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The Horror Genre and Extreme Themes in Gaming

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.

Screen Shot 2017-08-23 at 23.39.21

Midway through a game of Dead of Winter.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-08-23 at 23.24.27

A Serious Warning

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.


  1. Interesting post – I suppose that games have always been a ‘safe’ and abstract way to explore some pretty serious themes (Risk springs to mind, and even chess to an extent!), but yeah, the kind of moral quandaries presented in DoW are a whole new level… I guess a well crafted RPG might do the same?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting read this. It’s very hard to convey horror in a board game due to the social aspect of the activity. Single player board games have a better chance. Elements like distrust and tension can come quite easily depending on the game context, but I can’t think of any games that cause a horror response.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Seems interesting. Are the cards of a “legacy” nature where knowing that they exist “ruins” them for everyone, or is it more easily possible to vet them (for the game owner, presumably) in order to remove any that might cut too close to home for someone in the group? (since I have no idea what the cards’ content might be, I’m assuming they might be as dark as killing a loved one, sexual assault, etc)

    Liked by 1 person

    • They exist in a little packet so they can be removed. No, they’re not a “legacy” thing. Instead they are treated like an additional expansion, I suppose, in regards to them being an optional thing to add into the game.

      The topics don’t cover what you suggested; however, they do include things like suicide and choosing life or death situations. They contain a small story component, followed by a choice. It’s that additional process, having to choose, I suppose, that makes them so thought provoking.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As someone who has recently come to appreciate the horror genre a little more, I definitely think that dark themes do have a place in our beloved hobby. However, I think that Dead of Winter may go a little too far with some of them. I believe one of them goes as far as a particularly horrific “fetish”. To me, some of them seem controversial for the sake of being controversial. I do appreciate the warning label on the pack though.

    I would, however, go as far as to say that Dead of Winter does at least do it in a more tasteful manner than popular game Chaos in the Old World. My understanding is that the board for that game looks like a piece of torn off human flesh, and killing innocents and spreading chaos is a major part of it. Is such a theme really necessary?

    I’m intent on exploring more horror games soon, and I spied one earlier today which I’ll be looking out for. Thanks for the content! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Chaos in the Old World is a Warhammer game, set within an existing, well-established IP (30+ years old). Warhammer has a long history of being “dark fantasy” and is a melange of its many inspirations – real-world history, Moorcock, Tolkien, and a lot more.

      If you stumble onto it without any context, you might find it shocking, I guess.

      I do take some issue with questioning whether it’s “necessary”, though. Any of us could say the same for any piece of fiction or entertainment that one does not find personally appealing or tasteful from CitOW to Christina Aguilera’s outfit and overtly-sexual dancing in the video to “Dirty” to the Cohen’s “Fargo” to all of Professional Wrestling.

      “What’s in the box?”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m well aware of Chaos in the Old World’s IP and history. That still doesn’t lead me to approve of its content any more.

        You’re absolutely entitled to taking issue with my questioning whether it’s necessary. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion. To clarify, I *personally* find the theme gratuitous. One of the beautiful things about art is that people can explore whatever they wish, and one of the beautiful things about free speech is that people may critique or defend said things as they wish.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I do agree that it’s gratuitous, but that’s pretty much the point of it. Not to mention all of the other examples I gave. We don’t all need to enjoy all things that are gratuitous (splatter movies are not at all to my personal taste, for example), but I don’t begrudge their existence for those people who enjoy them. I just choose other entertainment that fits my own personal aesthetic.

        Liked by 1 person

        • As Andy Warhol said – Art is what you say it is. I think you have both raised some very interesting points. The beautiful thing about this hobby we share is that it allows us to interact with that art in our own way and in an environment suited to us. This is an ace discussion guys so thank you both for commenting.

          Liked by 2 people

  5. Great post! I have dead of winter the long night but I have yet to play with the cards in the envelope. It’s interesting hearing your take on the game and the themes that you are faced with.

    -Luna 😁

    Liked by 1 person

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