How to Play
What Is Atmosfear: The Harbingers and What Is the Object of the Game?
Atmosfear: The Harbingers is a VHS roll and move game with a horror theme (which is more like a cheesy B-movie rather than an actually scary game). The object of the game is to collect keys of six different colors then return home and roll a six to “face your fear” and win the game. Atmosfear: The Harbingers uses a VHS as a “video clock” and as a way to impose punishments and rewards (“The Gatekeeper” will occasionally interrupt the tape to help or hurt the next player to play). The VHS tape runs for sixty minutes and if no player has won the game by that point, everybody loses.
Atmosfear: The Harbingers has a lot of steps to its setup. First, have all players roll the dice to determine who will become “The Chosen One,” and be tasked with setting up the board, solving any disputes that happen during the game, and occasionally handing out punishments when The Gatekeeper tells them to. The Chosen One also assembles the board (the board is modular so all sections can be placed in any of the six different locations), sorts the duel decks into the six different colors and places them on their corresponding headstone, puts the six Harbinger playing pieces on top of their corresponding duel deck, places the keystones on their locations on the board (yellow keys go in the yellow section of the board, etc.), and shuffles the Fate cards. They also give each player the six numbered numb skull tokens and ask everyone to draw one of them. Each numb skull is numbered one to six and the number drawn by each player will be their number during the game (sometimes The Gatekeeper will ask for their number and they will need to return to their home number to win the game at the end). The Chosen One gives each player the corresponding numbered “slab” (basically a holder for your character card and the keystones you acquire during the game). All players place their numb skull tokens in the corresponding spot in the central hub (their home). To finish the setup of Atmosfear: The Harbingers, every player writes down their biggest fear and places it in the “well of fears” in the center hub.
A Normal Turn in Atmosfear: The Harbingers
Play always goes in a clockwise manner. Each turn, players roll a dice (unless they have unlocked the ability to roll two dice which I will get into later) and have the option of moving that amount of spaces (they don’t have to move if they don’t want to). Players can move in any direction, they just can’t change directions after they begin moving (basically, they can’t retrace their steps or keep moving back and forth between two spaces). You can use the “ring road” (the spaces on the center hub) when you are playing with a numb skull token or when you are returning home to try to win the game (and have all six different color keystones). A normal turn consists of rolling the dice and moving your playing piece (if you wish). After a player has moved their token, play continues clockwise to the next player who does the same thing.
However, when The Gatekeeper appears on screen all players must stop what they are doing immediately and listen up (the current player’s turn is considered null and void). He will ask which player’s turn it is next (though we play it as whoever is currently playing because otherwise slower players are going to make the player next to them get hit by The Gatekeeper more often) and give them directions as to what to do. Possible punishments and rewards include being told to roll the dice and either gaining or losing that amount of turns, being banished into the black hole (which means the player can’t play until they are released from it by The Gatekeeper), and getting a choice between helping yourself (usually by getting extra turns) or hurting the player in the lead. After The Gatekeeper is done talking, play continues normally (either the next player or the player currently playing, depending on which way you decide to play it, has their turn skipped though).
Becoming a Harbinger in Atmosfear: The Harbingers:
The first step of the game is to actually become a harbinger. When the game begins, you start off as a numb skull (with a skull token) and have ten minutes to get to one of the harbinger’s headstones by exact roll. When a player successfully does so, they become that harbinger and take the corresponding character card and take their numb skull token off the board and replace it with their harbinger’s token (they can no longer move on the ring road until they have all six different keystones). Turns are played the same way once you become a harbinger, your goal just changes to collecting keystones instead.
If a player is unlucky and fails to land on a headstone before ten minutes are up (like me in the game I played), they become a soul ranger instead. A soul ranger keeps their numb skull token for the rest of the game (they can no longer become a harbinger) and they will be forced to play the game in a different way. Instead of landing on keystones to pick them up (they can’t gain keystones this way), they will have to chase harbingers down and try to land on the same space. Whenever they do land on the same space as a harbinger, they take one of their keystones for themselves. Soul rangers can chase players anywhere (even into their own home space) and can steal from each other if they land on the same space.
If someone fails to become a harbinger and takes on the role of a soul ranger, they will also turn over the sections of the board whose harbingers went unclaimed (so if the snake token went unclaimed, that section of the board would be turned over). This modifies the board and all keystones will have to be re-positioned. If a harbinger is on a section that gets flipped over, they are returned to their own headstone. Soul rangers can’t move outside of the sewers unless they have the corresponding keystone (if they want to move to the green section of the board, they must have the green keystone) or are released by The Gatekeeper (if a curfew is imposed they must return to the sewers unless they have the correct keystone). However, they can use the ring road at any time.
If more than half of the players fail to become harbingers in the first ten minutes (statistically very unlikely), Atmosfear is immediately forfeited and The Gatekeeper is declared the winner of the game.
