While Britain buffers itself for yet another lockdown and the shops ready themselves for the imminent rationing of milk and vacuum-packed meats, we’re suddenly met with the dark expanse of evenings alone. Or worse, trapped with our family.
Yes, you could while hours away with books, music, or questionable reality television. But I’d put a vote forward for board games.
But before you reach for Trivial Pursuit and the shotgun, rest assured, the following suggestions are free from the necessity of any basic knowledge, large gatherings and will be sure to keep your spooky interests sustained right through to the new year.
The November that awaits Britain won’t necessarily be a fun-filled one. Many of us are skint, cold, lonely, and sick of seasonal knitwear. For goths, it’s just another dull month that isn’t Halloween. So why not capitalise on that winter misery with some suitably spooky pastimes? No need for concentration, elaborate props, or friends for that matter. I have tried and tested these games with unsuspecting friends and family over the past few weeks and have not yet been disowned, threatened, or physically attacked. Yet.
Here’s a shortlist of glum games to keep the winter blues at bay –
Playtime – 60 minutes
A 90s classic, Atmosfear (known as ‘Nightmare’ in some territories) was released into the world with instant, worldwide success. A horror VHS board game that gradually became a series with a host of expansion packs, it remained a stalwart of sleepovers and ‘spooky nights in’ for years. Originally launched in 1991 by Australian designers Phillip Tanner and Brett Clements, the original game enjoyed three expansions; a 1995 reboot, two DVD versions, and a contemporary 2019 version, where the original VHS was finally replaced with an app.
Expansions, witches, and zombies aside, for this list, we’ll stick to the original.
Atmosfear requires 3-6 players and takes exactly 60 minutes to complete. The goal of the game is to travel around the board, collecting keys and beating the clock, which plays on the accompanying VHS. However, the VHS does not just provide spooky music and ominous ticking, but at intervals, the ‘Gatekeeper’ appears, rudely mocking and challenging players to tasks, or penalising them at random.
The game is won by collecting six keys and making it to the centre of the game board. Here, the player then draws a ‘fear.’ Prior to gameplay, each player writes down their ‘greatest fear’ and enters it into the pack. If the player ultimately picks someone else’s fear, they win, and the tape – and Gatekeeper – is stopped. However, if their own fear is drawn and no-one else is able to win, the Gatekeeper wins. And boy, do you know about it!
I love Atmosfear. I have inflicted it upon my nearest and dearest for decades and no longer feel shame shouting “Yes, my Gatekeeper” at a strobing VHS. The game is simple, fast-paced, and sometimes, genuinely unnerving and frustrating, especially when the Gatekeeper emerges in a crack of thunder to punish an unsuspecting player.
Considering the Gatekeeper has lurked around for 29 years so far, the game has aged well and is still an entertaining and exciting prospect for all ages. I can’t speak for the 2019 reboot, but if it’s anything like the earlier incarnations, it’ll be ideal lockdown entertainment.
Playtime: 45 Minutes
Spook-o-meter – 3/5
Bewitched is a far more traditional board game experience and ideal for younger families. Made by Waddingtons for the children’s Halloween market, it is a game of memory and some small amount of logic.
Each player has three frogs and the same goal – to retrieve the witch’s spellbook and return the frogs to their princely forms. However, there are red herrings aplenty. There are four spell books, but three are duds, and all are concealed within dinky little witches hats. To return across the lily pads with the correct book is a tricky task, as other frogs may steal the book, and snakes and cats may be moved to block your path! The gameboard is beautiful, with a nostalgic, muted colour palette and sweet little game pieces that offer some soft familiarity in these strange times.
Despite the young age recommendations, this was a lot of fun, and I found myself getting embarrassingly competitive with my little frog, moving cats and magnetic snakes with cruel precision. The game can be great for exposing players’ ‘poker faces’ and powers of misdirection, providing a really enjoyable experience. Not just for kids, Bewitched can provide gentle entertainment for all ages.
Haunted House Game
Play Time: 20 minutes
‘A spooky fun memory game’ indeed. This game called to me from across a charity shop a few years ago, and it has been a cheery addition to the games cabinet ever since. It’s the artwork that sells the game – bright, saturated colours and fantastic character design that could have stepped right out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
The game itself is a familiar memory format, whereby each player attempts to match pairs until all the cards have gone. Consequently, the game is best suited to children who would enjoy play as much as the artwork. However, as a childish adult, I also enjoy the game, although it’s a short process and hardly excites any visiting friends. Nonetheless, playing the game once more, with a cheery, invested attitude, the whole process was a lot of fun, with little need for strict concentration or any real skill. The game works best with two players, as with any more, the game would last five minutes and be of little enjoyment to anyone. For the artwork alone, it’s a welcome addition to my lockdown collection.
