What's new in tabletop gaming (Halloween edition)

Here is a collection of horrifying games to keep you entertained this Fall.

Call of Cthulhu Starter Set
Chaosium, Inc., $21.40
When I got the latest Call of Cthulhu Starter Set from Chaosium, I got all verklempt. After D&D, Call of Cthulhu was the next RPG I moved on to via the original Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. I loved that product, so I had great rushes of nostalgia unboxing this updated version. Mike Mason and Chaosium have done an excellent job creating a gateway, a hell-portal if you will, into the world of Cthulhu-based RPGing at a super affordable price. For under 22 bones, you get three saddle-stitched books, one that's an intro to the world of Cthulhu and includes a solo adventure to teach you the game, a basic rulebook, and a book with three starter adventures. You also get 5 ready-to-play investigators, blank character sheets, player hand-outs, and 6 RPG dice. It feels a little less substantial than the original (which included a thick, 100-page rulebook), but overall, it offers a satisfying and immersive introduction to Cthulhu gaming on the cheap.

My offspring Blake and I playing Horrified.

Ravensburger, $35, 1-5 players, Ages 10+
As much as I enjoy the Lovecraft mythos and some of the zombie genre, I have to admit to being both bored and overwhelmed with how dominant these themes have become in the gaming hobby. So, I was thrilled to see Horrified, a cooperative horror strategy game featuring the Universal Studios monsters: Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Frankenstein monster, bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Invisible Man. The game includes some nicely sculpted plastic playing pieces of the monsters. The art and design for the whole game is wonderful and does a good job of invoking the feel of the Universal classic films. A co-op game for 1-5 players, the goal of Horrified is to send your band of heroic monster-fighters through the village to try and defeat whatever monsters are shambling about and to shepherd the villagers to safety. You get perks for saving the townsfolk and the group takes hits if the villagers are killed. You increase the level of difficulty by adding monster foes. Each monster has a play mat and each has a set of conditions that must be met to defeat them. For instance, for Dracula, you have to find and destroy his four coffins. For the Wolf Man, you have to perform experiments to find a cure for his lyncanthropy. The rules are not hard, and once you get them down, the game has a great flow to it, as each player performs a "Hero Phase" and then a "Monster Phase." My favorite part of the game is the sense of protection you feel towards the villagers in keeping the baddies away and helping them to safety. The decks of cards and some of the other components seem a little flimsy, but there are lots of components in this game, so I assume they cut some production corners to save on weight and cost. This is a really fun, breezy game, with plenty of replayability and some decent strategic depth, at a very reasonable cost.

Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein,
Plaid Hat Games, $54, 2-4 players, Ages 12+
In this Euro-style worker placement game, 2-4 players work to build a monster to keep the original Frankenstein monster company (Dr. Frankenstein being long dead). The game's production is gorgeous, with cool, steampunky "attribute dials" at the heart of the players' laboratory boards used to keep track of your monster's assembly progress. To build a monster, you send your meeple minions out across the city of Paris to collect the materials you need to build a creature (mainly body parts). I am not a big fan of worker placement games, but I like the theme of Abomination. It is very similar in mechanics to Lords of Waterdeep, so if you're familiar with that game, you will quickly take to Abomination. Like a lot of resource management/worker placement games, this one has a lot of components and set-up time and lengthy gameplay (1-2 hours).

Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus
Wizards of the Coast, $30
I have been so impressed with many of the D&D titles that Wizards of the Coast and lead developer Jeremy Crawford have been releasing for 5th edition. And, I'm fascinated by The Blood Wars–the perpetual conflict between demons and devils so wonderfully chronicled in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. So, I had high hopes for Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus, the latest adventure book which allows players (level 1-13) to go to hell! There are some wonderful concepts here. For instance, I love the idea of taking established, reasonably uncorrupted player-characters into the first level of the Nine Hells, and then enticing them with the irresistible temptations of these infernal realms. But this book is something of a big miss for me. The quality of the writing seems positively amateurish compared to other recent releases. And your mileage may vary, but I am not a fan of vehicles in D&D, so the whole "Mad Max in hell" vibe of the Infernal War Machines does nothing for me. Descent into Avernus comes with a beautiful two-sided pull-out map of the shifting hellscape of Avernus and a map of the city of [spoiler]. What I actually liked more than the book was the companion Descent into Avernus dice and accessories set. It comes in a beautiful foil-stamped box with both the box and the lid felted inside to act as dice trays. It includes 11 lovely purple polyhedral dice, a set of 22 double-sided cards with encounter tables and flavor text for the devils and demons of the Blood War, a devil and demons sizing chart(!), and a player map of Avernus.

Other recent horror-themed games I received:

Ravensburger, $35, Ages 10+,
In this award-winning (TOTY 2019) game, you take on the role of one of six Disney villains (Captain Hook, Maleficent, Jafar, Ursula, Queen of Hearts, or Prince John). Each villain has their own objectives and play style. This is a game that has obviously been designed to broadly appeal to casual gamers, dedicated hobby gamers, and Disney fans who aren't necessarily gamers. The design and components are stunning, with the 6 playing pieces modern, stylized sculptures representing the villains.

Ravensburger, $30, 2-4 players, Ages 12+
In this "two act" game, one person plays the shark and the rest cooperate to try and save the swimmers around Amity Island. In the second "act," the classic showdown on the Orca takes places, with the shark attempting to chew away the boat and eat the crew while the crew attempts to sushi-fy the shark.

Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection
Chaosium, $24, 2-5 players, Ages 13+
This push your luck, set collection card game is the latest from Chaosium and world-renowned designer, Reiner Knizia. In it, you play one of a group of 2-5 Misktatonic University professors who have to search the stacks of the Restricted Collection of the MU Library looking for lore and fragments of an Elder sigil that will help you banish the Lovecraftian horror that is stalking the stakes and gobbling up grad students. The game is easy and quick to play, with cool "player desk" boards that you use to slot your lore, sigil, and grad student cards as you collect them. Comes in a lovely book-like box with a magnetic clasp.