Creature Stole My Twinkie! – Horrified Review – Boardhammer

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Horrified Cover

Growing up as a kid in the mid 80s, movies and television were a big part of my downtime. Trips to the local video store—built into an italian deli, because New York—to rent videos with my mom meant that my love of film started fairly early. This only progressed as my family became intertwined with movies; my mom, and then I, both worked at Blockbuster for nearly a decade combined. Suffice to say, I saw a lot of movies. And of those, I always loved horror movies the most. The special effects, the zany plots, the hammy acting, all of it combined to create something truly special that other genres of film just couldn’t replicate. Among those, the Universal monster movies really stood out as touchstones of horror cinema, always feeling sincere and charming despite their age.

However, when it comes to transposing horror to board games cardboard-based horror seems to have a few problems: namely, your choices are generally zombies, or cosmic themed horror inspired by the guy who’s cat’s name we can’t print. Many horror based games are made for “M for Mature” audiences, with lots of gore, dark artwork, and punishing mechanics that are meant to replicate the idea of facing down hordes of the undead or cosmic terrors that drive you insane. But there are few “fun” horror games that thematically replicate those old movie classics. At least, there weren’t, until 2019’s Horrified hit Target store shelves last year from Ravensburger. And your first thought might be: “Wait, Target? Don’t they just sell generic kids games?” but since mid-2019 the big box store has become home to a widening collection of interesting games, with 2020 seeing even gaming monolith Gloomhaven sell it’s beginner friendly standalone in the big red store. So is Horrified worth a Target run? Or should it stay dead and buried?

Getting the Squad Back Together

Horrified is a co-op game for 1-5 players that tasks the team with defeating the Universal Monster universe’s biggest names: Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and Bride of Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy (No, not that one. Also not the other one. The original one, that frankly no one remembers.). Each monster has a unique, specific defeat condition that requires players to conduct specific tasks around the map before finally defeating them for good.

The Monsters

The Usual Suspects. Credit: kenjimurasame

These conditions make every monster unique: Dracula requires players to smash four coffins, the Mummy tasks players with playing a slide puzzle mini-game with scarabs, and Frankenstein and the missus need to be taught to be human before meeting and falling in love. They also requires players to continually mitigate threats while keeping track of what specific actions need to be taken to defeat a monster. Do you use your blue items to move the Creature’s boat towards it’s lair, or do you use that blue piece to work on the cure to the Wolf Man’s curse, or do you need to keep that item to protect you from Dracula’s upcoming attack phase?

These are the types of choices players will be tasked with making as they move around Horrified’s colorful map, collecting color coded items and rescuing wayward villagers who stumble out of the monster deck, looking to be guided to safety. If players can defeat all monsters on the map, they win, but if the terror track reaches the “skull” icon, or the monster deck runs out of cards, it’s game over and the Monsters have claimed victory.

Monster Mash

When it was first released, Horrified drew a few comparisons to Pandemic, both positively and negatively. They are somewhat similar in a few ways, and it’s obvious that the team at Prospero Hall took some of the successful mechanics from Pandemic into account when developing their game. Both games feature players selecting slightly different flavors of character, each with a unique trait that can be used to shake up the activations available to each player. The Archaeologist can pick up items from adjacent spaces, while the Mayor gets 5 actions on her turn, rather than the 3 or 4 that most characters have.

These abilities are usually fairly minimal, but some are more useful than others. The Mayor’s 5 activations make her a great choice for moving around the map, but can make her placement and order of operations important. The Courier being able to teleport to other Heroes can deliver needed items just in the nick of time, but also means the Courier is useless in solo play (which isn’t really a problem). Some, like the Explorer, are so situational that they seem fairly useless; her limited 3 activations means that instead of moving, you’ll probably use her ability to teleport to any non-water space every turn, but this has diminishing returns depending on how far she needs to go (and means that you’re still only getting 2 activations). There is certainly enough flavor to the characters though that changing things up each game will give you fresh, new stories to tell about how you were “So close to beating Dracula, if you only had one more activation!”, but the overall “flavor” of characters is minimal.

