As Ian Curtis once sang, “atmosphere, I love a party with a happy atmosphere” (he didn’t), and sometimes there are those games that add just a little bit of a tingle to tangle. In the spirit of the season of the pumpkin of the spice, here are some games that I think add a bit more than just a game…
Mysterium is Libellud's masterful take on Cluedo meets Dixit, meets High Spirits. It's a co-operative game where one player takes on the role of the unquiet spirit and the others take on the roles of clairvoyants. The latter have been invited to solve a long standing whodunit. Each clairvoyant has a suspect, location and murder weapon. It is the job of the ghost to give out surreal pictorial ‘visions’ (cards) that will lead them in the right direction.
In the final round, the ghost chooses one of the clairvoyants' sets to be the actual culprit and gives clues to all the players. If they are successful, justice is served and the ghost can rest. If not, the ghost returns to haunting the mansion for eternity… or until the next game.
There is plenty of scope for cranking up the atmosphere here depending on how the ‘ghost’ wants to play it. You can communicate purely through knocking on the table (one knock for no, two knocks for yes) and you can download the game’s own spooky soundtrack… if you dare. This is perfect for Halloween, when you’re pretending not to be in.
2. Escape the Dark Castle
This is Themeborne's homage to Fight Fantasy. It delivers a whole lot more than that however. It's a co-operative game which sees players taking on the role of prisoners. You've escaped your cell with nothing but your wits and maybe a half-eaten apple or broken sword! Each character has its own unique dice, complete with its own strengths and weaknesses. Meanwhile, items can be obtained from defeated foes. However, as you've probably guess from the apple mentioned above, they're all a bit...shonky!
As you make your way through the 15 encounters (cards) that make up the castle, you fight monsters, escape traps, trick guards, ever making sure that your 20 hit points don’t dwindle to zero because if one dies… all die!
For all players of a certain age who remember Fighting Fantasy and the seminal TV show Knightmare (now enjoying a resurgence with a new generation as a comedy stage show), this is a frantic trip down memory lane. For everyone else, it’s a frantic trip and, due to its size, manageable in about half an hour. Lots of dice rolling, lots of cursing your luck, lots of cheering when you pull it off – spell casting F-U-N!
3. Mansions of Madness / XCOM
Two games from Fantasy Flight here, both showing that app and board can work hand in hand if done right – and they do it right.
XCOM, for all those who only enjoy games that don’t break your heart, sees up to four players trying to see off an alien invasion whilst researching technology that will actually give them a fighting chance and balancing a scandalously minimal budget.
In Mansions of Madness, players enter the existential nightmare world of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos (you may have heard of this) and play through a series of scenarios where it is up to them to thwart the plans of maniacal cultists and save the world into the bargain whilst trying to stay alive and… relatively sane.
XCOM's big atmospheric pull is the real-time planning phase. All players are vying for precious credits to research or send out interceptors or prevent aliens from invading the base, all while more aliens appear, more countries sign shady deals and more citizens have uncomfortably close encounters. It’s co-operative, but cut-throat co-operative, a post-apocalyptic coffee morning where there is only one French Fancy left – in the universe! Once you get to the agonisingly cruel dice rolling element… well, we are all on the same side. Aren’t we? I have never won this game.
Mansion of Madness is comparatively gentle compared to XCOM, but the unsettling atmosphere is slapped on by the trowel. The background music for the app is a lesson in foreshadowing, the sound effects of eldritch beasts manifesting themselves left right and centre, the slow unravelling of plot and minds alike… welcome to Ominous, New England, population you. I must warn you, though – the box time lies!
4. Mountains of Madness
Another Cthulhu game, sort of, from Iello. It's another co-op game too, who'd have thought it? In Mountains of Madness, players are intrepid explorers of the forbidding continent of Antarctica (it means ‘no bears’, fact fans), searching for ancient artefacts and respect from your doubting peers. Unfortunately, the frozen wastes cannot only claim your life, but your sanity too.
Mountains is a very intriguing game in that, as players try to achieve tasks on progress tiles, they receive forfeits in the form of traits and tics – once the timer is going, a player may not be able to speak, may have to hide their teeth, may not be able to look at their cards. They can’t talk about their traits between turns, so each round becomes more and more chaotic as each player must wrestle with, not only their own condition, but everyone else’s too. Play with good friends as this can go to some strange places…
I could not talk about atmospheric games without mentioning the granddaddy of all atmospheric games (and considering its provenance of Australia, possibly an inspiration for Jon Robertson’s ‘graphics’ in the Dark Room), the video-based board game from JW Spears and Sons… a real blast from the past but you occasionally see it pop up in charity shops.
A fairly straightforward roll and stroll, with the added bonus of a video that, once you set it running, SHOULD NOT BE STOPPED OR REWOUND. Yes, this is all before Ringu or Pingu, so… there you go. Players would roll the dice and move their pieces, fighting to be the first to overcome ‘their own worst fear’. Meanwhile the ‘Gatekeeper’ would occasionally rouse from the screen, barking orders or penalising whoever’s turn it happened to be. Knowing that you would be picked on mercilessly made getting through your turn as quickly as possible an imperative. And yes, when he popped up suddenly, maybe occasionally a trip to hosiery department was required.
A DVD version was released in 2004, which introduced a random element, an aspect missing on the video version. It may all seem a bit clunky now, but no Atmosfear means no Space Alert, no XCOM, no Mansions of Madness… in fact, forget half this list. Thanks, Gatekeeper.