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Cardboard X Cassettes: How VHS Board Games Took Over '90s Living Rooms

By Wesley Fenlon

Before multimedia CD-ROM games flourished, the VCR added unprecedented interactivity to board games.

"So YOU are the coward! You cannot succeed! You do not deserve the glory of death. I offer you the chance to save your pitiful life. I am launching a shuttle. You may go aboard immediately and leave this ship."

This was a choice I didn't expect from a board game. I could stand fast aboard the starship Enterprise, beside my fellow Federation officers in their final minutes of resistance, or I could flee from the mighty Klingon warrior Kavok and spend the rest of my days relaxing on the tropical beaches of Risa. Put that way, it hardly seemed like a choice at all. I bailed. And they exploded, in a gloriously cheesy sequence of recycled Star Trek footage.

In the hour of playing time contained within the Star Trek TNG: A Klingon Challenge VCR board game, that choice was the first original moment that wasn't derivative of the genre's progenitor, the Australian game Nightmare. Like the electronic board games of the late 1970s and 1980s, VCR games relied on a gimmick to widen their audience reach or resell an existing game (nothing says "gimmick" better than Chutes and Ladders VCR).

Many VCR board games weren't actually board games at all: The Clue VCR Mystery Game, released in 1985, ditched a game board in favor of cards and score sheets and tasked players with following a low budget, hammed up video to spot clues and deduce whodunit. VHS tapes added action and "excitement," but they were also unwieldy from the start: fast-forwarding to a certain case in Clue could quickly grow tedious.

Then everything changed. In 1991, two Australian game designers named Brett Clements and Phil Tanner released a horror-themed game called Nightmare, featuring a vaguely Palpatine-esque hooded figure barking orders and insults from a VHS tape.

The VHS Nightmare

"The hard part was working out how a board game could scare somebody," said Clements, who now works as a creative director and cinematographer for Australian video production company Platinum HD. I found Clements online after researching A Couple 'A Cowboys, the production company he founded with Phil Tanner several years before Nightmare was released. They were both experienced in front of the camera and behind it as actors, directors and producers, and Clements had designed successful games before Nightmare like Oz Quiz and DARE.

"I'd always wanted to do a horror game," Clements wrote in an email when we first started discussing the Nightmare series. "I'd had all the artwork, the name and the game board done. It was just sitting there waiting for a concept. Then one day--I think I was under a bench-press at the time--bang, the idea of using a video tape as a means to deliver random instructions and a SHOCK, via the sound track, just came to me. I rang Philand said I'd got 'it'."

That "it" turned out to be a new way of integrating VHS with the board game experience. In Nightmare, The Gatekeeper occasionally appears on screen to scare, ridicule, or help players as they attempt to collect enough keys to win the game. When The Gatekeeper isn't on screen, a clock counts up towards the 60 minute mark. If no one wins the game within an hour, it's better luck next time.

"We could have put Nightmare out without a tape and it would've flopped," Clements told me. "The tape gave us that means to deliver really sudden sounds. If you turned the lights down you'd get scared, and to compound that people would get stoned and play it, so away we go."

As much as the horror concept was meant to deliver shocks, Nightmare was designed to be as silly as it was scary. "I wanted to take the piss out of the devil," Clements wrote, "or out of evil. We give evil too much energy by giving it power in the movies we make. I wanted to scare people--fun."

"Brett's scripts were very funny, you laughed even when you were being yelled at," wrote Phil Tanner, who retains the rights to the Nightmare series and has released two modern versions in DVD form. "In the first game brett wrote a [scene] where the gatekeeper asks a player--little maggot--to come closer to the screen because he has something very private and very special to tell them. In the end he is whispering to encourage them to come closer and when the player does he yells at them about coming too close. It didn't matter whether you knew what was going to happen or not it still worked a treat."

The VCR games that preceded Nightmare used video as a supplement, but Nightmare and the games that followed directed the entire play experience with a strict time limit and frequent commands. Nightmare immediately set the standard for the genre and was an unusual success before it was even released. "After a couple of days of selling Roadshow secured over 70,000 presales in Australia which was unheard of," said Tanner. "Milt Barlow, who headed Roadshow, did the most extraordinary job of selling the game worldwide. He literally pulled together multi-million dollar minimum guarantees that were unheard of at that time."

A Couple 'A Cowboys followed Nightmare with a series of expansions that used the original board but added extra cards and a new VHS tape. Baron Samedi hosted Nightmare II; witch Anne De Chantraine hosted the third. The suspension of disbelief necessary to become immersed in a VCR game obviously makes them best suited to kids, but there's a goofy charm to Nightmare that works in a group context. The game rules even suggest playing with teams to up the player count, and many of the cards players draw are designed to get them into the mood of the game. "Anytime an opponent fals to answer me YES! MY GATEKEEPER take all their Time and Fate cards and give them this with a message from me: You disobeyed," reads one. "At 57:15 SCREAM! If you can scare all opponents, receive a key," reads another.

