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.

Book Review: Planet Dead: The Briggs Boys (Planet Dead Shorts Book 1)

Hello Addicts,

I’ve read many zombie apocalypse tales over the years, both good and bad.  The good ones tend to spawn prequels, which provide essential backstory on popular heroes and villains.  Planet Dead by Sylvester Barzey, is one such series.  This month, I decided to look at a tale set in that universe, Planet Dead: The Briggs Boys (Planet Dead Shorts Book 1).

The story opens with the Briggs brothers, Robert and Peter, arguing just outside of their infected mother’s room.  Robert, the older brother, knows what will happen once she turns and wants to send her off before she becomes a zombie.  Peter, the doting son, remained by his mother’s side after his older brother left to join the military and start a family of his own.  He holds on to the hope that Mama Briggs will not die or become a rabid, flesh-eating monster.  When she inevitably does, a small horde joins her, and the boys find themselves under siege in their own home.  What follows is a nonstop ride involving mercenaries and a possible cure.  Follow the epic beginning of the Briggs Boys as they find their place in Planet Dead.

I enjoyed this short glimpse into the Planet Dead world.  The story moved at a comfortably rapid pace, and I found myself not wanting to put it down until I found out what happened next.  The characters were well-developed, given the story length, and you can’t help but want to follow them in the later novels.  The only issue I had has more to do with prequels in general, predictability.  It becomes easy to guess the story ending and the fate of characters that don’t appear in the main novels.  That aside, I recommend this introduction to the Planet Dead world.  If you started with the main novels, this short provides some fun character backstory.  Personally, I plan on reading the rest of the books in the series as soon as I can.

Until next time, Addicts.

D.J.

Book Review: Arithmophobia by Ruschelle Dillon

Review – Arithmophobia by Ruschelle Dillon

By Chantal Boudreau

I jumped on the opportunity to review this horror short story collection because I love themed collections and anthologies.  The title and cover image also wowed me.  Perhaps as a result, I may have started in on this with unfair expectations.

While the first story had an interesting premise, I found it a little hard to follow.  Not that the descriptions were faulty, but not everything made sense and I had some difficulty figuring out why certain things were happening.  I was still scratching my head at the end.

I enjoyed the second story more.  The author has a plucky, abrupt tone that works with this tale because of the nature of the main character.  I didn’t exactly feel sorry for the self-centered and selfish woman, but I stll wouldn’t have wished her nasty fate upon her.  The stories varied from there, with more highs than lows and always with strong ties to their number and following in chronological order.

I’m inclined towards the stories where I found myself sympathizing with the characters, even the villainous ones – as I find those tales more disturbing. The stand-outs for me in this collection were “Three Is as Magic as Can Be” for its strong horror elements and “These Six Walls” for its intriguing and creative twist.

I can’t say I loved every story in this collection, but for the most part they were entertaining and held well to the overall theme.  While I felt the dialogue at times seemed a little forced, the author made up for that with colourful imagery and dark humour (I love dark humour.)

Because the stories I consider the highlights of the collection would support a four star rating if on their own, I consider Arithmophobia a 3.5 out of 5.  I would particularly recommend it to those who enjoy word play and higher energy stories.

Book Review: The Ghost Notebooks by Ben Dolnick

reviewsThe Ghost Notebooks by Ben Dolnick is one of those books reviewers pray for, a story that absorbs you completely and carries you along so that you forget the reviewing aspect and once more become a pure, unadulterated reader.

Hannah and Nick are a young couple living in New York who find their relationship in crisis. They survive this difficulty, marry and take themselves off to live and work in a historic house in rural Hibernia, a house that once belonged to the 19th-century writer, Edmund Wright. Here they discover the tragedy which befell the man and Hannah starts to hear voices, whisperings in the night.

As the story progresses, Hannah’s mental health deteriorates – an aspect of Hannah’s past Ben knows very little about as neither she nor her parents have ever been totally forthcoming about a breakdown in her earlier life. Hannah eventually disappears but after the discovery of her body, Nick digs deeper into her psychiatric history in an attempt to discover whether she killed herself or whether her death had been accidental.

What he discovers leads him to look into the reasons behind her death, how ‘haunted’ the house is and how tormented Hannah had become. The story continues apace with his own institutionalization as a result of his grief-stricken and erratic behaviour but he escapes and returns to Wright’s house, determined to put an end to the hauntings there.

Fluent prose, atmospheric and striking a perfect gothic note, The Ghost Notebooks was a wonderful read.

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.

Book Review: To Watch You Bleed by Jordon Greene

Hello Addicts,

How do you define horror? What is the difference between a horror story and a thriller? Those are the questions I needed to ask for this review. There is a fine line between the two, and To Watch You Bleed by Jordon Greene.

The tone of the story is set in the opening chapter with a car crash involving two young boys caused by their drunken and abusive father. The dad dies on impact, while the youngest boy holds on long enough for the driver of the other car to come and check on them. Once the older boy mentions that their father died, the other driver runs away, ignoring all cries for help. Flash forward to Halloween three years later, and we find a family of four getting ready for their coming day. The oldest daughter, Mara, is upset with her parents because it is the final Halloween party of her senior year, and she is grounded while her younger brother, Aiden, is allowed to go. Lenore, their mother, is anything but looking forward to greeting trick or treaters that night. Her husband, Dalton, promises to, but later backs out of it, claiming to be working late on a new client project. As night arrives, Aiden goes off to the party, where the girl he is in love with waits for him. Mara locks herself in the bedroom, where she waits for her boyfriend in a barely there negligee. Dalton blows his wife off, even rejecting her phone calls, to spend the night celebrating with his buxom secretary. Lenore is alone when three kids arrive with evil intentions.

The three masked boys hold Lenore and Mara hostage while they wait for Dalton to arrive home. Their true intentions for the family become horrifyingly clear when they stab Mara’s boyfriend in the neck and leave him to bleed out while their target races home. After Dalton arrives, they kill the boyfriend anyway by sawing deep into his throat with a sharp hunting knife. Dalton is forced to watch at gunpoint as his wife and daughter are violated and tortured. Things only get worse as the night wears on, more blood is spilled, and the bodies begin to pile up.

This was a difficult story for me to read, mostly because I’m not that big of a torture story fan. While the blood and gore was fitting to a point, it was hard to stay motivated at times to continue reading because of how unjust the story felt. It seems like the more sympathy you felt for a character, the better the chance they died in a very horrifying way. The information from the first chapter made it pretty simple to figure out who the three boys were there for, and who one of them was. It seemed to take forever for Dalton to figure out who the leader wanted to hurt, and he only did so when the boy spelled it out for him. The story did have a good rhythm throughout, and that was one of the reasons I stuck with the story. I feel the story qualifies as a horror story because of how the amount of terror the characters, and by extension the reader, feels as the story unfolds. There are points when you think characters might make it, only for the rug to be pulled out from under them.

Overall, the story is a good one to read, but if you are not a fan of torture style stories and movies, then you might not feel the same way. If those are your cup of tea, then To Watch You Bleed  is for you.

Until next time, Addicts…

D.J. Pitsiladis