VHS Board Games: The Interactive Experiment

Arcades weren’t in your house. Unless your name was Flynn.

During the 80′s and 90′s, board game developers discovered a new competitor in the growing influence of household digital games. People had been playing in arcades for years at this point, but they usually had to leave their house in order to do so.

Similarly, while the Atari console system made great strides in the mid-to-late 70′s, it suffered serious setbacks when the video game market crashed in 1983 and almost took out the fledgling industry. It would take a couple years before consumer confidence in home video and computer gaming would return, and board games enjoyed the reprieve a little longer.

With the spread of systems like Nintendo and Sega, however, interactive games that could be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home became a primary focus of the industry and quickly dominated the public imagination. Some feared that board games would become obsolete in this new electronic world. People were more interested in controlling Mario and Sonic than planning world domination with Risk. There had already been electronic versions of several traditional games at this point (electronic battleship, electronic chess, etc.) , but while they sold well, more was needed to keep them relevant in the public eye. Some new gimmick. They found it in VHS.

The basic idea was to having players follow instructions from the video tape while playing the game. Most, like the Candyland and Chutes and Ladders VCR Board Game were simple matching games. Some were sports games that depicted the “plays” you had just done on the board. Others periodically changed rules elements while you played to give gameplay a shakeup. And we’re going to look at a few classic examples.

Now, before I go any further, I know what you may be thinking: “Even if I found one of these amazingly retro games, how could I play? Everyone knows that VCRs were systematically rounded up and destroyed in the post-DVD purges!” My answer: the Internet. Yes, you can find most of these videos as files on certain board game forums or on the “America’s Funniest Cats” webpage, YouTube.

(It’s just not worth having to think, “when was the last time I cleaned the cassette heads?” Trust me, it was a thing.)

 

Clue

In 1985, Parker Brothers released the Clue: VCR Mystery Game to coincide with the Clue movie. Unfortunately, they did not use the same cast. It’s a real shame, especially since the game would’ve been worth it just for the extra Tim Curry footage.

Strictly speaking, this wasn’t actually a board game. Rather than reproduce the mansion for players to investigate room by room like the original game, players instead watched a scene of the characters interacting with each other, then took turns drawing clues and actions to determine who the victims are, who tried to kill them, where, and how. Clues might say “The knife was used in the kitchen”, or “A woman was killed in the room with the round  floor tiles”, whereas Actions forced you to reveal some of your clues, steal them from another player, and allowed you to rewatch scenes to find something you might have missed. There are multiple crimes per case, so you had to match several murder weapons to the right victims, as well as the rooms they happened in.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and bad movies in general. This being said, the Clue VHS Game is…not easy to watch. The acting is bad. Very bad. High school plays are better and  have higher production qualities. Now, it can approach the level of “so bad it’s good” that some of us crave by pointing out a few things:

  • The Butler, named Diddit (ha!), opens by instructing you to solve the one to five murders that will happen tonight as they occur. So, you know that not one, but several murders will happen, but don’t call the police? Interesting.
  • Despite his name, Diddit very emphatically tells the players he is not a suspect. Yet after reading the extremely shady backgrounds of the other guests, it seems odd that he’s okay staying with these people if he wasn’t the mastermind behind it in the first place.
  • The Maid, Mrs. White, is colorblind. As we all know, being colorblind means she cannot see colors at all. Apparently this also means she has a speed impediment. And a learning disorder. Yeah…
  • Miss Scarlet plays up about every Asian stereotype ever.
  • Madam Rose is a clairvoyant who starts taking instructions from her teddy bear. Yes, you read that correctly.

 

Get used to the acting, too, because you will be rewinding, pausing, fast forwarding, rewinding and pausing over and over again.

Admittedly, there’s an audience for everything, but when a game becomes tedious enough to gain infamy, let most casual gamers beware.

 

Nightmare

“So. You want to play the game. MY game. By MY rules. I am… the GATEKEEPER!”