The Nightmare series, or Atmosfear as it was known in Europe, was enormously popular for a game that relied on a VHS gimmick. A Couple 'A Cowboys sold two million copies in two years, but was never able to crack the US market. Even Nightmare's follow-up, a series reboot called The Harbingers released in 1995, never sold as well as Clements and Tanner would've liked. It was a near thing.

"Our big chance at the US market was in a man by the name of Tom Vernon, who'd marketed Trivial Pursuit," Clements recalled. "Tom believed it was going to be the next big hit in the US market. But. He died of cancer a few weeks out from the New York Toy Fair. Then everything else in the overseas marketing, short of the UK, fell apart. Close but no cigar."

A Klingon Gatekeeper

Take away the Star Trek skin and the 1993 VCR game Star Trek TNG: A Klingon Challenge looks a whole lot like Nightmare. The "host," a Klingon warrior named Kavok (played by actor Robert O'Reilly, who occasionally appeared in the series as Klingon Chancellor Gowron), hijacks the Enterprise and barks commands and insults at players throughout the game. Kavok even demands players respond with "Yes, Captain Kavok!" which is a slightly sillier exclamation than "Yes, my Gatekeeper!" because it involves slapping a Star Trek communicator sticker every few minutes. You wear the sticker on your chest. It's really, really nerdy.

A Klingon Challenge was filmed on the Next Generation set, so it at least looks authentic. O'Reilly's over-the-top performance, a script packed with Terminator 2 references and exclamations like "Experience Bij!" and recycled CG footage make the game seem more unintentionally hammy than the tongue-in-cheek Nightmare. But the game structure is identical: players collect five isolinear chips and a phaser instead of six keys, and computer access cards offer the same kinds of time-based interrupts that allow players to sabotage one another. Time ticks down from 60 minutes, and at 00:00 Gowron Kavok uses the hijacked Enterprise to start an interstellar war between the Klingon Empire and the Federation.

Star Wars: The Interactive Video Board Game, released in 1996, again aped Nightmare's design with Darth Vader issuing commands and insulting players. Nightmare's greatest strength was the replayability it offered through a variety of expansions. Both the Star Wars and Star Trek VHS games were one-off creations far more predictable than electronic board games like Dark Tower; Nightmare, at least, offered multiple hosts and sets of cards over its run.

But even that wasn't enough to keep the VCR game genre alive for much longer. Before DVDs became popular, VHS games were disappearing from the market, and even A Couple 'A Cowboys were watching new technologies and the expanding video game market.

Video Home System Obsolescence

"Computer games became our greatest competitors as kids moved away from traditional boardgames to computer screens," wrote Tanner. "Games like DOOM certainly changed the landscape."

Clements actively followed the development of new technology (and still does--he shoots with a RED EPIC at Platinum HD), but was adamant that Nightmare not be turned into another "shoot em up" in the vein of DOOM. A Couple 'A Cowboys worked on a video game adaptation of Nightmare in the 1990s, but the technology wasn't powerful enough to handle what they were after.

"We'd actually designed a game for CD-i, and when we went and saw the technology it was definitely better technology for video," Clements explained. "It would've been a great game on CD-i, but that fell over. We moved it across to CD-ROM but that just didn't have the rendering power that we needed. ... Back then, you couldn't do it. Gatekeeper would come back and taking five seconds to load, you couldn't deliver a shock. Excuse me! I'm going to scare you in five seconds.

Though DVD rentals didn't top VHS until 2003, VCR games seemed to have all but disappeared by the late 90s. Tapes were too commonplace to serve as a viable hook, at that point, and video games were far more advanced than linear VHS tapes. When DVD came around, Tanner launched a new version of Nightmare. Atmosfear: The DVD Board Game came out in 2003 and managed to sell over 600,000 copies. Despite the massive boost in storage capacity and ability to skip around a DVD at will, the platform mostly played host to trivia games.

Atmosfear, on the other hand, used chapters to randomize when the Gatekeeper would appear and what he'd say. VIdeo really could offer a different play experience every time--it just took a couple decades to get to that point.

Interested in the tacky, goofy video that game designers paired with their board games? Most of them are easy to find on Youtube. If you want to play along, eBay a copy of the board and don't worry about digging the VCR out of the closet. Check out Clue, A Klingon Challenge, Nightmare, and DragonStrike for laughs.