While it took me some time, I finally got to see Stranger Things, and I loved it. It gripped me right from the start, and did not let go until the search for a small town boy that vanished on his way home from a Dungeons & Dragons game reached its conclusion.
If you’ve not seen Stranger Things, I will not spoil the fun for you. I will only say that it is a story that is steeped deeply into classic horror stories, and one that immerses you even further into its atmosphere by not only taking part in the eighties, but also by presenting itself in a highly stylized form, suggesting that it was filmed thirty years ago.
It also has a bit more value for us gamers (although probably more for role players than board gamers), as it not only acknowledges the existence of gaming, but also makes the involvement of the young protagonists in a D&D campaign one of the plot points.
All that worked on me as (mostly a former, but still) a role player, but it also drove me to thinks about board games that would build an atmosphere similar to that of Stranger Things. What came immediately to my mind were games by Flying Frog Productions: Last Night on Earth and Invasion from Outer Space, which do an excellent job at recreating the atmosphere of B movies of the eighties, with only one thing missing: the actual horror.
Don’t get me wrong: the tension is there, but nobody I know ever said that they were feeling the cold touch of fear as they were moving their miniature around the board. For that matter, nobody ever testified to being genuinely scared during a game of Arkham Horror (unless we’re talking about the sheer amount of stuff you need to put on a table and manage during the game) or Eldritch Horror – two games that even put “horror” in their names.
It’s maybe not an easy task to recreate the pulp feel of the eighties, or to build a more pulp version of the Loveraftian world, but it is one board games have been performing really well for years. You can easily recreate the gothic horror atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow with a copy of A Touch of Evil, or the science fiction “Alien-esque” feel with Space Hulk or Legendary Encounters, but each and every time you will have everything but this one thing: the horror itself.
In my gamer life I’ve encountered a game that was able to create the actual fear and desperation only once: Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. The sensory deprivation its system provides by making everyone’s movement secret (tracked with a pencil behind the screen) really works towards genuinely scaring you, if you are assigned the role of a crew member trying to leave an infested space ship in the middle of the cosmic nowhere.
The thing that separates Escape from the Aliens from other games, and what makes it so much better at creating the true atmosphere of horror is also its biggest flaw: a lot is based on player trust, both in all players actually not wanting to cheat, and (more importantly) not cheating by accident.
What role playing games have in spades: creativity and uncertainty of dealing with incomplete information (not to mention the presence of an actual mind animating everything players can and cannot see), board games usually lack, and for a good reason. When you sit down to play a game, you need to know how it works, what are the rules – and that the rules will not be broken at will unless another rule allows for exactly that. Simply put, you need to know everything, and to when you know everything, the horror potential is instantly gone.
Does the above mean that true horror is something completely out of reach of board games? It probably isn’t, but I’ve seen but a handful of examples that would come close to proving this false. Then again, our hobby is evolving constantly, and maybe we’ll see actual board game horror (the ingame type, not the “I spilled stuff on your game” type) come to life through the yet untapped potential of Legacy systems, or from somewhere else: from a place we cannot yet see, from a world not yet unveiled, where games will go in the future.