Mutant-Approved Geek Games VI: Monster Mash

Halloween is nearly upon us. So as those ungrateful punks egg and TP your house because you gave out Pixie Stix and those orange-wrapped taffy chew things that taste vaguely of peanut butter and hair, why not bring out some tabletop games that are in the spirit of the holiday?


You know what says Halloween? The Universal Classic Monsters, that’s what. It’s thanks to them that vampires, werewolves, mummies, and mad science-created abominations are staples of October 31. And through the power of merchandising, you and your gaming buddies get to take on these cultural icons in Horrified.

A village in the neverwhere pocket dimension in which the UCM movies take place finds itself in one of the crossover installments, as two to four (depending on how masochistic your gaming group is feeling) of the UCMs are wreaking havoc. It’s up to a gathering of indomitable heroes to oppose the depravations of these infamous scoundrels, as well as making sure that not too many of the locals meet untimely ends.

As you might gather, the object is to defeat the monsters rampaging though the village. But doing so isn’t as simple as walking up to one and shooting it in the face. First off, the monsters start off effectively invincible until a series of Advance actions unique to each monster are performed. Only then can the monster’s specified Defeat action be performed. This must be concluded before the Terror Level gets too high, or the Monster deck runs out.

Gameplay consists of a series of player turns. Each turn is divided into two phases. During the Hero Phase, the active player may perform a number of actions equal to the amount listed on that player’s Hero badge. Possible actions include moving your Hero and any Villagers in your location to an adjacent location, collecting any number of Item tokens in your current location, trading any number of Item tokens with another Hero in your location, moving a Villager in an adjacent location to your location or vice versa, perform the Special Action listed on your Hero badge, or perform an Advance or Defeat action assuming you can meet the conditions (which will partially involve discarding Item tokens).

This is followed by the Monster Phase, where the top card of the Monster deck is drawn and resolved. First the indicated number of Item tokens are randomly drawn and placed on the named spaces. Then the card’s Event is resolved. If the Event is linked to a monster who isn’t in play, then nothing happens. Events can also add Villagers to the board. Finally, any monsters with their icon printed on the bottom of the card get to Strike. This involves moving the monster the indicated number of spaces to the closest Hero or Villager and, if that space is reached, making an Attack with the listed number of dice. While it’s possible that none of the monsters get to act, beware the Frenzy icon. Throughout the game, one of the monsters will possess the Frenzy token. This allows that monster to Strike when the Frenzy icon appears on the Monster card. If accompanied by the monster’s unique icon, then the monster is allowed to strike twice in the turn.

When a monster Attacks, each Power icon rolled has the monster’s listed ability resolved, while rolling at least one Hit icon results in a Hero or Villager being Defeated, with Heroes being targeted first. Being made of sterner stuff, a Hero can negate a Hit by discarding Item tokens equal to the number of Hit icons rolled. When Defeated, the Hero or Villager marker is removed from the board and the Terror Level is increased by one. A Defeated Hero does not return to the board until the start of the player’s next turn, when the marker is placed on the Hospital space.

It might be tempting to leave the Villagers to their fate. After all, isn’t their purpose to die horribly to establish the threat of the monsters? This is both unheroic and shortsighted. First off, there’s the issue of the Terror Level, which can result in an automatic game loss if it gets too high. But there is a benefit to protecting these hapless chumps besides the warm fuzzy feeling you get from doing the right thing. Each Villager has a location where they should be escorted. Once the Villager reaches that location, the corresponding marker is removed from the board and the player who escorted the Villager draws a Perk card. Perks provide a one-use ability which have the added benefit in that they don’t require an action to use, and it doesn’t even have to be on the possessing player’s turn.

This game is very much in the Ameritrash tradition of tabletop gaming, with its strong theme and high degree of randomness. There’s also a vast collection of fan-made materials out there, such as Monster mats for The Blob and the giant ants of Them, as well as a Hero badge for the Abbott and Costello characters from their forays in the UCM movies.