The Minis

…it was a graveyard smash! credit: kenjimurasame

Also similar to Pandemic is the co-operative idea of threat management, except that in Horrified, the threats are, well, directly threatening. Instead of little cubes of viruses popping up around the map every turn, the monsters in Horrified actively seek players (or villagers) out to attack. This inconveniently throws a wrench into your plans pretty frequently. Need that item to defeat Dracula? Too bad, the Wolf Man just hit you 3 times, and you now have to choose to discard 3 items or get knocked out and raise the Terror level!

The push and pull of the monsters adds a level of active flavor that helps sell the thematic ideas of Horrified. Pandemic leaves them somewhat abstracted; oh no, too many cubes! Is sometimes hard to parse as the disaster it really is. However realizing that you’re about to get smacked by Frankenstein and potentially ruin your upcoming turn’s plan makes the threat more immediate and easily understood. Villagers complicate this further, as they have no ability to defend themselves from monsters, and are your only source of valuable perk cards. These give extra activations, move monsters or heroes, and provide other special abilities that can be real game changers. If a villager dies, the Terror level goes up, and the game lumbers even closer to defeat.

These changes don’t, however, mask some of the weaknesses that it shares with Pandemic and other co-ops. One, and perhaps the most frustrating, is the co-op ghoul known as “quarterbacking”. Since the game is fully co-op, it leaves itself open to somewhat commanding players to attempt to direct all of the action for all players (indeed, it’s very easy to play this game solo and pilot 2 or 3 characters yourself for this reason). To both Horrified’s credit and complaint, this is not a unique problem to this game, but one that co-op games generally share; unfortunately, there is no real mechanic in the game that can prevent or mitigate quarterbacking, so it is best to know this going in if that’s a concern in your gaming group.

A second issue is that of difficulty. Co-op games like Last Bastion are often touted for their seemingly insurmountable difficulty as a selling point: you and your team will really need to work to savor this victory! Perhaps shockingly, this is something that Horrified actually also has: you can expect to lose about as often as you win in Horrified, and you may find that the more people and monsters you play with, the more likely you are going to lose than win. Horrified is, well, scarily difficult. The issue arises from the amount of cards in the Monster deck, which don’t change depending on how many players or monsters are involved in the game. 2 players, 2 monsters? Same deck as 5 players and 4 monsters. Every time a player ends their turn, they draw a monster card, and if that deck runs out, the game ends. I personally don’t believe the game is even winnable in a 5 player/4 monster set-up, as the amount of times monsters will activate and attack players/villagers is so high that you’d probably have people getting knocked out before their first turn even happened! In my experience, I’ve found the sweet-spot is usually 2-3 players and 2-3 monsters, and would generally suggest that the more players you have, the less monsters you actually use, and in general I found 3 monsters to be the most interesting and challenging.

Puttin’ on the Ritz

One thing that Horrified does so well is the flavor of the game. In fact, I think Horrified may actually be my favorite horror game, period, because of how thematic the entire product is. Although the gameplay is fairly simplistic, it doesn’t abstract the theme: you are a group of people trying to defeat monsters, and those monsters are coming for you and anyone in their way. Every mechanic makes sense in terms of the idea of the game, down to the types of items and their color-coding (weapons are generally red, and are used to break Dracula’s coffins, etc), but each monster’s unique play style also helps sell the game’s narrative.

Rather than just saying you wiped out a virus or beat some sort of enemy, you get to talk about how your last minute attempt to create the cure for the Wolf Man’s curse let your partner defeat him on their next turn, right before the game ended (Personally, I tend to find that my games of Horrified will resolve within 1-2 turns of the deck running out, and when I lose, it’s usually through decking). The minis for each monster are a nice touch, featuring just enough detail to make them charming while also revealing their somewhat budget level quality; that said, painted up, a surprising amount of detail becomes noticeable on the sculpts, and lend a lot of charm to the game. The game board is a mixture of blacks, blues, oranges and yellows, creating a dark but colorful map to move around on.

The stage is set from the moment you open the box. Credit;: kenjimurasme

The monster deck cards have great artwork on them as well, and it feels like Prospero Hall spent a lot of time representing classic moments and characters from the movies in the decks (Abbott and Costello even appear as villagers, reprising their roles of Wilbur and Chick from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, as a fun nod to the less serious side of Universal’s catalog). For all of their plastic miniatures and horrific art, I find no other horror game, Cthulhu or otherwise, leaves you nostalgic and giddy with theme as Horrified does, with even the game board greeting you with a classic movie scrawl promising thrills and chills.

