Cardboard Addiction: Betrayal at House on the Hill

By Sam Desatoff

betrayal

The other night, my friends and I were sitting around the dining room table. We were chatting it up, drinking beer, and lamenting the fact that one of us was not a giant world-eating snake. Suddenly, Matt dropped from his chair and began wriggling uncontrollably. At first we paid no attention because this isn’t entirely out of character for him; one time Matt wriggled through half of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But this time was different. I think the biggest tip-off came when his entire body split in two and a man-sized, two-headed snake emerged from his rent corpse. At that point, we realized that perhaps Matt was feeling unwell. So we took the only obvious course of action: we cast a spell on a nearby skull and used an angel feather to tickle the snake Ouroboros to death.

What is it?

Betrayal at House on the Hill is as close to a haunted house simulator as you’ll find in board game land. Players take on the role of one of six characters (let’s call them suckers) as they explore a spooky house they for some reason felt the need to enter. Each sucker has different different values in each of the four stats: might, speed, sanity, and knowledge. The number of spaces a sucker can move is equal to her or his speed stat.

Not my first choice of someone to be stuck in a haunted house with.
Not my first choice of someone to be stuck in a haunted house with.

Players will make their way around the house, revealing new rooms randomly from a stack of tiles. In most cases, each room requires players to draw an event, item, or omen card. Each card has varying effects on the game, like “you get a revolver”, or “some Civil War ghosts watch you awkwardly rifle through their belongings.” Usually, cards or rooms will require dice rolls to determine their effect, with higher rolls usually resulting in more favorable outcomes. This first half of the game continues as such, with suckers making their way from room to room gathering items and generally exploring the house. Throughout the game, the house goes from this:

Image courtesy of Destructoid.
Image courtesy of Destructoid.

To this:

photo (3)

Where things start to get crazy, though, is when the “Haunt” begins. At some point during the game (a point randomly determined by another dice roll), one of the suckers will turn traitor. At this juncture, the traitor will leave the room and read up on their new powers, while the remaining suckers will have a chance to establish a plan of attack.

Once the Haunt is revealed, the game turns into a sort of cat-and-mouse chase between the traitor and the other players. The traitor has special win conditions that remain secret from the other players. Once these conditions are met, or once the suckers have thwarted the traitor, the game ends.

The Good

First and foremost, Betrayal is a storytelling game. Concerned more with crafting a unique narrative, the game does a fantastic job in establishing atmosphere. The flavor text on all the cards is very well-written and rather descriptive. For example:

betrayal spider

Some of the cards are also surprisingly graphic in their descriptions. The beginning of this review is taken from one of the Haunts in which, and I quote, “Your friend shudders and drops to the floor. Blood and foam spill from your friend’s open mouth. Then your friend’s body splits in two, as if a giant zipper opened it from head to toe. The Worm Ouroboros, the great snake that circles the world, has forced its way into your reality through the body of you…dead…friend.”

Thanks to the randomness of the cards, most of the story is player-driven. It is a lot of fun to come up with absurd backs stories for your sucker as they wander the house picking up items and meeting ghosts.

Knowing that at some point during the game a Haunt will occur adds a surprising amount of tension to each turn, and not knowing who will turn traitor caused us to suspiciously eye our fellow suckers. The foreboding sense that one of us will soon be trying to kill the others hangs over the table as we cautiously explore the house. The game really caters to creative types that like to have a say in how their adventure unfolds. And with 50 (!) Haunts total, replay value is through the roof.

The Bad

As much fun as it is to explore the house, it can be frustrating when the ability to move around is determined by dice rolls. Something that should be noted about the dice in Betrayal is that each one contains a blank side. This means that it is entirely possible to roll a zero on your turn. When you are in the same room as the traitor and your survival depends on the dice, seeing the blank faces turn up can be very disheartening. The dice also leave the player with very little control over their sucker’s turn. Aside from deciding where to go, all player actions are random. It is easy to forgive this randomness, though, as long as you go into it knowing that Betrayal’s standout feature is the story, not the actual mechanics.

Speaking of mechanics, once the Haunt begins the game takes on an asymmetrical balance with the traitor usually possessing hugely powerful abilities. Betrayal has chosen not to focus on striking a balance between the suckers and the traitor. Instead, story is the most important element.

The Verdict

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a fantastic way to get swept up in an entertaining story. As long as you don’t mind imbalanced powers and hugely random encounters, there is a lot of fun to be had. Our group absolutely loved the way the game presented each separate Haunt. It really did feel more like visiting a Halloween attraction than an actual game, but honestly that is one of the biggest draws. I do not plan on getting rid of this one for a while. At least not until we have experienced all 50 Haunts, which could be a very long time.

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