Wednesday 31 October 2012

Review - Atmosfear: The DVD Board Game

Atmosfear the DVD board game

Published by Vivid Games
Designed by The Gatekeeper as a means to torture his victims
For 3-6 players, aged 12 to adult

It's that time of year again... Halloween. The time of year when Poundland brings out its rubber bats and dead-eyed skeleton masks, every radio station seems to be playing Michael Jackson's Thriller, and tiny little demons threaten you with eggs in exchange for sweets and chocolates.

I'm not a huge fan of Halloween; I mean, I don't dislike it, I just don't go out of my way to celebrate it in any meaningful way. However, there are a few traditions I have:

(a) I always watch Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas;
(b) I always play a game of Atmosfear.

Atmosfear is, let's be honest, not a great game. It is basically a roll and move game in which you try to collect a set of keys that will "unlock" the "well of fears." On your turn, you roll a dice (or two dice - your choice) and then move the indicated number of spaces; and on most turns you don't even get to decide in which direction you move, giving you the same number of options you get in a luck-fest such as Snakes and Ladders. But there is something that lifts Atmosfear far above other roll and move games: Speed. No, I don't mean a hefty dose of illegal substances is required to make the game playable; I mean the game is played at speed. You have only 49 minutes to win the game, and the clock is always ticking. The pressure of passing the dice around, rolling, moving quickly while the next player scrabbles for the dice creates a frantic, fun way to spend an evening. Just don't expect any hidden depths or strategic choices.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Time to back up...

Whenever I am out in town, I always hit the charity shops in the hope that I will find some old board games (I usually have my fingers crossed for something by Waddingtons or Milton Bradley). Almost every time, I will find at least one copy of Atmosfear - the old VHS version in the long coffin box. Honestly, I know people from other countries who think this game is rare; but I must see one every other week, almost as often as I see those Carol Vorderman's Sudoku games. Thing is, I don't have a video player, so I have always passed up the opportunity to acquire this old classic (I only have games in my collection that I intend to play). Of course, when I eventually found a mint condition copy of the DVD version of the game in a charity shop I had to have it, even though it was a little pricey.

The DVD version is a very nicely produced package, with plenty of plastic bits. The six player pawns stand out as being particularly good; they are like plastic Halloween-themed versions of Monopoly pieces. Some of them are pretty straight-forward (a bat representing the vampire), some are a little unusual (a hat representing a zombie), and one is just plain creepy (a stack of building blocks representing the ghost of a dead infant - thanks for that!). Of course, as my last name is Outlaw, I always play as the werewolf, who is represented by a wolf's head.

Atmosfear playing pieces
The Atmosfear playing pieces.

These pieces are moved around a board which is like a spoked wheel, with an outer circular path, and then several paths that lead to a much smaller inner circle. When a piece is on the outer circle it can only be moved clockwise, so on your turn you just roll the dice and move your piece. The board is divided into coloured sections, and several spaces on the outer ring have special symbols. If you land on one of these spaces, you do the related action (for example, if you land on the clock face, you can take a time card).

Atmosfear board detail
The "Well of Fears" at the centre of the board.

As already mentioned the aim of the game is to collect a complete set of six keys (one each in six different colours), and in the DVD version of the game, these are nicely moulded in plastic. You also get little plastic racks which hold the keys in such a way that your opponents can see how many keys you have, but not what colour those keys are (very important for when an opponent has the chance to steal one or more keys from you). A player can take one of the keys that matches the colour of the board section his piece is in every time he lands on a key space.

Atmosfear keys
The keys hanging in their special rack - that black key is a "bad" one.

If at any point a player has one key from each of the six coloured sections of the board, he can move to the inner ring and attempt to "face his fear" by randomly drawing a fear from the cool plastic pot that sits right in the middle of the board. These fears have been written on scraps of paper and put in the pot by the players at the start of the game, and if the fear drawn matches the fear the player added to the pot then that player wins.

It all sounds very pedestrian and dull, doesn't it? And it really is until you add the DVD element.

The DVD does several different things. The first thing it does is add the time limit. The DVD will run for 49 minutes, and after that time, if nobody has won, then the game wins. The time limit forces everyone to rush, and people will often find dice being snatched out of their hands as opponents try to hurry the game along.

The timer also indicates when special time cards can be used. These cards are picked up by landing on certain spaces on the board, and they are held to be played exactly at the time specified on the card. When the timer on the DVD matches the time on the card, you play the card (even if it is not your turn). These cards will ask you to scream at an opponent to make them jump, or steal keys, or swap places with other players, and lots of other screwy stuff. Of course, if you miss your chance to play the card, too bad! You snooze, you lose.

Atmosfear game cards
Atmosfear game cards.

The other thing the DVD does is provide your host for the evening: The Gatekeeper. This is a wonderful addition to the game. The Gatekeeper will pop up on your television screen from time to time and basically call you an asshole. Yes, this is a game that provides its own trash talk. The gatekeeper will insult you, and then he will probably do something horrible to you as well. He works as a randomiser in a similar way to the electronic memory in the dungeon-crawler game Legend of Zagor, picking a player and then asking them to perform a task or suffer the consequences. He even insists you respond to all his questions with "Yes, My Gatekeeper." Failure to say this also results in a penalty of some kind.

The intervention of The Gatekeeper can turn the whole game on its head, and a person with a full set of six keys can suddenly find themselves with no keys and no chance to win. This may sound awful, and like it would totally ruin the game; and it might, if it wasn't so much damn fun. Atmosfear really isn't a game you should be playing to win. You should just be playing to shout at the television, scream at your friends, and try to roll dice as quickly and frequently as you possibly can. If you are the kind of person who will get angry to have victory stolen away by a bit of bad luck in the last few seconds of the game, then you should probably look for some other way to spend 49 minutes of your life.

So basically, the game comprises a group of flustered people rushing about while an old guy shouts insults at them. It's a bit like a normal day at work, really.

There is no strategy, and no skill; you can have all your hard work undone in seconds just because of stupid luck. There are no real decisions to make (which player to steal a key from is probably the trickiest thing you will have to do), and there is no way to prepare for the intervention of The Gatekeeper. But it doesn't matter. This game is an absolute blast. Not for every night of the week; but for Halloween... Perfect.


  1. I just bought a Atmosfear dvd game but mine is slightly different to all the others I have seen on ebay, in side the box where the bit are stored is a different lay out?

    1. Hi, thanks for commenting. There have been several editions of Atmosfear, by different companies (and in different countries/languages). You may have the earlier Paul Lamond or Dorcy Irwin edition. Check the date and publisher info on the box or inside the rules. It may shed some light on the situation.


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