Final Girl – the brilliant board game that plays like a movie

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Fans of horror movies might just find something to love in the board game Final Girl – and here’s why it’s worth playing.

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As Dungeons & Dragons is carried to the big screen on a warm tide of generous reviews, I’m reminded that role playing games are a confusingly under-tapped source of cinematic material. The truth, really, is that a good RPG session can be extremely close to fun, collaborative improvisation. I’d go so far to say that this kind of gaming benefits from the very same skills as does screenwriting adventure movies.

Board games, the less freeform sibling of role playing games, will tend to make for a tougher movie adaptation. There are exceptions: Clue works well because the game is bound by the ‘country house murder mystery’ genre imported from literature, and because the game’s characters are writ-large archetypes that remain recognisable when given enough extra detail for a broad comedy.

Several modern board games have deeply developed narratives and would translate to moving images really smoothly. The mighty Pandemic Legacy trilogy of games, for example, lay out the broad strokes of what could be a brilliant HBO series, while my beloved Arkham Horror: The Living Card game conjures up vivid, exciting scenes and actual, bonafide plot twists, all born from a stack of cards and a fistful of tokens.

But perhaps the easiest game to make into a movie series would be Van Ryder Games’ ingenious Final Girl. I think, however, this would be missing the point entirely. Because Final Girl isn’t a cardboard-based prototype for an unmade movie – it’s pretty much the exact opposite.

In creating Final Girl, designers AJ Porfirio and Evan Derrick have created a boxed, playable experience that uses dice rolling, card play and meeple moving to evocatively capture the vibe of a classic horror movie, and to make it interactive while cleverly packing it full of mood and even unpredictable story.

Or, to be fair, they capture the vibe of several classic horror movies. The way Final Girl is structured, the player gets ready for play by choosing from a number of different ‘feature film’ boxes to construct their game. These contain numerous different final girl characters for the player to control, as well as different deadly killers for them to face off against, and a series of boards with evocative location maps riffing on numerous horror movie tropes and conventions.

The Camp Happy Trails box, for example, contains a board representing a Crystal Lake-alike summer camp and the components for a masked killer known as Hans the Butcher. The Jason vibes are very strong with this one, and I was amazed how much specific Friday The 13th energy the game can give off through just a handful of simple rules.

For example, when I pulled a Set Up card telling me where I should place ‘Victim’ meeples on the board, I saw they were to be scattered across cabins, the docks and the lake, all of them isolated – except the two huddled together at ‘Makeout Point.’

Had I drawn a different Set Up card I might have laid out most of the victims together, all gathered around the bonfire. In any case, something as simple as where meeples are placed on the board before the first turn effectively sets the stage for a range of particular, evocative set pieces to unfold.

As the game goes on, the player draws a number of cards from the shuffled, randomised Terror and Event decks, with each card revealed moving the state of play forwards in a way that feels pleasingly like the unfolding of an actual story.  These cards are very simple, in truth, but they combine with everything else in the game to create the effect of distinct and engaging plot points. One bold example is called “Let’s go see if the rumours are true!” and it results in new victim meeples arriving in play at the same board location where the killer began the game. Scenes like these just spring to life without the need for many extraneous details at all.

This kind of ‘emergent storytelling’ is sufficiently streamlined and elegant in Final Girl that even when playing two games back-to-back with the very same choice of killer, location board and final girl character, I still enjoyed what felt like two very different narratives.

The game was originally released as a core box, which contains the essential components, plus five separately-sold ‘Feature Films’, at least one of which is also necessary to play. As well as the campsite encounter with Hans the Butcher, other highlights were a Poltergeist-killer hunting a scared little girl (in this case Carolyn, not Carol Anne) through the creaky Creech Manor, and a mindwarping run in with the dream-invading Dr Fright who haunts Maple Lane. These all come with an extra rule or two of their own, tailoring the game play just a little to better create movie-specific experiences.

The soon-to-be-released second season of five more boxes will introduce a Thing-style arctic station, the Nostromo-like USCSS Konrad spaceship, and Wingard Cottage, which seems to be the setting for a blend of You’re Next and The Strangers. As you can tell, there are little in-jokes, puns and easter eggs all over this game. I haven’t played any of the second season yet but checking out the upcoming boards and cards that have been previewed online reveals a new run that’s at least as clever and immersive as the first.

The extra level of genius is that mix-and-match between boxes will yield great results. Any of the game’s killers can be played on any of its location boards, so if you fancy fighting your way through a Jason X-type sci-fi slasher then you can very easily set up a fight against Hans onboard the Konrad. Or maybe you’d like to relocate the Werewolf character from the Once Upon a Full Moon box to the Creech Manor setting for a gene-spliced tabletop riff on Dog Soldiers.

And as you collect boxes to get killers and locations, you also get more final girl cards. Each has her own easter egg-based name, a subtly implied personality, and also a special ability that kicks in once she has fully powered up through in-game heroics.

For example, Selena is better at searching than the others, and will therefore be more successful at finding useful weapons and resources; Reiko can quickly close in on her enemy for a surprise attack; and Alice will learn a survival skill of her choice and become genuinely formidable at it.

There’s even a ‘Lore’ book available, which gives backstory on the killers and final girls, and specifies lots of neatly tailored scenarios which play out in very varied ways. So far I’ve only tried a few of these but they create a strong sense of playing your way through an actual franchise of linked films. It’s inspired stuff.

Somewhat amazingly, Van Ryder Games’ website even has an interactive Build Your Own Final Girl tool which can generate a printable page with your own custom card on it. This game is nothing if not extremely flexible, and therefore it’s also massively replayable.

But I should be clear that implicit to Final Girl’s success is its unusual nature as a solo game, designed exclusively for a single player, pitted against a killer who is controlled by nothing more than a few decks of shuffled cards.

The experience of playing this game is spent largely in the mind, moving little pieces on a small board, drawing and playing cards with very few words on them, and filling in the gaps with your imagination. Having another player to talk to might arguably break that bond between game and player.

It might also dilute the atmosphere, because as it stands, playing Final Girl solo is often genuinely tense. The closest thing it has to a jump scare is a bad roll of the dice, but it’s still full of ratcheting suspense and unpleasant surprises.

That there are dice involved at all might be enough to put some players off. It’s true that even the best laid plans of a great final girl can come a cropper because of her sheer bad luck, but this mostly creates a sense of dread during play, and a desire to mitigate against potentially awful outcomes. Rolling the dice without at least trying to prepare for failure first comes to feel every bit as naive as throwing open your front door when you’re in the opening sequence of a Scream movie.

I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this ingenious little game offers, and certainly not how many great ideas are spread across its many boxes. The heart of it, though, is that Final Girl not only captures the excitement, tension and thrills of horror movies, it also celebrates those movies and their heroines, and speaks directly to the heart of horror fandom in what feels like a private language.

I can’t recommend Final Girl enough. I’d suggest starting with the core box and The Happy Trails Horror, but I’m also confident you’re very unlikely to stop there. Hopefully Van Ryder games will keep going too. Roll on seasons two and three!

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