Spaces on the Board and Keystone Powers:
There are a total of four different types of spaces that you can land on in Atmosfear: The Harbingers (as well as lots of blank spaces that do nothing). The most important spaces are the keystone spaces (as long as they still have a key on top of them). If you land by exact count on one of them, you get to take the key and put it in one of the slots on your slab. You can pick up multiple keystones of the same color, you could technically even try to monopolize them (so other players can’t get that color unless they duel you or you lose one or more of them in some other way). However, you need all six different colors of keystones (you can’t just get six of the same color or three of one and three of another, you need one of each) to win the game.
Each keystone also gives a harbinger a new power that they can use. Simply look at your character card to see what the color keystone you picked up allows you to do. You can only use powers that correspond with the colored keystones you currently possess. Five of the six powers are the same for each character (the color key required to use them is just different for each character) and they include the power to roll two dice if the player wishes to (they may still just roll one if they would like to), the power to pass through a gate and then re-position it (The Gatekeeper will sometimes ask a player to put a gate out and you normally have to roll your number to move through it), and the power to release yourself from a black hole (a space that you can be sent to by The Gatekeeper, certain cards, and some player powers and be forced to stay there until The Gatekeeper releases you).
The other two common powers involve spaces on the board. The first (which is always in the same province as your headstone so you should get it first) allows you to collect your duel cards and you can now duel with other players if you land on a space with a lightning bolt on it (as long as they have their own duel deck). To duel, simply select one of your cards, decide who to battle, and have them select one of their cards. The cards are numbered either from two to seven or from ace to six (an ace loses to everything but a seven). Once both players have selected their cards, they are turned over and the highest card wins the duel. Without looking, the winning player can pick one of the losing player’s keystones and take it for themselves. The duel cards used are then removed from the game (you can’t reuse any of your cards).
Power of flight is the other common power that involves spaces on the board. If you have this power and you land on a compass space on the board, you can move to any other compass space on the board (so you can quickly move to another area to get a keystone that you need). The final power (called “occupation” in each case) varies based on the character you become but all of them mess with your opponents when you land on them. These punishments include forcing a player to return to their headstone, not being able to move until they roll a six, returning a keystone of your choice to the place they found it, getting rid of their ability to roll two dice, and making them play with their keystones exposed to the other players (so they can see what keystones you have).
Soul rangers also have powers, though they are far weaker. Four of the keystone colors just release them from the sewers. The other two release them from the sewers and allow them to roll one or two dice. The life of a soul ranger is definitely a hard one.
Sometimes The Gatekeeper will ask the player to draw a fate card and do what it says on it. Possible cards that could be drawn include letting the player who drew it take one keystone from all other players and remove them from the game, the ability to banish the player of your choice to the nearest black hole, and a perpetual pass card which is given to the player to the drawing player’s left. The perpetual pass card allows a player to ward off any penalty imposed by the host or any other player. When used, they must then pass the card to the player on their left (who then can use it whenever they would like and so on).
Winning Atmosfear: The Harbingers:
When you have collected all six different colored keystones, you can start making your way back to your home (the number your numb skull had when you began the game). You can now use the central ring road again but you will have to land in your home space by exact count. When you get back to your home space, you will now roll once each turn until you roll a six. When a six is rolled, The Chosen One takes a random fear out of the well and reads it out loud. If it is not your fear, you have won the game and can stop the VHS. However, if it is your fear your token is returned to your headstone and you must make your way back to your home in order to try again (you will once again have to land in your home space by exact count, roll a six, and hope that your fear isn’t read).
History of Nightmare/Atmosfear and Other Versions:
The Atmosfear series (originally known as Nightmare in the United States and other regions until this game) comes from Australia. The first Nightmare game was released in 1991 and quickly became a big hit (two years later two million copies of the game had been sold). The original was followed up by four expansions (though one was cancelled and replaced by Atmosfear: The Harbingers), Nightmare II, Nightmare III, Nightmare IV, and what I’m assuming would have been Nightmare V. Atmosfear: The Harbingers was meant as a major update to the series and it reinvigorated the series to the point where it became a top ten board game seller in the United States and the United Kingdom. Two booster tapes were released for Atmosfear: The Harbingers (Atmosfear: Booster Game Tape Set), which added to the difficulty by cutting the time limit to 45 minutes instead of an hour and limiting the amount of each keystone color. An add-on allowing players to all play as soul rangers (Atmosfear: The Soul Rangers) was also released for Atmosfear: The Harbingers.
After the expansions were released, the next release in the series came in 2003 (Atmosfear: The Gatekeeper – The DVD Board Game). This was the first DVD game in the series and it allowed the series to add in a random element to the game so that every game was different (The Gatekeeper’s appearances were no longer in a fixed order). A second DVD game (Atmosfear: Khufu – The Mummy) was released in 2006 but it would ultimately become the last game in the Atmosfear/Nightmare series due to what I’m assuming were poor sales.
