Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: Munchkin Bites

Game Review: Munchkin Bites

Kill the Monsters. Steal the Treasure. Bite your Buddy.

Ready to fight the forces of evil? Whether you’re a vampire, werewolf, changeling, or human, you’ll need all the help you can get. Kill monsters to level up, collect treasure to boost your power, and reach level 10 before your opponents to win.

Munchkin Bites is a spinoff of the popular humor card game, Munchkins. The Munchkin games satirize role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. This version follows the theme of monsters and horror. It is a game for 3-6 players and takes about 90 minutes to play.

Game Play Overview

The goal of Munchkin Bites is to be the first player to reach level ten. Everyone starts at level one, but players can improve their characters by assigning a race (vampire, werewolf, or changeling) and by equipping them with items. These increase the chances of defeating monsters you encounter. Munchkin Bites also include Power cards, which give your character special abilities (like forcing others to help you or letting you reroll the die).

You increase levels by defeating monsters that you encounter during the game. Each turn, you flip over a Door card to discover monsters or items behind it. If there is no monster behind the Door, you can play one from your hand to fight. If you kill a monster, you go up a level and collect treasure.

But when you step up to fight, know that the other players can (and will) get involved. They have cards and powers of their own that they can use to help the monsters kick your ass. If you want their help, you’ll have to bargain. This bargaining plays a central role in the game dynamic, forming alliances and breaking them just as easily. When the dust settles, you either kill the monster and collect your reward or suffer the consequences of defeat.

Game Experience

Early gameplay goes quickly; players level up and gain items with little resistance. But as everyone approaches level ten, things get personal. Players start all-out war to keep others from budging in the standings. Friends become enemies and people you’re close with will screw you over if it means the difference of a point.

While the arguments are real, Munchkin Bites refuses to take itself seriously. Most of the fun of the game is in the cards themselves. Each features art from John Kovalic’s Dork Tower comics with a horror twist. It’s a fun play on macabre themes. While anyone can enjoy monsters like the ‘Heck Hounds’ and ‘Were-Hamster’, Horror Addicts will get more out of this game than most (Bela Lugosi impressions, anyone?). The characters are delightfully grim and the culture references are reason enough to play on their own. After all, who wouldn’t want to kill monsters with ‘The Sword Of Beheading People Just Like In That Movie’?

Final Thoughts

Munchkin Bites is a staple of my own Game Nights. It is a fun, silly game, but isn’t for people looking for a casual game with no decisions involved (some people just want to play Sorry!. I’m not one of them, but whatever…). Gameplay is straightforward, but there are built in layers of complexity that mean players who are familiar with role-playing games will catch on more quickly. Don’t be discouraged if you’ve never played D&D! Munchkin Bites is a fun introduction to the essence of role-playing. Even when you’re familiar with gameplay, Munchkin Bites doesn’t lose its luster. The jokes never really get old and players devise new, monstrous ways to torment their opponents with each turn.

You can combine Munchkin Bites with any other core Munchkin games (they come in a lot of varieties), but Horror purists won’t see the need to muddy the cemetery with the riffraff from other versions. For more fun, consider combining it with Munchkin Bites 2: Pants Macabre.

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Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: Gloom

Game Review: Gloom

The sky is gray, the tea is cold, and a new tragedy lies around every corner…

The distinguished characters of Gloom do not have happy fates awaiting them—not if you have anything to say about it. You control what happens to them through the course of the game, building tales of woe for your unfortunate family. Your objective is simple (and grim): make your characters as miserable as possible before killing them off one by one.

Gloom is a thematic game for 2-4 players. It takes about an hour to play.

Game Play

Gloom offers four nefarious families to torture. Will you play with Darius Dark and his ill-conceived circus of misfits? Or the rich, but malevolent Hemlock family? How about the undead results of Professor Helena Slogar’s experiments? Or the extended kin of the Blackwater Matriarch, who proves you can’t choose your family, but you can choose which of them survive?

Beware, you’ll probably get a little attached to your family as you ruin their lives. In my experience, players develop an affinity for a certain family, sometimes continuing their stories from previous games.

