One of my less publicized hobbies is tabletop gaming. I don’t often speak of it solely because those who aren’t in the know tend to think that I might be referring to one of the many mass-produced games that so often fill the closets of families across the country. Such games (including the likes of Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly, Clue, and many others) are cheap to produce and cheap to sell, and they too often come with cheap components, poorly executed mechanisms, and lackluster gameplay. There’s a very good reason why so many individuals might groan at the suggestion that a board game be played.
When I say that I enjoy tabletop gaming, what I am often referring to are titles that have rightfully earned a place in my heart and on my shelf. Such titles include Ascension, Catan, Onirim, The Resistance, and Dune. All of these games, and many others like them, provide unique, interesting experiences that have resulted in hundreds of hours of entertainment. I have so many fond memories from my time playing these games, so much so that at no point do I find myself regretting my investment of time and money.
There was one game in particular — nay, one series of games — that helped to define my Halloween experience each year. Five years ago this month, a tradition was born when I walked into my friend’s house with a newly purchased copy of Atmosfear, a video board game for three to six players. I had heard stories of this game for the last six months, and I knew that I had to have it when Halloween came around. After all, my friends and I had two things very much in common with each other: we were suckers for board games, and we were suckers for all things spooky. With great anticipation, we set up the game, wrote our greatest fears on the cards that would be put in the center of the board, and put in the VHS.
In Atmosfear, each of the players takes on the role of a Harbinger, a vile creature seeking a way to escape the Other Side and find their way to the real world. The Harbingers include Gevaudan the werewolf, Baron Samedi the zombie, Hellin the poltergeist, Khufu the mummy, Anne de Chantraine the witch, and (my personal favorite) Countess Elizabeth Bathory the vampire. To escape the Other Side, they must go around the board collecting keys, each of which will give them some sort of unique ability to aid them during the course of the game. When a Harbinger has succeeded in collecting all six keys, they may make their way to the Well of Fears at the center of the board. Here they may draw one of the cards from the center, and so long as they don’t draw their own greatest fear, they win. The trick to this is that the players only have an hour to win. If the timer on the VHS runs out before someone can win, then everyone loses.
Trying to stop the Harbingers from succeeding is the Gatekeeper, the host of the game who steals the show every time. Appearing to the players via the VHS played alongside the game, the Gatekeeper’s goal is to hinder the players’ progress in some fashion or another. Usually this takes the form of taking keys away from players, forcing them to lose turns, or banishing them to the black hole where they must remain until he releases them. He’ll also appear just for the sake of startling and taunting the players because this wouldn’t be a party game for Halloween otherwise. Honestly, the Gatekeeper is a riot; he’ll certainly attempt to disturb or scare you, but he isn’t afraid to ham it up either. The Gatekeeper is what makes Atmosfear so much fun.
Further adding to the chaos are the various cards that players can draw during the course of the game. There are Fate cards which have an immediate effect on the game that could honestly either be good or bad. There are Chance cards which can provide a good effect if and only if you happen to be playing the stated Harbinger. There are also Chance cards that show an image of half a key, and if you can succeed in getting a Chance card with an image of the other half, you can get a key immediately. Finally, there are Time cards which have an effect that only takes place at the time on the tape that the card states.
As much as we loved Atmosfear though, we could easily identify its flaws. The Time cards were numerous, incredibly difficult to keep track of, and were worthless half the time as you would frequently draw a Time card which only took effect at a time that had already passed. The Chance cards were like trying to win the lottery as the odds of you meeting the conditions were often along the lines of a one in thirty-six chance. The only cards of any value were the Fate cards. The components were cheap looking and boring, and the board was bland and uninspiring. Worst of all, however, was the VHS necessary to play the game. Once you’ve seen it once, there are no surprises. After enough playthroughs, you come to realize that the game pretty much plays out the same way every single time.
Regardless of this, Atmosfear was incredibly successful when it was originally released in 1991. Recognizing that they had a money maker on their hands, the creators quickly began to produce sequels to the game so as to provide a new experience to interested players. Atmosfear 2 featured new cards and a new VHS, and was now hosted by Baron Samedi himself. Atmosfear 3 provided more new cards and a VHS hosted by Anne de Chantraine. Atmosfear 4, among providing some rules changes, provided more cards and a VHS hosted by Countess Elizabeth Bathory.
By 1995, Atmosfear 5 (with Khufu as its host) was in production. Much to the shock of the creators, sales of the Atmosfear games were dwindling. It seems that changing cards and hosts wasn’t enough to cover the fact that the same game with the same board was being experienced by the players over and over. If the creators wanted to keep their fans, Atmosfear needed a major change. Atmosfear 5 was canceled and a new game was put into development.
I myself knew about this game, was incredibly intrigued by it, and purchased a copy. When I hosted a Halloween party two years ago, I told my friends to expect a surprise at the party. That night, after we just finished a game of Atmosfear, I walked upstairs and brought down The Harbingers.
