A few months ago an old colleague of mine asked me about games for her library to integrate into a Halloween program. After some back and forth I recommended five games. These games were chosen to fit in her (slight) budget, not require too steep learning curve, not have too complicated a setup, accommodate families, be resilient to repeated use (and survive a piece or two getting lost along the way) and yet satisfy a desire for contemporary games. The list that resulted from so many requirements is more a work of compromises than a platonic ideal. But, I think it works.
So, first up, games that she could get for ~ $100 and re-use for later programs. Without a firm cost limit I went with three commercial and two non-commercial options. The three box games have an MSRP of about $125 plus a few additional costs but with online discounts or partnering with a local retailer you can get down much closer to $100, or just drop one of the boxed games off the list.
It’s far too late for most libraries to plan for programs for this Halloween but I figured it would be easier to clean up the list I made for her now then remember to write it up in six months. When that time comes I do intend to update this list for next year’s planning. This list isn’t going to be a revelation to those who follow table top games already but hopefully it can be a jumping off point for library game programs that are looking for a quick entry point. I recommend setting up and playing all of these once or twice before you do them with a program. For the boxed games, setup can be one of the most intimidating parts so don’t expect patrons to be involved with that though volunteers who have learned the rules in advance can be great to sit and play with the patrons which is why I focused on more cooperative games. Plus, cooperative games are great at creating a bonding experience, win or lose. Most of these have tutorials on YouTube you can use to help save time if you find the rules books cryptic.
Betrayal at the House on the Hill
Premise: A group of people wander into this creepy house and based on a random event one discovers they are a bad guy and tries to kill the others.
Halloween Themes: This game was an auto include due to it dripping with classic horror movie themes – the creepy house, werewolves, ghosts, demons, and so on. And it’s fun, just plain fun.
Anything Objectionable: I’m presuming that if you’re doing Halloween events that you’re prepared for any objections to references to the supernatural. Nonetheless, although not vulgar, there are some end game scenarios that references things like demons more strongly than others. Know your community as always. There is implied gore but it’s not not strongly presented.
Target Audience: Tweens and up.
MSRP: $40 and there is a lot of value in the box for that
Library Tie Ins: Nearly any horror writer or film is an indirect connection but some more than others, especially the “in the creepy house overnight” trope.
Game Style: This is a tile laying co-operative game with a defector. The characters and lots of options make it a kind of role playing game in a box. The laying of house tiles as you explore creates randomness as does card draws and dice rolling. This is very much an American style game that places style over strategy. A game mechanic causes a random member of your party to be revealed as the traitor (up until then that player is also unaware of it) and then select one of many possible end games scenarios. How the survivors and defector are supposed to handle that is a secret to each side detailed in separate booklets.
Accessibility: Most of the symbols are easily visible and clearly laid out. Text is decently sized and easy to read. The math and logic of the game is pretty easy for various cognitive levels. Some visual disabilities will struggle with text and part recognition but not much.
Learning the Game: At first glance the game can appear complicated however it’s simpler than it may seem so don’t let it scare you.
Patron Interaction: I’m not usually a big fan of defector style games but if there was a premise it was appropriate for, this is it. It is still mostly a cooperative game and one where even losing can be fun.
Overall Opinion: If there was a perfect game for Halloween this would be it. Even at $50 I would have recommended it but at $40 it’s one of the cheapest modern board games with lots of replay you can get.
Different published versions are called things like Werewolf By Night and Ultimate Werewolf, sometimes with variant roles and rules.
Premise: With day and night cycles werewolves work in silence to kill villagers and during the day villagers try to find the werewolves in their midst.
Halloween Themes: Werewolves hunting villages in the night. It would only be more Halloween if it had candy corn in it and someone somewhere probably has rules for that.
Anything Objectionable: Some groups like to play up the heavy drama and gore of it but really the tone is set by the players so for a library program, keep it light.
Target Audience: All. Because it’s very rules lite this is the broadest of games. Even little kids can play this game.
Cost: Variable ~ $10 / Free
Library Tie Ins: Anything with werewolves. Except Twilight. Because vampire as don’t sparkle! The werewolves were decent in it though. They’re guilty by association however so no Twilight.