Once you’ve chosen your victims, you’re ready to start their tales of woe. In your hand are several types of cards. Some contain horrific incidents that will make your characters miserable. Some contain happy moments that you can use to lift the spirits of other player’s families. Other portend the ultimate calamity to befall a character of your choice. Choose wisely and time your characters’ deaths to bring you the most advantage.

The game ends with the demise of one entire family. That family doesn’t necessarily win, though. One supremely horrible life can outweigh five mildly grim ones. Whichever player has the most miserable score for their dead characters takes home the macabre victory.

Game Experience

The cards in Gloom are the real stars. Each features delightful callbacks to Edward Gorey style grim humor with cute alliterations that makes torturing your family delightful (“Widowed at the Wedding” or “Mauled by a Manatee”, anyone?).

The cards are clear, so the values of preceding play can still be seen. The clear cards make for more complex gameplay, since all new moves build off former ones. It requires some strategy to maximize misery. Because the cards are plastic, though, there are problems with them sliding off each other (shuffling is not great).

The cards create a great base for weaving together the tales of woe that befall the families. Gloom is a storytelling game and piecing together the miserable lives and deaths of the characters is as much a part of the game as killing them off. However, I found that the story takes a back seat to strategy and is usually summed up by what can be found on the cards. If you’re looking for more creative outlets, there are better options.

Final Thoughts

Gloom is a fun, easy game to play, once you get the concept. Most first-time players struggle with the idea that they want to murder their loved ones, but once they get over that hurdle, they take to the game with glee.

While the premise is simple (bad actions take away happiness points and good actions give them), there are a few different types of “happiness” and the cards interact with each other to change those. First time players should pay attention to what you’re doing. It can get complicated.

My favorite parts of the game are the art, the snippets of writing on the cards, and the characters, which build a macabre tapestry. Overall, Gloom is fun and casual, a little like playing a part in the Addams family.

Movie Review: Wastelander

In a post-apocalyptic world, what remains of the human race clings to life in a vast, desert wasteland. A rampant slave trade, gangs of cybernetic bandits, and sinister warlords plague the land. Rhyous (Brendan Guy Murphy), a lone fighter, searches for Eden, where the remnants of civilization are rumored to remain. Taunted by incomplete memories of pre-war society, Rhyous fights the urge to succumb to savagery and greed, even as he must fight to stay alive.

Wastelander follows Rhyous in his search for Eden and takes us through the last dregs of humanity. The movie is an action filled romp, a la Mad Max. The overarching theme about finding humanity—whether by returning to the old or blazing a new way—ties rival groups together and pushes them apart. Greed and survival fuel ganglands style wars where the price of any misstep is death. Still, slivers of humanity peek through scenes of violence, as Rhyous shows the kind of compassion that seems to have gone extinct.

Rhyous is paired with tough-as-nails Neve (Carol Cardenas), a former slave who doesn’t back down in the face of a fight. Neve humanizes Rhyous in a surprising way, bringing out a protective quality, when Neve isn’t exactly a damsel in distress.

The fight scenes are creative and well choreographed, blending seamlessly into the violent landscape. A mixture of weapon types and fighting styles ensure that no battle is quite like the others.

Creators designed a full and engaging world for Wastelander . Pop culture advertisements linger in the most unlikely places long after the end of the world had come and gone, giving a fascinating look into the time before the wastes. The story has some creative high points when examining what it might mean for humanity to lose all knowledge of the world from before (“What’s ‘years’?”). The costumes offer a glimpse of how humanity would make the best of what resources were left. The film had a clear aesthetic style with regard to post-apocalyptic fashion. Creators merged functional items with a unique style that set the stage without saying a word. They did a lot with seemingly very little, using details to distinguish from the everyday.

The cinematography in Wastelander  fits well with the grim world it portrays. The desert landscape and lighting create a vision of stark lights and darks, much like the ‘rule or be ruled’ morality of the world portrayed. Any escape from the environment brings danger because if any resource is available, survivors can bet that someone else found it first. The film makes creative use of sets and props to find interesting ways to show characters interacting with their world.