In 1991, a company called “A Couple ‘A Cowboys” released a board game called Nightmare (renamed Atmosfear in Europe). In the game, players move around the board attempting to collect all six keys of your color and landing on the center of the board before 60 minutes is up. Relatively simple, right? There are some random elements included, such as Fate and Chance cards, and two Black Holes that remove you from the game for a period of time, but by far the most important feature is the Gatekeeper:

“I’d like to punish one of you now… You. The one holding the lowest number. YES YOU!!! ANSWER ME YOU MAGGOT!!!”

He is awesome.

No, there is no production value. It’s a guy in a front of a dark screen with a bathrobe yelling at the players in a funny accent. The special effects are the sound of thunder crashing and some lighting. And it is a better game than Clue in almost every way.

You see, you are playing his game. Why? Who knows. Apparently you just want to. Something about The Other Side. And that means you have to play by his rules. He likes to appear in sudden jump scares. It’s his thing. You’ll be playing, concentrating on the board, when suddenly there’s a loud crash and a shouted “YOU! ” Meanwhile, you’re mopping up what’s left of the drink you were holding and cursing under your breath. Whenever he addresses a player, they must immediately respond “Yes, my Gatekeeper!” or be punished. He will most likely punish them anyway. Or just make fun of them. Yes, this simple, old VHS tape will troll your players from start to finish.

“STOP! Who is the old one? The frail one the rest of you pity? Answer me or be BANISHED!”

Combine simple game mechanics everyone can follow with free in-game entertainment and you have a winner. However, this isn’t a game you pull out all the time. It’s a party game for people who can appreciate silly accents and cheap jump scares. While this game can be cornily hilarious, you can also get used to it in a hurry. The tape plays the same way every time, so once you have a few sessions under your belt, you’ll know exactly what’s going to happen – which is typical of most of these kinds of games.

There are three sequels (Nightmare II-IV),  so if your group likes, there are variations in gameplay so it’s not the same each time. A rare exception to the VHS game line, Nightmare was extremely popular, especially in native Australia. It led to two successor games, The Harbingers in 1995, and The Gatekeeper in 2003. The Gatekeeper even went one step further and introduced this DVD format thing with random video segments for better replay value, although the latest version of The Gatekeeper doesn’t insult the players as much. What a pity.

If you see Nightmare going for a couple dollars at thrift store, pick it up. As long as your friends can accept the notion of once in a great while playing a game just for some silly fun… Then turn down the lights and turn up the volume!

 

 Star Trek

“I control life support, weapons and navigation on this ship. Your life is in my hands… We will play a warrior’s game of strength and cunning!”

The Nightmare series was a popular one for a while, and certainly inspired a cult following, so it’s only natural that other companies would try to capitalize on their success. In 1993, Decipher released the Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive Board Game.

In this game, players are a group of lower ranking Starfleet officers on board the Enterprise-D. It has been evacuated while undergoing repairs, but it is hijacked by a rogue Klingon named Kavok who plans to fly it to Qo’nos and provoke a war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.

And it’s basically a reskin of Nightmare.

I love Star Trek and Star Trek games, but even I must acknowledge that this game is… suspiciously “content-similar”. The players move around the board collecting five isolinear chips to reach the bridge and stop Kavok before 60 minutes are up. Instead of being banished to the Black Hole, players are trapped in Stasis Fields. Instead of Fate and Chance cards, there are Holodeck and Bij (punishment) cards. And instead of The Gatekeeper, you have Captain Kavok.

You miserable ghargh!

The first thing you may notice is that Kavok looks suspiciously like Chancellor Gowron from TNG and DS9.

Okay, maybe the first thing you noticed was, “Hey, that’s the actual set!” Yes, they did film these scenes on the set of The Next Generation, and for my fellow Trekkies, yes, that is Robert O’Reilly, the actor who plays Gowron. (He has the same really creepy eyes.) He takes the role of Gatekeeper, insulting the players, forcing them miss turns, and if he is displeased with you, making you experience Bij.

For a reskin, they do a decent job keeping the mechanics believable. Kavok constantly demands that the players stop and do what he says.

