Horror Top Trumps
And Their Evil Progeny
Award-winning writer, Rik Hoskin, delves into the twin threats of the Horror Trumps, and how they inspired him to create his own cards...
To those of us of a certain age, the phrase Top Trumps conjures up images not of aeroplanes or cars or motorbikes having their stats compared, but of unrelenting horror. That horror came in two glorious sets released at the end of the 1970s, under the titles of Dracula and Devil Priest.
First launched by Dubreq, and later repackaged by Waddingtons, the Horror Trumps–or Horror Top Trumps or Top Trumps: Horror if you prefer–featured 32 characters per set, using hand-drawn images largely inspired by the Universal horror movies of the 1930s and the Hammer Horrors of the 60s and 70s. I say inspired by, but there was in fact something more going on here–the images were either light-boxed or hand-drawn from old horror stills, with some glorious reinterpretation along the way which took them further in the ghastly direction of gore. I distinctly remember seeing the original image that inspired the Two-Headed Monster and being bemused that the creature in question held only a banana rather benignly, instead of the brutally severed hand he seemed to have been chewing upon in the card image I was so familiar with.
Such illustrations were at the heart of the Horror Trumps, and it is those that are burnt so brightly upon the minds of many of us who played them. They were drawn in what I think of as a brutal style, all heavy lines and thick, threatening shadows. The colour choices were garish and looked to have been executed in magic marker. For me, aged perhaps 6 or 7 at the time I first saw them, they were clearly comic book in style. This was an era where comic books–primarily Marvel’s British Weekly reprints–seemed to be everywhere, and it was not unusual for your Mego Batman action figure to jump in his Mego Batmobile to help Mego Spider-Man fight with Mego Wolfman or Frankenstein (never then called Frankenstein’s Monster, just Frankenstein). The boundary between comic book superhero and horror was blurred, and the Tomb of Dracula ruled Marvel Comics both in the UK and in the States. But Horror was more easy-going then–an age before video nasties and the advent of films like Saw and The Purge, this was a time when Dracula haunted not only young virgins but also bags of snacks, ice lollies and board games aimed at ages 7-and-up!
Those Horror card sets contained all the usual suspects–Dracula, Werewolf, the Mummy, Frankenstein (the Monster, once again known just as Frankenstein here). But it was the rather stranger choices that stuck in my young mind. The image of the red-skinned Diablo casting judgement from on high, the truly bizarre-looking Death, the four-eyed Thor and the grinning Prince of Darkness.
It was a tribute to the artists that, with no blurbs (“flavour text”, in the industry), no background info, and no particular franchise to pin these on, the cards still seemed to have whole stories tucked into their shadowy depths. These days it’s easy to discover the Venusian Death Cell was just a repurposed Sea Devil from Doctor Who with the horror level cranked up to 11, but at the time, that single image accompanied by the evocative name was enough to let a young mind wander–“Wow, things are harsh on Venus!”
There was also a strange internal mythology being built in those original 64 cards. The Zetan Warlord (actually another Dr Who emigree called an Ogron) presumably consulted the Zetan Priest (again, a Dr Who refugee) for advice on matters of faith, while Zoltan and the High Priestess of Zoltan–incidentally one of the most terrifying images I can recall from childhood thanks to those horns and that shadowy, cycloptic eye–were either allies of the society of Zetan or its greatest enemies, who really knew?
Such was the impact of those images, and the wonders found in the Marvel Superheroes Card Game (Trumps in all but name), that, like many other people, I often circled back to the idea of creating my own packs. At the start of 2020, before the pandemic showed us all a rather different face to horror, I began pondering what might have been in a third set had one been released somewhere around 1979. And I made a list–a very long list–which I showed to my artist friend Tim Brown, who also happens to be a devotee to those old Horror Trumps and who had numerous ideas of his own. We called the new cards Terror Trumps and, accompanied by embellishment artist Chatri Ahpornsiri and designer Rob Lamble, launched our first sets on Kickstarter in early 2021–a nightmare come true!
We made some changes along the way, creating modifier cards that could affect a game, adding that much-missed flavour text to each card, and slimming down the categories for our own purposes. Like the originals, we wanted to create our own feel, our own nods and winks to classic characters, and our own mythology – in our case, the Zodiac cards form a subset, as do the worshippers of Death.
Jae here at Horrified – who’s the Master Vampire, mad professor and general serial-killer-in-chief of these fine internet pages – loved our first sets. We’re doing it all again as I write these words -Terror Trumps Wave 2 launches on Kickstarter on Halloween 2021 and runs through November. We like to hope we’ve captured not only the spirit of the old Horror Trumps but also the looming spectre, the terrifying menace and the jet black soul of them! Come and check us out.
Or if you’re reading this article some distant time after the Kickstarter campaign, you can find us at cardtrumps.com or look for us selling packs of “Terror Trumps” on eBay under seller name cardtrumps. And remember – DO have nightmares!
For detailed information on the source of those old Horror Trumps, take a look at the meticulously researched Hypnogoria website.