Saturday, October 9, 2010

Review: Dread House: “A Game for Kids and Brave Adults”

If your regular gaming group includes kids who might get too spooked by a standard Dread game, or if you’re just looking for another fun thing to do with a Jenga tower, you might want to give Dread House a try. Dread House is a new 2-6 player game from Dig A Thousand Holes Publishing in which you play a group of teenagers exploring a haunted house. It’s mostly a board game, but includes an appropriate amount of narrative role-playing for an 8+ age group. The rulebook also includes suggestions for incorporating younger kids into your games.

You begin by choosing your pre-generated character (The Nerd, The Bully, The Athlete, The Artist, The Scaredy-Cat, or The Gossip), then take turns exploring rooms in the haunted house (mapped out on the game board). When you enter a new room, the player to your left gets to draw a card from the Spooky Deck and use the prompt on it (for example, “mysteriously floating objects) to creatively narrate what you find (they get the Spooky token if they make it really creepy!).

You then have to decide if you’re going to Brave it Out to stay in the room and search for an item, or turn tail and Flee to the next-closest kid for moral support. In order to Brave it Out, you must make a pull from the Jenga tower and describe how it is that you weren’t too afraid. If you choose to run, the kid you run to must make the pull for you (or you can both run to the NEXT kid, and so on). There are several situations where a block can be reserved in the Courage Pile instead of going back onto the tower, and players can then (in certain situations) use a block from that pile instead of making a pull.

The ultimate goal of the game is to make it through the night until sunrise (by making it through the Item deck to the Sunrise card, somewhere in the bottom three of the deck). If the tower falls on your turn, your character runs home (no death or maiming in this kid-friendly game!) and you get to play out the rest of the game as one of six monsters with a goal of scaring everyone else into running home, too.

We managed to snag a copy at GenCon before they sold out, and we were excited to give it a spin when my 12-year-old niece came to stay with us for a week. She really got into describing the scary stuff we encountered in the rooms, going so far as to get up and flicker the lights at one point, and went to town developing her “athlete” character into equal parts fearless hero and total ditz. Unfortunately, the game went a little long and we lost her towards the end – it’s too bad Dread House doesn’t include a “heroic sacrifice” option, because that’s the route she went (although not as dramatically as it happens most games of Dread).

So it might not have held its intended audience, but at least Paul and I had a blast. I think ultimately the problem was not with the game itself, but more that 3 players is just not the sweet spot for this one. There are special 2-player rules which we’re excited to try out, and a bigger crowd of 4-6 would allow for more variety in storytelling and events, but with 3 we just ran out of steam. I ended up knocking the tower over and becoming a monster (the adorable Ghost!), but with only two kids in the house, my special monster abilities weren’t as much fun as they could have been. And at that point I only needed one more of them to become a monster for me to win (hence her “heroic sacrifice” when she started to get bored). I also think that almost-thirteen might have been a little too old without younger kids there to divert the focus - perhaps we have a few more years until she's old enough to realize it's okay to think gaming is cool.

We’re excited to give the two-player rules a shot in the near future, and we also hope to eventually try it with a full group of 5 or 6, be it kids or adults. I wasn't totally crazy about the idea of the Courage pile - it's good in theory to be able to avoid a pull, but having a handful of blocks not placed back onto the tower makes the pulls that much harder anyways, so it seems like a lose-lose - we might try a play sans the Courage pile in the future and see how that changes things. It also would have been neat to see a customizable house where the layout could be different with each play, but I feel confident that the variety of prompts on the Spooky cards should be enough to keep each game fresh.

The rulebook is short and easy to get through, and has a glossy, full-color cover. The colored tokens you use to represent your character are nice, solid wooden discs. Beyond these two points, I don’t think there’s a huge advantage to buying the physical version versus the pdf – the rest of the components aren’t any better quality than anything you could print yourself (the price difference is $20 + $5 shipping versus $10 for the PDF). Character and monster sheets are simply half-sheets of 8.5x11 paper, and the house map is three sheets of 8.5x11 cardstock. The Spooky Deck, Item Deck, and Monster deck are business card-sized cardstock. Paul respectfully disagrees with me on this one – he mentions that he loved getting everything together, shiny and new and pre-made, in a fun little package (and I guess I can’t argue with that).

Wanting to give Dread AND Dread House a try after our reading our coverage this week? RPGNow and RPGDriveThru are currently offering the “Dread for All Ages” package, where you get BOTH games in a PDF bundle for only $17.50. It’s the perfect Halloween gift for you and your loved ones!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the brilliant review and feedback! Emily and I love hearing how kids are reacting the game. And that flickering light is a bit of genius.

    Game length was a concern of ours when we were designing it. After our first playtest, which otherwise went amazingly well, we discovered that kids had a much lower attention span for this sort of thing than we thought. The fortunate thing is that it's somewhat adjustable. The length of the game is directly tied to the number of rooms you have to search and there are a couple ways you can affect that.

    By default, the sunrise happens when you search one of the last four rooms. You can bump this up to the 5-8 rooms by taking four cards off the top of the Item Deck and putting them on the bottom. That'll knock about a half hour off of your game. This may be ideal for a three person game. But since there's only 11 rooms with hidden item cards, I wouldn't recommend doing that for larger groups. Some kids may miss out on a chance to discover items.

    Also,once the game gets going, the perceptive grown-ups who feel attention waning can make a beeline to the rooms that don't have revealed items. By ignoring the easy low hanging fruit, you can move things along at a faster rate.

    Conversely, if for some reason you find yourself wanting a longer game, you can shuffle all or some of the revealed Item Cards into the Item Deck.


    (P.S. The secret to the Courage Pile is to think of it as two pulls you're getting for the price of one if you're clever enough to coordinate them correctly.)


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