Wastelander is a great blend of the action and science fiction genres, with elements of horror throughout. It has a violent edge, so it may not be for all viewers, but the concept and world building are worth experiencing.

Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: Betrayal at House on the Hill

 

Game Review: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Can you survive a night at the House on the Hill? Between secret passageways, dangerous relics, and supernatural entities that lurk in every shadow, you’ll have your work cut out for you. But the house is only the start. One of your own party will betray you before the night is through. Whether you’re attacked by a hoard of bloodsucking bats, chosen to marry the ghost of a restless bride, or searching for a companion who has been buried alive, you’ll have to drag yourself out by your fingernails by dawn.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a strategy board game for 3-6 players. It takes about one hour to play.

Gameplay Overview

The best thing about playing Betrayal at House on the Hill is that the game is different every time you pull it out. There are fifty unique play scenarios (more if you get expansion packs) and each of those can be different depending on the layout of the house and the players present.

All players have a character with physical and mental stats that they track through gameplay. These affect everything from movement to dice rolls to attacks. Players work together to win, but someone in your party will turn against you.

The game is broken into two phases: exploring the house and The Haunt. In the beginning, players find new rooms and expand the layout of the house. Rooms can contain Items, Events, or Omens. Items and Events can help or harm you but find too many Omens and you’ll trigger The Haunt, the second half of the game where play becomes life or death.

When the Haunt is revealed, one player will be designated as the Traitor. From that moment on, they work against the other players, trying to raise the dead, become one with a supernatural being, kill everyone, etc. The goal is different every time. The rest of the players learn how to defeat their particular circumstances by finding specific rooms or objects, and by using character traits to discover information or attack a monster.

The game is finished when either the Traitor or the remaining players fulfill the win conditions of the specific haunt.

Game Experience

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a beautiful, atmospheric horror game. Horror Addicts will love the hundreds of traditional, spine-tingling horror references that are slipped in everywhere. The cards are well crafted with carefully chosen stories and details that make the hair stand up on your arms.

There are A LOT of pieces. Whether this is justified or not is up to personal interpretation. I don’t think they’re all needed, but some people like to have a piece for everything in gameplay. Keeping track of character stats can be difficult since the markers aren’t very good at staying in place.

However, despite a few minor annoyances, the game is pleasing overall and well made. The art is beautiful and the writing is exquisite. Each Haunt scenario is its own horror story. Cards contain details that are wonderful teasers to stories that are never told (and so fuel your own imagination as the game goes on). These make discovering the house as much of a delight as fighting for your life during The Haunt.

Final Thoughts

Betrayal at House on the Hill is complicated. If you can play your first game with a veteran, I suggest you do so. Otherwise, allocate an additional hour for gameplay to figure out how to play. If you’re looking for a quick, fun, family game (or something to play while heavily drunk), look somewhere else. But if you want an absorbing game that can be enjoyed differently each time played, this game is for you.

Movie Review: The Campus

The Campus delivers on chills while paying homage to the breadth of styles that horror has to offer.

After her estranged father’s death, Morgan (Rachel Amanda Bryant) returns home for his funeral. She holds more hostility than love for her family, having been cast out before her eighteenth birthday, and uses the opportunity to burglarize her father’s business. But when she breaks into the studio campus after hours, she finds herself with more to worry about than security and shadows. Morgan finds a fate that she never knew waited for her—a supernatural death warrant her father signed before she was born—and falls into a rabbit hole of terror. She must discover how to escape the cycle of violence before she loses not just her life, but every piece of her soul.

Not satisfied with settling for a single horror subgenre, director Jason Horton uses a unique premise to blend many into one coherent film. Monsters, gore, psychological terror—they all have their place in The Campus. Each new style plays off the others, creating an atmosphere where the next fright waits just around the corner, or just behind the door, or maybe within Morgan herself. The question isn’t if Morgan will die a grisly death, but in which way?

