Updated: Sep 28, 2021
With Halloween coming up this month, today I'd like to talk about a cult classic of the genre, Betrayal at House on the Hill produced by Avalon Hill (amongst others over the years). This game has been around since 2004, but I only got my copy in the last few years.
For those that don't know this game already, it is a tile-laying cooperative board game with a hidden traitor mechanic. It is designed for 3-6 players of ages 12 and above.
Players: 3-6 Ages: 12+ Game Time: 60mins
So gameplay-wise this is an interesting one, with quite a wide range of mechanics and styles going on. To start, each player chooses a character card, with each explorer having four traits: Might, Speed, Knowledge, and Sanity, which are later affected by cards, tiles, and other game effects.
You then place down the Basement Landing, Entrance Hall/Foyer/Grand Staircase, and Upper Landing which create the three floors of the house: upper, ground, and basement. Then the game plays out similarly to a lot of 4X games when you think about it.
You start by taking turns to do a bit of tile laying as you explore the house, until you either run out of actions or something happens, normally the latter. During this phase you will encounter events and hazards around the house, which you have to deal with. As this goes on, you will build up an array of items and hopefully boost your stats, rather than fall foul of the events and hazards you discover around the house, which can kill a character if any of their traits are reduced to the skull symbol.
At this point the game comes alive...
Eventually, the haunt will happen when the dice haunt roll result is less than the number of omens in play. At this point the game comes alive from the rather individual exploration to the cooperative hidden traitor game this is. Once the haunt happens, you determine who the traitor is depending on which omen triggered the haunt; this will also determine which scenario is being played.
Then each side will read their instructions and try to win accordingly. I would love to go into more detail about what happens after the haunt, however #spoilers this would ruin your individual experience of the game, and there are so many variations I couldn't possibly do them all justice.
When the haunt happens can drastically affect the balance of the game
When the haunt happens can drastically affect the balance of the game; when it happens early with a bad dice roll the traitor has probably won already, if it happens too late the traitor will almost certainly lose.
The many random elements to this game give it some great replayability. With 50+ different possible scenarios, the random layout of the house, and variable traitor selection criteria, I don't think it's likely to ever get two similar games of Betrayal.
Horror for me is a very visual medium and so the production for this game is perhaps getting more than my regular level of scrutiny. Overall the game has some great artwork, and generally looks great laid out on the table.
I'd much rather have a few more miniatures like the characters
However, with trying to fit so many scenarios into one game something had to suffer and in his case, it was random features used. Everything used by the traitor and even various random hazards is all done using some pretty basic tokens, which really detract from the overall theme. I'd much rather a few more miniatures like the characters and a more limited number of scenarios that would use them regularly.
Avalon have sought to profit ...
Sadly also the clips which are used with your character disc don't stay in place very well and loosen up a lot as you play, making them almost unusable. I wish this was unique to my game but it is a common complaint across the community. So much so that Avalon have sought to profit by creating an after-sale version with built-in dials which is much more user-friendly. I could live with this had it been a change to the core game too but it wasn't!
My final bugbear is the cards... for a game that has three different decks of cards that are the primary way of determining the play and story in this game I wanted to use card sleeves but their unique sizing make this impossible, something which means that the cards are going to be worn down long before you get to the level of replayability this game seemingly offers.
I like the idea of this game with its vast replayability and quintessential horror theme. I enjoy my gaming experience every time I play Betrayal at House on the Hill. However, for me the horror genre is defined by the visuals, especially in games, and I was so very disappointed that the vast majority of the gameplay is driven heavily by tokens and not something more substantial. I'd rather sacrifice some of the replayability and really focus on some more of the core material.
It has other issues too, for most people it's far too much of a table-hog and even with my large gaming table it is quite often a struggle to fit everything in place especially when using the Widows Walk expansion. And sadly the list doesn't end there: as well as key game components whose production don't live up to reasonable standards, there is a poorly organised box for the 149 tokens used for everything in this game.
Overall, I just don't find myself leaping to it that often. It needs multiple players to make the most of the experience and in our game groups it never really gets high enough on the list of games that we want to play, so it just sits on the shelf more often than not. Would I recommend this game? I think it's a great game to play but not to own, so buyer beware for this one.
From your friendly DoaLG rules lawyer
George E Ohh