There's an awful lot to like in this litle game. While only 64 pages long, the system is solid and focused and I can see gettig a lot of use out of the Shivering Circle.
The game is meant to emulate a style of horror known as "Folk Horror". These are stories of out of the way places with dark secrets. Ancestral horrors bleeding in to the modern day, lurking in dark forests, crumbling manor homes, forgotten seaside villages, etc. If you're thinking about stories like H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror", M.R. James' "Whisper and I'll Come To You My Lad", or T.E.D. Klein's "the Ceremonies", you're on the right track.
What sets the Shivering Circle apart from the multitude of other contemporary horror games, though, is not simply this focus on Folk Horror. It takes great pains to look at the psychological aspects of a horror story, and the system is built around that idea.
For example, 4/5 of the character stats are all psychological/emotional values. “Health” is the only physical one. There is simply no combat mechanic, and none is needed. The game does not care what your skill level is in "Shoot Rifle" or "Punch". Rather, the mechanics are there to see if you have the stomach or emotional state to perform a task. And even the "Health" stat is more about having the fortitude to run through a dark haunted wood to escape murderous villagers, or stay awake all night reading weird books of village lore.
E.G.: in the closest we have here to an example of combat, a PC is trapped in a room, and a bad guy is coming to get her to sacrifice her to the local village god-monster. Rolling the dice is about “do you have the courage to shoot the Bad Guy?” instead of “can you hit the Bad Guy, and how much damage do you do?”
The designer tells us that he assumes "You can do what you know you can do." Character abilities are fluid, and up to the player to determine, within the parameters of the game. You're told to write down one or two things "you know", "people you love", something "that drives you", etc.
The dice mechanic is very clever. Stats are rated from 1-10, starting at 4, and you can add points. When you roll the dice+stat, you have to beat a Target Number. If you do, you add a point to the stat, and narrate what happens. if you fail, you deduct a point from the stat, and the Narrator decides what happens.
So if you succeed, you become more confident, and succeed more. But as you fail, you start losing confidence, and things become harder for you.
Dice rolling is all player-facing. NPC stats are the same rating scale +10. So if an NPC is trying to do something to you, that rating is the Target Number you have to roll against to avoid the consequence.
There's nuance to the dice system as well, where things You Know, or Love, or Are Afraid Of, etc. come into play, and add or remove dice from that Stat+Dice roll. Seems like it'd be really interesting to play with this a little.
The titular "Shivering Circle" is also part of the game mechanics, as well as the default setting (I'll get more to the setting in a moment). The character sheet has a diagram of a circle of standing stones on it. When you're confronting horrible situations in the game, and completely fail your rolls, you mark off one of the stones. The more stones you mark off, the more horrible your fate is becoming, and the harder it is for you to survive in the setting. The Narrator (GM) is encouraged to begin to ramp up the weirdness level as your Stones are checked off, and when you mark off the final stone in the center of the circle, Bad Things (TM) happen. "You meet your fate. In the next scene, you get burned in a Wicker Man, crowned as the antichrist, dragged to hell, inducted into the coven, and so on."
And as with the dice mechanic above, there's nuance to the use of the circle. You can "burn" a stone to get bonus points to your abilities, making it easier to suceed in tasks. Or you can burn ability points to remove a stone, allowing you to survive a little longer.
Also cleverly, the number of stones is different based on the needs of the game. For a one shot game, you're encouraged to use the sheet with only 5 stones on it. Longer games use sheets with up to 13 stones.
If you're still with me, lastly I want to talk a little about the default setting of the game. "Hoddesford, Hoddesham and Hoddeston" is a strange little area somewhere in the UK. Details on location are vague, and transient. The author describes how it often moves around, unnoticed by anyone. For those familiar with the works of Ramsey Campbell, it felt almost like a cross between his Severn Valley, and the purgatory-esque feel of the "Silent Hill" franchise.
It's a small village, and surrounding area, with a number of odd people living within. The detail on the area is brief in the book, and mostly focuses on a handful of strange characters. I'm not going to go into detail here for fear of spoiling them for potential players. But suffice to say each of these characters provides enough fodder for a short series of games. Put them all together, and you could easily create a small campaign in the Hoddesford area.
The Hoddesford setting is quintessentially british, and I admit that my only gripe with it was there were a few terms used that were just not familiar to me (a lifelong Californian). A quick google search cleared those up though (eg: what's a "hunt saboteur", or an "ASBO" designation). They're nothing that hung me up for long.
And while Hoddesford is very much a British construct, I can easily see transporting it, or at least the ideas, elsewhere. I immediately thought of the strange seaside towns of California's central coast, or the mostly-abandoned gold-mine towns in the Sierra Nevada. It would be easy enough to run a game of the Shivering Circle in any place like that, or any "off the beaten path" area of your choosing. Stephen King's "Children of the Corn" would feel right at home in this game.
Speaking of the King of Terror, brings to mind this quote:
“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there. I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud. ” ― Stephen King
The Shivering Circle fits neatly into that trifecta. It's a game of Terror primarily, but is not afraid to bring on the Horror. And the Gross-Out fits right at home here to drive home the emotions brought on by the first two.
In summation, this is a really great game. If you're looking for a pulp, monster-punching style of horror game, this is not the one you want. However, if you're more an afficionado of the creeping dread style of horror story, you really couldn't do much better than the Shivering Circle.