Morgan is far from likable at first—too brash to gain sympathy and too bold for her own safety—but when the reality of her situation sets in, so does true fear. As a uniquely self-aware heroine, Morgan seems to know the ins and outs of horror films and just how to play the system to maximize her changes of survival, not that it saves her from repeated, gruesome deaths. She’s a scream queen who makes all the right choices while confronting her demons, metaphorical and physical, and still can’t escape. It’s the inevitability of the situation that breaks her and brings the audience along for the ride.

The Campus is set largely within the combination film studio and house where Morgan grew up. It’s a paragon of Hollywood—the perfect home that is really just a set with the reality of the studio just out of shot. This plays well with the fragmented personality of the film, showing the disparate aspects of Morgan, her life, and her soul. The confusing layout and mix of professional and personal turns the campus into a labyrinth. It asks the question: which parts of Morgan’s personality are real and which are simply a production? As the movie progresses, the fronts that Morgan puts up are stripped away and we see more of her natural self.

The Campus is a solid horror flick, one that horror addicts will enjoy regardless of subgenre preferences. It takes a new look at horror, hitting on popular themes and ideas in a way that keeps them fresh. There are monsters, blood and gore, and plenty of twists and turns for viewers who want to keep guessing until the last second.

The Campus is available to watch NOW on Amazon Instant Video.

Book Review: Her Dark Inheritance Meg Hafdahl

Book Review: Her Dark Inheritance by Meg Hafdahl

Don’t be alone. Not at Night. Not in Willoughby.

Willoughby, Minnesota is an idyllic small town in Middle America. It boasts one café, one motel, and a population of five-hundred-nine. But, there are more than small town secrets hiding in the shadows of the town square. Something lurks just out of sight—and out of mind—from the residents. A bloody history of accidents, violence, and murder plagues Willoughby and threatens the town even in the present.

In July 1982, someone brutally murdered three members of the Bergman family with an ax in their Willoughby home. For decades, town suspicion has fallen on the sole survivor of the bloody massacre: Caroline, the Bergman’s teenage daughter.

But Daphne Forrest knew her mother not as Caroline Bergman, but as Jane Downs-Forrest. It wasn’t until Jane’s death that Daphne found out that her mother was the suspected murderer that newspapers had dubbed The Minnesota Borden.

Daphne visits Willoughby for the first time, looking for answers to questions about the woman she thought she knew. She may not have grown up in Willoughby, but Daphne quickly finds that she shares a connection with the town that not even the residents can fathom. Willoughby wants to show her something, something that can save the town and, maybe, Daphne herself.

Thrust into memories of unfathomable violence and fear, Daphne must face her own mistakes and find a strength that her mother never had. If she wants to get out of Willoughby alive, she must face an evil that has stalked the small town since its founding.

Her Dark Inheritance follows in a glorious tradition of American ax murderers, but it’s far from the typical tale.

Meg Hafdahl creates characters real enough to climb off the page, including a monster that stalks you long after the novel’s last sentence. The town of Willoughby itself is as real as any character. Vividly described, it’s delightful and terrifying in equal measure. It embodies an abusive relationship that traps the residents in a situation where manipulation masquerades as protection and “this is for your own good” can be just as sinister as any threat. The story raises questions that strike to the core of all of us: What does it mean to be evil? What does it mean to be weak?

Hafdahl weaves an intricate tale of betrayal, murder, and small town intrigue. Her brilliant narrative style keeps you guessing from beginning to end about the next shocking twist. Whether it’s the truth about the Bergman murders or Daphne’s ultimate fate, Hafdahl keeps you at her mercy through every page.

I haven’t read a book in one sitting in a long time, but I couldn’t put down  Her Dark Inheritance. ‘One more chapter’ led to ‘one more chapter’ and ‘one more chapter’ after that. The book is labelled for Young Adults, but is just as gripping for adults. I recommend it whole-heartedly, especially for those who like to see the darker side of the American Dream.

Movie Review: The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro has created a film masterpiece. And, with a stunning thirteen Academy Award nominations for The Shape of Water, I am not the only one who thinks so.

