Game Spotlights

Published: October 25, 2023

Adam Knight

Tabletop Games – Terrifying

In the last piece, we talked about spooky games good for getting newbies to the tabletop. That’s over, done with, dispatched. Below you’ll find titles made for Tabletop board gamers with sterner stuff, willing to tackle terrifying monsters, creeping horrors, and the scariest thing this side of Slenderman: your friends.

Death’s Own Tabletop Designer

Teens on the run from mask-wearing marauders. A beginning to many a horror movie, but how many times has a Tabletop board game put you in their shoes? Better yet, how many have you putting on the masks?

Psycho Raiders and its companion titles like Sea Evil drop you and your friends into a horror simulation the likes of which you won’t find on mass market shelves. These are gritty titles, slipped around in plastic bags as if they’re some secret totem, ready to break out their strange magic if you’re worthy. Deliberately unbalanced—because what horror story equalizes the haunted and the haunt?—these ‘zine titles set a bloody stage and ask you to perform.

Which means you get setups like this one, where our last hapless survivor cornered herself in the police station. She’d looted a shotgun, had herself ready to take on any raider dumb enough to break through. A last stand, followed by a desperate flight to freedom. We, the marauders, simply laughed and set the station onTabletop fire, the sheriff himself, bribed, helping us in the act.

Psycho Raiders and its companion titles play out with team-based turns, actions distilling into dramatic confrontations, both with dice and without. You’ll have to decide whether to slink away into the woods to draw the raiders off your pals, or push the pedal to the metal in your van with buddies inside and hope you don’t roll it off the road. It’s a nod to absurd realism that gives these games a gnarly, rogue flavor, as if you’ve stumbled on a hidden secret in your parent’s basement, a ticket through a primeval portal where dark, grindhouse imagination reigns.

These games won’t have you pushing cubes, won’t have you chasing points. Instead you’ll be telling stories, having fun even as the horror plays out on the board. Clever, different from anything you’ve seen before, and cheap enough to pull out a couple times a year on a special Halloween game night, Nate Hayden’s horror magazines deserve a dark look.

The Dark Below

The ocean depths remain one of horror’s most plumbed settings, and Deep Madness brings you and your friends there on a fully cooperative investigation. Things might start off innocently enough, as you putter around trying to discern a deep sea mining site’s ruin, but soon the rooms you’re rummaging succumb to madness, forming gateways for demonic terrors and worse. These monsters slot themselves into your turns, breaking up plans with deadly consequences. Even more sinister, you often won’t know where they’ll appear, draping every turn with dread.

Deep Madness shoots your team along a scenario-linked campaign, slowly revealing its mysteries as you and your friends try to survive. Living doesn’t come easy, with constant threats and often dangerous dice making your three-action turns a tightrope. Do you tackle the tentacled terror in the next room, or make a sprint for the way out, even if it means putting your pal at risk? How far off can you wander and still make it back in one piece? Deep Madness isn’t a forgiving experience,Tabletop but a harrowing horror puzzle that pays off its tests with cool relief once you climb out the other side.

Like many horror movie franchises, Deep Madness comes with plenty of additions given its crowd-funding origins. Going with just the core box makes for a viable experience, one able to whet your appetite for undersea terror, but you’ll find adding one or two of the expansions, particularly Uncounted Horrors, rounds out both the story and the characters to choose from. Put together, you’ll have more than enough missions to ensure weeks of sleepless nights, your dreams disturbed by swimming terrors.

Playable solo or with a group willing to face its gauntlet, Deep Madness is worth a look if your latest dungeon crawler went down too easily. And when things get too tough down on the ocean floor, you can always tweak the difficulty.

But you wouldn’t do that, would you?

Terror in the Tabletop Asylum

If you’ve taken a long run through Mansions of Madness and want a new cooperative story-focused horror title to tackle this spooky season, Lobotomy 2: Manhunt is worth a play. Unlike so many games and movies that task you with exploring a madhouse, Lobotomy casts you as a patient in one. With personal character goals, a linked scenario campaign, combat, and gear crafting, Lobotomy wraps its tale in fun dungeon crawler mechanics.

