Aside from the "holiday season" (Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanza / New Year's Eve Revelry / New Year's Day "oh god why did I drink the whole bottle of Cantaloupe Schnapps??" Celebration / etc.), no time of year is better suited for board gaming than Halloween. So, here's a comprehensive guide to horror-themed games in honor of the occasion. Part I looks exclusively at zombie games, in part II we will cover vampires, and part III will showcase the rest of the best.
Please note that I am only featuring games that are currently in print and available in English, as this is intended to be a buying guide and not just my personal musings on the best horror games. Which is a long way of saying: don't email me and inveigh about the absence of The Slime Monster Game or whatever.
And so, ladies and ghouls, without further a-boo ...
Part I: Zombies
Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game: Though a relatively recent addition to the genre (it came out last year), the growing consensus is that this is the best zombie game on the market. LNoE puts some players in the role of Heroes and the rest as Zombies, fighting tooth and nail (and, of course, chainsaw) in the heart of a small town. The best thing about LNoE is it's replayability: the game comes with five different scenarios (with more available online), each of the playable Heroes is unique (the Hot Nurse can heal, the Sheriff always has a revolver, etc.), and the rulebook includes an "Advanced" section in case the basic game just doesn't include enough dynamite for your liking. Plus, an expansion was just released, ensuring enough variability for many Halloweens to come.
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Zombies!!!: HOLY SHIT THREE EXCLAMATION POINTS????!! Prior to Last Night on Earth this was indisputably the reigning king of Zombie boardgames, and many prefer it to the johnny-come-lately. Feign off the undead hordes as you make your way to the helipad and rescue. Note that, unlike Last Night on Earth, Z!!! is a cut-throat game of competition--in fact, the other players are often more hazardous to your health than the monsters. That's why some people like Z!!! better--and why others, like me, find the cooperative aspect of LNoE to be vastly more enjoyable.
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Mall of Horror: And besides, if I'm going to play a screw-your-buddy Zombie game, I want to play one that will sow discord and ill-will between me and my fellow players for decades to come! You know, like Mall of Horror, in which you don't fight the zombies, you just try to survive them. Every player has three characters; on each turn someone must die, and the unlucky victim is decided by popular vote. That's right: you decide the fate of your fellow players, and they decide yours. A game that could have easily gone onto my list of Friendship-Enders (and, in fact, is similar is spirit and mechanics to the game Lifeboats) which was second on that list).
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Give me the Brain and Lord of the Fries: Light, simple, inexpensive, and funny, Give me the Brain and Lord of the Fries differ from the games above in pretty much every respect save one: Zombies remain the stars of the show. In this case, you and your undead companions are workers in a fast-food restaurant that specializes in the grisliest of fare. Both titles are fairly straightforward card games despite the theme, and each has a significant luck component (so steer clear if that's not your thing). Still, the ease of learning and playing make these the most "family friendly" of the games on the list, and the grotesque elements of the artwork are tempered with enough humor to make them palatable to almost anyone.
Zombie in my Pocket: Got no friends and/or money? Head over to Jay Is Games and read my review of Zombie in my Pocket, a free, solitaire zombie game that only requires a printer, a pair of scissors, and 15 minutes of your time. Quite an addictive little pastime.
Part II: Vampires and Witches
Fury of Dracula: Oh man, so fun. This is my go-to title for Halloween frivolity. See my full review here.
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Dracula: A two-player game, with one person as the Count and the other as Dr. van Helsing. Each is searching London for their target cards (Dracula seeks victims, while van Helsing looks for coffins), and must do battle the underlings of the other. Dracula is unusual in that it has a strong memory-component: London is represented by a grid of face-down cards at which players may occasionally peek, but must simply remember what they are (and where they are) thereafter. I'll admit to liking the game despite the memory aspect, rather than because of it.
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Dawn Under: Dude, what is it with memory games and vampires? Like Dracula above, this one is also better if you're not a senile old man like me, though the mnemonic component in Dawn Under is more akin to the classic "Memory" game you no doubt played as a kid. Open graves in search of vacant ones in which your vampires can rest. But if you open a tomb in which another play has already placed a vampire (or garlic), you suffer a penalty. One of those games that you'll feel slightly guilty playing since it's obviously "for kids", but will find immensely enjoyable nonetheless. Nominated for the 2004 German Game of the Year award.