While the Atmosfear/Nightmare series provides an interesting take on what is effectively a roll-and-move game and is fun to try at least once, there are a few too many problems for me to recommend Atmosfear: The Harbingers. While the game is produced extremely well and is pretty much a perfect game for Halloween, it tries too hard to be both a casual game and a more complex game for hardcore gamers. There are ultimately too many rules to remember (for a game that is supposed to be casual) and too much to pay attention to for the game to get a positive score. However, if you happen to find it cheap at a thrift store or rummage sale, it does provide some nice cheesy fun at least the first time you play it.
One of the biggest problems with Atmosfear: The Harbingers is that it tries to add way too many rules to what should have been a simple game. There are so many little things to keep an eye on and since the game is time-based and punishes slower players (or the player sitting next to the slow player depending on how you play it), it becomes almost stressful. I really think Atmosfear: The Harbingers would have been better if they would have kept the most important mechanics of the game (the roll-and-move mechanics and the VHS tape giving out punishments and providing some nice cheesy fun) and got rid of most of the rest. Things I would have scrapped include having to become a harbinger in the first place (it is pretty rare to become a soul ranger but the player(s) who do become one have a huge disadvantage and aren’t going to have as much fun as the other players), the harbinger powers (since they are easy to forget and just make the game even more complicated than it already is), and the whole thing at the end of the game (especially the hope your fear isn’t drawn part since it is so random and just adds even more luck for no reason).
Making Atmosfear: The Harbingers’ rules even more difficult to learn is the comic book-like instruction book art (although I do admit it looks really awesome). It’s definitely not the easiest instructions to read and it makes it very easy to miss things. However, the VHS does a great job of explaining all of the rules in-depth and is extremely well-made (complete with actors playing the roles of each of the harbingers). Since the VHS goes over everything, instead of reading the rules I would suggest just watching the tape’s instructions (even though it is quite long).
There is also one rule I don’t really like and think should have been modified. That rule is the one that lets players pick up multiple keys of the same color. It is really easy for players to monopolize (or at least semi-monopolize) certain colors, making it almost impossible for the other players to get that color. I think it is fine to get two keys of the same color (so you have a backup in case you lose one of them) but any more than that shouldn’t be allowed to be picked up because it is really easy to land on multiple keys of the same color as you are on your way out of that section of the board.
Since Atmosfear: The Harbingers is a roll-and-move game at heart, there is obviously quite a bit of luck to the game especially when it comes to dice rolls. There is also luck involved with the VHS tape and the Gatekeeper’s punishments and rewards. If you play by the “actual” rule of the next player getting the punishment or reward and you are sitting by the slowest player, it really sucks because you will most likely be hit by the Gatekeeper the most of any player. It might even make you angry at the player, which is never a good thing in gaming (gaming is supposed to bring people together not make them angry at each other. Thus, I would suggest playing it as the current player so players have an incentive to move quickly (though this also makes the game more stressful because you are trying to move as quickly as you can to avoid The Gatekeeper). The Gatekeeper isn’t all bad because there was one player in our game who kept getting rewarded by him (and nearly won the game because of it). Most likely you will also have one player who seems to have all of the luck in terms of dice rolling and seemingly is the Gatekeeper’s favorite son or daughter.
All VHS games obviously have the problem of players “learning the tape” and Atmosfear: The Harbingers is no exception. However, I really doubt players could learn Atmosfear: The Harbingers that easily and even if they could, they still have to wait for their opponents’ turns to end (so it is pretty much impossible to time everything perfectly). Another problem with VHS games is that your VHS tape is always susceptible to jamming or getting ruined in another way, thus making the game pretty much unplayable and forcing you to buy a new copy.
Even though I didn’t exactly love Atmosfear: The Harbingers, there are a few things I really liked about the game. First of all, it is extremely well produced. All of the components are high quality and there are quite a few of them. The VHS is also extremely well produced (its pretty much a cheesy B-movie that is fun to riff on). I wish the actual game part of the VHS was as well done as the rules section (where all of the different harbingers show up) but it is still a lot of fun. Wenanty Nosul hams it up as The Gatekeeper and helps make the game a memorable experience.
I also like that Atmosfear: The Harbingers is limited to sixty minutes of game time (my game was won in 35 minutes). A lot of games tend to drag on and on so I actually like that there is a time limit to Atmosfear: The Harbingers. The time limit also helps keep the game tense (since you are battling the clock as well as your opponents) and it forces players to make quicker decisions because they want to ensure they have enough time to win.
While Atmosfear: The Harbingers is not a great game, I do think it has value as a one-time game to play around Halloween with your family (the game is “spooky” but definitely not scary so even pretty young children should be able to play it) if you can find it for a good price at a thrift store or rummage sale. Atmosfear: The Harbingers is cheesy and somewhat fun to play once but it definitely has flaws in its design which keep it from being a keeper.