Working my way through the recent catalog of design collective Prospero Hall — including the rather good Jaws and How to Rob a Bank — I’ve been struck by just how different each title is from its peers. Until Horrified. In this one, the spin is that each play features two or three of the game’s six unique monsters, resulting in dozens of possible combinations and interactions. You know, much like last year’s Villainous.
Except when you get right down to it, Horrified is its own beast. For one thing, it’s a cooperative game. For another… well, let’s talk.
Welcome to the world’s unluckiest town. Most places go entire decades without being terrorized by even one monster, but your sleepy village has attracted an entire clutch of the things. Including, possibly, a literal Thing from the Black Lagoon. Those odds are so long that they’re the rough equivalent of winning the poop lottery.
Fortunately, warding off these horrors isn’t a big deal, even though each one comes with its own sheet of doodads. Don’t let that intimidate you. Each monster is limited to a couple of unique rules, max. Oh, and their own cards. But they’re all shuffled together into the same deck, regardless of which monsters have wandered into town this week. You don’t even need to swap anything out. That single deck is enough to handle anything and everything.
This is both the best thing about Horrified and its single glowing asterisk. Horrified is dead simple to play. Toss it on the table, slap down a couple of monsters and heroes, pull twelve items from the bag and slot them into their random locations, and there you go. The rules take about two minutes to teach. You’ll be waltzing around town, gathering canopic jars and kites and rifles in no time.
So what’s the problem? To put it bluntly, Horrified is dead simple to play. Yes, that was a deliberate redundancy.
In general, a turn goes like this. Your character moves somewhere — there are few actions more unexciting or more ubiquitous than shuffling from one location to another — and then gathers items. These are the same items you seeded at the start of the game, and more spill onto the table every turn. Usually in a location you recently exited, because if there is a god then he is a malicious watchmaker who revels in wasting your precious action points.
There are other options. Sometimes you’ll guide a villager across town, both to remove them from circulation — their death, like your hero’s injuries, gradually increases the town’s horror and therefore your likelihood of losing — and to earn one-shot ability cards. Other times you’ll call upon your character’s special action. Mostly, though, you move and gather, move and gather, always with an eye toward not lingering too near to a monster for fear of it lurching toward you with homicidal intent in its eyes.
What’s the fun in this? Take care that you don’t miss the forest for the trees. Then again, few games have proven so divisive among my group, with some enjoying this mover-gatherer process and others bemoaning its repetition. Speaking broadly, the watershed relies on which monster(s) you’re facing. Not all are alike. But some are.
Here’s what I mean. At its best, Horrified’s menagerie of monstrosities provides an intriguing challenge. To lock away the Mummy, you’re forced to solve a puzzle at the museum, cashing in any yellow-colored items for a few limited steps at shifting around its scarabs. Frankenstein and his Bride — and let me stop you there, everybody knows it’s Frankenstein’s Monster, give it a rest — can only be defeated by the power of true love. Which, by the way, means keeping them apart on the map until you’ve bribed them both into opening their hearts, at which point you must nudge them into the same space. Let’s say it together: awww.
But not every monster is similarly interesting. Mooks like the Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Wolfman pretty much see you cashing in a few tiles at a particular destination. That’s the first step. Afterward, your objective is to… cash in a a few tiles at a particular destination. Another redundancy. A more unfortunate one.
Of course, some of the simpler monsters have their own challenges as well. Killing Dracula is as mundane as smashing four coffins and staking him with whatever red items you’ve tripped over during the journey, but in the meantime he’s terrorizing your heroes with sexy hypnosis. The Invisible Man isn’t hard to catch, but until you do he’ll be nabbing items right off the board, all naked-like. Early on, the Mummy declares that one of your players is the reincarnation of his long-lost love, and routinely chases after them. Never mind that it’s basically the same thing the Wolfman does with his hunted marker.
These thematic touches are more than appreciable. They’re the main reason to play Horrified. There’s no terror here, nor even much of a chance of actual failure. Even the touted variety is often muted. But lighthearted camp? It’s got that in spades.
Fair enough. After all, this thing is obviously being targeted at the mass market, and it functions best when played with people who want a cooperative romp but don’t necessarily want to lose. A family game, and I say that with no condescension whatsoever. Where my regular group balked at the game’s obviousness, my sister’s family was immediately immersed. Every time Frankie and his Bride stepped nearer, they cooed. Every time a lone villager got eaten, they slapped the table. That’s good stuff. Not many games can wring out reactions like that.
Which is why it’s important to note that the point of comparison for Horrified isn’t Villainous. Despite not containing many overt parallels, Horrified plays much like a more colorful, less punitive, more immediately rewarding Pandemic. You spend most of your time moving. Your goals take you far and wide. Your foes are always creeping closer. Except here, rather than constant crushing defeats and concessions, you’re saving villagers and picking up loads of items and eventually curing the Wolfman of hypertrichosis. It’s a gateway game, one that’s genuinely warm and welcoming.
If that sounds mixed, well, yeah. The same simplicity that makes Horrified so appealing also gives it a short table life. Despite the differences between its monsters, the same loop of moving, gathering, and avoiding is so deeply ingrained that even a handful of plays see it growing rote. Its small details are the real highlight, but it isn’t long before they too are subsumed by the repetition of the game’s essential processes.
Which is to say, Horrified is my least favorite of Prospero Hall’s recent offerings. Although if that isn’t praising it with faint damnation, I don’t know what is.