Here’s a good one for folks out there looking for something new and engaging to play. You don’t need to be a board-game geek or master of strategy to have fun with this family game, nor do you need to worry about the fear factor for youngsters. This is what I like to think of as creaky horror: lumbering along, arms outstretched, eyes wide – but very much with a twinkle and a grin. Let’s take a closer look.
Horrified: Universal Monsters is a co-operative game for 1-5 players, from the classic puzzle/games company, Ravensburger. They describe it in the following way:
The village is under attack! Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, his Bride, and more are on the rampage, and your team of heroes must defeat them. Each monster offers an entirely unique challenge, and players can adjust the difficulty by playing against a new group of adversaries every game!
One of the things that brings me joy here, is the way in which this game evokes the tone and the feel of these classic horror movies through gameplay. As simple as that concept sounds, I think it deserves a little unpacking because it’s been so elegantly done.
Let’s look at the board for starters. Our setting is an old-fashioned settlement. Night has fallen. Our playing pieces are confined to the warmly-lit paths and archetypal location spaces, the majority of which radiate like spokes from a central wheel. Now, one might be tempted to think this layout a little pedestrian, but it’s perfect for maintaining the tension; every movement away from the centre could leave your Hero cornered—and as we know, there are Monsters on the loose. That’s Horror 101, built right into the structure.
The Monsters in question will of course be familiar to everybody; iconic villains all, who transcended their outsider status to become the true stars of their movies. In addition to those mentioned above, we find The Wolf Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man, each picked out in beautiful detail.
The way in which they attack players and villagers does feel a little perfunctory – automated by the turn of a card, resolved by the roll of dice – but the looming sense of ‘terror’ they instill comes very much from their relentlessness. They cannot be defeated (or even fought) in direct combat, you see. It is only through the completion of certain set Tasks, narratively appropriate to each Monster, that our Heroes can prevail. For this, players will need to work together, collecting crucial Items and reach certain Locations—all the while holding the Monsters at bay and keeping the Villagers safe.
To help keep track of your Task progress, there are Monster Mats lined up next to the board. These remind the players of the Items/Locations needed, the particular Power each villain can bring to bear, and how they can finally be Defeated. It’s down to your Team to break The Mummy’s curse, pin down The Invisible Man with evidence, shatter Dracula’s sanctuaries, cure The Wolf Man, drive The Creature away from the Black Lagoon, or bring Frankenstein’s patchwork monsters to peaceful co-existence.
Each player’s turn is split into 2 phases – Hero and Monster.
The Hero Phase lets you spend your Actions in any of the following ways: you can Move, Guide a villager, Pick Up items, Share items, Advance a Task, Defeat a Monster, or use your Special Action. You can also use any remaining Perk cards for free. These Perks are powerful single-use events that may just give you the edge.
The Monster Phase works by the turn of a card and the roll of dice. These cards (i) bring more Items onto the board – vital in completing your Tasks and thus winning the game – then (ii) they trigger Events – either bringing vulnerable Villagers onto the board or making a specific Monster act – and then finally (iii) they tell you which Monsters will Move and Attack.
Now, the Monsters will always move towards the nearest Person (be they Hero or Villager) and Attack if they manage to reach them. This is genius because it gets to the heart of the dramatic tension: you can’t just keep running away from the Monsters. Those Villagers remain passive, unable to defend themselves; they are entirely reliant on the Heroes to Guide them to safety. Manage to do so, and you will earn an extra Perk card.
If there’s a straight choice between Attacking a Hero or a Villager, the Monsters will always target the Hero. This gives you the ability to intercede, if you’re feeling brave or determined enough, by putting yourself in harm’s way. There are risks whichever choice you make: if a Monster manages to score a Hit on your Hero, you must discard an Item – think of it as being dropped in the struggle – which makes it harder to complete your Tasks. However, each time a Villager (or indeed a Hero) is Defeated, the ‘Terror level’ of the settlement creeps up. Should that ever reach 7, the game is automatically lost.
All you need to do is balance the dangers and opportunities to succeed. As with all co-operative games, it is possible for dominant players to take over a bit. Avoid doing so if you can. Win or lose, you’re in it together. It’s a better experience when everybody feels like they’ve played their part. Now, go have some fun!
Boiled down to the barest of bones, this is a race. Your Team are dodging around the board trying to collect Items to complete the Tasks and Defeat the Monsters. They, meanwhile, are trying to overwhelm you by making you drop your Items and by raising the Terror level.
It doesn’t push all of my gaming buttons, but I love it nevertheless. Every aspect of the gaming experience speaks to the love and affection held by the creators for the Universal Studios monsters. Our family has played it six times now, narrowly winning four times and being trounced twice. You can tweak the difficulty level by changing the number of Monsters that you face, and it would be very easy to think of a few house-rules to up the ante if necessary. The components are well-made and attractive, the gameplay is simple yet retains a sense of variety (thanks to the unique Monster Tasks), and there’s a real sense of playground fun to be had—tearing around the board and shrieking as the Monsters ‘come to get you’.
I’d give it a solid 4/5.
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