Board games and adult themes do not often go hand in hand. As a medium, the humble board game has been synonymous with childhood since Monopoly started getting mass produced in the early 1900s. Most people, when they think of tabletop games, think of the likes of Cluedo or Catan. They may even think about the backs of old cereal boxes or magazines where, as a kid, there would be a Beano version of Snakes and Ladders or Ludo. Oh, how things have changed over the past few years.
If you ask a gamer about adult themes in gaming – most will probably say the same thing. Adult themes tend to go hand in hand with humour in the gaming world at the moment. Games like Cards Against Humanity and Scrawl have made sure of that, providing hours upon hours of entertainment for those who play them. These games, CAH especially, have made their way into the mainstream and so have shown a side of gaming not previously thought of – the adult game.
For this article though, I want to go a step further. There are games now spanning all kinds of adult genres – war, violence, plague, death. Games like Pandemic and Plague Inc do, arguably speaking, have adult themes; however, there is another genre of games that takes this even further. That genre is the survival horror genre.
Within this genre, there are several games which do not fit this remit. Zombies!!!, for example, is not a graphic horror survival game. It involves putting the business end of a shotgun into a zombie’s face; however, beyond that, it is fairly placid. What I’m talking about is the genre of game from Betrayal at House on the Hill and up. Most notably, I am talking about Dead of Winter: The Long Night.
Adult Themes and Scary Things
The horror genre is one which is particularly close to my heart and so the first board game I ever bought was Betrayal at House on the Hill which will always remain one of my favourite games, despite being deeply flawed. Betrayal is a game about exploration, as the players traverse the dangers of a haunted house, just waiting for someone to turn on them and make their journey to the underworld all the more entertaining. Throughout the game, players draw omens, events, and items, with the middle being different things happening around the house.
Event cards, in Betrayal, can be fairly brutal. These involve stereotypical horror allusions, from children laughing (with no children) to hanging bodies. These are not so explicit; however, what makes them scary is almost how blasé they are. The implications are there if not the graphic detail.
Graphic Detail and the Darker Side of Humanity
What we are seeing though is Betrayal at House on the Hill is one side of a horror spectrum within the tabletop world. The other side is, in my opinion, and as mentioned before, Dead of Winter: The Long Night.
Dead of Winter is not unique so far as the genre is concerned. It is a typical survivor/zombie horror story, with emphasis placed on the survival element. Every turn players have actions to scavenge and explore the best they can. They uncover new survivors and explore new areas as they progress. At the start of each turn, however, a “Crossroad” card is drawn. This is where Dead of Winter comes into its own, with a unique story telling element that gives choices and has real consequences to how the game is played. These tend to be things like a rationing shortage or a new survivor turning up; however, they can be darker…much, much darker.
Where Dead of Winter: The Long Night is special is with a small nine card booster pack found at the bottom of the box. It’s a small paper envelope with the following writing on the front of it:
SERIOUS WARNING: The contents of these 9 Crossroad cards are of an ADULT and sometimes DISTURBING nature, and are intended to explore the darker side of humanity in much the same way horror movies do.
Please take extreme caution and consider all your players before using any of these cards.
The cards, to be honest and brutal, are completely heartbreaking. The envelope contains cards that really do explore the darker side of humanity, from turning against your team mates to turning against yourself. They really get you thinking, and they really make the moral choices hard to make. Do you kill yourself or someone else? Do you turn someone away or spend food giving them shelter? These are cards that deal with ideas that are hard to grasp, yet alone decide over when playing a game. These are problems that transcend gaming.
This option for more adult themes is becoming more commonplace amongst survival games, with other such darker franchises out there; however, for me, Dead of Winter is one that really stands out. This is because it gives the option for a darker, deeper, and more thought provoking game as well as the standard mode of play.
The Evolution of Gaming
There are some who would argue that such themes do not deserve a place in gaming, and that games should stay within certain guidelines; however, thinking about it, I believe they serve a purpose.
What games like Dead of Winter: The Long Night are doing is offering an alternative view to gaming. They show that games can have a dark side and this is imperative to the future of the genre. It is imperative to show that gaming can be more, can be deeper, than just a game. Whilst extreme themes are not for all (and always playing them would be emotionally exhausting), they do provide the option for an experience that makes us question more deeply what we think we know about ourselves.
Games have always been great for that, helping us explore, helping us learn, and helping us prepare for real life situations. The number of maths theories I have learned because of gaming is phenomenal, and I know I am not the only person who has used gaming to further my own education. Having the option to explore darker concepts can help us learn more about ourselves from a philosophical perspective as well as from an ethical and emotional perspective as well.
Thus, and I feel this has been a really serious blog but for good reason, it’s important to see that whilst not all games should contain adult themes, there is a corner where those kinds of themes serve a purpose.
So there we go – a serious post for a serious subject that, to be honest, has been fairly difficult to write about. I imagine this could be a fairly controversial topic so I would be interested in other opinions. Let me know in the comments below.