Game Style: This is a party game and as such it’s cornerstone is social interaction and ability to handle large groups. The focus is on having fun through social interaction with minimal preparation and effort on the part of someone organizing it. That combined with free sounds like the perfect library program doesn’t it?
Accessibility: This is a perfect ten in terms of accessibility. All you have to be able to do is listen to a description of roles and see one card and in a pinch you can even be told what that is. A small amount of visual ability is needed but I’ve played this with the legally (but not completely) blind and deaf with no issues.
Learning the Game: Less than five minutes.
Patron Interaction: This game is all about interaction. The key is to not take it too seriously. When villagers are eliminated I like to give them things to do in the background like becoming a greek chorus of howling wolves. Keeping the eliminated players involved is the biggest challenge.
More Information: Werewolf is a game that goes by a number of names with decks printed by different people that you can usually buy for around $10. It was invented and has been played for free for decades now with various hacks. I’ve played it on the fly with nothing more than scraps of paper and hastily written ‘villager’ or ‘werewolf’ written on them. I’m going to give you a link to a page by a fellow named Max and this page lists history, some great information about the game and a free to print version of some nice cards with graphics if you want them:
Premise: Using dice to represent the actions of heroic investigators the players try to stop cultists and monsters from bringing the elder gods back into the world.
Halloween Themes: Other worldly monsters, cultists, Elder Gods.
Anything Objectionable: Stay away from implying that the elder gods are somehow reflective of a real religion. Bring in the themes of the mythology as literature.
Target Audience: Tweens and up.
Library Tie Ins: Cthulhu Mythos stories from Lovecraft to the approximately 17,492 self published Cthulhu ebooks on Amazon.
Game Style: Cooperative dice game.
Accessibility: The main meat of the game is using dice to resolve challenges on cards and while there is descriptive text the dice and cards have easy to recognize symbols. The logic behind the dice prioritization is fairly easy to grok. The midnight doom cards are probably the biggest challenge for someone with limited vision.
Learning the Game: The game has a few awkward rules so it’s worth reading through the rule book a few times. It also has a mobile app that’s great for learning the game. Elder Sign has the most “gotcha” rules of any on this list.
Patron Interaction: As a cooperative game it encourages discussion and coordinated play.
Summation: I felt a moral obligation to include a Lovecraft mythos game in the list with it’s pop culture popularity. Elder Sign isn’t my favorite, I actually like Eldritch Horror more because I like it’s RPG elements but it has a higher price point and for diversity there is an audience that loves dice games. And a lot of people do love Elder Sign but if you have a bit more money available in your budget and your audience doesn’t include those who love dice games, I would consider Eldritch Horror instead.
Premise: 19th century psychics band together to try to get visions from a ghost and solve a murder mystery. Only one of the players knows who did what but they play the ghost and can’t talk to the other players.
Halloween Themes: Ghost Stories
Anything Objectionable: If spiritualism offends people this may be an issue but I assume that in that case Halloween may be an unhappy time for them in general.
Target Audience: Tweens and up.
Library Tie Ins: Ghost stories and murder mysteries. Think The Lovely Bones.
Game Style: Cooperative but a single information isolated player.
Accessibility: Like other games Mysterium has done a good job of using large clearly recognizable symbols but some colors may be issues for some kinds of color blindness.
Learning the Game: Mysterium is a fairly straight forward game. Most of the complicated elements are in the setup stage. I definitely recommend playing through two or three games before doing it with patrons.
Patron Interaction: A fully cooperative game with communication challenges can make this a great social experience. It’s like cooperative Clue with visions from ghosts. It’s awesome.
Soundtrack: The company that created Mysterium has a sound track available for download. Many of these games would benefit from a good soundtrack of course.
Premise: An RPG with a wooden block tower instead of dice, leading to an increasingly feeling of dread as the tower gets less stable. When you cause it to fall, you’re doomed.
Halloween Themes: Whatever you make them.
