Horror on the Orient Express is a Call of Cthulhu campaign that’s notorious for being extremely difficult. Though playing Call of Cthulhu is never meant to be a walk in the park – something you’d expect from a survival-horror tabletop RPG – Horror on the Orient Express supposedly tests even the most experienced and accomplished players. Which is why it’s unsurprising that the upcoming board game adaptation of the classic TRPG campaign will also be extremely challenging.
Despite its release still being a way off in 2025, with a crowdfunding campaign set to launch next year, we were given a preview of Horror on the Orient Express: The Board Game at tabletop convention Essen Spiel 2023 in Germany earlier this month. Though the team from Chaosium – the publisher behind the board game and the original RPG – were using a prototype version of the game’s board and components to show it off, all the rules and gameplay mechanics explained to us are pretty much finalised.
Set aboard the iconic locomotive, Horror on the Orient Express: The Board Game sees players taking control of a team of investigators who have found themselves suddenly travelling through a strange and otherworldly dreamscape. Any hope of returning to their original dimension alive rests on their ability to unmask and deal with the cultists who have snuck on board.
The majority of the board game’s action takes place on a board constructed of a series of cardboard carriages, which together make up a small recreation of the train itself. This, alongside the high stakes and epic dangers players face, serves to give Horror on the Orient Express: The Board Game a distinctly cinematic feel that pairs well with its apparently intense difficulty. Players have as long as it takes the train to reach its dreadful destination to correctly identify the cultists or otherwise risk remaining trapped in a terrifying alternate reality.
Deducing who is who requires players to collect various clues on the cast of characters aboard the locomotive. Whilst the players don’t need to worry about each other – there is no traitor element in the horror board game – they do need to do some detective work on the other passengers. Players can gather clues by talking with the other characters on the train, which involves them reaching into a bag to draw out tokens. Pulling out pairs of the right tokens nets players clues, while two bad tokens result in the group suffering one of several potential negative outcomes. Certain combinations of clues indicate whether a character is a cultist or not, with each playthrough of Horror on the Orient Express: The Board Game containing a different number of cultists depending on the player count.
In true Call of Cthulhu fashion, there isn’t much players can do against the hordes of enemies threatening them besides running away.
Players have to fit their interrogations between surviving and banishing the multitude of monsters attempting to kill as many people aboard the train as possible. These monsters appear as the Orient Express moves through the different landscapes of the dreamscape, with portals opening and all manner of terrifying creatures hopping out of them as they go. In true Call of Cthulhu fashion, there isn’t much players can do against the hordes of enemies threatening them besides running away. However, there are opportunities to banish the nightmares – if players are lucky enough to get them – or push them off the train itself. How far a monster falls back depends on how fast the Orient Express is going, with the benefits of increasing its speed being tempered by the reduction in the time limit players have to find all the cultists.
As well as many nightmares boarding the carriages from the outside, players will also have to contend with an ever-present vampire who will prey on the weaker passengers. Should this creature of the night ever get their fangs on a wounded person then the players can kiss that character goodbye. The more the vampire kills, the stronger it becomes, which is why players should take a moment to open the carriage curtains - as the sunlight dramatically reduces the bloodsucker’s abilities. However, opening the curtains also reveals the disturbing landscape outside and has a detrimental effect on the characters’ mental state.
Managing everyone’s psychological health is just as important as protecting their physical wellbeing in Horror on the Orient Express: The Board Game. The worse a character’s mental state, the more terrible things happen to the entire party as the nightmares and dreamscape feed on negative emotional energy. With the smorgasbord of dangers piling up it is almost inevitable that somebody on the Orient Express is going to die. Whenever someone does die, that not only contributes to a poor effect on everyone else’s mental health, it also causes a coffin to appear on the carriage. Running out of coffins is one of the many ways to lose the game, alongside running out of nightmares to place, the sanity of a single player or essences, which are the collective mental health of the group. According to Chaosium, players shouldn’t expect to win Horror on the Orient Express until around their fifth playthrough.
Rather than being a source of frustration, the high difficulty of Horror on the Orient Express: The Board Game looks to work in its favour.
Players are able to employ their characters’ unique abilities and actions to help them out, which they can also improve throughout the game by using them two times before a rest and have them become significantly improved. Different combinations of characters will provide different strategies for players to employ and the opportunity for the next playthrough to be the one they win. Powerful occult skills are also an option for players but come with the price of character sanity, meaning that they’re best used sparingly if at all.
Despite the skills and abilities at their disposal, players can expect to feel very much overwhelmed by the sheer number of fires they need to put out to continue surviving in Horror on the Orient Express: The Board Game. At times, the wrong combination of bad things happening simultaneously can cause an avalanche of potentially game-ending events to occur. Considering that some of these elements are driven by random factors, it’s a high possibility that players will find their playthroughs turning from manageable to complete catastrophes in a matter of turns.
Rather than being a source of frustration, the high difficulty of Horror on the Orient Express: The Board Game looks to work in its favour thanks to its horror theme, the connection to its source material and the fact it’s a co-op board game that is, if you’ll excuse the pun, more about the journey than the destination. Playing Horror on the Orient Express: The Board Game looks to be an exercise in “how will we lose this time” rather than “how are we going to win” - which, considering my love of titles like Eldritch Horror, suits me down to the ground.