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Witch's Brew: Beautiful card game in which players strive to collect ingredients a cauldrons to create potions and cast spells. A relatively simple and short game (less than an hour), but with plenty of novel mechanisms you are unlikely to have seen before. Nominated for the 2008 German Game of the Year award.
Wicked Witches Way: Whenever I write posts recommending games, I inevitably get comments from people expressing enthusiasm for Set; folks, this is the game for you. Nine custom dice are thrown, and then everyone simultaneously searches the rolled symbols for specific patterns. Do so quickly and your witch will advance on her broom, possibly winning the race and the game. Requiring both memory and speed, this is another game you can play competitively against young children--and lose.
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Techno Witches: Another witchly race, but these jet-setters ride state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners. Indeed nearly everything about this game is untraditional, from the fact that it's a boardgame with no board (wha-?), to the programmatic nature of movement (your witch doesn't budge until you've plotted out his next five moves--and then he does them all at once, possibly crashing into the other players as his does so). I'm not the first to observe that this is essentially a Harry Potter racing game without the license.
Part III: Miscellaneous Malevolence
Arkahm Horror: Call of Cthulhu, the board game. A massive game in almost every respect (scope, game length, pages of rules, price tag...), this cooperative game has all the players working as a team to stop an Ancient One from destroying the world. Highly recommended for those who love H. P. Lovecraft or games that simulate the RPG experience without requiring a lot of prep work. One downside, though: despite taking 4+ hours to play, the game isn't terribly difficult to defeat, which can lead to some anti-climatic endings. Fortunately, the many expansions address this by considerably upping the challenge (the Dunwich Horror expansion, in particular, has ben very well received).
A Touch of Evil: The newest offering from the guys who designed Last Night on Earth (see my top pick in Part I of this guide), Touch of Evil has the players working separately to defeat one of four different villains (the Scarecrow, the Horseman, the Werewolf, and the Vampire), and is very much a disciple of the Talisman school of game design: move around the board, bulk up your character, and then take on the Big Baddie. Of course there's a reason why Talisman is so wildly popular--this type of game is crazy fun--and ToE even improves on the formula by keeping the playing time down around an hour.
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Fearsome Floors: If you're the sort to shy away from games that require spatial reasoning skills, this might be the most terrifying horror game on this list. First, players move their tokens on the board, racing innocent victims through a dungeon toward the exit. Then the Monster moves, following a specific and unvarying algorithm: he moves forward until he "sees" one or more player tokens, at which point he turns and moves toward whichever is closest. As the Monster may turn several times during his movement, much of the game depends on your ability to correctly extrapolate his course. Played among analytical types the game can get bogged down in number-crunching, but in a casual group it's an exciting contest with lots of "oh crap, I did not see that coming" moments.
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Gloom: I'm no fan of "take that!" games, in which the players are constantly playing cards on one another to hinder progress (think: Killer Bunnies or Muchkin, neither of which I can abide). That said, two aspects of Gloom serve as an antidote to my reflexive dislike. First is the great theme, which turns the usual screw-your-buddy mechanic on it's head: the object is to be the most miserable, so you play horrible events on yourself and sic such things as "picnic in the park" on your opponents--ha! Second, the game features cool transparent cards, which allow you see the accumulation of various bonuses and penalties. Not a game I'd play often, but once a year before Halloween is just about perfect.
Werewolf: A number of commercial versions have cropped up (The Werewolves of Millers Hollow, Do You Worship Cthulhu?, etc.), but all you really need are the rules, a deck of cards, a bunch of friends, and a healthy dose of paranoia. You can read my ruminations on the game here.
* * *Those are my recommendations for Halloween Gaming. If you'd like second opinions, check out the comment sections of the original blog posts: Part I: Zombies, Part II: Vampires and Witches, & Part III: Miscellaneous Malevolence. Or, if you are in market for good games regardless of theme, check out my Good Gateway Games Guide. Have fun!