A Touch of Evil: Dark Gothic

Perhaps you want something more Hammer Horror. With its use of photographs in the game art, Flying Frog’s A Touch of Evil does a good job of emulating the look of that studio’s trademark Gothic horror films, particularly Captain Kronos. But perhaps you don’t care for gameplay that amounts to a less railroaded Talisman. Fortunately, a deckbuilding variant called Dark Gothic was released to provide a different experience with the same theme.

As in the original A Touch of Evil, the post-American Revolution town of Shadowbrook is under siege by unnatural forces. While your band of stalwart heroes will confront these things that go bump in the night, gearing up and recruiting allies to thwart the villainous villains directing these forces, it doesn’t mean there’s no room for one-upping each other to show who is the most awesome monster hunter.

Unlike many deckbuilders, players do not start with identical decks. Instead, everyone selects or randomly draws a Hero card. These list which cards and in which amounts go into your starting deck, with an overall total of twelve cards. The Hero card also features a special ability usable throughout the game.

In the case of Dark Gothic, there are three different color-based currencies for purchasing new cards, representing Combat (red), Cunning (green), and Spirit (blue). Starting cards provide one point each of one of these. Aside from a couple of the more scoundrel-like Heroes, most will also start with an Honor card in their deck. This provides one point in the Wild currency (silver) that can substitute for any other currency and allows the player to immediately draw and add an additional card to the hand. While additional Honor cards can be gained, like real honor they must be earned not bought.

Dark Gothic features both a fixed market and a random market of cards to purchase. The fixed market consists of three faceup stacks of what are essentially more powerful versions of the starting cards, offering two points of their respective currencies instead of one. These are inexpensive and are a good way to beef up your deck early on. The random market (known as the Center Line) consists of six cards drawn from the main deck. Every time a Center Line card is purchased, a new one is drawn from the main deck and added in its place.

A player’s turn consists of playing cards from the hand and using the currencies generated to purchase cards from the fixed market and/or the Center Line. All purchased cards go to your discard pile. Some cards will provide an additional benefit when played. One of the more useful effects is to destroy cards in your hand or discard pile. A destroyed card goes to the Crypt (a sort of communal discard pile that puts the cards in question out of the game) and is an excellent way of culling weak starting cards out of your deck so more powerful ones can appear with greater frequency. Once you’ve played all the cards you can, your entire hand is discarded, regardless of whether all the cards were played. Then a fresh hand of (in most cases) six cards is drawn. Should the deck run out when you need to draw cards, you shuffle your discards to form a new deck.

Cards in the Center Line don’t always just sit there, with many inflicting detrimental effects as well. These can occur when the card is dealt into the Center Line, as long as it remains in the Center Line, or when it gets purchased. Two of the more common effects result in Dark Secrets and cards going to the Shadows. With a Dark Secret result, the targeted player(s) must add a Dark Secret card to their respective discards. If the active player has a Dark Secret in hand at the beginning of the turn, it gets destroyed and a card from the Shocking Revelation deck is drawn and resolved. Meanwhile, if the number of cards in the Shadows ever accumulates to ten, the game ends with everyone losing as Shadowbrook is overwhelmed by dark forces. However, barring an unlucky shuffle, this isn’t likely to happen. To increase the threat, it’s advisable to obtain a couple of the expansions which feature Roaming Monster cards. These go into the Shadows 1-6 turns after being dealt into the Center Line depending on their starting position. This also allows for a degree of player agency on whether a card ends up in the Shadows.

Now you might be wondering what purpose building up your deck serves. At the start of the game, three Villain cards (each from a different tier of difficulty) are randomly drawn and stacked together from weakest to strongest. Villains are defeated by purchasing them like any other card. However, they are more expensive than other cards and are set aside rather than added to the purchasing player’s deck (and anyway they’re a different size). The game ends once all three Villains are defeated, assuming ten cards didn’t go to the Shadows before then. Victory goes to the player whose deck has the most Investigation points, which are indicated in the bottom right corner of the card. Most will have a value of 0-4, with a few (most notably the Dark Secret cards) having a negative value. Villain cards also provide a considerable amount of Investigation points.