The overall components are fairly nice, with thick chipboard pieces for character badges and items, and colorful, easy to read standees for Villagers, players, and things like the Frenzy and Terror icon. Perhaps the only aspect of the product that seems a little flimsy is the cardstock used for both decks; after my first introductory play, I immediately sleeved them, as it became clear they would probably not hold up to long, consistent play otherwise. The Monster sheets are a heavier weight paper, but are also a bit fragile, which makes them somewhat awkward to keep on the table due to their immense size; if anything, be sure your friends and family keep their drinks firmly on coasters and away from the monster sheets if you can! From an accessibility standpoint, the game tries to stick with specific color scheming and mitigates possible confusion from color-blindness this way, and print on Monster sheets is fairly big and easy to read, which I appreciated; even without vision impairments, it makes it far simpler to check a monster’s sheet from across the table when the text is black on white, rather than someone more colorful or small.

You’re in the House of Dracula Now

But is Horrified fun? And for who? That’s always a difficult question, because while people love to quantify “fun”, it isn’t a universal rubric. Do you like co-op games such as Pandemic? Then you will likely enjoy Horrified. But in my opinion, Horrified has a special place in a library for people who want a game to play for Halloween, that’s easy enough for anyone to pick up and play, with a theme that won’t make you worried if it’s age appropriate for kids or your parents. No, sorry, put that Elder Sign game away, no one wants to learn all those rules just to stare at some horrifying Eldritch monster and lose anyway. At least in Horrified, your losses always come with a fun, thematic story, and the game is quick enough to be played a few times in the span of most other games, meaning that even a loss during an introductory game can lead to a successful follow-up game without much issue.

Action Cards. Credit: kenjimurasame

For more seasoned gamers, Horrified may not have a lot of attraction factor if the theme doesn’t do anything for you. It is a fairly simple game, and has a lot of randomness to it; this can be both good and bad, as shuffling the monster deck means that you will generally have very different openings and narrative arcs to your games, but can also mean you sometimes just get a very bad hand. For example, one of my play sessions came to a screeching halt as the monster deck continually spat out 0 item cards, meaning that I was left dancing around the map trying to survive while waiting turn after turn for the items I needed to appear. Another game featured every single villager appearing back to back, which was a literal nightmare, and featured the comical sight of my heroes moving around the board towing 5 or more villagers behind them with every step, only to have the game end with a massacre as the Wolf Man’s special attack mowed down 6 people and skyrocketed the Terror track to it’s endpoint. Personally, I love this randomness, as it makes every game of Horrified different and flavorful, but I also understand that there’s a pretty wide contingent of gamers who dislike unmitigated randomness in games, so be warned that Horrified can sometimes come down to a bad pull of cards or an awkward dice roll.

Breaking the Curse

Horrified is a fairly rare game. It evokes a lot of the joy and theme that classic horror movies evoke, and does one of the best jobs of carrying it’s theme to the table with ease. While so many horror games get lost in their own rules and mechanics, Horrified simplifies things in a way that makes it a fun entryway game, or simply a great game to break out as the nights get longer, the air gets colder, and Halloween crests the horizon. But unlike a lot of seasonal items, Horrified is great year round. I find it an easy game to break out and play, either solo or co-op, and can get the game to the table, played, and put away in about an hour max. Horrified does exactly what it promises to without overstaying it’s welcome, and makes a great game to break out and play with people who aren’t into games, but might be into movies. Also, like most entry games, it’s fairly easy to teach, and doesn’t overstay it’s table welcome. While your mileage with quarterbacking may vary, put Thriller, Monster Mash, and the Munsters theme on repeat and get down to hunting some monsters!

[Editor’s Note: Should you decide to take that trip to Target to pick up Horrified, you would do well to consider any of the other Prospero Hall designed games. PH started as a design house that was contracted by Ravensburger, Funko, and a few other companies to design licensed games and almost every single one has been a home run. From Horrified to Jaws, Funkoverse! to the Trapper Keeper game, and even the Kenny G game of smooth saxophones, you can’t do wrong with their games.

 

 

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