Don’t Look Back: A Very Special Halloween Review

Happy Halloween everyone! Horror and spooky times are hard to emulate on the tabletop, but Black Site Studios answers with Don’t Look Back, their love letter to classic horror features from the 80’s and 90’s. Let’s open up this puzzle box and see if any chains fly out.

“We Have Such Sights To Show You.”

The official Killer model. Credit: Black Site Studios.

If you’re a gamer who appreciates atmosphere and a hefty dose of storytelling, Don’t Look Back might be right up your alley. The core box contains everything you need to start playing out horror scenarios, all comfortably wrapped in the clichés of the genre. When I mean everything, DLB is a co-op game, and supports up to 4 players. I’ll get back to how this straddles the line between miniature and board game in a bit. Let’s look at the components first.

Contents of the core box. Credit: Jackie Daytona

I don’t really do unboxings as I firmly believe cardboard is to be put in the recycling bin where it belongs, so you won’t get a review of a cardboard box within another box, filled with plastic baggies and those foam peanuts that look weirdly appetizing. That said the box is nice and functional sporting creepy scenery and a nice throwback to the backs of those VHS tapes you were too young or scared to rent (I think I’m showing my age here). The expansions however, actually do come packaged in a VHS case, complete with worn down insert and are presented as cheapo horror flicks from the 80’s. BSS chooses full-on nostalgia for this game and I’m here for it.

Models from the core box. Credit: jackie Daytona

“Nobody Trusts Anybody Now, And We’re All Very Tired.”

The minis are resin and look great. The sculpts are nice and natural, no heroic proportions except for some of the monsters you’ll be escaping. There’s hardly a mold line to be seen and they’re all packaged with appropriate bases. Except for the killer miniature in the base box every miniature is a single sculpt and it’s a simple case of removing the gates and sticking them to a base. The killer is a bit more fiddly, but can be customized! Choose your implement of death and scary visage, and if you’re a real pervert, you can try and magnetize the different bits. I’m joined by fellow contributor Muggins today, who also got some sleepless nights after watching a scary movie he wasn’t allowed to watch.

Mugginns (Michael O): I love the minis here. They’re all tropes from 80s/90s slasher movies – the cheerleader, the jock, the nerd, the rich girl, the school tough guy, and the adult park ranger who finds herself helping them out! They’re great clean sculpts like Jackie said and the only issue I had was a little bit of warping on Holden’s shotgun. I really like the killer model and all the options – he does look pretty terrifying with the mask I chose. One thing to note is that the minis are 35mm, so they might not fit other minis you have, but for me that’s not a big deal. They work with all the terrain I have.

Apart from this you’ll get a rulebook, tokens from sturdy cardboard that look like they’ll hold up for many a game, a range ruler and cards for both your survivors and killers. A neat thing; BSS includes special trading cards from their team in every box so you can collect and probably sell their soul or something. I got a nice toaster for Jonathan’s eternal damnation for example. All in all, components are very much ok and I will give them a score of 100 bloody skulls for this.

We really like the look of these. Credit: Jackie Daytona

Mugginns (Michael O): I like the tokens a ton. I wish there were more than two light tokens but I can deal with it, and BSS sells more and a few come in the villain packs. The character cards are a nice touch – I laminated mine so we can write on them with wet-erase markers, that worked really well. I love the range ruler. It’s got a horror theme to it, kinda looking like a bloody knife.

“There’ll be food and drink and ghosts…and perhaps even a few murders. You’re all invited.”

The board I used for our first scenario. Credit: Mugginns

What you’ll need to play

We all know how a nice package can set us up for the jump scare of crappy rules and gnashing of teeth, but BSS actually succeeded in giving tension a front row seat in this flick. The game gives you plenty of opportunity to make it your own thing. One of the most fun things it offers is making up your killer! When choosing a scenario you can either draw a random killer from different MO’s and cards, or go wild and bring those movie monsters to life. So if you want to escape from creepy children with long hair who live down a well, you can do that! Cenobites? Go hog wild! If you check out the Facebook group there’s someone who made a dang ole critter ball, which is awesome. For this kind of originality I will award 5 vampire bats.

