Two Minds About Final Girl
Brock: Can horror exist outside a movie, or a book, or a gaggle of costumed teenagers in a problematic haunted asylum? Does it require one or more draculas?
This time around, Dan and I put on our Two Minds lederhosen to tackle Van Ryder Games’ Final Girl. We wanted to discover just how well a horror movie could be translated to cardboard and dice, and just how small wooden cylinders in a board game could get. Will we make it out alive?
Dan: And I even own real lederhosen!
Dan: Okay, Brock, gauntlet thrown. Thrown down. So here’s my question to your question:
Has Final Girl ever once made you feel afraid?
Brock: Here, you dropped this gauntlet. Unfortunately I can’t say that it ever scared me, or even startled or shocked me, apart from my abysmal dice rolls. It’s possible that I’m just too tough and cool, but I think the more likely explanation is that a board game is not the best delivery method to get totally spookified.
Did you ever feel personally threatened by Final Girl?
Dan: Only by the aggressive absence of a tiebreaker rule. But that’s me getting ahead of myself.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how board games have certain advantages as a medium. And, like anything with advantages, certain disadvantages or limitations. I think it’s not so much a case of board games not doing “fear” — because they can, of a sort, especially when you really want to win — but rather that they channel their emotions in very different ways. Usually by modeling things, building systems around ideas, instead of directly evoking emotions.
Which is a very long way of saying that Final Girl isn’t a horror game. It’s a game about horror films. And how well it performs has a lot to do with which lens we use to examine it.
Brock: This is a very good point, and that perspective is going to inform how players connect with the game, and how they approach the actual mechanics. Much of what went into this design is from the standpoint of what horror movies are like, not what things are actually scary. Though it’s interesting to see where the two overlap, and where they diverge.
Before we hike deeper into Final Girl’s hills (which may or may not have eyes), let’s talk about how this thing works, shall we? How does one go about playing this game?
Dan: Final Girl is based on A.J. Porfirio’s Hostage Negotiator, and is co-designed between Porfirio and Evan Derrick. You’d think they’d be more different, since Final Girl is the fuller experience. It has a map, for one thing, instead of taking place entirely via phone call. It has a protagonist, the titular final girl. It has movement and combat and hapless teenagers to escort and resources to manage.
At its core, though, this is a game about managing your exertion. In Hostage Negotiator that was pretty obvious, since everything was about those phone calls with the hostage-taker, building sway with him, keeping conversations from burning out or causing too much aggression. Final Girl does the same thing, except it’s all about your character. Stamina, confidence, determination to live, that sort of thing.
What really blows me away is how smart the system is. Turns revolve around playing cards and rolling dice — it’s a very chancy game — but unlike most games where you’re trying to play as many combos as possible, it’s often better to rein yourself in a little bit. To hold back something so you can buy new cards later. I think this might be one of the few games where I’ve passed and not felt like I was doing absolutely nothing, because it made sense that my character was resting, passing her time, getting up the nerve to do something gutsy. Which is a remarkable bit of systems-first design. It’s evocative without needing to spell out every little thing for you.
But maybe I’m already wandering into the dark on my own. What would you tell a passing stranger about this one?
Brock: Passing strangers love talking about solo-only board games, in my experience. I’d probably say that it’s a game about the desperate moments in the final act of a horror movie. And that, in a lot of ways, it really understands those moments.
One example I’d give, after ensuring the shackles on the stranger’s ankles were secure, is an Event card that appeared in one of my first games. Events are sparse, with generally only one or two being flipped in a typical game. This card in particular turned a victim into my boyfriend.
Rescuing victims is a crucial part of Final Girl, so I expected some change or extra reward would be involved with the boyfriend. But this is a horror movie, so by definition the boyfriend sucks. He’s a burden, and the only advantage he offered was in his death. It made me smile a little to see it expressed so clearly in the mechanic: when the boyfriend died, my Final Girl would have her motivation to take revenge.
You touched on something that I discovered only after my first couple games: the wisdom, occasionally, of waiting. It’s another way that the game captures the tension of a slasher movie’s final act. Even when it’s unclear from a game standpoint how you should proceed, that fits perfectly into the movie you’re recreating. The Final Girl is no physical match for the killer, but there will come a time when she has to take the fight to him. She might take a moment to gather herself, or make a detour to gather some helpful supplies, but then she’ll have to face that reality: it’s up to her. No one else is going to kill this evil puppet man or dream stabber.
Dan: Or waking stabber! Or poltergeist! Or racially testy cultist!
