Can Board Games Be Scary?

When it comes to horror a new king has come to seize the crown, and though the recumbent cinema may still be giving us a few greats, not doubt video games are the heir apparent. But given the renaissance era of board games has produced wonders that even have the power to put chess to shame one wonders, can board games give us that same sense of horror? Can they make us dread, feel closed in, alone, or hopeless?


A board game should be possible to win of course, giving us that glimmer of hope, however unlikely. Bound to rules and numbers we must still attribute cold and comprehensible numbers to inexplicable and alien horrors. Not to mention the fact that it’s harder to create a grisly spectacle on a piece of cardboard, no matter how well printed, but there are some areas in which board games excel.

“I am the gatekeeper!” – Gatekeeper


Pitching the odds against the players is a great way to make them feel a sense of hopelessness, even when there is still that vague glimmer of victory. A lot of cooperative games make for a more intense experience by setting players as a group against the game.

Arkham Horror is one of the best game for escalating the odds higher and higher against its players. The further the game progresses the more the city of Arkham floods with monsters, and the closer the elder horror comes to awakening. Giving the players two chances to win (or lose) gives the game a fantastic “last stand of desperation” feel towards the end.


Knowing that the worst has yet to come and not knowing when, how, or what might happen is amongst the worst feelings a human can experience. We like predictability and patterns, and to rip that away makes us unnerved. While no game will leave you on tenterhooks quite like Jenga, I’ll try and stick to a horror theme.

Betrayal at the House on the Hill, what a terrible and cruel game that is. Players explore a house with a dark side, filled with spectres and phantasms, and eventually the roll of a dice will reveal a member of the group as a traitor, and with so many possibilities in the rules there’s no way to predict how the game’s second half will proceed.


What better way to bring fear to the table than making players turn on each other? When the group are supposed to be working together and you know that one or more of your so called friends are fighting against you and lying to your face makes the familiar suddenly repulsive.

While Resistance or Saboteur may use the mechanic most effectively, Werewolf plays the accusation game better than any of them, because every victim of the lynch mob could well be an innocent soul unjustly cut down. One Night Werewolf and it’s accompanying audio app doesn’t quite capture the mounting heartbreak of the lycanthropic pack shredding villager after villager.

In short, yes, a board game can be scary, but it takes more than slapping zombies on the box to make it so. Understanding horror can turn a simple pastime to an experience worth remembering, which is not to say that your average horror-themed game can’t be fun, just that it’s not scary.