The tabletop space is an odd medium for horror. And while, admittedly, I’ve never been properly terrified playing a card/board game, there are a number of games of this type out there that manage to capture the aesthetics and atmosphere of horror with surprising deftness.
More a celebration of the genre than an actually horrifying experience, some of the best and most creative art in horror is tucked away in these unlikely gems, so I wanted to pull some of them (kicking and screaming) into the light and showcase what they do best.
Fair warning: I’m an unabashed fanboy of the works (if not the deeply distressing views on race and social enterprise) of H.P. Lovecraft — the Cthulhu milieu, if you will.
As such, a number of the entries on this list will be at the very least Cthulhu-adjacent, beginning with #ArkhamHorror, a game set in a quaint Massachusetts town where strange things are beginning to stir and dark forces are gathering.
Players step into the shoes of investigators, not unlike Lovecraft’s melancholy author Randolph Carter, who are dispatched to the town to find the source of these disturbances. When they arrive they discover rifts to other dimensions have begun to open all over the little village, rifts that must be closed before they are joined and unleash their final, catastrophic freight: a monsters Ancient One that will devour reality as we know it.
All the while, alien creatures threaten the investigator’s lives and sanity, and issue forth from other planes to terrorize this sleep little New England hamlet. It’s some of the best Lovecraftian tropes condensed down into a beautifully board game that can be easily played within the span of a few hours.
Call of Cthulhu Living Card Game
An even more direct take on the Cthulhu mythos, the #CallOfCthuhlu card game reaches deep into Lovecraft’s fiction to replicate eight of the factions that populate his world. Like many comparable collectible card games, Call of Cthulhu has you build a custom deck from the cards you’ve assembled and test your faction against other players’ decks.
Call of Cthulhu does a great job of incorporating some of the more esoteric elements from Lovecraft’s work, and allows players a breadth of options to match their mindset and playstyle.
Factions range from the noble Agency, a loose confederation of law enforcement and citizens in the know dedicated to keeping the Ancient ones at bay, to the Order of the Silver Twilight, a secret society of the cultural elite looking to unearth the darkest secrets of the arcane, to the vile Cult of Cthulhu itself, worshippers of the ancient monstrosity itself.
Story cards set up the main objectives of the game, and give an interesting narrative framework to each game that helps add a layer of depth beyond the airless strategy of a lot of competitive card games.
Kingdom Death: Monster
The product of a long development cycle and collaboration between creator Adam Poots and a number of freelance artists — as well as three successful Kickstarter campaigns, the largest of which raised in excess of $2 million — #KingdomDeathMonster is a hugely ambitious game one session of which can take around 60 hours to complete.
Players assume the role of explorers who have barely survived an attack by a monstrous creature, and come together to create a settlement from which the fend off the terrors of what is undeniably an incredibly dangerous world. Each year they celebrate their survival with a lantern festival and a ritual hunt of one of these powerful creatures that stalk the darkness.
The game is more akin to a tabletop RPG than most board games, and focuses heavily on character growth and development. Like an RPG, each character has stats and characteristics that can be improved as the game progresses, and can be equipped with gear crafted at the settlement from the spoils of the hunt.
Kingdom Death: Monster is a fantastic game for players who want a more persistent board game experience, and the game provides tools to easily record progress so that sessions can be resumed with little hassle.
Inspired by Arkham Horror, #EldritchHorror forgoes the focused, intimate New England setting for an epic globetrotting affair of high stakes investigating and last-ditch combat with the worst paranormal horrors man has yet imagined. From the pyramids to the Himalayas, Sydney to San Francisco, players will chase leads, solve mysteries and arm themselves against the looming threat of a powerful Ancient One.
As one of 12 heroes, the player will travel the globe risking life and limb (in the form of physical or psychic damage or crippling Condition cards) to gather artifacts and allies in anticipation of the Ancient One’s arrival. Games play out in a handful of hours, and the variety of heroes, Ancients Ones and monsters add up to strong replayability.