Can you tell I like the variety? The whole thing is so cleverly done that ripping into that first season was like unwrapping presents. Or like feasting on teenagers if you’re one of Final Girl’s many antagonists. The basic arc doesn’t vary all that much, but the differences between locations and monsters struck me as deliciously inventive.
Actually, here’s an odd note: I can tell the villains apart, but I probably couldn’t pick the starring final girls out of a lineup. Is that the game’s deal or do I have prosopagnosia for teenage girls in peril?
Brock: If you do, I’m sure there’s a salve or something that can help with it.
But yeah, they don’t feel meaningfully different to me. It might be a result of devotion to the source material, where the final girl might seem interchangeable with any of the victims. But it would have been nice to give them some texture and distinguishing characteristics, rather than letting murderghouls have all the fun.
Dan: Before we get into some real grousing, let me ask you a question. Do you think it’s too chancy? Because I dig how willing it is to let you fail at things. Even basic tasks like walking are fraught. There’s an entire ongoing conversation about the pitfalls of output luck, how it can feel unsatisfying to flub an action, but man, I think this game offers a towering middle finger to that whole enterprise. I can imagine a version of this game that frontloads its chance — all rolls are done in advance, now you’re just assigning them — and it would blunt its edge. I love the possibility of walking up to a summer camp serial killer, aiming a shotgun at his face, and being knocked on my butt by the recoil. That’s when you start scrambling. That’s when the game starts making memories.
Then again, sometimes the dice are bullshit and whoever balanced these odds should feel bad. Sometimes I cheat. Do you cheat? Just the occasional nudge?
Brock: I definitely cheat once in a while, but only to keep the tears at bay.
There have been plays when I really felt punished by the dice, and wondered if there was anything I could have done to stand a better chance. But that’s sort of the thing about a Final Girl in the movies, right? You can’t always tell who it’s going to be. The competent teen who helps people escape and sets a brilliant trap might just stumble, hoisted by her own petard, and end up as just another victim. It’s painful, but it really fits the devotion to a genre of movie where things can go very badly, very quickly.
You mentioned the variety, and I agree that it’s one place where Final Girl really shines, but I also hesitate to say it’s completely successful. On paper it looks like a buffet of choices, ready to mix and match, but I don’t know if I’m completely convinced. A lot of the boxes seem to work best as self-contained location plus killer, without making a good case for transplanting either one to another scenario.
What about your plays? Did you find any mashups that were more satisfying than the original “flavor”?
Dan: I haven’t bothered making any mixes yet. I was hoping to, before a burgle bro named Brock absconded with my copy of the game. For me, the limitation there is setup and breakdown. I’m not sure I want to dig through more than two boxes — the core box and whatever feature film I’m playing — for a session that might only take fifteen minutes. It’s the contrast that does it. Dawn of the Zeds, for example, also has a persnickety setup, but I know I’m settling in for a full runtime.
Ultimately, though, my big complaint is something that might not bug most players. Yes, it’s the tiebreaker. I have yet to go a session where I haven’t needed to break a tie. Frankly, I’m pretty disappointed with how the authors have handled that. Do you want to explain?
Brock: There are two rules about ties that might come up. The rarer of the two would occur if your Final Girl’s efforts succeed in killing the big bad, but also cause her to lose the last of her own life. It’s thematic as all hell, and slots right into the horror movie simulation. To quote the official ruling on such a situation: “you are still victorious because you accomplished your goal, even if it required the ultimate sacrifice.”
I can see this being the rule they had to settle on, because I know what my first draft would have been: in the event of a tie, the Final Girl wakes up in the hospital and a sequel occurs. But I can imagine that “play this game again” would not be a satisfying tiebreaker for many players.
The other kind of tiebreaker has to do with “Game Ambiguity,” and how to resolve those situations without a clear answer. The game recommends you choose one of three options and stick to it: either ruling in the way that would be worst for you, the way that would be most realistic, or the way that would be funniest.
So why the indecision? Why, in a tightly, carefully designed game, is this particular loose end left for us to tie up?
Dan: Ironically, I suspect if the rules had stated, “When there’s a tie that isn’t resolved by the rules, you choose what happens,” that would be the end of it. At least then I would know it’s up to my judgment. Instead, by adding those three possible ambiguity-breakers, the rules become somewhat fuzzier. They’re asking me to make my adjudication via a particular mode. So now I’m asking, “What’s worst for me? What’s the most realistic? What’s the funniest? Should I have picked my ambiguity resolution method in advance?” Never mind that I’m not actually sure what “most realistic” or “funniest” mean in the game’s context. Is what’s worst for me the opposite of what I would choose in a vacuum? Am I even sure what I would pick? Because really, I’d probably say “heck with it” and just pick something, which isn’t the same as picking a good outcome. If I could pick out the “worst” outcome at any given moment, wouldn’t I be a lot better at this game? Now I’m swirling around a vortex of second-guessing. Most of the time I wind up rolling a die.
