Can Horror Work In Board Games?

It strikes me as odd that there are so many board games with horror themes but no board game has ever come close to horrifying me. In fact, I’ve never heard of anyone having a horror-experience with a board game, with one small notable exception. 

Why are there so many horror games, then? It’s clear to me that people like the aesthetics of horror rather than the actual experience of it. Lovecraft-inspired games are plentiful because Lovecraft’s works are in the public domain, but they endure because people simply enjoy that fantasy mythos. I’ve got nothing wrong with that, though I don’t share the preference. Anyone who has ever played one of the FFG Lovecraft games with me can attest to how much I despise their art style. I couldn’t care less about Cthulhu or the other baddies. But I’m clearly in the minority here.

I’m not convinced that most people actually care about horror outside of the paint job, but I certainly am. I’m not a particular fan of horror in other media, though some of the best films I’ve seen are horror or horror-adjacent. Horror is easy to cheapen and extremely difficult to do well, though I think it has an incredibly high ceiling when it is done well. To invoke the name of one of those horror films I adore, the genre has the potential to get under the skin, digging into fears and anxieties we may not know we had. It can speak to us in the language of pure emotion. It can be both primal and intellectual to the extreme.

One of our earliest podcast episodes discussed horror as a (perhaps) impossible theme in board games. I’m not convinced that thesis is incorrect, but I want to explore it in more detail here. In the podcast Wes distinguishes between “terror” and “horror”, the former being fear of what is to come and the latter being closer to disgust. I’m going to look at my own experience, primarily via film and TV, with horror and the ways it manifests in my emotions and then consider how that type of reaction might be obtained via board game.

1. Suspense

Suspense is actually something board games do fairly well, though there are different forms of suspense. A climactic die roll, flip of the card, or final turn is thrilling and has the shape of suspense in a horror context, but not the content. It’s closer to the suspense one feels while watching a good sports match: you feel the rising sense of anticipation, as something must happen soon, followed by the immediate thrill of the pivotal thing happening, good or ill. 

Suspense in a horror context is about the anticipation of something horrible happening, and board games have a difficult time creating an appropriate amount of fear over what could happen. The sensory input isn’t there. As much as I’ve been immersed in a board game it hasn’t come close to the raw emotional immersion I’ve felt while watching a movie, or playing another sort of game (digital or RPG).

Digital games and movies have real-time visual and auditory elements that seem to tap into the fight-or-flight feeling quite effectively. RPG’s can be aided by an exceptional GM, but even with an average storyteller at the helm, once properly invested in your character the possibility of anything bad happening to them can properly terrify.

Board games, provided they’re long enough, can help create a similar level of attachment to one’s character. The problem is that the longer a board game is, the less we tolerate the fates determining significant outcomes. If your character is killed via die roll hours into an RPG that can be spun into a grand tragic story that you might remember years later. If your character is killed via die roll hours into a board game, that’s stupid luck.

Perhaps I just haven’t played the right board games. I admit that the sorts of games that might execute RPG-esque suspense and stakes, namely those games that tend to come packaged with pounds of plastic, I stay away from, if only due to cost. I can recall some moments of suspense. Friday comes to mind. It’s a brisk deckbuilding solo game in which you must push your luck, especially in the midgame, to build up your skills while barely avoiding death. Epic games like TI4 or Eclipse have giant battles, but those are space operas with all the horror pushed tidily to the side. Even the best examples I can think of are a meager approximation of true suspense I might experience elsewhere.

How could a board game create suspense? First it has to create stakes you feel in your gut. The simplest way to do that is with characters or factions people feel ownership over. If the character is named and sustained over multiple sessions in a campaign people will have an emotional connection to it. But you have to avoid the situation where character death, or the threat of it, becomes so final and so consequential that people will be tempted to “de-immerse” to try to save them. You don’t want anyone rage-quitting over the arbitrariness or defeatedness of it all; you don’t want people ignoring rules to save their character.

