Review: ‘Betrayal at House on the Hill’ (Board Game)on November 20, 2014 at 8:00 am
Board games are something I’ve been wanting to cover more and more at Control Freaks. There is an absolute wealth of untapped potential, both in new gaming experiences and ways to have fun with a group of friends. Don’t get me wrong; video games are amazing and are capable of doing a lot of things board games aren’t, but that doesn’t mean that board games aren’t capable of pulling a rabbit out of their hat and wowing new audiences. Tricks that video games – no matter how hard they may try – can never pull off.
As I delve more and more into this growing (but still very niche) aspect of gaming, it’s crucial to not only look at what’s new, but to also cover some of the modern classics. To shine a spotlight on some of the bits of cardboard and plastic that make gaming on a table top just as special, fun, and important as anything you’ll find in the digital realm.
Even though Halloween has come and gone, I hope you’ll forgive me if I indulge myself by telling you about a VERY special board game: “Betrayal at House on the Hill”. A horror inspired board game positively dripping with so much theme, excitement, drama, mystery, and twists, that it will have you and your friends discussing each night spent with it like they were bombastic, booze-fueled nights on the town. You know the ones; like when your friend climbed that tree, stole those eggs from that bird nest, then had Waffle House fry them up for him? Waffle House is a crazy place.
But you’re tired of hearing that story, right?
So, play some “Betrayal” and make some new stories. You won’t even have to embarrass yourself in front of a room full of dentists. What? Do you and your friends have better events to crash than a dental convention?! Tell me then! TELL ME!
“Betrayal at House on the Hill” is a device that manufactures memories and that’s what all of the best board games do. Some you enjoy, finish, then put back on your shelf, only to forget they exist until it randomly comes out again. “Betrayal” gives you stories to tell. Stories that you’re never going to forget about. Stories that will have you wanting to get the game to your table as much as possible, long after Halloween has passed.
This is largely due to how the game is designed. “Betrayal” is a bit of a randomly generated event factory, similar to games like “Arkham Horror” or “Eldritch Horror”. They’re games meant to give each session a semi-unique story to piece together from the mish-mash of event cards that are continually drawn and the semi-unique ways your characters will meet various misfortunes. A session of “Betrayal” starts very much like this, but unlike the other games mentioned, it has a crucial turning point that changes the entire dynamic of the experience. It has 50 different horror scenarios that are possible, randomly activated depending on what rooms have been explored and what items have been picked up.
Fifty. Different. Scenarios.
So, instead of just belching up various happenings and letting the players cobble together a loose summary of what’s going on based on cards they’ve read 10 times already, the machinery of “Betrayal” works a lot more consistently and doesn’t bind up nearly as much. This is thanks to the fact that this machinery is relied upon much less once one of these scenarios begin, instead of the entire game relying upon it to function.There is a slow build-up of tension during this seemingly relaxing period of time before the “Haunt” starts. This tension eventually gives way to a, well… betrayal that finally reveals the plot and what the goal of the game is.
Not that stuff doesn’t happen in the other two games I’m using for comparison. They’re just… different experiences. Games designed to encourage a table’s worth of camaraderie, while a persistent eruption of cards are thrown at you, designed to make it feel like you’re doing important things. They just don’t present that illusion very well. They feel like a haunted house attraction at a carnival and you’re just sitting in the seat, riding the rails, waiting to see what pops up next. It’s entertaining, but shallow.
“Betrayal” starts itself off in much the same way, which is why the comparison is hard to ignore. Players start off working together. They explore this gigantic house, tile by tile, slowly uncovering the layout and having random stuff happen to them. Cards are drawn, dice are rolled, stuff happens.
But, once the Haunt starts, that all changes.
This is the point in the game where the Traitor is revealed (or not) and one of those 50 scenarios is put into play. Instead of every player versus the game, it becomes every player versus the Traitor. A villain, obstacle, new game mechanics, and a winning condition are suddenly thrown into the already spinning cogs of the engine and – quite miraculously – snap into place. You and your friends may now proceed to fight, squabble, and do nasty things to each other.
The start of the Haunt is determined by drawing Omen cards. As more and more Omen cards are drawn, the chance for the Haunt to start gradually increases. The tension heightens more and more and more until it’s suddenly released like a balloon with too much air.
This is my favorite part of the game. Once you check to see which scenario you’ve activated, the Traitor will wander into a different room of your house to read their side of the scenario, while the heroes stay back and read their side of the scenario. They don’t know each other’s goals or win conditions. There is knowledge contained within those pages. Knowledge the other side isn’t privy to. There are subtleties and cleverness at play here. Secrets and new game mechanics, that are exclusive to each scenario, are introduced. It excites and instills fear into the table every single time.
This physical act of leaving the room is important to the game. It emulates exploring the house and the other person wanders off. What happened when they were alone? What did they find? What is going on?
Well, your friend just became a prick, that’s what’s going on.