I first heard about this old magazine game while perusing some horror/Lovecraft geeklists. I held off buying a copy for years because the rules are notoriously obtuse. However, when I had a chance to buy a very cheap, unpunched copy on Ebay, I decided to give it a try and I am glad I did.
Nightmare House originally appeared in a 1983 Ares magazine. The game is for 2-5 players. In the game, a large gothic mansion in Wisconsin is haunted by several evil spirits. One player is the evil entity controlling the house. The remaining players are ghost hunters who enter the house one night and are trying to banish the house's evil. Like much of the game, the story is dripping with theme. You have a several paragraph history of the evil inhabitants of the house. Each of the 12 characters that can be played also has a short history of how they got involved with the exorcism attempt.
It came with a nice paper map showing a map of the house and astral plane. The house map is nicely drawn and consists of three main floors, plus a cellar, attic, and tower. Here is an example of the map for the first floor:
The other half of the map consists of the astral plane. The astral plane consists of 4 circles of energy and 3 circles of darkness. Twelve axes of power cross through the circles. At the intersections of the circle of energy and axes of power, are power points that correspond to the rooms in the house. The number of axes of energy under the control of the entity determines its strength. The entity resides in one of the circles of darkness. This photo shows the astral plane on the right:
The map also has a rules summary, a power wheel to keep your power markers,
a chart for your soul markers,
The game takes place between 6 pm and 6 am. The characters need to exorcise the entity before it reaches 6 am.
The counters are very basic and typical of the 80s.
The rules are justifiably maligned. While they are organized in outline form like many games from the 1980s, the main problem is that the core rules are lost with all the if-then cases and character traits. The rules would have been much easier to understand if they clearly stated the main actions that occur in each phase. Then they could have discussed some of the special circumstances below them. It probably would have also been less confusing if they would have simply consolidated all of the characters' special abilities and die roll modifiers separately rather than trying to include all 12 with the main rules. The following file is very useful: NIGHTMARE HOUSE summary.doc for keeping track of which character does what.
Another issue with the rules is that they do not use terms consistently. You also need to get a copy of the errata which has a number of rules clarifications and new rules nightmar.txt.
The rules can be deciphered, but it takes some work. I have developed a file Core Rules Summary for Nightmare House that tries to clearly state the main rules for each phase of the game. If you use this along with the errata and character summary, you will find that the rules are not really that difficult. I would reserve using the actual rules only to get clarifications for very specific cases since it is hard to quickly find the rule you want.
Each turn has 11 phases.
Power Phase: The house and hunters receive power markers which are used to energize haunts, perform exorcism and possession attempts, etc. The more axes of power the house controls, the more power markers he receives. Hunters receive power markers based on their psychic strength. The power markers have values between 1 and 4. Some characters can perform healing.
Light Phase: The house tries to turn off the lights in the house while hunters can try to turn them back on if they reach a fuse box.
Movement Phase: The hunters move around the house and exchange tools. Certain characters can draw pentagrams
Warding Phase: Hunters can attempt to create wards to disperse the focus of evil that resides in a couple rooms.
Haunt Phase: The house moves physical and psychic haunts that are on the clock to the house map, where they move and try to attack the hunters. The house also energizes additional haunts that will appear in future hours.
Search Phase: The hunters perform searches of rooms with discovery markers. These discoveries can be quite powerful.
First Panic Phase: Panicked hunters may flee to other rooms in the house.
Astral Phase: The main part of the turn. Hunters try to enter the astral plane. Once there, they move (preferably with a life line) to power points where they will attempt to exorcise rooms, axis control points, or the entity. Hunters that fail an exorcism or wander too far in the astral plane (especially without a lifeline), can become lost in the astral plane.
The Possession Phase: The house attacks hunters and tries to either make their soul vulnerable or possess their body.
Second Panic Phase: Panicked hunters may lose power markers and soul.
Hour Phase: Determine if victory conditions met, clean up board, and advance clock one hour.
What Do I Think
First off, this is a game of its time. You move around fairly plain markers and roll a lot of dice throughout the game. Because of the dice rolling, there is a lot of luck involved in this game. Your decisions mostly consist of deciding where to move to; what to exorcise; how many power markers to spend during the various phases; and then repeating the above until you are ready to battle the entity. If you are looking for a deep Euro style game, this is not it. The closest game to this is probably Betrayal at the House on the Hill. Unlike some games that build up to a climax (think Pandemic), this game actually gets a bit easier as the hunters start destroying the axes of power. That is until they battle the entity.
The rules, while complicated by today's standards, aren't really that bad. While confusing, I did not find them too bad once I developed my rules summary. Compared to Avalon Hill games of the same time period, it is a relatively simple game. If I was rating this game strictly on its mechanics, I would give it a 6.
On the other hand, the game has lots of theme. The introduction gives you the whole story of the haunted house and its evil inhabitants. Each of the characters has a short bio like in Arkham Horror. Every haunt has a couple sentence description of what is happening that makes up for the boring counters. Each of the discoveries has a paragraph description of what you see and what happens as a result. The only place where the game falls short is the lack of flavor text for each of the rooms (which would be a nice side project).
I also found this game solo-friendly. I have discussed how to make this game more solo-friendly in another post Making this game more solo-friendly. If you enjoyed older solo games like Intruder, then you probably would probably enjoy this game. Overall, I give this a 7, primarily because I like the theme in this game.
Thanks to Jim_P and Calm for posting their images since I used them in my review.
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- nyn -(thenyn)United States
Awesome! I can see myself playing this, but only with exactly the right mix of players. It's clear a lot of thought was given to the theme & story that encompases this game, and for me that is always an instant bonus even when other elements fall short.
Thank you for posting the review!
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- Michael Debije(mi_de)Netherlands
- Man, I never though of trying this solo! What a great idea! Yeah, I also love the theme. I had a tough time getting the flow of the game until I made a summary, but then it seems to go okay. Innovative ideas in this one, and I look forward to trying this again.
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- I, too, love the theme and always thought that there was a good game hiding in there somewhere. I remember playing it solo years ago and having little trouble with the rules, but I looked at it again recently and had difficulties figuring things out. Thanks for your helpful summary.
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I've been wondering for years about how to improve this game - the concepts of the game I've always found interesting.
I'm thinking of having a go at at least redesigning the components to be more user friendly. I might try rewriting the conflict resolution and the rulebook as well.
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