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.
That aforementioned fear is only raised when the Traitor comes back into the room. They always have the biggest, most evil smirk on their face. They know their power. They know what they’re capable of. They know what terrifying and murderous things they get to do to the heroes.
That initial feeling of unease when play resumes is not only palpable, but delectable. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the Traitor or not. When play resumes, suspense, distrust, and apprehension all come into play and the heroes need to conquer these and work together to win.
Monsters will often start roaming the house and the Traitor is in total control of them. They have new powers to play with, lots of the game’s rules no longer apply to them, and they have copious amounts of bloodlust to fuel their endeavors. The Traitor will often cackle with glee. I know I do, especially when you get to do awesome things and you don’t even have to explain yourself. You NEVER have to explain yourself or what you’re doing. You’re the biggest dickbag dungeon master of all time… except the Heroes have secrets, too.
They’re often running around, scouring for items, trying to find solutions to end the horror movie they’ve been thrust into. They avoid as many fights as possible, trying to stay one step ahead. They have to, because they now die if even ONE of their stats is reduced far enough.
The stats may be the most interesting game mechanic here. They not only function as a measure of how adept you are at certain situations, but you also use them to attack, defend, AND they’re your health. You’re forced to reduce them when you take damage, but which stats do you reduce? What do you think your character can do with less of? Strength to defend themselves? Movement? Sanity? It’s always a tough decision, because you’re exponentially weakened with each failed encounter.
Luckily, the Heroes can still succeed if they die. Only one needs to complete the objective. But, some scenarios can turn the Heroes, make them switch sides. Hell, some even obfuscate who the Traitor even is, thrusting everyone into a fierce battle royale, where everyone just fights each other, hoping they eventually take out the Traitor in the process.
It can be a maddening experience, but in the best way possible.
Unfortunately, the game itself lends itself to some other things that might just make you mad. See, despite the amazing theme in the game and despite how well it fosters very real emotions and replicates, the best I’ve seen, every horror trope imaginable, the game’s mechanics actually aren’t that good.
I know, I talked a lot of smack about “Arkham Horror” and “Eldritch Horror”. Those aren’t very good games, either. “Betrayal” falls victim to much of the same criticisms. The game feels very hands off a lot of the time. Plus, with how random everything is, the Traitor or the Heroes can start the Haunt with a MASSIVE advantage over the other. Also, you can die just as easily exploring and trying to find what you need to win as you can being mauled by a werewolf. You can lose just as easily by getting REALLY unlucky with your die rolls as you can by just having picked the wrong characters for the scenario.
Basically, “Betrayal” is just as random and unforgiving as the “Horror” games. But, it’s the STORIES that “Betrayal” presents to you that makes it shine. You don’t play “Betrayal” to win. You play it for the experience. You play it because the situations it puts you in are so damn engaging that you can’t help but be immersed.
It’s not a board game that thrives itself on presenting a puzzle to the players and having them best each other through a battle of wits using the game’s mechanics. It’s, if you haven’t figured it out already, a horror movie simulator. It’s giving you the chance to role play every horror situation you can think of. To enter into a game, not knowing what’s going to happen, just like every time a group of dumb teens rush foolishly into their poor decisions in the talkies.
“Betrayal” isn’t competitive, and if you try to play it that way, you’ll walk away supremely disappointed. It’s a game about stories and it’s one of the best story based games I’ve ever played. Not just for the content it provides, but for the emotions it elicits from the players.
I’m not going to pretend “Betrayal” doesn’t have other problems. Both “Horror” games are generous heaps of components with gorgeous art. Those components beg to be touched. Everything is of a very high quality. “Betrayal” is the complete opposite. It’s a bit ugly. The components feel cheap, especially the stat trackers, which don’t even stay on your character cards most of the time. The miniatures are pre-painted, which sounds great, until you actually look at them. I’m sure, in an effort to look more politically correct, the publisher didn’t want to make too many miniatures of a particular race, so they painted them all tan. They’re also painted very sloppily, with no apparent care. The cardboard also feels very thin and weak.
But the worst thing is the inlay. I HATE the inlay for this game. It’s not just that it doesn’t work, but it doesn’t work even though it looks like it should. That’s the awful prank it plays on you. You put everything into your box, all nice and neat, then put in on your shelf. Next time you bust it out, everything is all mixed up, like all of the pieces threw the biggest bacchanalian orgy for themselves. There is mayonnaise slathered all over the sofa, olive oil comes out of the faucets instead of water, there are strawberries shish kabobbed on sex toys, and everyone is passed out in a pool of lube. Nothing is left where you put in and you now have a disgusting mess to clean up. The pieces somehow defy the laws of physics and find themselves in places they couldn’t get in without outside intervention… but they did anyways.
Despite all this, I still remember the first time I played it. We had all picked our characters at random. We got a college-aged female and two kids, a boy and girl. Immediately, I said it was the babysitter and the two kids she was watching. Two, impetuous, bratty kids, who wouldn’t listen to reason and ran straight into this hell house.
First turn of the game, the babysitter walks into a room, gets sucked into the wall, pops up somewhere entirely different in the house. The very first turn. The boy and girl immediately go nuts, run in different directions, and start exploring the house as if it were their new playground.
Eventually, the boy found a book that bestowed him with the knowledge of some sort of plant lord. He used his new powers to immediately ensnare the babysitter and the girl, drag them into the room containing the mouth of the plant, and mulch them into meaty fertilizer. That took a grand total of two turns after the Haunt began. It was an epic Hero fail… or Traitor victory. However you want to look at it.
The point is that it was immediately memorable with how abrupt it ended. It didn’t matter that the Heroes didn’t stand a chance. The deck was stacked against them. The plants started right next to them, the easier to eat them, and the boy had a huge inventory of items he had picked up, like a dagger that fuels itself off the blood of the user, a scary mask that made him super intelligent, some gloves that let him steal stuff from people, and a dog that could run around and fetch stuff for him. Every evil plant lord boy needs a dog.
The Heroes? They had a Rubik’s Cube sort of thing that they couldn’t figure out how to open. I think they also had a crystal ball.
So, of course they’re going to get eaten. They’re playing with that damn cube and attempting to channel spirits instead of trying to survive.
That’s the incredible thing about this game, because no one else who has played this game has that story to tell, even when they get the same scenario. And yeah, I took some liberties with our characters, but without the Haunt, it would’ve been a lot more boring. The Haunt made it interesting. It gave the session a flavor that can never be replicated.
I look forward to playing the game 50 times to experience all it has to offer. After that point, assuming it even gets reached, I never want to touch it again. I don’t want to sully the individual experiences I had with each scenario by overwriting them with something else.
“Betrayal at House on the Hill” is certainly worth a look from anyone, even folks who have never delved into REAL board games; beyond “Monopoly” and “Clue”, even beyond “Munchkin”, “Settlers of Catan”, and “Ticket to Ride”. It shows you the ultimate value of getting your friends together in a way that I think most of us have lost since we’ve grown up, especially since video games have gotten less and less about sharing time on the same couch.
Editor’s Note: Developer Wizards of the Coast has an interactive demo of the game here, if you’d like to learn more.