It becomes immediately apparent that this isn’t the Atmosfear we knew from before. The game’s box, which once was long as if it were a coffin, is now much more of a typical shape compared to before, but now it’s black with piercing, otherworldly eyes on its cover. The rules, which were provided in the original Atmosfear on a two-sided piece of paper, are now given through a small comic alongside a backstory for each of the Harbingers. Gone are the cardboard keys of the original game, which have been replaced by attractive plastic tombstone-shaped slabs with colored keys on them. Even the playing pieces meant to be moved around the board by the players are much better; rather than a boring collection of different colored tombstones like the original Atmosfear, each character now has their own uniquely shaped playing piece, such as a cauldron for Anne de Chantraine or a bat for Countess Elizabeth Bathory. And because it just wouldn’t be the same otherwise, all of the player’s pieces — as well as the dice included with the game — are a pleasant shade of bone.
Alongside the return of the Harbingers as the player characters and the Gatekeeper as the host, The Harbingers also introduces a new set of characters to the game known as the Soul Rangers. Treated as the scum of the Other Side, Soul Rangers are unlike the Harbingers in the sense that they lack special powers and only inhabit the sewers. Until they can acquire a key, a Soul Ranger is restricted to the sewers during any period of time in which the Gatekeeper enforces a curfew. Every once in a while, however, the Gatekeeper will happily open the floodgates and allow the Soul Rangers to roam freely. Unable to acquire keystones by simply landing on them like the Harbingers, Soul Rangers must instead chase down Harbingers and land on the same space they inhabit so that they may immediately steal a keystone from them. The funny thing about all of this is that the Soul Rangers were designed to be as unpleasant of an experience to play as possible, and yet the Soul Rangers are just so much fun. On more than one occasion, I have seen friends go out of their way to play a Soul Ranger.
The biggest question on everyone’s mind is important to address: if the original Atmosfear failed to provide a unique and interesting experience with each playthrough, how has The Harbingers done this better? Well for starters, the board itself has undergone a major upgrade. No longer static, the board is now modular, being split into six different sections that form a hexagon when put together. The player who roles the highest number during the game’s setup gets to arrange these pieces however they wish, and the pieces feature two different designs on either side which are used depending on which players play Harbingers and which ones play Soul Ranger. This alone means that the board’s layout will likely be different each time you play the game, and that can be interesting in its own ways. In addition to this modular board design, the pathways available for the players to follow split and wind, with some leading to other sections of the board and others leading to dead ends. Players can now make use of an actual strategy to choose which pathways to follow and which ones not to, which offers much more entertainment than the railroad pathway of the original Atmosfear.
The Chance and Time cards have been completely removed from the game. The only cards that remain are the Fate cards, which can only be drawn when the Gatekeeper says so. These cards take immediate effect, and as a result the players don’t have a small decks worth of cards to keep track of at all times. It’s also worth mentioning that you might only draw a maximum of four or five cards in an entire playthrough of The Harbingers from a deck made up of forty to fifty cards; you’re unlikely to see the same combination of Fate cards be played in repeat playthroughs of the game.
Unlike the original Atmosfear which randomly assigns each player a character to play, the first ten minutes of The Harbingers is spent with all of the players racing to the center of one of the six sections of the board. Those who make it to these areas will become Harbingers, while those who fail will be forced to play Soul Rangers. This makes the process of determining which character you’ll inevitably play far more interesting than simply drawing a piece blindly from a bag as you did in the original Atmosfear. Adding to this tension is the following rule: if more than half of the players are stuck playing Soul Rangers when the ten minutes run up, the game immediately ends and everyone loses.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the Gatekeeper has been made into a much more interesting aspect of the game. Unlike the original Atmosfear in which he only showed up to bless you or curse you, he now often shows up to have you make a choice. Sometimes these choices are always negative for yourself in the sense that he’s choosing which form of punishment to inflict upon yourself, but most times the choices are to either give yourself a benefit or hinder one of your opponents. This, in combination with the moments in which he has you draw a Fate card and the moments where he allows you to put Gates down (thus blocking attractive paths for other players), means that repeat playthroughs of the game are made dynamic and interesting despite the fact that the game is played with an unchanging VHS.
This game, in my honest opinion, is the best in the series. Here is a game that not only succeeded in completely revamping a series that desperately needed a breath of fresh air, but also succeeded in solving many of the dilemmas that the original game faced. It found a way to take an experience that was more or less the same game every time it was played and turn it into a dynamic, ever changing experience with each playthrough. What’s better, it managed to do this despite a limitation in technology. The greatest achievement this game has bragging rights for is finding a way to take a VHS, something that cannot possibly change with each playthrough, and give it a means to provide a new effect on the game each time the game is played. That is an amazing feat.
