Some years ago I wrote an article called The Problem with Horror Games where I talked about how horror-themed games don’t tend to be scary at all. I offered one potential exception, the second edition of Fury of Dracula (2005), and said that cooperative games might generally offer a solution for the problem of fear-free gaming.
Almost a decade later, the cooperative field has grown considerably, and I think it continues to have the closest thing you’ll find to genuine fear in tabletop games. So, in honor of Halloween, I wanted to offer some thoughts on game mechanics that are great for horror games because of their introduction of genuine fear — with many of them drawn from cooperative play.
The Uncertain (But Knowable) Future. I feel the most dread in cooperative games when I have to draw a random card (or tile). Consider Lord of the Rings (2000), where the next tile might initiate an event that you’re not ready for, or Pandemic (2008), where an unlucky card might cause an overflowing city to be reinfected.
What makes these arbitrary draws particularly scary is that you don’t know what the results will be but you do know of certain results which might be particularly unlucky. If this were instead a fully random choice it might cause a bit of trepidation, but true randomness often allow too many choices to be worried about any of them; knowing that a few options from a limited menu might cause real problems … that causes real dread.
The Uncertain (and Damaging) Result. Similarly, it can be a little scary knowing that a random resolution system can yield some results that are quite good and some that are quite bad. This can show up in board games with a random task resolution. Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2012) offers a great example. When you’re trying to succeed at something, you roll some dice and measure the results against a target. High enough, you’re fine; low enough, you’re not.
Once again, a game needs a little bit more to make this mechanic truly scary: it also needs to have a really bad result from the unlucky happenstance. Going back to Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, you face the worst results when you’re fighting monsters or overcoming obstacles. You might lose your whole hand of cards … or worse. When those bad results have decent odds of actually happening, you might have a bit of fear when rolling the dice.
But a game can go bigger and offer the opportunity for a player to lose something really huge — something that they spent a long time building. In a standard game, that could be an empire that was the result of an entire game’s play, but in Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (and similar Legacy games), a player could lose something he spent many, many games building. That’s pretty scary!
The Hidden Enemy. Co-op games can offer more sense of dread with the “traitor” mechanic that debuted in Shadows over Camelot (2005). Having someone sitting at the table quietly absorbing everything that you’re saying and turning it against you can make you decidedly paranoid (and, yes, a little fearful).
However, this is less adaptable than some of the other mechanics suggested here: traitors really require cooperative play to work, because that forces players to talk about things and to make plans (and allows the traitor to listen in). Nonetheless, it’s possible to introduce some cooperation into competitive games — if competitive players have to work together to stave off nuclear war, the sacking of your capitol city, or whatever.
The Open Enemy. It turns out that unhidden enemies can be pretty scary too. The Sauron (2002) expansion for Lord of the Rings may be the best example. Even though you know who Sauron is, it’s pretty terrifying to discuss your plans around him, knowing that he’ll be able to quickly react to them!
The Lost Opportunity. Though a lot of these potential fears arise from cooperative games, the lost opportunity is a design pattern that can be found in games of all sorts. It makes players sweat while they’re waiting for their opponents to take their turns because they’re fearful that their opponents will take (or block) the action they want to take!
For this mechanic to really work a game has to contain opportunities that are both discrete and obvious, and there also have to be ways to take them away. Worker-placement games do a good job of this, with Agricola (2007) being a prime example. However, I find Ticket to Ride (2004) to be one of the tensest games ever, because you have to sit around, hoping the other players won’t take routes before you do! The tension is amped up by the fact that any player can take any route at any time (if they have the right cards)!
Ticket to Ride suggests an important element for creating this sort of fear: players have to have something to lose. And, it’s often more than just the obvious opportunity. In Ticket to Ride when someone takes your six-red route, you haven’t just lost your opportunity to take those tracks, but you’ve also wasted the six red cards you have in your hand (unless you can figure out something else to do with them).
The Lost Game. What’s the scariest thing of all? Losing the game! Especially if everyone can lose! If there’s even a possibility of this, if you know it could happen if things turned in just the wrong way, then it’s going to create an element of fear in a game.
Again, this possibility emerges from the cooperative field, because that was the first large category of games were everyone losing was possible. However, there’s also the occasional competitive game where players must work together, as mentioned in the discussion of hidden enemies. Some specific examples of this are The Republic of Rome (1990) where players must hold off invading hordes while trying to win and Terra (2003) where players are trying to collect resource sets while offering just enough up to the common good.
Is It Really Fear?
Even with all these mechanics, can a horror game really be scary? Unfortunately, I have to say that the answer is still no. Horror books and movies have attributes like deep immersion, true surprise, and icky ickiness that are just about impossible to include in a tabletop game.
But these mechanics can introduce tension, dread, and a more constrained sort of surprise. I think they’re not a bad start — and something that could up the fear game of scary board games.
Maybe we’ll get to play them on a future Halloween!