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Vintage Dark Shadows Games: No PhD in Applied Vampirology Required to Play

by Michael Barnes (05/16/12).

Great art adorns this Dark Shadows game by Whitman—they don't draw ’em like they used to; they used to be so groovy.

By the numbers, the cult classic, gothic horror soap opera Dark Shadows ran for a whopping 1,225 episodes during the 1960s and early 1970s, not including a few misfired attempts at rebooting the series in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as a pair of feature films. The show has never really died out, thanks to faithful fans and endless syndication. But now, it’s in the mainstream eye more than it has been in decades thanks to a new Tim Burton film based on the show now in theaters, with Johnny Depp portraying Barnabas Collins, the legendary vampire master of Collinswood Manor.

The show was hugely popular when it aired, and its license was applied to series of novels, comics and other merchandise. There were puzzles, coloring books and even Viewmaster reels depicting characters and situations from the dark—and now painfully dated—show. Per the aim of this column, a survey of the licensed merchandise the show precipitated inevitably leads us to its representation on the board game shelf.

There have been two official Dark Shadows board games to date, and frankly speaking, I doubt we’ll ever see any others unless the Burton film inexplicably outperforms expectations and becomes a cultural sensation. So we’re left with a pair of relics contemporary with the show’s run on broadcast television. These games are of the sort that will have much higher value—both monetary and sentimental—to fans of the show or 1960s pop culture memorabilia than they will to game players, but both have some value. Both tend to sell for around $25 to $50 in good or mostly complete condition, but copies that are complete and clean are rarer, and in very good to excellent condition, can get closer to a $75-$80 price.

Card suits fit for a vampire. In the Whitman Dark Shadows Game, the cards drove all of the movement.

The first of the two games is a 1968 issue from Whitman. It features an amazing, stylized cover that oozes groovy 1960s creature-feature horror. The cards and board are also illustrated in this style and it looks great. The uncredited design is a simple start-to-finish race wherein players play from a hand of cards to move their pawn to spaces matching appropriately gothic symbols or numbers. Unlike many games of this type, there are no dice and cards dictate movement. There are a couple of shortcuts that are harder to get through, and a touch of strategy in terms of hand management. As to whether or not this captures the themes and concepts of the show, I suppose it’s really up to the player’s imagination. The design was later released without the Dark Shadows license as Creature Castle.

One fun feature is that the game also came with an extra card—a black and white picture of Barnabas Collins. It was intended for your wallet. Somewhere out there is someone who actually carried around that card in their wallet—probably the kind of person who would buy the limited-edition, 131 DVD box set of the show to be released this July.

The other game, published in 1969 by Milton Bradley, seems to be slightly more common. It’s called The Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows game, and it’s packed with novelties that will delight fans of the show. The cover has a great illustration of the vampire and an inset of kids playing and enjoying the game. That’s a touch we see far too little of these days.

If you look at the inset picture on the box, you’ll see kids having fun. And a v-v-v-vampire!

The fangs were really are the best part of the Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows game.

It has almost nothing to do with the show, or even Barnabas Collins, for that matter. Players spin a spinner and the result is a type of bone. You take the plastic bone and stick it on a cardboard scaffold. If you collect all of the bones and make a complete skeleton, you win. However, there are also wooden stakes on the spinner, and if you spin three you’ve got to lose a bone. This is obviously not a brain-burning exercise in strategic thought, and it doesn’t require a PhD in applied vampirology—or knowledge of the show—to play.

But what it lacks in depth it makes up for in novelty. The skeletons are built with glow-in-the-dark bones, the stakes are actually wooden, and it comes with a coffin to store the bones. Oh, and vampire fangs. Not many games come with vampire fangs, so that’s definitely worth notice. It’s a gimmicky game that doesn’t really have much to offer in terms of gameplay, but it’s undoubtedly a cool piece of ephemera with plenty of novelty appeal—regardless of the skeleton-building theme having little to do with the potboiler plots and spooky goings-on in the show.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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