Dark Gothic was something of a victim of poor timing, as it came out when Flying Frog was running their Kickstarter for Shadows of Brimstone, and therefore got virtually no promotion. And perhaps it doesn’t have quite the same visual impact as the original A Touch of Evil board game. However, the lower degree of randomness can be appealing to those who are discomforted with constantly being at the mercy of Lady Luck.


  • $54.99 for 2-7 Players (though at least four is strongly advised)
  • Ages 10+
  • Designed by Oleksandr Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko
  • Published by Libellud

Since the dead are supposed to be roaming the Earth the most freely on Halloween, it’s the perfect time for a seance. But ouija boards are lame, and someone is guaranteed to be a dickweed who will screw around to ruin the fun for everyone else. So head off those sorts of incentives by breaking out a copy of Mysterium, where it’s up front that one of the participants is the ghost.

The setting for the game is an abandoned Scottish manor where, thirty years prior, a mysterious death occurred. Though there were rumors of murder, the police investigation went nowhere, and the death was ultimately ruled an accident. In the present day, a collection of psychic sensitives have gathered at the manor on Halloween night in hopes of contacting the ghost of the victim. However, the dead are rarely capable of talking and this one is no different. His method of communication comes through projecting psychic images and it’s up to these mediums both rare and well done to interpret these visions and figure out what they mean. Sure, it won’t be admissible in court, but the ghost will be able to rest once someone is aware of what really happened. But they only have a limited amount of time to figure it out before Halloween is over and the barrier between the material and spirit realms gets reinforced.

At the start of the game, the medium players deal out a number of suspect, location, and weapon cards based on the number of players and the chosen difficulty level and spread them out in their designated locations. The ghost player then takes matching smaller versions of these cards and shuffles them in three separate decks. The ghost player randomly draws and inserts the cards in the marked pockets on the back of the game screen which correspond to each medium player, with unused cards being returned unseen to the box.

The game is divided into two phases. The first phase is the reconstruction of events, which will take place over a maximum of seven rounds. Each round is divided into two steps. During the first step, the ghost player offers the mediums visions of the suspects, locations, and weapons assigned to them on the back of the screen. This involves selecting one or more vision cards (each of which features an illustration of some sort) from a hand of seven which the ghost player believes should indicate the correct choice, hand them faceup to the medium player, then drawing back up to seven. Vision cards can be handed out in any order desired. If none of the vision cards in hand are suitable, the ghost player can take a mulligan. However, there’s a limited number of these based on the game difficulty selected, so should only be used if the situation is truly dire.

When a medium player has been provided with vision cards, the player must interpret which suspect/location/weapon card is being indicated and place their intuition marker on that card. Nothing prohibits two players from placing their markers on the same card, though obviously at least one of them will be wrong. Players can also assign clairvoyancy markers to indicate that they think another player’s guess is either right or wrong. Once everyone has vision cards, the ghost player flips over a two-minute sand timer.

The second step begins once the timer runs out. The ghost player indicates which players were correct or incorrect in their interpretations. Correct players take the card they guessed and collect it in their corresponding card sleeve. They then discard their current set of vision cards and move their intuition markers to the next set of cards. Incorrect players don’t gain squat, though they do get to keep their vision cards in hopes that additions to their vision will clarify. As for the clairvoyance markers, these aren’t solely to provide players who correctly guessed that another player’s interpretation was wrong with an opportunity to belt out their best Nelson Muntz laugh. For each clairvoyancy token which matches whether the result of the player’s interpretation was correct or not, the player who assigned it gets to move their marker one space along the clairvoyancy track (which will be important during the second phase).

Once a player determines their assigned suspect, location, and weapon, that player moves their marker on the clairvoyancy track one space for each unplayed round up to that point. Such players may still assign clairvoyancy markers to the interpretations of others should they desire. Once all players determine their set of cards, the second phase begins. However, if even one player has failed to correctly determine their set of cards by the end of the seventh round, the game is lost.