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a cleaner at a top-secret government facility. Elisa lives a quiet life of routine and resignation. When abrasive military man, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), arrives at the facility with an aquatic monster from South America, Elisa is captivated by the surprising humanity she witnesses in the creature. She develops a kinship with the amphibian man, who is limited in communication much as she is. When Cold War agendas threaten the creature, Elisa risks everything to save him. Set against a backdrop of ego, intrigue, and romance, The Shape of Water is far more than the typical monster movie.

It’s difficult to characterize The Shape of Water as any one genre—whether spy thriller or romantic drama—but, in many ways, that is the film’s strength. The plot is gripping, driving from one scene to the next, always with a new question in the viewer’s mind. There are no groundbreaking twists or sharp reveals. Things move forward as expected, but at every turn the viewer is left wondering what exactly will come next. At no point do we feel as if any character is safe from the events on the screen. Unexpectedly funny moments set scenes of horror in sharp relief. It all builds to a gripping conclusion that is every bit as harrowing as it is satisfying.

The film features a diverse set of characters, not just in demographics, but in personality, motivation, and abilities. They were all equally memorable, but most importantly, they were believable. What set the characters at odds were their different motivations and values. There were no contrived conflicts. At every crossroad, each character made the decision that was appropriate for them.

Elisa Esposito was a powerful force throughout the film. Elisa is no shrinking violet. Despite the disadvantages of being a single woman in the 1960’s and being unable to speak, she doesn’t back down from what she knows is right. I’m always enamored with characters who have limitations of speech, especially in horror movies. The role of a Scream Queen filled by a woman who literally cannot scream is such a self-aware implementation of the genre that it deserves praise all on its own. The ability to convey emotion without words is an incredible skill and Sally Hawkins delivers, conveying with longing looks more emotion than I felt in all of the Notebook.

As the main villain, Richard Strickland is deliciously easy to hate. A cruel and vain man, Strickland has an inflated sense of his own importance and capability. Portrayed as the ideal 1960’s husband—with the good job, suburban house, beautiful wife, and loving children—his deviance lurks deeper. He treats everyone as beneath him. At the same time, Strickland is a remarkably ordinary villain, the sort of man that everyone will recognize. Even without the backdrop of the supernatural, Strickland would be a terrifying presence. Through the film, it becomes increasingly clear that he will do whatever he wants to fulfil his own sense of overinflated importance, regardless of consequences to others. His predatory attitude toward Elisa is particularly unsettling. Watching his spiral into madness and obsession is both terrifying and satisfying.

Despite being central to The Shape of Water, the character of the Amphibian Man is surprisingly flat. What is there to say about someone that is majorly made up of a costume and CGI? He’s visually entrancing and has a few poignant moments, but his main role is to showcase the way other characters interact with him rather than to give much growth or power in his own right. As for whether you find him attractive, that’s a personal matter and between you and your own sexuality.

The Cold War setting of the movie was indispensable to the plot. The motivation to keep knowledge out of enemy hands, if they weren’t able to obtain it themselves, drives the characters to dark depths, making them willing to pay any price for their country, even if that price is their human soul. I can’t imagine any attempt to make this movie in a modern setting. The film needed the backdrop of the era’s black and white morality to properly set the stage for the movie’s central theme.

After all, what makes a monster is not circumstance or affiliation, but underlying motivations and character. Humanity extends to more than just humans. What is it that makes someone worthy of respect? Worthy of life? The Cold War, during which even other human beings were seen as lesser animals due to their political affiliations, creates a perfect environment in which to address the question of “what makes something human?”

While I would not consider The Shape of Water a horror movie in its own right—certainly not a ‘scary movie’—I think that there are elements that every horror addict will enjoy. It’s a love letter to old horror movies, taking tropes from the height of campiness and drawing them out in ways that only modern filmmaking can. It is a visual delight to watch and a gripping story to follow with plenty of nods to classic horror films. Especially in a world where it feels as if anything and everything has been remade, The Shape of Water stands apart as the only one to take an old concept and do it justice.