Play Time: 20 minutes
Buckaroo, but with bats. Sold yet? Acrobats (also sold as ‘Acro Bats’) is a vertical balancing game, where players must add hanging bats of differing colours and weights to the main, magnetic, hanging bat. The one to make the big bat fall, loses. It’s a simple premise, but an addictive one.
To play, a player rolls the ‘bat die’ to decide what colour bat must be added. The dice is not a conventional cube, but a plastic disk with a ball inside, a little like a miniature roulette wheel. By spinning the disk, the ball eventually lands on a coloured segment, and the bat choice is made. The bats can vary from small and light to large and heavy, making the process a frustrating game of luck! As each player takes their turn, bats are added to the holes and hooks of the ones above, and the top bat loses its grip on the archway.
If your bat makes the roost fall, then you must take a bat token. Whoever receives three tokens first is out of the game and whoever has the fewest, wins. It’s a simple premise, but much like Buckaroo, Kerplunk, and Tumblin’ Monkeys, it’s addictive.
With such a simple premise, play can only last a few rounds but is suitable for all ages and offers a slightly different format to familiar balancing games.
Skeleton in the Cupboard
Skeleton in the Cupboard is an unusual National Trust game that seems all but forgotten today. When more elaborate and gaudy plastic games have caught a generation’s imagination, this cardboard and wood offering almost borders on wholesome.
The game is a simple race around the board. Players roll two dice and move around the ‘house’ collecting cards from cupboards in different rooms. These cards may be power cards, treasure cards, or part of the central skeleton. The more skeleton parts are assembled, the closer the game is to ending. Once the skeleton is completed, the player with the most treasure cards wins.
The two dice relate to two different and fun parts of the game; one moves the chunky, wooden counter. The other moves the ghost counter, which can be used to steal cards from other players. The game is essentially a haunted game of cat and mouse, with added moments of chance with the inadvertent building of the enormous skeleton.
I had expected the game to be a simple, gentle affair, but proved to be a really enjoyable and fun experience, especially when other players are equally as invested in the experience.
The joy of traditional family board games, as opposed to complex ‘tabletop’ or role-playing games, is in their simplicity. There is so much enjoyment to be found in a few wooden counters, a plastic frog, and half an hour’s downtime with friends and family.
The mindset of ‘putting away childish things’ can be a constructive one in other areas of life, but in a world so filled with stress and uncertainty, perhaps a trip around a cartoonish haunted house is what we all need to slow our pace and help us appreciate the light-hearted and simple experiences that are available to us all.
Ghost Castle (Which Witch?)
Play Time: 45 Minutes
Ghost Castle (also sold as Which Witch?) is one of the most celebrated and legendary games of the 1970s and 1980s. The game is undoubtedly fun, brittle, naff, and nowhere near as fun as it was when you were little. However, it remains a firm favourite of mine!
As garish and enjoyable as the game is, I wouldn’t feel especially comfortable singing its praises as, to buy a vintage copy of Ghost Castle on eBay, you need to re-mortgage your house or sell an organ or two at least.
Host Your Own Horror Evening
Play Time: 20 Minutes
This deliciously naff game and party pack exist as an honourable mention as I’ve yet to play it myself. The set is so brilliantly dated that I have waited years to do it justice and, truthfully, con enough people into sharing the experience.
A variation on the murder mystery evening, attendees are encouraged to dress as their characters (Vampire, Witch, Mummy, etc.) who then take up their counters on the board, being monsters who ‘haunt’ the house. The aim of the game is to avoid being “one what is cursed.”
The set contains a spooky board game with Atmosfear-esque audio guidance, but also a sound effects cassette that is sure to add a ghoulish and totally convincingatmosphere to the evening. My personal favourite aspect of the kit is the centrefold of food suggestions, which include dishes titled ‘Sheep’s Eyeballs,’ ‘Frog Purée,’ and ‘Witches Heads’… which really involves a lot of cream cheese and courgette carving.
If I have my way, I’ll return shortly with a full and embarrassing review, so watch this space.
An Evening with Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Arguably the most complex and most gloriously gothic game I own, ‘An Evening with Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a tie-in game unlike any other. Released alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, the set is both a game and a themed evening of entertainment. Much like a Murder Mystery evening, whereby guests seek to unmask the murderer, guests at Dracula’s castle must deduce who is secretly Dracula. To further authenticate the evening, the set also holds invitations, plastic fangs, and even frothing blood capsules!
More of an enormous undertaking and substantial gathering than a light-hearted game, Dracula’s evening must sadly remain in the cupboard until 2021, at least.
What are your favourite games? Have I missed something great? Let me know in the comments!