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Six Scary Good Board Games

by Matt Miller on Oct 29, 2021 at 06:00 PM

Each year brings hundreds of new board and card games to the market, and even the recent dampener on social get-togethers hasn’t halted the flow. Without fail, in each year, some of the most popular themes include horror, monsters, magic, and mystery – perfect fits for a Halloween get-together.

Whether you’re looking to head to the game store and snag something for a game night this weekend, or you’re planning farther out, and you’re just a fan of games about things that go bump in the night, each of these recent releases provides a lovely evening of fun, with just the right mix of amusement and spooky vibes.

Horrified: American Monsters
Publisher: Ravensburger

A standalone follow-up to the original Horrified release from 2019, the new American Monsters variant offers enough new content to justify a purchase if you already loved the first one. However, this version is also a perfectly solid entry point if this is your first go-around. Where the first game featured baddies like Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula in a decidedly 1930’s vibe, this new installment leaps us forward into the 1950s, with classically American mythology at play, including monsters like Bigfoot, Mothman, and the Jersey Devil. American Monsters avoids the label of being a reskin, because it does such a good job of making each monster (and how to defeat them) unique.

Players work together to range out across the board and halt the monsters as they terrorize a small town. Dynamic difficulty is as easy as choosing the number of monsters to place on the board; be warned that a four-monster assault is a recipe for a big challenge. The interactivity and cooperative play are especially gratifying, as each player leverages their character’s special skills to help save the day. It also must be said that the art team has done a stellar job recalling the 1950’s small-town horror aesthetic. Play this if you’re a fan of old-school Drive-In monster flicks, or you just want an especially accessible and easy to pick up cooperative experience.

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

To grasp the enthusiasm behind Unfathomable, a brief history lesson might be in order. Back in 2008, Fantasy Flight released a game based on the Battlestar Galactica TV show. It was a fantastic release, especially because it so ably captured the drama of that show, where most of the ship seemed to be working together, but traitor Cylons were secretly at work, undermining the team’s goals. That game fell out of print for the various licensed-related reasons you might expect, but excitement about the game hasn’t faded.

Unfathomable takes the bulk of that gameplay model, and reskins the experience into Fantasy Flight’s universe of Lovecraftian horror. Instead of a spaceship Galactica, it’s a steamship Atlantica on the way to Boston in 1913. And instead of Cylons, it’s Father Dagon, Mother Hydra, and the Deep Ones, gradually infiltrating and attacking, until they pull everyone down into the frigid depths.

As the game begins, everyone seems to be acting in concert, but at least one player is a hybrid, working counter to your interests, carefully swaying events to aid the monsters. In an especially amusing twist, you may play a significant chunk of the game before an awakening phase reveals that you’re also a hybrid, and your loyalties must shift if you want to win.

Unfathomable features dramatic turns and sometimes devastating swings of fate, especially if a traitor is able to maneuver themselves into a position that they can do real damage. But, of course, that’s half the fun of the game – no one should take winning as the only goal. Rather, enjoy the tension and knowing smiles that pass around the table, as well as the stunning art and miniatures that bring Unfathomable to life. It’s a wonderful revival of a clever game system from over a decade ago, and well worth the trip into the dark waters of the high seas.

Goonies: Never Say Die
Publisher: Funko Games

With each passing year, The Goonies franchise feels like an increasingly dated reference. And yet the cult classic film maintains a strong and enthusiastic following – it’s just a ton of fun. There’s nothing explicitly “Halloween-y” about the new Goonies board game, but the combination of kids on a wild adventure, a supernatural-tinged pirate treasure hunt, and the threat of maniacal foes at your heels all feel uniquely suited to the holiday.

In the game, most of the players work together as one of the kids like Mikey or Chunk (and Sloth, of course), to outwit the villainous Fratelli family, and other foes they meet along the way. Those bad guys are controlled by the final player, who manages booby traps and other encounters to try to halt the Goonies from finding success and treasure. These adventures play out across nine distinct scenarios, which do a good job of following the movie’s threads, as well as expanding upon them.