Anything Objectionable: Only if you create trouble for yourself. I know there are still anti-RPG people out there who think RPGs are tied to Satanism but fortunately most of those are obsessed with D&D and their numbers have dwindled to somewhere less than moon landing deniers and more than flat earthers. Remember, while causing the tower to fall over is described as how a character dies you can change this to something less violent to just remove them from the story.
Target Audience: The default audience of Dread is more mature but thanks to it being an RPG you can modify the style of the stories and your presentation to make it any age appropriate and change the tone from high … well, dread, to whatever you want.
Cost: Free / $12 / $24 + s/h | + ~$10 for the “tower of dread”, The link below is where you’d an get the free PDF of the rules, buy a full PDF with scenarios and more information for $12 or order a $24 copy of the book. Free is good.
Mechanics: One important thing to get out of the way related to cost is the “tower of dread.” Unlike games that use dice or cards for randomness Dread uses a tower of wooden blocks that a Jenga tower happens to work perfectly for (though there are non-Jenga trademarked ones that work also). There are chances you might already have one around for other library programs so that may or may not be a cost. One nice thing is that it lowers the barrier of entry in terms of teaching people and pretty much guarantees people stay in the story until the tower starts getting depleted.
Library Tie Ins: Whatever you make them.
Game Style: This is an RPG. However, Dread channels you to a storytelling heavy environment as it has very few mechanics. I encourage RPG storytellers to really involve the players and throw scenarios back to them with opportunities like “how do you want this to resolve” and then you can let them pull from the tower if necessary.
Accessibility: There might be some reading to do but with someone very visually impaired you could do away with character sheets. The bigger problem for someone with motor impairments or very low vision will be pulling from the tower.
Learning the Game: You can get everything you need to know in four pages of light reading and teach it to others in about thirty seconds.
Patron Interaction: The good and bad of an RPG is that there isn’t a mechanical structure constraining them. In a library program I would put a disclaimer in the setup that there is a certain social contract and for this purpose they are cooperating.
Staying Under $100, aka Dropping a Game
If one game is to be dropped based on cost I recommend Mysterium. It does have a lot of cards to keep track of and has one of the higher price points. However, it is crazy stylistic and fun. However, if the goal is to keep the highest quality games and one needs to be dropped I recommend dropping Elder Sign but you may enjoy dice games more than I do.
Honorable Mention – King of Tokyo
King of Tokyo is a great kaiju themed game that lends itself to silliness and fun tossing dice around. It’s very accessible and has few barriers to entry including logical planning that children can do. It’s very thematic. It’s an American style open information board game so older or more experienced players can help others and a wide variety of kinds of players can easily play together. It even has a Halloween specific expansion. Unfortunately, it also needs the Power Up expansion to really be complete and recently a second edition of the game came out with less cartoony graphics and without the Power Up expansion (yet). If you can get the first edition with the expansion it’s great for library programs. There is also a variant called King of New York but it includes unnecessary additional rules that I think hurt it for teaching in a programming setting (plus the monsters aren’t as iconic so not quite as cool). If you’re willing to play without the Power Up Expansion this is definitely one to consider.
There are so many Halloween appropriate games it’s impossible to list them all.
If you like tile laying and classic horror movie vibes the Castle Ravenloft Board Game is very cool. It has a ton of setup though and is priced at about $65. I think the rules are also awkward at times so be prepared to play it a few times and improvise occasionally. Dead of Winter is a great survival zombie game with a defector that can also be played fully cooperative. A Touch of Evil is a competitive game with some wonky rules but thematically perfect for Halloween and with some rule hacking is good. I’ve not played either yet but Fury of Dracula and Letters From Whitechapel are both defector games that look good too and are well reviewed in the board game community. As both are sitting on my shelf downstairs they are ones I’m likely to add to a future list.
Just on the Cthulhian game front: I previously noted I like Eldritch Horror for an RPG in a box. Mansions of Madness 2nd edition is a very cool game but pricey. Arkham Horror provides a good big box experience but it pricey and time consuming with a huge number of parts. Unspeakable Words is a good Cthulhian word game. I can think of six more Cthulhu card games that are decent and more RPGs than that. Honestly that could be a post in it’s own right, good Cthulhian games for library programs.