With the Halloween season descending upon us, I expect some gamers will be out seeking a thrill. Being filled with horror and dread isn't something that the tabletop format lends itself well to. However, that doesn't mean it can't raise your heart rate. So, I present to you my top six games to get your pulse pounding!
6. Sheriff of Nottingham
As a humble merchant, making a living can be tough. Sometimes shifting loaves and flogging fruit just isn't enough to pay the bills. The only reasonable solution is to smuggle ballistic weaponry into the city walls, or perhaps some mouldy cheese.
Sheriff of Nottingham puts you in this exact predicament. Players take it in turns to load a pouch with up to five cards, which represent goods. These can be legal goods or naughty goods, but that's not too important. What is important is that pouch. This is handed to one of the players, who is acting as the Sheriff. Once in the hands of the Sheriff, they have the option of rooting through your wears in search for contraband or allowing you to reach your stall unmolested.
Now, that pouched is sealed with a popper - but not just any popper. This is a really satisfying popper, and if it's popped open, your wares will be rummaged through. If caught with contraband, it'll be confiscated and you'll be fined, but if you've been honest, the Sheriff will pay you for the inconvenience caused.
So, those moments before the Sheriff decides whether or not you're trustworthy can be stressful stuff. There is often begging and bluffing, bribing and bartering, and probably some other words beginning with 'b' too. One thing is for sure, it's tense, it’s exciting and it raises my pulse.
You've always wanted to be a secret agent, right? Who hasn't? Good news, Spyfall lets you do just that. But let me tell you, it's not an easy job.
Here players are given a secret card, with either a location or a spy on it. Those with a location card share the same location as everyone else and want to find the spy. The person with the spy card is - bizarrely - trying to figure out which location they are at. Both objectives are completed by asking other players questions, typically about the place they're in. Answers need to be specific enough to avoid looking like a spy, but vague enough that the actual spy can't deduce where they're at.
The real stress here is provoked whilst playing the spy. What starts as a series of enquiries around a table soon feels like a scrutinising interrogation. Beads of sweat start forming on the forehead, brow furrowed, thinking "what does the location smell like?". Not for the light-hearted, so get your beta-blockers at the ready.
4. Escape from Aliens from Outer Space
In this hidden movement game, players are randomly allocated the role of human or alien. The humans need to evacuate the ship via an escape pod and the aliens need to kill the humans. This is all performed in a turn-based fashion, as you move from hex to hex. As you stumble into 'dangerous sectors', a card is drawn to see if you make noise, like stepping on creaky space-floorboards. Have you blown your cover? Maybe you can mislead the group about your location?
Undoubtedly, as the game progresses, you'll end up in close contact with the other players. Who can you trust? Probably not your neighbour who's flailing wildly in the neighbouring sectors, hoping to catch a human on his claws. Will they figure out your coordinates? Is that next card going to lead them right to you? Although slower paced, the stress is high in this one.
3. Nine Tiles Panic
Don't be fooled by the cute package that this Oink Games title comes in. Behind the sweet graphics, a nerve-wracking, real-time game lies in wait.
In Nine Tiles Panic, players are given (unsurprisingly) nine tiles. These are double-sided and depict straight or curved roads, in addition to aliens, agents, dogs, civilians and more. The aim is to place these tiles in a 3x3 layout whilst ensuring no road ends in the middle of the board. You're also tasked with meeting three random objectives. These can include the longest road, most aliens chased by an agent, most dogs, etc.
Ties in this game, which are common, are broken by the speed of completion. Everyone plays simultaneously, so it's a scramble to the finish line. Once the first player is done, a sand timer determines whether or not you're staying in the round. Panic too much and put forth an illegal layout (roads ending in the middle of the map), you get nothing. Real-time games almost feel like cheating for this article, but this still won't be the last one you'll be seeing.
2. Captain Sonar
I told you so. Here's another real-time game, but this one is also team-based - and there is nothing more stressful than letting other people down.
