inevitable Sequel
As you take your first cautious steps into the world of scary board games, keep an eye out for the next piece, going deeper into the darkness in search of the most horrifying games this side of the night. The titles above can serve to fortify your hearts and get your group to the table for a spooky evening, all serving as decent starters for tabletop newbies. Then, like a slasher waiting behind the door, you can spring the true terror upon your unsuspecting tablemates.
Or, you know, heat up some cider, deal out another round of Werewolf, and laugh the night away.