Most of my favorite board games tell a story - games where you, the player, are not just some faceless nebulous entity pushing around pieces on a game board according to an arcane and abstract compendium of rules (I'm looking at you, chess).
If I'm going to invest a good hour or two or three of my free time in a game, I want it to reel me in with its setting, to inspire the imagination, and to give me something to worth investing in. And the way that games do this most effectively is by telling a story.
Some of my favorite games happen to tell scary stories. Creepy stories crawling with dark, gritty atmosphere, where players never know what's coming up on their next turn, and while caught up in the savage grip of uncertainty, they dread.
Here's a list of our favorite horror-themed board games, but take note: they're definitely not for the faint of heart.
1. Elder Sign
A team of investigators arrives at the Miskatonik Museum, intent on unraveling the mysteries behind a series of strange paranormal occurrences. What they encounter is madness and grim, unspeakable horrors from beyond the pale of reality.
Can they decipher the secrets of the enigmatic Elder Signs in time to seal away the ancient slumbering evil, or will they – and the fragile world in which they inhabit – be devoured by the things that lurk in the darkness between the stars?
The brainchild of board game and Lovecraftian-horror gurus Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson, Elder Sign uses the lore and characters of Arkham Horror, the granddaddy of horror-themed board games centered around the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but is designed to be more accessible and quicker-playing than the ultra-strategic, but sometimes unassailably-arcane ruleset of its predecessor.
Players investigate various locations in and around the museum, encountering bizarre and macabre creatures spawned straight from the pages of Lovecraft's classic pulp sci-fi stories, and ultimately fighting (or falling prey) to one of several colossal Elder Gods intent on devouring reality itself.
Players must work together to overcome challenges using a simple but brilliant dice-rolling mechanic, and only through teamwork can they survive the multitude of dread Mythos Effects unleashed whenever the hands of the wrought-iron game clock strike midnight.
Easy enough to pick up and play with only a brief introduction to the rules and seething with hooded cultists, dark mysteries, and eldritch things, Elder Sign is a near-perfect marriage of board games and Lovecraftian horror.
Elder Sign: Omens of Ice Board Game
Elder Sign: Gates of Arkham Expansion
Welcome to scenic rural Woodinvale. You and your friends are stranded, the sole survivors of a deadly zombie outbreak. As luck would have it, you stumble across a work truck in the middle of town—but you'll need to find the keys and enough gas to power your escape. And did we mention the city is infested with zombies? There are a lot of them; we don’t use the term “infested” lightly.
Last Night on Earth is a super-fun, semi-cooperative board game packed full of classic zombie flick references. It's deeply thematic and respective of its horror film roots, down to the kinds of characters you can be: go long as burly high-school Quarterback, strike down the wicked as the pious local Preacher, or go to town with the local Town Sheriff, who starts out with his trusty six-shooter and a hankerin' to lay down the law.
One team of players is the zombies, the other is the survivors constantly on the run, hoping to scrounge enough supplies to complete their mission objectives before the zombies overrun their defenses.
Zombies don't move as fast as players but are able to crash through windows or bust out from the earth, and every turn brings the threat of adding even more zombies to the board. To make matters worse for our heroes, zombie players have a whole deck of special Zombie cards to play against the heroes to make their continued existences even more miserable.
Add to all these a complement of Special Event cards like "Braaains," "Get Back, You Devils," and "Oh, The Horror!" and you can be sure every game unfolds just like the best kinds of classic zombie flicks. Except better, because now you get to be the heroes (or the zombies)!
Last Night on Earth: Growing Hunger Expansion
Last Night on Earth: Timber Peak Expansion
Last Night on Earth: Blood in the Forest Expansion
No horror-themed board game list is really complete without Betrayal at House on the Hill. Often out-of-production but frequently reprinted due to popular demand, Betrayal at House on the Hill casts players in the role of a varied collection of travelers and misfits, from a wily fortune-teller to a creepy scientist, to a seemingly innocent young boy.
For some reason, your characters decide to explore the titular House on the Hill, a sprawling, multi-storied mansion filled with eerie to a downright morbid ambiance and deadly traps. Lots and lots of deadly traps. Along the way, the players will locate items and clues, while also uncovering ominous Omens that give tantalizing hints about the mansion's true nature.
What makes Betrayal at House on the Hill truly horrifying, however, is that the more the players discover about the estate, the closer they come to awakening the Haunt, a looming, supernatural threat that will invariably unleash on the helpless travelers, forcing them into a fight or flight for their lives. To make matters worse, sometimes the Haunt will possess one of the characters (or they've been working with the Haunt all along!), turning a formerly loyal teammate into a scheming betrayer!
With the layout of the mansion randomized during each play, and over 50 Haunts described in elaborate and grisly detail in the base game, no two games of Betrayal at House on the Hill will ever be the same.
If you're in the mood for this deeply atmospheric, emotionally-engaging and trust-eroding experience, be prepared to set aside a solid 3 or more hours for Betrayal at House on the Hill. Its mechanics are deep and complex, and you'd best not be intimidated by leafing through the two weighty tomes of instructions and background that come with the game.
Be sure to read the creepy parts out loud – you'll never look at board games quite the same way again.
Betrayal at House on the Hill: Widow's Walk Expansion