Nightmare: the VHS board game
“Stop! Who’s turn is it next? Answer me! You must roll your number now to receive a key! And if you fail… you’re banished to the black hole!”
|Publisher:||A Couple of Cowboys|
|Type of game:||Roll-and-move, VHS board game|
Concepts: Atmosfear, or ‘Nightmare’ in the United States (my copy was titled Atmosfear, so I’ll be referring to it as that throughout this review), exists in a curious place in history – a place when board game production was on the rise but design hadn’t yet evolved to modern standards and VHS technology was common in every household. Atmosfear is a very traditional roll-and-move game, wrapped in a horror aesthetic. But it is set aside from that because throughout the game, an angry man will appear on your television set and scream abuse at you.
The core idea of the game is to move in a circle around the board and, hopefully, collect keys. These can be awarded via cards or by instructions by the Gatekeeper, and there are six for each player to collect. At the start of the game, each player randomly selects a colour for their playing piece and a number token which is inserted into their piece – or as the game’s host phrases it in a slightly unfortunate choice of words, “stained with a colour and marked by a number”. Once they have all six of the keys in their colour, the players make their way to the middle of the board and hope to draw the correct card that will allow them to win the game!
Writing: So, those cards that I mentioned? They come in three decks – Time, Fate and Chance, and each one is printed on card stock which has corners that are sharp enough to cut your flesh (no, really, they are damn sharp)! Fate and Chance are the easiest to understand, as they are your traditional board game cards – Chance cards tend towards random actions, “Flip a coin and if it is heads you get a key”, that type of thing. Fate cards could cause a player to lose a turn or take an extra turn if the player is the right number or colour.
Time cards make up the bulk of the cards that come with the game, and they work with the VHS tape that plays in the background. The tape, when the Gatekeeper is not onscreen, usually displays a countdown that lasts for one hour. When the time on the card matches the time on screen, you can play the card. Some are useful, “Take a key”. Some are disruptive, “Take another turn even if it is not your turn” or “Send another player to the black hole”. Some are annoying, “Scream for no reason”. Naturally, drawing Time cards becomes less and less likely to be useful as you advance closer to the end of the game.
Mechanics: But at the end of the day, it isn’t your game – it is the GATEKEEPER who rules this game! And he’ll make sure to tell you so. Repeatedly. Played by Belarusian actor Wenanty Nosul, the Gatekeeper serves the function of adding another random element to the game by involving the players in participation. The game is actually pretty great at keeping the players active and involved at this point (although it loses points on this later on) by encouraging everybody to speak and interact. The Gatekeeper, early on, will nominate one player as the Chosen One, and will also distribute tasks for the youngest and eldest players, and also likely call everybody a ‘maggot’ at least once.
Throughout the game, the Gatekeeper will indulge with several antics, selecting players to take part in stare-downs, to roll their age using one six-sided dice, sending people to the dreaded Black Hole, and at later points in the game just outright handing out keys willy-nilly. The Gatekeeper is by far the most memorable part of this game, and it would be entirely pedestrian without him.
Design: Almost certainly the game’s weakest element, even for it’s era the design of this game is dated. In fact, when people call this a ‘bad game’, it’s really only the flaws in the game’s dated design ideas that make this true. So let’s look at them – and remember, this may hurt your nostalgia!
Most of your game time will be spent rolling a single six-sided dice and moving that number of spaces, in a large circle, repeatedly. This part of gameplay is as dull as it sounds. The cards, especially the time cards, are drawn so often that they are very easy to forget, and become less and less likely to be useable as time ticks past. One deck includes cards with an illustration of half of a key, with the idea being that matching both halves allows the player to take a key – but there are multiple copies of the key’s bottom half and only one of the top! That’s extremely obnoxious in terms of design, but it’s nowhere near as bad as the BLACK HOLE.
The Black Hole is a space on the board which, if you land or are sent to it, forbids you from leaving that space until you can roll a set number. Until that time, you are unable to participate in gameplay. It’s a time-out space, and there are multiple ways to end up there. An unpleasant card could send you to it. The Gatekeeper could banish you there for failing a test or simply for a laugh, or you could land on it with an unlucky roll. The Black Hole space is one of those that strips players of their agency and prevents them from playing the game, leaving them with no choice but to sit back and try to roll a random number or wait until some other force removes this outdated and un-fun restriction. It is little wonder that mechanics that prevent players from playing the game, like this, have found themselves being left behind by the evolution of gaming systems.
Playability: So, this is a bad game, right? With outdated mechanics and reliant on ‘stone-age’ VHS technology, it’s a relic that only has nostalgia value, right? Well, no. Atmosfear is still a very fun game! Eagerly encouraging the players to ‘turn the lights down’ and the VHS (no doubt available on digital format online nowadays) plays some of the most Halloween-ish music ever made for a board game. The Gatekeeper, although often best described as dickish, is never malicious and his occasional manic cackling does much to infuse the atmosphere with a camp theatricality which ensures that the players never feel as if they are not in on the joke. You will never play a game of this where the players don’t hurl abuse right back at the television screen, where the eldest player doesn’t grumble their age when the Gatekeeper jibes them for it, or when the youngest player doesn’t roll his eyes at how silly it all is.
Conclusion: Unsurprisingly, there were many VHS board games at the time, ranging from Wayne’s World to Star Trek. Atmosfear was the one that hit it big and has outlasted all of the others, and that’s without a franchise behind it. There’s something phenomenally fun about Atmosfear, something that shines through the game’s outdated gameplay and egregious, cringy choices – and that something is fun. It’s impossible to play Atmosfear and not have fun.
Probably the largest flaw that hasn’t yet been addressed but is a significant factor is that the game does have a strong lack of repeated play appeal. Although each game almost certainly will play out differently, it won’t feel as though it does because the VHS tape doesn’t change, replaying the same footage each time. In the game’s original release, the developers attempted to combat this by releasing expansion packs, and was eventually reimagined as a DVD release with more randomized elements. But still, the score has been adjusted to reflect this downside to the VHS tape.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Despite all of the game’s flaws, it is still fun enough to have you shouting “Yes, my gatekeeper!”