Specifically targeted at devoted fans of the 80’s movie, it may be a very specific niche. But it’s still a wonderful game with tons of nods to the source fiction. If you really love what you find, you can even track down the “Under the Goondocks” expansion, which adds in the playable teen Goonies, three new adventures, and more.

echoes: The Cocktail
Publisher: Ravensburger

If your spooky get-together is more about adults chilling out, rather than hardcore board gamers ready to learn a fancy new horror game, I’d like to introduce you to the echoes series. This is an audio mystery game that requires you to sync up to a smartphone app to play it. The game then plays out a mystery story told through a combination of audio storytelling on the app, and cards/board pieces that are laid out on the table. The schtick is that each player is an investigator that can hear the “echoes” of objects left behind. Scan the object, and listen closely to solve the puzzle.

I played “The Cocktail,” one of two initial offerings in this game series. In this installment, you’re trying to unravel the identity of a mysterious mob boss. A separate game/installment is also available; The Dancer is all about the ghost of a young girl in a Scottish country manor and how she died. Pick your poison.

Each game is really only meant to be played once by a given group – once you solve the puzzle, there’s not much reason to play again. But the novelty is definitely there, challenging the whole group to piece together the 24 parts of the story in the right order, each subdivided into different chapters. I love the way the game challenges everyone to pause and listen closely to the tiniest detail in the audio recordings, some of which can be key to moving the puzzle to the next step. Echoes is a great choice for fans of escape rooms, puzzles, and social play, and the relatively brief hour-long playtime won’t bog down the party. A single copy is inexpensive, so you won’t feel too let down when it’s all over, especially if you and your friends have a memorable puzzle-solving adventure along the way.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game – Revised Core Set
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

One of the best horror-themed games of the last decade, the Arkham Horror card game takes the popular universe of the board game and distills the same style of storytelling and adventuring into an awesome expandable card game. Players take on the role of characters in the small New England town of Arkham, racing against time to halt cultists, sanity-testing monsters, and world-devouring ancient monstrosities. The narrative is atmospheric and fun, and the gameplay is brisk and well-balanced, all about building out a deck of cards and managing threats at different locations. However, it’s the way each scenario connects to the next that will keep you engaged as you watch your choices echo out across the campaign.

The new revised core set wisely does not upset the Lovecraftian apple cart (don’t eat those!). If you are already a devoted player, this is not the purchase for you. Instead, this new core set nails a few important goals for new players. Perhaps most importantly, it supports four players instead of two with a single boxed set. It also adds a few cards that originally didn’t appear until later expansions, broadening the initial array of upgrade options for investigators. And it also reorganizes the box’s contents, with the goal of a faster pick-up-and-play experience.

If you’ve wanted a fun long-term campaign, rooted in horror overtones, but not overwhelming in complexity or mechanics, it’s an ideal offering from an established and well-liked franchise.

Bellum Magica
Publisher: Blue Orange Games

A big part of Halloween is getting to indulge in our darker impulses, at least in fun. As such, Bellum Magica is a superb fit for families or friend groups looking for an accessible and quick-to-learn engine building game. Players take on the role of evil overlords scrambling for power and control, but the whole thing is pretty playful and colorful, rather than dark and mean-spirited.

Engine building games demand that you gradually build a system of resources and units that increase in power and reach with each passing turn. In this case, you’re recruiting goblins and other dastardly creatures, which you can figuratively fling at either the hapless human kingdom or against your opposing evil warlord players. All the while, you’re gathering treasure and increasing your clawed grip on power.

In the sphere of strategy games, Bellum Magica has opted for light, quick, and thematic over complex and immaculately balanced. It’s easy for a single player to get steamrolled by everyone else for no particular reason, and dice-rolling adds a randomness at which many veteran players may scoff. But the less-than-an-hour playtime should be your hint that this is a game meant to be embraced for its wild swinging shifts of control and the fun of being the bad guy. If everyone can get on board with the concept, it’s a beautifully illustrated and amusing diversion.

If magic and horror aren’t your thing, there’s plenty of other wonderful tabletop games to discover over at our Top of the Table hub. As always, if you’d like a personalized recommendation for your next game night, don’t hesitate to drop me a line, and I’ll be happy to offer some suggestions. Happy Halloween!