And when a new game was said to be released in 2004, I looked for it in eager anticipation for the next great step in the series.
What I found was garbage.
The Gatekeeper is a DVD board game, so in that sense one could easily expect a step in the right direction. As far as the DVD goes, they would be right to expect it; the DVD has been programmed so as to provide a different series of encounters and opportunities each time the game is played. That is entirely where the improvements upon previous iterations ends.
The actor for the titular character has been replaced, and I’m unimpressed. This actor not only fails to look intimidating, but he fails to act intimidating as well. It’s not a matter of him trying and failing; he simply doesn’t try at all. Even outside of this, the new Gatekeeper lacks much of the hammy and charming spirit of the original actor.
The game components are a strange mixture of steps forward and steps backward. The playing pieces are more greatly detailed and unique than they were in The Harbingers, but they’ve now been color coded for each specific Harbinger. I realize that’s a small complaint, but I really liked the bone color used for the playing pieces in The Harbingers for a reason that I’ll get into in a little bit. Even the dice have been reduced to two white dice like dice in any other board game. The keys are now plastic colored keys, which I think are neither an improvement nor a step back compared to the keystones from The Harbingers due to the different strategies encouraged in each game. The worst sin as far as the components are concerned is the board itself. Gone is the modular board with splits, twists, and turns that made for interesting choices. What we have now is once more a static board with a railroad pathway. I can’t begin to describe how much this choice upsets me; they’ve taken one of the two worst aspects of the original Atmosfear and brought it back in favor of one of the best aspects of The Harbingers. This board is so boring in comparison to the modular board of The Harbingers that it makes me weep.
As for the gameplay? The Soul Rangers, which were a beloved addition to the series in The Harbingers, have been completely removed from the game. Worse yet, The Gatekeeper brings back an aspect of the original Atmosfear that we were absolutely okay with not being a thing: the Time cards. Ah yes, those cards that you had to keep track of in the most tedious manner possible. Those cards which were often useless as half the time you’d draw a Time card with a time stamp that had already passed. To beat the game, the player must now draw their own fear from the center of the board rather than someone else’s fear, which now artificially increases the difficulty of the game by dramatically decreasing your odds of succeeding. Finally, the maximum time allowed to beat the game has been reduced from an hour to just forty-nine minutes. I am unsure of the reasons for this.
The only thing explanation I can think of for this dramatic change to a game much more reminiscent of the original Atmosfear — for better or worse — is just that: the developers wished to create a game much more reminiscent of the original. Still, I can’t justify the removal of the best parts of The Harbingers and the return of some of the worst parts of the original game. Despite the DVD being completely randomized, I don’t think that will be enough to make up for the static board and the decreased number of characters, nor do I think it makes up for the re-introduction of the Time cards.
All of these comments, of course, are specifically for Atmosfear: the Gatekeeper. They are not for the game that followed soon after this, that being Atmosfear: Khufu the Mummy. I won’t begin to even write about that particular game because I don’t have the patience to go through the mind numbing experience of replaying it.
I strongly believe The Harbingers was the best game in the series. It used creativity to overcome extreme limitations the game faced in the available technology for the VHS, which is central to the game’s experience. It astounds me that a game like The Gatekeeper, which possesses greater technology for a game of this particular type of experience, is somehow less creative than the game that came before it.
Even ignoring the differences in how the games attempt to achieve a dynamic experience for each playthrough, I think the even bigger flaw The Gatekeeper faces in comparison to The Harbingers is that it just feels so much like a board game and nothing else. That might sound strange, but it’s the truth. The Gatekeeper features a DVD with an actor wearing very obvious makeup and CGI scenery that so very clearly appears to be just that: computer generated imagery. The board, static and lifeless, feels so much like a typical board for a board game. The playing pieces are color coded for ease, and even the dice are a plain white like any other mass-produced game. The Gatekeeper doesn’t try to be anything other than a board game. This is in direct contrast to The Harbingers, which tries its damnedest to create a suitable — you guessed it — atmosphere with bone-colored components, a disturbing host, and even a fifteen minute long tutorial at the beginning of the VHS in which actors dressed as characters from the game come together in a rundown area to play the game while a narrator and the Gatekeeper explain how the game is played. At the end of the day, despite the limitations it faces, The Harbingers succeeds in using creative methods to evoke a real sense of stress and dread that myself and my friends absolutely adore. The Gatekeeper is a board game. The Harbingers is an experience.
And The Harbingers is an experience so unlike any other game I’ve played that I only play it once a year. Despite all of the randomness and replayability, I save it every year for October when my friends gather together for our annual Halloween party. “Why?” you ask. Because of all the games I own that are so appropriate for this time of year, this is the game that so powerfully radiates the exact kind of atmosphere I want my Halloween to have. So this Halloween, dim your lights, turn up your volume, and I’ll see you on the Other Side.
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