Holidays are a great excuse to get together with friends and do some gaming. These horror-themed board and card games are perfect for playing in a single evening, and you might even prevent (or cause) the apocalypse.
A true classic from Twilight Creations, Zombies!!! has countless expansions and variations. The core of the game is simple — players move across the map that they build themselves by drawing tiles, avoiding or killing zombies and searching for weapons and medical supplies. Movement and combat are resolves with D6 rolls.
The real fun comes from the cards, which allow you to do terrible things to the other humans you’re playing against. You can surround them with zombies, strand them in some far off corner of the board, or some other dastardly thing that will ensure angry glares from across the table. For a truly epic experience, mix a bunch of the expansions together. The town, the mall, the military base, the graveyard, the college, the cabin in the woods, all at once! And all full of zombies.
This card game was clearly inspired by Edward Gorey. Each player controls a family of misbegotten weirdos, and your goal is to inflict the most terrible misfortunes on them, then kill them off when they're at their most miserable. Meanwhile the other players are trying to brighten your family's life with cheer.
The transparent plastic cards let you layer various card effects on family members, building up a history of tragedy throughout the game. Key to the fun is describing the card effects so the players collaboratively create a narrative over the course of the game. In one recent playthrough, we elected a dog to Parliament, killed someone at his wedding, and had someone else spend his life in a train with the doppelganger of what he thought was his true love. Atlas Games recently released a second edition that clarifies the rules, and an expansion (The Unquiet Dead) that allows dead family members to continue to vex their relatives.
Last Night on Earth
There are a lot of zombie games out there these days, but this one remains my favourite. Players take on the roles of survivors (there's a grizzled sheriff, the faithful priest, the football jock, etc.) or the zombies. A variety of scenarios keep each game fresh -- you might have to gather supplies and restart the generator, find enough explosives to detonate the town, defend an old farmhouse from waves after wave of zombie assault, or just survive until sunrise. Last Night on Earth has a very cinematic feel to it, and you'll often get to the end of a game feeling like you just lived through your own Walking Dead episode.
Arkham Horror is the grandparent of the modern high production value board game, with a zillion cards, counters and other fiddly pieces. It's a cooperative game in which the players control 1920s era investigators rushing to stem an incursion of otherdimensional monsters into their town. You travel to various locations, coordinating with your fellow players to search the town for clues and crucial monster-slaying gear.
Portals will open that spew monsters, or sometimes suck players into terrifying realms. The rules are a little clunky at first, and experienced players can usually shut down the threat pretty quickly, but this game has tons of expansions that change up how the game plays and drastically alter the difficulty. I think my fondest Arkham Horror memory is walking past a table playing it at a con, and an 8-year-old girl who was playing looked up and said, "I went to another dimension and found a motorcycle."
Betrayal at House on the Hill
When I was a kid, I loved this game called Mystery Mansion, which had three dimensional tiles that let you build the mansion as you played, with little plastic stairways connecting different floors. Betrayal is sort of like Mystery Mansion all grown up. It's got the fun of building a weird old house from randomly drawn tiles, but it's a lot more fun. It includes the classic "secret betrayer" mechanic, so even as everyone fights to explore and escape the house, they have to find and stop the traitor in their midst.
Dead of Winter
Plaid Hat Games release this take on the zombie apocalypse this year, and it's got a very intriguing premise: all the players are cooperating toward a group goal, but each player has a secret objective they're also trying to achieve. Some of those secret goals can be very destructive. I haven't had a chance to play this yet, but they were demoing it at Gen Con this year, and it's got me highly intrigued.
Sadly, Hecatomb is long out of print. It was a collectible card game that really stretched the boundaries of card game design when it was released. It features very mature themes (some of the cards are seriously gruesome and terrifying) and transparent plastic cards. This lets you stack creatures together, and rotating the cards in either direction as you stack them (the cards are hexagonal) lets you combine various monster abilities into new hybrid creatures.
Players compete to see who can bring about the apocalypse first. Hecatomb's crash and burn might be a blessing in disguise, since it's pretty easy to find the game for dirt cheap prices. There was a base game and two expansions, and you can snag an entire box of booster packs for $US15 ($20) or less.