Here’s an idea: have a campaign game feature an NPC that’s easy to become attached to. Maybe they’re the local shopkeeper or a friendly guide. Make them appear frequently in the normal game cycle. At some point put them in peril. Better yet, have rescuing them in direct conflict with the broader goals of the player(s). It’s not the most original story beat, but it’s one that would be simple to implement in a campaign-style board game.

2. Fear of the Unknown

Let’s jump to perhaps the most difficult aspect of horror for board games: the unknown. This is theoretically what Lovecraft was all about: horrors beyond comprehension that drive people mad (or so I’ve been told). The big problem with translating this to board games is that everything is comprehendible in a board game. All the monsters are right there, sitting in their sprues or punchboards. You read a rulebook, necessarily comprehending what’s going on as the first step to playing the game. This couldn’t be a worse theme/medium pairing.

But I won’t give up there. This is supposed to be a challenge. Games have hidden information from the players before. We call them legacy games and they come with cute little boxes and envelopes that are to remain sealed and shut until instructed otherwise. But how do you create legacy-style envelopes that create fear rather than curiosity? I suppose you could hint at horrors within and open certain envelopes as punishment for failure. But if failing is punishing, you’ve got a negative feedback spiral that threatens to make the game experience disappointing rather than heartstopping. More like heart…continuing.

Perhaps the terrible envelopes aren’t mechanically punishing but are instead story punishing. You’ve got a tightrope to walk there to avoid ludonarrative dissonance, but perhaps you try to construct it as a sort of rubber band pulling back. You’re mechanically getting stronger as you become more desperate and crazed, but you know that you can’t keep this up long before you snap.

3. Disgust

I don’t know how much people actually want to experience disgust when playing a board game. It could certainly be elicited with the right art or the right story beats, but would you want to play that at a con or pull it out for a new friend? Perhaps games that explore this aspect of horror in any real sense can live in the periphery. Certainly there are many games that have disgusting art or sculpture, but in my experience they seem juvenile; gross stuff for its own sake rather than a means for, say, contemplating mortality.

Furthermore you quickly run into agency problems when dealing with disgust. If you’re going all-in on disgust, who wants to play that character or faction? We might play as disgusting, evil factions in war games, but those are only tolerated as a means of historical simulation. (And even then many people refuse to take control of the Nazis in WWII games.) Certainly we’d have to be extremely careful before depicting the visceral realities of war in a board game.

Maybe This War Of Mine is the closest we’ve gotten to this sort of game. Based on my limited play time with the digital version, however, that game deals more with despair rather than disgust. Still, it suggests there’s room to explore here. It probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea to have a truly disgusting board game, but I can see how it might be done.

4. Fight-or-Flight

Horror movies famously tap into this primal instinct with jump scares. A board game could certainly instruct a player to try to startle someone, but I don’t know what context would justify it and make it welcome rather than an annoyance. I suppose there’s that game that smashes whipped cream into people’s faces, but that’s not much of an endorsement.

Jump scares are typically seen as a sort of cheap and easily abused tactic in film, and I think the same would apply for board games. Still, they can be justified and appreciated in film (Jaws, Mulholland Dr., and Don’t Look Now immediately came to mind), so I’m curious if anyone has any ideas of how to implement this in a serious way in board games.

5. Unease

Finally we get to what I suspect might be the most promising ground for true, effective horror in board gaming: unease. I say this not because it’s the simplest or most straightforward to execute, but because I see it as having the greatest potential. Remember, the problem isn’t that we can’t design board games that startle or create suspense or disgust, it’s that we can’t do those things very well. Or, at the very least my limited imagination can’t conceive of a way of doing them very well. 

But I remember talking to a board game designer a few years ago about the game Nyctophobia. He said he first played it at a convention with strangers, and that the uneasy feeling of having a stranger take your hands and control them while you’re blindfolded was something he’d never experienced before with a board game.

