The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released its guidelines for safely celebrating Halloween in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Traditional trick-or-treating is designated high risk, but you still have lots of fun options like backyard scavenger hunts and outdoor pumpkin carving with friends or neighbors at a proper distance. (We’ve found the best tools for jack-o’-lanterns.) The CDC did leave one rather obvious activity off the list—a scary game night at home with family or roommates!
If your knowledge of sinister games begins and ends with Clue, allow me to be your guide. As a kid, I lived for three-dimensional horror-themed games like Which Witch (video), a Mouse Trap–style haunted house full of booby traps, and I Vant to Bite Your Finger (video), which is based on a questionable premise that asks children to stick a finger in Dracula’s mouth whenever he opens his cape. These days, you can find plenty of less creepy, but still spooky, games to choose from.
Although my current favorites are mostly appropriate for teenagers and adults, kid-friendly options are easy to search out. We’ve already reviewed a great one, Go Away Monster!, in our “Board Games We Love for Kids” guide, and Disney has created dark spins on classics such as The Game of Life: Haunted Mansion Disney Theme Park Edition (cruise through the afterlife picking up ghosts) and Monopoly: Disney Villains Edition (steal and scheme your way to success in what is probably a more accurate portrayal of real estate development than the original).
Finally, a chance to step into the shoes of your favorite ’80s horror villain! Sort of. The 10 playable characters in Mixtape Massacre are different enough from those in existing intellectual properties to avoid a copyright lawsuit, but barely—your options include a murderous doll named Buddy, a white-masked killer simply known as The Legend, and Dr. Ravenous, a cannibal who loves classical music. (Clear stand-ins for Chucky, Jason, and Hannibal Lecter, respectively, but shhh, don’t tell anyone.)
Players stalk a board laid out like a small town, collecting souvenir tokens in the form of gory goodies such as eyeballs, skulls, and severed hands. The first to gain 10 souvenirs wins, and you earn them by battling other players and potential victims made up of genre tropes like the prep, the stoner, and “the girl who picks up a phone but there’s no dial tone.”
You’ll also go up against suspiciously familiar figures straight out of popular ’80s teen movies, so if you ever thought The Breakfast Club should have ended with a gremlin devouring Bender right after his iconic skyward fist pump, this is the game for you. If you have no idea what any of that means, move forward one space to my next pick.
Defeat Universal Studios’s scariest stars
This tamer—and officially sanctioned—game pits players against Universal Studios’s legacy monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and Gill-man (more commonly known as the titular character in Creature from the Black Lagoon).
Horrified is a cooperative game, meaning all the players work together to overcome the villains, and the number of fiends you battle depends on how hard you want the game to be. The rules suggest starting off with Gill-man and Dracula the first time you play, then building up the difficulty by adding monsters as you grow more familiar with the rules.
Methods of defeating the monsters differ depending on which ones are on the board, and in a family-friendly twist, none are actually killed off. Goals include finding a cure for the Wolf Man’s lycanthropy, breaking the Mummy’s curse and returning him to his tomb, and—my favorite—teaching Frankenstein’s monster and the Bride what it means to be human so they can live happily ever after. Consider incorporating a little rule of my own when you play, and give the Bride an actual name.
Prove you’ve got the most braaaaaains
Trivial Pursuit: Horror Ultimate Edition ($55 at the time of publication)
Who it’s for: cinephiles, anyone who knows Jason wasn’t the real killer in Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning
Player count: 2 or more
Duration: 60-plus minutes
Rules (PDF; same gameplay as in the original)
Ages: 17 and up
Originally sold as a quick-play game with only a pack of 600 horror-themed question cards and a die, Trivial Pursuit: Horror Ultimate Edition comes with its own board that looks like a devil-summoning chalk circle and player discs featuring eerie three-dimensional centerpieces such as a cracked doll head or a zombie hand erupting from the ground. Its expanded roster of 1,800 questions comes slotted into the categories Gore & Disturbing, Psychological, Killer, Monster, Paranormal, and Comedy.
You don’t need to be a scary-movie expert to play, but it obviously helps. Queries range from guessable multiple-choice entries for fans of general pop culture (“In The Exorcist from 1973, the demon Pazuzu does not possess which character: Chris MacNeil, Regan MacNeil, or Father Damien Karras?”) to questions so micro-detailed that even a die-hard horror head might stumble on the answer. I own a limited-edition, 4K-restoration Blu-ray of The Bird with The Crystal Plumage, for instance, but I still drew a complete blank when asked about the titular bird’s country of origin. (Serbia, if you were wondering.)