Similar to Deep Madness, Lobotomy asks you to play smart to dodge the monstrous asylum staff coming after you, though your unique player powers here mellow out the difficulty somewhat, letting you take one (but only one) more breath as you discover the secrets of your own mind prison. Insanity becomes an asset, though beware your own delusions and the traps they’ll set for you. Do you really believe, after all, that a poor asylum inmate has a chance against all this?Tabletop

If you do, well, then pick your protagonist, grab some dice and a hospital gown and get to sneaking about.

Lobotomy also offers a sandbox mode, giving you the asylum to explore, and quests to find, without a set scenario’s strict confines. For those hunting freeform horror, this mode helps Lobotomy stand alone in its scary dungeon crawler category.

Both Deep Madness and Lobotomy 2: Manhunt come packed with a whole evening’s playtime in a single session, so have your scary sounds playlist, witches brew bubbling, and snacks aplenty to see you through to the memorable finales.

Sucking Blood, Together

A venerable property like Vampire: The Masquerade gets a new game right in time for Halloween, a horror story perfect for soloing or exploring with up to three other friends. Vampire: The Masquerade – Chapters is sleeker than its title, combining tabletop RPG elements with dice-chucking dungoneering for a narrative adventure where your dialogue choices actually matter.

At the start, you’ll choose which clan to play, from there kicking off into a game where what you do will open some paths and close others. You’ll roleplay as your chosen vampire, earning experience points, unlocking abilities, and smashing enemy standees—that’s right, if you find hordes of plastic minis the safest thing in board gaming, these cardboard cuts will terrify you. Scenarios vary wildly, some made up largely of narrative choices, while others are bashing combat bouts.

The presentation here brings it all together, with booklets holding scenario details, making it seem like you really are journeying through a dark story collection. That said, making this your first dip into the Vampire: The Masquerade universe could be a rough ride, as familiarity with its world will help tie your adventures together.

But if you’ve some vampire fans in your group, this is a thrilling showcase for narrative boardgaming’s possibilities.

An Alternate Horror History

We close down our horror tabletop titles with a gleeful look at Malifaux, by Wyrd Miniatures, whose third edition launched a few years back, crackling with wit, scares, and sculpts unseen anywhere else.

Taking place on a warped 1900s Earth, Malifaux mocks your dice and replaces them with a Fate Deck, similar to a poker deck (and playable with one if you’re willing to forego the killer atmosphere and art on the official versions). Each card drawn has a suit and a number, both resources to use as you send your misbegotten monsters, magicians, and mobsters against each other.

Actions seem simple at first: alternating model activations lead to a moving and attacking with your band of boogeymen, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a whole slew of game-greasing abilities. You might chug some stat-boosting booze, or give an enemy a come-hither look, resulting in some catfish skull-cracking. Every character’s unique, as they should be, but not in ways that require mulling a hundred rulebooks or that break the game to unfun levels.

When your forces inevitably clash, you’ll start a duel, flipping cards and comparing attack and defense skills. Choosing, then, to buff your number with more cards is a taut choice, as your deck is limited, and spending resources wrong can leave your clown cadre crushed. Throw in some further special triggers under the right conditions, and you have a combat system at least as intriguing as a dice roll, and more thematic too.

Not that combat’s the be-all, end-all. Malifaux delights the scenario game, taking its horror-verse and extending it to the battlefield. You’ll win by scoring the most points, and earning those through planting explosives, stealing objectives, or holding territory is worth just as much (or more) than winning an evil-on-evil smackdown.

If you’re interested in diving into this mystical, horror-themed tabletop miniatures game, give the starter set a look: its intro scenarios will have you and a partner cheating fate in no time.

Let the Right Game Night In

Getting a good scare, or pitting you and your friends against pitiless foes, is something terrifying tabletop games can do at any level, be you tabletop novices or experienced, capital G gamers. Like in Hollywood, you can find some of gaming’s best experiences nestled amid the gloom and doom, willing to stretch what a dice, a deck of cards, or a simple set of rules can do.

So light the candles, draw the curtains, put Thriller on repeat, and sit down for a horrifying night around the table. You might not sleep, but you’ll be smiling anyway.