The second phase is divided into three steps. First the players take the cards from their respective sleeves and spread them out, each in their own line-up and assigned a number. The ghost player secretly chooses which set is the correct one, placing a marker with the correct number facedown so that there’s no fudging, and plays three vision cards facedown. One card is meant to match the suspect, one the location, and one the weapon. The ghost player then flips over the vision cards one at a time. Players must vote on which set they believe is correct after a certain number of vision cards are revealed based on how far along their markers are along the clairvoyance track. This is done by placing a voting token with the corresponding number facedown. The line-up which has a plurality of votes becomes the chosen suspect. If there’s a tie, it gets broken by the side that has the highest total along the clairvoyancy track. If the line-up chosen by the plurality matches the one the ghost player chose, the players win.

This is definitely not a game for everybody. If by chance you can’t stand Dixit, then you’ll probably want to pass on this one. Otherwise, the game mechanic of drawing out meaning from an image is a perfect fit for the game’s theme.

Mansions of Madness: Second Edition

Of course, the ultimate Halloween-themed activity is exploring a creepy old house. However, Al has already covered Betrayal at House on the Hill. But there’s a similar game in Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Files series. Because, like any horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft knew the value of a creepy old house as a setting. Even if those stories weren’t among his better efforts (as an example, The Lurking Fear is at best a guilty pleasure).

While the first edition of Mansions of Madness (released in 2011) was a serviceable board game as a role-playing game session, it had its issues. First and foremost was the laborious set-up process. One player was assigned the role of Keeper and was responsible for determining which scenario variants would be used as well as seeding the clue cards in the appropriate locations. If so much as one card got misplaced, the scenario would become unsolvable.

Then there were the puzzles. One of the banes of traditional RPGs is how to feature puzzles. Traditionally, one player will state that his character’s high Intelligence score allows for automatically solving the puzzle, while the GM insists that this be roleplayed. Meanwhile, the puzzle fiend player with the dull-witted barbarian character refuses to help because it would be out of character. Harsh words are exchanged, dice and pencils are shoved up inappropriate places, and Game Night ends in tears. First Edition featured tile puzzles where you get a number of moves per action equal to the character’s Intellect. So while the player is responsible for solving the puzzle, character stats matter. However, puzzle set-up was random, making the overall difficulty a bit too variable from game to game.

Five years later, the Second Edition was able to address these concerns thanks to the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices. All the tedious aspects of First Edition are now handled by a downloadable app. The app also allows for on the fly assembly of the board in the manner of Betrayal at House on the Hill as well as NPCs that can be interacted with. Mind you, the latter are limited to Choose Your Own Adventure-style options, but it’s still an improvement.

After picking a scenario in the app, a prologue setting up the scenario is read out and players receive Clue tokens and starting items, the latter of which they distribute among themselves as they see fit. The players are then instructed on which room tile to place in the play area and which tokens (used to represent things like closed doors, NPCs, and other assorted features) to add on and where to place them. The game is then ready to start.

The game is played over a series of rounds divided into two phases. During the Investigator Phase, each player will perform up to two actions. Players may act in any order they choose, but a player must use all actions before the next player gets to go. Possible actions are moving up to two spaces (though the player can move one space, perform another action, and move one more space), trade any number of items and spells with another player in your space, use an item or spell with the Action keyword, attack a monster, or interact with a feature marked with a token on the board by tapping the matching icon in the app and following the prompts. Many of these actions require the player to make a skill test. The player rolls a number of dice indicated on the Investigator sheet. Each die showing an Elder Sign is considered a success, while any showing a magnifying glass will count as a success if you spend a Clue token on it. While the number of successes needed to pass a skill test can vary, the most common is two.

Once all players have performed their actions, the End Phase button in the app is tapped and the Mythos Phase begins. Usually, it opens with one or more players being subjected to a mishap. These will result in suffering physical or mental trauma or taking on a debilitating Condition. Fortunately, these can often be negated by performing a skill test. If there are no monsters on the board, the Mythos Phase ends. Otherwise, the app indicates how many spaces each monster gets to move towards the nearest investigator. If a monster ends its movement in a space with an investigator, it attacks. The monster is selected in the app, which provides some flavor text and a skill test to partially or fully avoid the effects of the attack. If and when monster attacks are resolved, any investigators that are in range (that is three spaces or closer with a line of sight) of a monster must make a horror check. If there’s more than one monster in range, the horror check will be against the one with the highest horror rating. To do so, select the monster in the app and a description of the effects (and what skill check can be used to potentially negate it) is given. Once horror checks are concluded, the Mythos Phase ends.