The kids leave their camp to try to go flag down a car at the road. Credit: Mugginns

Mugginns (Michael O): the starter box comes with all the dice you need to play the game, a range ruler, and tokens. I would suggest an extra tape measure for measuring longer distances.  

“We all go a little mad sometimes.” 

Every game starts by choosing a scenario. The playing surface of 3×3 is divided into 4 quadrants, and fright tokens, points of interest or other scenario necessities are placed. This is also where you have to get the vibe right. It is possible to play this under the sterile glare of neon with 2d terrain and paper cut outs. Will it be fun? Yes, but it won’t do it justice. You’ll be needing  a bunch of scenery, and most scenarios can be adjusted to things you have in your collection. This is also where the game shines; there are 5 scenarios provided, which get a particular inspiration like “investigate and banish”, giving you a sandbox to tweak the table to your own preference. After setting up the table and probably putting Monster Mash on repeat, you start off with the Fright Phase.

Mugginns (Michael O): I would suggest a bunch of trees with area terrain bases, one or two houses, some outbuildings, fences, walls, etc. A campsite with tents and all that works great too. Each scenario has a suggestion for what to use. If you’ve played modern or zombie stuff you should have enough. If you don’t have any modern buildings Black Site Studio sells the best pre-painted ones on the market, IMO.

In this phase, you check your character’s terror level. Turns out that being stalked by a monster is pretty stressful and can cause you to wig out, so you need to see if your character isn’t succumbing to gut wrenching fright and is carried off by the big bad. It’s not just physical damage that gets you in this game, but also the accumulating terror points you carry around. Some killers give extra terror when attacking, some don’t, but hit harder.

I mentioned fright tokens as well. At the start of the scenario you place a couple of these on the board, and this is the moment they spring into action. You roll off for every token in play, and if you roll badly (or well actually) the killer jumps out! Fright tokens drive the tension in the game. They follow you around like the creepy noises in the attic when you’re not sure if you locked the back door or not. Every one of them is a potential entry point for the killer, and every turn the difficulty of the roll to conjure the killer goes down. Best to start moving because:

The killer phase has arrived!

Mugginns (Michael O): I like the abstract nature of how the killer moves around the board, and the abstract nature of the fright tokens. You can’t predict where the killer is going to show up or when, just like in a movie. The abstractness again of the jump scares is a good addition, because we all know in the movies people will hear a creak or a knock or a bird flies in and scares everyone and it adds to the tension.

“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.”

A killer earns a jump scare here Credit: Jackie Daytona

If you think that just because it’s a coop and you’re playing cliché’s you are the protagonist in this game, you’re wrong. The killer goes first and you should cheer when he takes the annoying nerd down. Every scenario has a suggested killer, combining an MO card and two Trait cards, which drives how it moves, any special actions it gets or what it does when being driven off. The whole deal with your monster is that you can’t kill it, and it’ll stalk you through the game, only pausing when you incapacitated it or it has taken a fresh victim. Only after the Killer has sated its bloodlust will the hapless victims get a chance to do stuff. In game terms this means that the Killer won’t follow you around like a puppy dog, but will pop up in places and seem very fast or able to teleport. This perfectly vibes with your favorite movies where a plodding monstrosity can just appear behind you.

“Send more cops”

Lastly you’ll activate your characters, who can each take two actions in their turn. Actions are divvied up in short or long, and there’s a bunch to choose from. There are a couple of tweaks from your usual fight-move-rest though. If you move twice there’s a chance you’ll trip. Accumulate fright tokens and every test you take (roll under a stat with a D20) will get harder, while giving the Killer an advantage. This game is perfectly playable solo, but you’ll probably be controlling at least three characters or you’ll end up on a hook in a basement. The different protagonists are gleefully borrowed from available tropes. You’ve got a jock, a cheerleader, a nerd, an entire expansion box of “final girls” which considerably ups the diversity, and you can even call up supporting characters like cops or a janitor cleaning after hours to distract the Killer (they’ll go after them with alacrity) so you can survive an extra turn.