Captain Sonar sees you and up to seven other friends manning a largely dysfunctional submarine. You'll adopt the roles of captain, first mate, radio operator or engineer in a four versus four showdown to sink the enemy vessel. Each role is wildly different.
- The captain declaring direction.
- The first mate prioritises weapons and utilities.
- The radio operator marks the enemy position.
- The engineer tries to stop the ship from exploding after travelling too far North.
Strictly speaking, this is a hidden movement game, with each sub's position a mystery to the enemy team. I think an apt description would be the love child between the game ‘Battleships’ and a corporate team-building exercise.
The real-time factor alone is normally enough to raise a pulse, but the team-play certainly exacerbates things. What's more, hunting and evading the opposing vessel is also nail-biting in its own right, and is more than enough to get that heart muscle going. You can prove it too, as Captain Sonar comes with a turn-based variant, letting you take your foot off the gas and enjoy the lesser stresses of its gameplay.
In all, it’s a unique and exciting title that deserves your attention. This applies to you even more if your gaming group tends to reach 6-8 players on the regular and party games just aren’t cutting it anymore.
1. Tabletop RPGS - Call of Cthulhu
Now, if real-time board games weren’t cheating already, this certainly is. For the unacquainted, tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) see players listening to a Game Master (GM) who sets a scene and then players dictate what their character does. A dice roll often dictates how successful the player action is and then the GM describes how the world around them responds to said action. All this is imaginary, though some groups might use maps, terrain, and minis to enhance gameplay. This genre of games is huge and has a plethora of rules and themes that can be applied to it.
For many of you that were already aware of TTRPGs, I’m sorry for insulting you with that description.
Now, submitting an entire genre for this entry seemed a step too far, so I did narrow down my selection to a single system. Though there are many that can raise your heart rate, I figured I’d keep this a bit more Halloween-friendly. Thus, I give you Call of Cthulhu (CoC).
Based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, this game was designed by Sandy Peterson and initially published by Chasoium in 1981. The setting is typically 1920's America, with players adopting the role of investigators. They must explore the environment and consort with NPCs to unravel the mysteries of whatever the GM has cooked up. Whilst things may initially appear mundane, often the drama unfolds to reveal supernatural interference.
This can include the schemes of vicious cultists or unimaginable creatures serving their Ancient One. A sanity mechanic controls the psychological ramifications of these otherworldly encounters. Panic, hallucinations, and even permanent insanity can be inflicted on naive investigators that snoop too much. Unlike other TTRPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), players shouldn’t expect their characters to grow in power over the course of a campaign. Often players accrue injuries, both physical and mental, that only add further challenges.
This is a fantastic experience that has endured the ages for a reason. It’s dark and gritty and is the closest thing to ‘terrifying’ that you’re going to get at the dining table - excluding, perhaps, a Ouija Board. Given the time of year, I couldn’t recommend this system enough. It’s a refreshing change of pace for those accustomed to D&D. Throw in ambient lightning and creepy music and you can soak the room in the atmosphere for a more intense experience.
Honourable mentions to this section include the previously mentioned Dungeons and Dragons. This is a staple of the genre and it would be a disservice to not highlight it. The setting is certainly different and typically less horrifying, but I’ve felt some serious excitement battling all manner of monsters.
I’d also like to give a shout out to the lesser known Blades in the Dark. It’s described as ‘demonpunk’, in a setting comparable to the Dishonoured games. Players act as criminals pulling off heists and assassinations. This is a dynamic, action-packed system that caters to altering your plans on the fly and has some very unique mechanics which make it worth your attention.
Happy Pulse-Pounding Halloween!
And that’s all my suggestions! Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list by a long stretch and you may think that some essential titles are missing. However, these are a good mix of games that I’ve played, which will get that pulse pounding for an array of reasons. If something on this list is new to you, check it out, as we might’ve whipped up a review for it. Finally, Happy Halloween!
Editors note: This blog was originally published on 18/10/2019. Updated on 10/08/2021 to improve the information available.