Years later now I’m struck with the idea that one of the keys to horror is a real, genuine feeling of being unsafe. There are certain expectations in a movie, for instance, about what might happen. You have an understanding of the parameters of the medium in terms of what might happen or what might be shown on the screen. When the movie suggests that it’s going to exceed those unspoken social parameters it can be unsettling. When it does so while also tapping into the primal instincts of startlement and feeling unsafe it doubles the effect. Or think of a haunted house. You know in your head that if it was actually dangerous it couldn’t stay in business, but there’s still an instinctual part of you that worries that something could go horribly wrong.

What’s the unspoken social safety feature in board gaming? We call it the magic circle, or the game bubble. We enter understanding that we’re going to treat each other as adults, but we’re also going to do things like make a good effort to understand the rules, not take too long to make a turn, try to be at least marginally competitive, etc. What if a game disrupted the magic circle?

This would obviously be incredibly difficult to do in an ethical manner, but setting that aside for now, imagine a game (it would probably have to be a once-through campaign style game) that instructed people to take on behaviors, perhaps extremely subtle behaviors, that are outside of their personality. Imagine a game that created true suspicion and paranoia, not just regarding the interaction between mechanisms and players, but regarding where the game itself begins and ends.

There are a couple of issues with this idea, most importantly the morality of it all. At a minimum you’d have to be extremely explicit at the start about what kind of game people are getting into, and you’d have to provide an X-card-like mechanism that allows people to pause or exit the game with absolutely no doubt that’s what they’re doing.

Such a game would also likely be extremely fragile, to the point where I can’t see it working at a price point above $20 or so. I don’t think many people would pay $50 for an experimental horror game where if something goes wrong the entire experience may be lost.

Finally, what I’m describing sounds a lot like an RPG. Why not just make it an RPG and ditch the illusion that it’s a board game at all? Well, there’s no hard line between the two, so really it doesn’t matter much what you classify it as. But it does put a damper on the idea that board games could do horror well if the best idea sounds an awful lot like role playing. 

The lesson might be that there’s a lot of fertile ground in the spaces between board games and RPGs. Every time you see a new boxed production that describes itself as RPG-like it’s usually talking about the tactical fighting bits. I see a lot of unused potential in the other aspects of role playing. Maybe horror is part of that.

Well, there’s some of my rambling thoughts on horror in board gaming. I’m very curious what you all think. Have I missed any excellent examples of horror board gaming? Do these thoughts inspire any novel ideas? Comment below!

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8 thoughts on “Can Horror Work In Board Games?”

  1. Difficult with horror. You must want to immerse in the game. My faves in that direction are Legendary Alien and The Night Cage.

    1. I’ve not played Legendary and I actually played The Night Cage a couple of years ago in prototype form. What do they do specifically to immerse you and convey horror?

      1. In Legendary we tweaked the game a bit, so our winning ratio is 1 out of 20. So we are happy in this horror coop to stay alive. In Alien the suspense is, that you don’t know what comes in front you you.
        The night cage us very athmosperic, turn down the lights and you feel ( if you willing ) the darkness in this labyrinth. And it is not easy to win too.

        So horror is very difficult in a board game. It have a lot to do how you are able to “feel in the game”.

  2. Very interesting. A real horror experience is exactly what I am trying to create with my current project, Zeno.

    A lot of games are horror themed but, as you correctly point out, genuine horror is something quite different. I believe it can be done, but it requires a very carefully thought out combination of mechanics, materials and environment.

    Off the top of my head, two aspects that a genuine horror game can utilise effectively are foreknowledge and responsibility. There are also some it should avoid. Miniatures, for example. As soon as you put a miniature on the table you dial the horror down a notch. The monsters you can’t see are much more terrifying than those you can.

    Anyway, if you get the time, feel free to check out the website (sargassogames.com). It’s a work in progress so any input appreciated.

      1. Thank you. Still work to do, but your article really lit me up, because that’s just where I’m coming from.

        Will have a crack at your podcasts. Always interested in thoughtful content : ).

        1. I hope you enjoy. And whenever you’re looking for reviews for your game, shoot me an email if you’d like me to review it.

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