Mugginns (Michael O): I love the tropes that they very intentionally put in this game. My kids (7yo and 10yo) haven’t seen a slasher movie but I could explain why there is a trip check – you’re running fast and you trip because, well it makes the movie better! My 7yo daughter who isn’t so much into scary stuff didn’t really have a problem. I love the trope of the supporting character showing up to just immediately get stabbed by Michael Myers (they become the target of the killer automatically!).

Getting rid of a demon is tricky and best left to professionals Credit: Jackie Daytona

 “It’s Halloween; I guess everyone’s entitled to one good scare.”

In a game this all plays out rather narratively. This game is not balanced or tightly written enough to give you a black/white rules experience, but frankly this is not the point. It’s about creating an atmosphere, and using the engine to drive you through a story as it unfolds. It’s easy to cheese your way out of some scenarios, so you have to get in the mindset to tell the story. This may deter some players, but that’s fine as we’re dealing with a niche within a niche. This is a Halloween game, something you’ll bust out after a tournament to just sit back, relax and have fun. I’ve played both solo and coop and I haven’t had a moment where I thought it was dull (cardinal sin #1)  or there didn’t come up some situations that were plucked out of a movie.

Mugginns (Michael O): I totally agree here. This is a great game to get your non-wargaming friends into because it’s a theme that a lot of people love, and the theme is hugely involved. You can also tailor it a ton with different terrain, killers, or characters.

Break out the minis box and make your own! Credit: Jackie Daytona

“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

In conclusion, this game won’t thank the academy, but it won’t end up in the bargain bin either. It’s Tremors rather than Troll 2, and the production value is up there with The Conjuring. I would recommend it, but there are some snags I have to address. Getting your hands on the game is not easy if you’re not living in the US, and there are some UK/EU shops that distribute it, but for the scenery you’re looking at hefty shipping costs. I haven’t been able to use or review  their stunning looking scenery sets and pre painted MDF, as it’s simply too costly to get it shipped. So you’ll have to source locally to pretty up your table. If you have a 3D printer you can get some of their STL’s for models or scenery, so be thankful we’re not living in the age of VHS tapes anymore (I’m going to ignore twitter and most of social media).

Mugginns (Michael O): I live in the US of A so I haven’t had an issue with this, to be honest. I ordered stuff and it came to my house within a week at a modest shipping cost. I totally understand the issue with rest-of-world shipping though. Unfortunately with how logistics are and Brexit I’ve had to deal with it with some other games.

Jackie: I actually forced a friend of mine to bring back some stuff when he went over to visit his family, and he was impressed with the speed of delivery and annoyed he had to leave some clothes and underwear behind to fit it all in his backpack. 

The second thing you’ll have to come to grips with is that the rulebook is edited rather terribly. You’ll be flipping back and forth in your first game and some things are in desperate need of a FAQ or V2.0. On the upside, you probably won’t be referring much to the manual after a game or two, and there’s an active community that is friendly and open to help you along so you won’t get lost in the darkness of the woods.

Mugginns (Michael O): I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt – it’s their first foray into rules and it’s a short ruleset. I do find myself flipping about a bit, especially with definitions of stuff (like Points of Interest, it just seems that they’re a scenario thing – like where support characters pop up). By the end of the first game we had it down pretty well. 

Jackie: fair and it’s certainly not a dealbreaker. We didn’t have any problems after the first game either. 

Mugginns (Michael O):I really like how they make it so you can up the difficulty if you want, by adding new rules layers into it. The biggest thing to me is that it does feel 100% like you’re playing in a slasher movie – all the tropes and details are there.

If you’re worried about the game being unsupported, do be assured that there are plenty of things for you to buy. Between heroes and killers there are 13 expansions you can pick up and four ways to get more rules between new weapons and campaign rules, and BSS continues to release new stuff.

“You play a good game boy, but the game is finished, now you die.”

So there you have it folks, if you like your horror bloody, your games free flowing and your resin crisp, pick this up!

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