Contact the other side (or fake it)
Ouija Board ($20 at the time of publication)
Who it’s for: pranksters, ghost hunters
Player count: 1 or more
Duration: Your call, unless you really contact a spirit. Then all bets are off.
Ages: 8 and up (Hasbro’s trademarked version)
Technically, Hasbro owns the trademark for the Ouija Board, but the name gets casually tossed around for any form of spirit board—a flat surface with letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0 through 9, and the words yes, no, and goodbye on it. The goal is communication with a paranormal entity using a planchette, a small elevated plank that everyone places their fingertips on, supposedly allowing a ghost to take over and move it around the board, spelling out words and signifying ages and dates. You’ve likely encountered this Victorian-era parlor game at slumber parties past, accompanied by a chorus of You’re moving it! / No I’m not! / Yes you are, I saw you!
I highly recommend giving it another shot. Relaxing into your ideomotor response—unconscious muscular movement—once the planchette starts to glide can be a fun imagination exercise or thought experiment. Get everyone to make up a short story based on the experience afterward! And here’s a tip: If you have an urge to lift the veil between the living and the dead but don’t own a Ouija Board, you can DIY one just by ordering a pizza. Cut off the box top, use a marker to write out all the necessary letters and numbers, and use the little round pizza saver that comes in the center of the pie as your planchette. It’s an instant Halloween party. And don’t forget to offer a slice to any invisible guests that show up.
Role-play the wolfen way
Werewolves of Millers Hollow ($10 at the time of publication)
Who it’s for: larger families or friend groups quarantining together, excellent liars
Player count: 8 or more, but consider that a suggestion (I’ve played with less)
Duration: 20 to 30 minutes
Ages: 14 and up
This one isn’t a board game, but it’s too fun to leave out, and if you’ve ever played the whodunit murder mystery game Mafia, you’ll catch on fast. Werewolves of Millers Hollow is essentially the same thing but with toothy shape-shifters as the killers. As in Mafia, you could play this game using a normal deck of cards to designate each player’s role, but I love this version because of its more in-depth storytelling and tarot-esque illustrations.
In a nutshell, a moderator (elect the most theatrical person in the room) deals out individual character cards, but no one reveals who they are. Options in Millers Hollow include townsfolk and the werewolves, and depending on the number of players, a peppering of additional characters with special abilities. Once everyone knows their identity, the moderator tells players that it’s nightfall and instructs them to close their eyes. The werewolves reveal themselves to each other and the moderator, and then silently decide whom in the group to kill. Additional actions can also happen at night—for example, if The Little Girl card has been mixed into the shuffle, that player can peek at night to try to see who the werewolves are, but if caught they’ll die of fright.
Once the werewolves decide on their victim, the moderator tells everyone to open their eyes and reveals who has been clawed to bits, after which the survivors attempt to guess the werewolves’ identities by agreeing on a vote before night falls once more. But beware: You might sentence an innocent person to death, and the werewolves will strike again.
Therein lies the fun—everyone starts vehemently accusing and denying, and it can be a great way to vent simmering frustrations in a packed home. Are you a werewolf? Maybe your first kill should be the person who keeps leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor. Or if your knockabout sibling suddenly shows a talent for swaying the room to his vote, nudge them into pursuing politics. Just be warned that you might end a game suspecting that the cousin crashing in your mom’s basement is a sociopath after they successfully pick everyone off without once drawing suspicion.
Fear is where you find it
Candy Land ($6 at the time of publication)
Who it’s for: the littlest ones
Player count: 2 to 4
Duration: 30-plus minutes
Ages: 3 and up
Hear me out. If you have really young kids, Candy Land is an on-the-nose choice given Halloween’s sugar currency. Consider incorporating a few actual treats into the game itself, like doling out a piece of candy each time someone lands on a certain color. As for the spooky part, there’s always Licorice Lagoon or Molasses Swamp (some of the locations and character details have evolved over the years). If you find yourself growing bored during this G-rated romp, and you’re playing with an edition featuring the ax-wielding Mr. Mint, spend some time staring into his dead eyes. That clown is nightmare fuel no matter how many times they make him over.