Why should you? Because he controls life support and can stop you any time.

Why doesn’t he just kill you? “No battle is full, no victory honorable without the challenge of a worthy adversary!”

If you fail to answer him, you lose access codes. Is it a stretch? Sure, but I give them credit for trying.

The precedent for over the top acting continues, but as a fan of the show, it was funnier for me than it might be for someone else. “You are sounding frail. I will call you Puj. Klingon for weak. Because you lack strength.” However, it does lack a lot of the atmosphere that gives Nightmare its charm. There are no jump scares, but they did include communicator badge stickers…Yay.

It’s not a bad game to play once in a while, but it appeals to an even smaller audience than Nightmare and is therefore harder to play. It makes for a great drinking game though. Every time you “experience Bij”, you take a drink. Nothing funnier than a bunch of people sitting around a table chanting “Bij! Bij! Bij!” while a crazy Klingon laughs on the viewscreen, er, TV.

 

Star Wars


“I sense a disturbance in the Force… Rebels! Not more than six of you. I can feel your presence… Come to me, traitors!”

In 1996, Parker Brothers released Star Wars: The Interactive Video Board Game. This time around you are group of Rebels who have snuck aboard the second Death Star and are trying to sabotage it before it attacks a Rebel supply base on D’rinba IV. You must place six explosives on the outer and inner rings, using your R2 unit to collect cards allowing you access to certain rooms or to unlock abilities.

While it is another reskin of Nightmare, Parker Brothers went a little further in adding to gameplay. True, Darth Vader appears on the screen like The Gatekeeper and Kavok before him, penalizing the players and periodically taunting them to “use their anger” to turn on each other while they travel a circular path on the board. Nightmare’s “Black Hole” now travels the board as the Death Star’s lone Stormtrooper (showing off their top notch security). Many of your cards have symbols on them, and they can only be played when that symbol appears on the screen. At one point in the game, one of you turns to the Dark Side and hunts the other players down.

Yep.

As the game progresses, you gain and lose Dark Side points by hurting your teammates, and one of you will eventually fall.

That’s cool.

The board is presented in levels. The Outer Ring is the board itself. The Inner Ring is a raised plastic platform, and the Reactor Core is raised even higher. While it looks a little cooler, and the detail is decent, this allows the game to be more random by rotating the levels. Since you need a specific color key to move up a level at any particular access point, having it suddenly move can make or break the next few turns for you.

As for the video production, they put in some extra effort here too. The video is interspersed with clips from the original trilogy, and the original music is played throughout. The sets also do look like the halls of the Death Star, but more importantly, this is the real Darth Vader. The suit is worn by David Prowse, the original actor, and all the dialogue is recorded by James Earl Jones himself. There is not much in the way of overacting here. Vader does not maniacally laugh and make fun of a player for being old.

Instead, the silliness comes from what’s being said. There’s something odd about the Dark Lord of the Sith, epitome of evil for an entire generation, looking through the screen and intoning, “You. The Rebel using the Force. Roll the die 3 times.*breath* If you roll a 5 or 6…”

So, it being a VHS game, again, this is not something you would want to play often. As always though, if you can find the right audience (particularly Star Wars fans), it can be an enjoyable experience.

 

While these VHS games have faded from the public consciousness as the gimmicks they were, I would still like to see something like them resurface. Most video board games today fall into the “trivia” category, and while I enjoy The Office, Office trivia does not a compelling game make. DVD technology allows developers to program random scenes in so every game played differently or put multiple tracks on a single disc for separate experiences. (Although The Gatekeeper series attempted exactly that towards the end of its lifespan, it unfortunately came towards the end of this game style’s popularity.) Even if they were born out of a long ago market panic, board gaming now is in a much stronger place. The possibilities are there for a go at them, and I for one  would love to see them explored.

Nathan Crocco is a regular contributor to the site. If you have particular game variants you wish to request of him, he can be reached at nathan@cardboardrepublic.com.

 

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