What Makes a Game Scary?

It is that time of year. One group of people try to watch a horror movie every day, another group changes their Twitter name to a campy Halloween joke, and this group might be doing something. We will see about that.

Regardless, there is one thing that isn’t too terribly cliche to talk about, scary games!

It is easy to come up with scary games based on the (thematic) contents of their box. Zombicide, Last Night on Earth, and Zombies!!! have just that…zombies. Horror monster, check. So instant scary game, right? Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, and Cthulhu Wars all are based on the words of Lovecraft so other worldly beasts are surely meant for scary games, right?

I could go on with a list but I might have made my point. Not all those games (and not all games featuring monsters) are scary. That’s why my “Creature Feature” events for the MeetUp group are just about monsters. So what exactly makes a board game scary? It is different for everyone so feel free to chime-in in the comments.

Zombiecide, Zombies!!!, Cthulhu Wars, Eldritch Horror, and Elder Sign are not scary to me. They are pretty lighthearted with the sense of dread and fun for it fit. I have deconstructed Eldritch Horror down to its bare components to help me explain how to play the game so it is more about rules so it erased the mysticism about it for a true fright. The unknown of some games are potentially the scariest parts of a game. It has been awhile since I played Last Night on Earth but I remember a sense of dread that sat well with me. Though that is quite the campy game, not sure anyone can say it is truly scary, especially if you add the tutu bear from Invasion from Outer Space.

The biggest games that capture potential sense of fright are hidden movement games for me. I am talking about Escape from Aliens in Outer Space and Nuns on the RunĀ particularly. Here you have games that you don’t have all the information. You are alone on a map, don’t know where people are, and have to make your way to an objective. What is around every corner? Is something chasing you down? Now the latter game is less of that feeling because you can see the nuns on the board; but if they are close to you, you will get scared because they could potentially move one step and catch you.

Because of this feeling, Nuns on a Run screams a monster/alien theme and last Halloween I created house rules of it. I might try to create some time and finish that variant for Halloween this year. Just need to make up some cards and then I can post it in with the NTRules section so you can try it out yourself!

But another frightful thing that I think a good scary game should contain is player elimination. It isn’t too scary if you die and just respawn shortly thereafter. There needs to be consequence and make you fear for your well being. A lot of people don’t like player elimination and I understand that. But not every game is for everyone. I might try playing Bloodborne in the near future with the boss that eliminates you after two deaths, that would really put the pressure on in that game.

Perhaps this means that I need to do house variants with limited lives in order to create more games to be scary? Mythos Tales is a mystery game where you are trying to solve/figure out investigations in Arkham. The theme is dark and Lovecraftian but I haven’t felt it went to a place of fright. Have we just not got to the dark parts that would be really scary (we are near the end of the whole thing)? But I never found Lovecraft stories scary since they relied upon the idea of “the creature was so disgusting, I can’t describe it” more times than not that it became a turn off. It is still engaging material but nothing that would keep me up at night. And if you have been watching, you can’t die.

Games nowadays are too geared towards saving your character, making sure you don’t lose progress or what you created/were assigned. This allows for fun swings of actions as you “no guts, no glory” your way into the unknown but the consequences aren’t that negative. While I love those actions in games like XIA: Legends of a Drift System, it allows me to be too care free and not be worried, it can be the detriment of some games that want to have horror things happen. I need to be able to make progress and feel like I could lose it all or significant progress with the wrong move to be scary. Limited lives in certain games could help some games become more scary but…

I’m just talking.

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