As you might hope, investigators get to dish out hurting as well as take it. If the investigator possesses a firearm or ranged attack spell, then monsters can be attacked at range as described in the previous paragraph. Otherwise, the investigator must be in the same space. After selecting the target monster in the app, the weapon type is chosen, and some flavor text and a skill test are provided. Damage is applied based on the dice result and the descriptive text, which is entered in the app. Once the monster’s damage limit is reached, it gets removed from play.

Trauma is handled a bit differently for investigators. Anytime an investigator’s body or psyche takes a beating, the indicated number of damage or horror cards are dealt out to the player. The instructions will also indicate if the cards are dealt faceup or facedown. Faceup cards have their effects applied and are turned facedown unless it’s a continuous effect. Throughout the game, there’s the constant risk of being instructed to flip over a randomly selected facedown card and applying the effects. Once a player accumulates damage or horror cards equal to or exceeding the investigator’s Health or Sanity respectively, all of those cards are discarded, and the player takes a Wounded or Insane Condition as appropriate. A Wounded investigator cannot use more than one Move action per phase, making it harder to run away from monsters while screaming in terror. Meanwhile, Insane investigators will have instructions on the back of the Condition card describing the insanity which may require the investigator to act in a manner that is detrimental to the other investigators. If a Wounded or Insane investigators accumulates damage or horror cards respectively in excess of the associated attribute, that investigator is eliminated from play. At that point, the other investigators have until the end of the next Investigator Phase to win the scenario or automatically lose.

Throughout the game, it is often necessary to solve a puzzle presented in the app to advance the scenario. For each action expended to solve a puzzle, the player gets a number of moves equal to one of the investigator’s skills. The skill used will depend on the story trappings of the puzzle. Clue tokens can also be spent to provide additional moves, which can come in handy if you’re just one move away from solving it. If the puzzle isn’t solved by the end of an action, the progress is saved for the next player who takes a crack at it. Puzzles come in three types. Slide puzzles involve a series of tiles where you swap two adjacent tiles per move until they form the correct pattern. Code puzzles involve making guesses on a series of numbers or colored runes. If a guess isn’t fully correct, the app will inform how many of the numbers or runes are correct and how many are in the correct position in the sequence as well. Lock puzzles involves a collection of rectangles that can be moved either up and down or sideways. The object is to maneuver these rectangles until one of them is inserted into the indicated slot.

At the start of the game, victory conditions will be unknown. As investigators examine their surroundings, explore the house, and interact with NPCs, details will be revealed as to what must be done. But there’s a limited amount of time to accomplish this before matters go pear-shaped, so try not to dawdle.

In conclusion, let me regale you with a story of a time when I was Keeper for the First Edition of the game. The two players were using hardnosed, two-fisted private eye Joe Diamond and shy, timid scientist lady Kate Winthrop as their investigators. Early on, Joe encounters a couple of Cultists and is ignominiously clobbered, which provokes some derisive laughter from Kate’s player. Joe’s player asks if Kate’s player thinks Kate could do any better and offers to give Joe’s Twin .45s to her. Seeing a disaster in the making, I ask, “Are you sure about that?” Proving that the Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip is based in reality, they both reply in the affirmative. The next Event card drawn results in a Hound of Tindalos manifesting, so it looks like they’ll quickly learn the folly of giving a gun to an investigator with such a terrible Marksmanship attribute. A Combat card is drawn to determine which attribute gets used for the attack and it’s… Intellect?!?!? That’s right, Kate got to use her highest attribute for her first attack and splattered that pooch. What’s more, she continued to perform spectacularly in combat through the rest of the scenario. Kate’s player posited that, due to her shy and timid nature, Kate was regularly bullied at work. This in turn resulted in a lot of pent-up rage, which was now bursting out as she went into Final Girl Mode.

Needless to say, they won.

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