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The box art for Psycho Raiders shows classic horror imagery

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Three board games that let you live out campfire ghost stories

Get your summer camp fix in a different sort of way

Photo: Charles Theel for Polygon

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Under the dark void of the night sky with flames licking our shadows, we share tales occupying the thin border between terror and glee. Little compares to the disturbing tradition of the campfire ghost story. Film, art, and music have all captured this ritual with their own unique flair. Yet board games do so by offering shared narrative experiences that revel in dread. These tabletop designs connect you physically to their horrific settings by providing tactile conduits to the carnage that’s about to ensue.

Nyctophobia

Nyctophobia from Pandasaurus Games is one of the most bizarre tabletop games ever crafted. This survival experience has up to four players working together to escape a dark forest while pursued by a bloodthirsty murderer. The horrific twist is that the players being hunted must wear sunglasses with opaque lenses, blocking their vision. This simulates their characters wandering in the dark, unable to find their way. Participants must feel their way around the labyrinthine forest, relying on tactile sensation to perform actions on their turn and attempt to find their lost car.

Meanwhile, the hunter runs the game, immersing themself into the role of a psychopath by whispering in players’ ears and supporting the thick haze of confusion blanketing the table. They’re responsible for moving their own piece, inching closer to the survivors and attempting to corner them in the maze.

The result is a tabletop experience that is wholly unique. It occupies a space between traditional board games and grim performance art. It presents an encounter no one will soon forget, even if it can be uncomfortable and at times clunky due to the nature of keeping your vision limited and accidentally stumbling into pieces when feeling your way around the board. It’s also a very exhausting affair for those being hunted, as it’s difficult to operate under such severe tension for 45 minutes. This relegates the game to a once-a-year spectacle that promises to leave its mark on those who attempt it.

Psycho Raiders

Psycho Raiders is a horror simulation experience. That means it eschews a traditional sense of balance for a lopsided asymmetric confrontation. The setup is familiar. It’s 1978, and four friends find themselves all alone on a quiet road in the middle of nowhere. Then hell erupts as a black van comes careening over the hill. The game begins mid-chase, prey fighting for their lives as the predator comes barreling through the brush.

As a board game, the mechanics are heavily rooted in the format of old-school hex and counter wargames. It’s a grueling simulative affair, heavily devoted to random chance as you reference charts for weather, events, and brutal conflict. Those playing the teens have little chance, relying on simple hiding mechanics and feeble counterattacks as they try to reach the far edge of the map. The raiders, on the other hand, feel overpowered and sinister, able to tear their victims apart with various implements, if they can catch them.

Everything is low-fi, the game itself coming bundled in a magazine format and requiring you to cut out the cards by hand. But there’s a malevolent indie feel, and you half-expect some official to come busting through the door to confiscate the material.

This zine design was produced by esoteric publishing outfit the Emperors of Eternal Evil. It’s released a number of oddball titles featuring underground heavy metal motifs, but Psycho Raiders was the debut title in its horror folio line. This remains a very strong and singular tabletop game, and one worth coming back to as a terrifying experience.

Fury of Dracula

Fury of Dracula is the most mainstream and established horror title on this list. This is one of the most prolific hidden-movement board games, in which one participant takes on the role of Dracula as they sneak about Europe and attempt to avoid a group of hunters. The rest of the table tries to pin the undead terror, slowly piecing together his trail and ultimately cornering him.

This can be a very thoughtful experience. Dracula moves around using cards, keeping their location hidden from the rest of the group. They lays traps in their wake, such as ferocious wolves or fledgling vampires. The hunters snuff out these lesser threats before ultimately gathering supplies and preparing themselves for the final battle.

It’s an enveloping experience full of tension as the pursuit nears its conclusion. The setting and themes explored are evocative and rich due to the exceptional hidden movement system transferring the desperation of the hunt directly to the players. It’s remarkable how accurately it captures the emotion of the cat-and-mouse chase of Bram Stoker’s classic tale.

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