Brock: Where the tiebreaker is your biggest gripe, mine is more logistical, and perhaps more petty. We don’t typically get deep into cost analyses in these articles, but I have to wonder if this might have been a more attractive product if everything was in one box right from the jump.
I’ll admit I think the individual box designs are dead clever. They look like VHS boxes! They look awesome lined up on the shelf! But they also feel a bit too close to “paid DLC” or the dreaded “microtransactions” for me to fully embrace them.
What do you think of the format? Did you have the same kind of reaction after learning that the “base game” was actually unplayable without another box?
Dan: Uh oh. Did you buy the core box before realizing it wasn’t playable without a feature film?
Brock: I wasn’t entirely unaware, but I hoped in vain that it would at least contain something playable. And I was sadly disappointed.
Dan: Hope springs eternal! To be honest, I’m torn. No. That’s the wrong way to put it. I’m ambivalent.
I’ll use another game as an example. Unsettled was one of my favorite titles last year. It does something similar, although maybe a little more generously. It’s about exploring alien planets, and each has a full three scenarios to play through. When you buy the game, it comes with two planets in the core box. That’s six plays before you need to repeat anything — pretty good mileage in today’s disposable climate. On launch, there were four more planets you could purchase.
Of course, I wanted all of them right out of the gate. When I looked into Final Girl, the same thing happened. I figured maybe I’d buy the core box and one or two feature films. You know, to give the system a try. But of course I grabbed everything. Why? Because I figured there was a very real chance that I would miss out. I’m as susceptible to FOMO as anybody else.
And yeah, a part of me resents a company that fosters that reaction. But also, I’m in this industry, I know the margins are often thin, making anything is a risk, it’s hard to tell what will capture an audience’s imagination. So, at the same time, I get it. I preferred the approach Orange Nebula took with Unsettled, where at least the core box gave you a taste. In the end, though, I’m not sure it was any less FOMO-y.
Like I said, I’m ambivalent. I think it’s kind of gutsy, and maybe even a little more ethical, to sell these boxes as discrete experiences rather than just slopping them out as mega-bundles the way some crowdfunding publishers do. If somebody can only afford a core box and a feature film, I appreciate that they can get into it without having to fork out for the whole thing. Does that happen very often? Ehh. I doubt it. Either way, I think we can agree that both Final Girl and Unsettled are a far cry from the worst offenders of crowdfunding, who are content to sell you a tower of plastic and cardboard without bothering to design an actual game to prop it up.
Brock: There are worse offenders, certainly, and the more I look into this particular game the less I hate its approach. I dislike blatant cash grabs, and in this case it seems like the actual grasping hands belong to the flippers and scalpers. The retail prices, I must grudgingly admit, are downright reasonable.
Dan: We’ve been talking a lot about the thing we don’t like, but I want to end with something positive, because on the whole I think Final Girl is a heck of a game. Do you have any memories that are worth sharing? Any anecdotes of last-minute survival? Or not surviving?
Brock: I have died a multitude of ways, far more often than I’ve survived. Dr. Fright’s dream world spooked me right to death, and I’ve also blundered my way to the grave against Hans several times.
One particular time saw me chasing him all over the summer camp, as he dashed around pulverizing horny teens. Hans starts out slow, but the more victims he kills the faster he can move, so by this time he was really cruising. Finally I caught him, but my plan failed to account for how draining the journey would be. I had no extra cards, just my one shot at an attack. It was embarrassingly futile, and I died in the lake, not even close to being a Final Girl.
I’ve been impressed with the game in big ways and in the little details. Its color scheme is fittingly dark without being dull, which is a rare achievement in this medium. They also have managed to design a whole pile of horror games without making one a zombie game! Truly the pinnacle of achievement in the tabletop world.
What about you, Dan? Any notable successes or failures?
Dan: Oh, plenty. But my favorite memory was riding around the lake at Camp Happy Trails, Benny Hill style, in a motorboat while Hans tried to catch up. I more or less emptied the search decks. He didn’t stand a chance.
Brock: So even if we were never shaking in our boots, I think it’s safe to say we were impressed by Final Girl. It captures quirks of the horror movie genre while being a compelling, thoughtful design. It’s already becoming a favorite solo game for me, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of what it’s capable of.
Any final thoughts, Dan?
Dan: Bring on season two.