My Favorite Board Game is a Disaster and I Don’t Care
In just a couple short years, my collection of board games went from one to seventy-two, excluding expansions. That number also excludes all the games I’ve sold to keep my collection at a “healthy size”. It would be an accurate statement to say that my collection grew fairly rapidly. Despite how many critically acclaimed games like Gloomhaven, Nemesis, Tainted Grail, Black Rose Wars, and Pandemic Legacy Season 1 end up on my shelf, nothing has come close to dethroning my favorite game. Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s Maybelline. But no matter how flawed Betrayal at House on the Hill is, I can’t help but love it.
Betrayal at House on the Hill is an uneven, unfair, unpredictable B-horror tier mess, but it’s still just so damn good. I’ve yet to play another game the embodies the absurdity of B-tier horror movies as well as Betrayal does. A scientist, girl with a teddy bear, thirteen year old boy, high school girl, middle aged woman, and an athlete in his twenties all walk into a haunted house because reasons. Together they set out to explore a mansion rumored to be haunted where they’re sure to uncover terrible things every time.
There are two phases to a game of Betrayal. In the first half of the game players explore the house uncovering one room at a time, placing new rooms onto the map as they’re discovered. Some of the map tiles have symbols on them indicating that players must draw a card from the top of either the Event, Item, or Omen decks and resolve the card drawn.
Items grant players weapons or tools that can be used in combat or to move around the board in clever ways. Event cards on the other hand, can be good or bad. Each one gives players a scenario where they must test their skills by rolling the number of die associated with a certain skill value on their character card.
For example, Heather Granville enters the Locked Room and has to draw an Event card. The Event cards invites the ghosts of two children into the room. At first the children are playing politely with a top, but quickly begin arguing with one another. The argument escalates and one child begins to beat the other to death with the top declaring that it’s his turn and he doesn’t want to share anymore. Heather is then required to do a Sanity skill test by rolling the number of dice equal to the current value of her Sanity stat. In this hypothetical scenario, she would roll three dice and check the result against the possible outcomes on the Event card. Results can either increase or decrease any one of the four stats: Sanity, Knowledge, Strength, and Might.
These stats also represent the characters’ health. If any of the four stats are reduced low enough to the tracked reaches the skull at the bottom of the track, that player is then eliminated. The nice thing is that players can’t be eliminated before the haunt starts. However, it is possible that players stats get reduced just above death, positioning players for a quick death as soon as haunt starts.
Once a player has moved a number of spaces equal to their speed or they were forced to draw and resolve a card, their turn comes to an end. The player to their left and the game continues as our heroes explore the ever expanding house.
When a player draws an Omen card, they’ll place the card in front of them as it’s a very special type of item. Unlike normal items, Omens typically can’t be dropped or stolen. But what makes them truly special is that they can trigger the second half of the game.
After an Omen card is drawn and resolved, players must do what is called a haunt roll. They must roll six six-sided dice (with an even split of one, two and blank sides) against the total number of Omens in play. If the haunt roll result is ever equal to the total number of Omens players have on the table, the haunt begins.
When the haunt begins, Betrayal at House on the Hill‘s flaws come knocking at the front door and asking if you have a moment to talk about the King in Yellow. Until this point in time, Betrayal doesn’t have an objective to work toward. When the haunt is triggered, players refer to a chart and select the scenario number where the triggering Omen and the room they’re in intersect. The same chart will also indicate (based on the scenario number) which player has now become the traitor. At this point, players are divided into traitor and survivors in a one vs. all showdown.
If you include the Betrayal at House on the Hill: Widow’s Walk expansion, there are a total of one hundred possible scenarios. As the determining elements of the haunt are triggered independently from any event that preceded the haunt roll, it’s likely that the current game state will prevent an unfair advantage to one party over another.
Some haunts will require survivors to work together to combat and kill the traitor who, as the antagonist, will be granted special abilities. But it’s entirely possible that events that occurred prior to the haunt have left the traitor or survivors weak and close to death long before an objective was revealed. Therefore the haunt, intended to be an exciting climactic end, may only last one or two rounds and fall flat.
Similarly, there are other scenarios that require players to perform unique actions in specific rooms. In cases where the haunt triggers early on, players can spend the entire game fruitlessly exploring the house to draw random rooms, never uncovering any of the two or three rooms that they need to complete their objective, and ultimately failing in their objective without ever having a real chance. Hell, players that fall into the basement are likely to be stuck down there for a long time because there are only a few ways out.
Much of this is a result of how the original Betrayal at House on the Hill wasn’t given quite enough time for playtesting and balancing. The base game has fifty different scenarios that needed to be tested and balanced against a ridiculous number of possible game states, requiring a significant amount more testing given the game’s random nature. However, the design team was pressed for time against the timeline they were given by their publisher, Avalon Hill. Rather than aiming to perfect Betrayal, they worked hard to get the game as well balanced as possible given the time they were provided.
But despite all of the challenges and frustrating outcomes, Betrayal at House on the Hill is still a delightfully disastrous experience. Despite how many other games I’ve played over the years, I remember Betrayal most vividly.
The first game of Betrayal that I ever played, I ended up being the traitor. When the haunt began, my character dozed off and had a fantasy dream where he controlled a giant fire breathing dragon. He figured, why not murder my friends? Should be fun. Unbeknownst to him, he was in a trance and actually controlling a dragon and burning his friends alive.
As you can imagine, players who do not have a dragon under their control have a significant disadvantage in combat. With the dragon under my control, I could breathe fire down the main hallway and lay waste to my enemies. The scenario was grossly unbalanced. But it also played out in such a ridiculous and funny manner that we reset the game and played again immediately after.
We encountered another scenario where here wasn’t a traitor. Instead the house began to collapse from the room where the haunt was triggered and all players were tasked with working together to escape the house as it collapsed beneath our feet. But if we followed the rules as written, just triggering the haunt would have immediately killed off two out of three players in the game, making it a far less pleasant game experience for the majority of the group. We instead introduced a house rule and delayed the destruction of the first rooms by a round so that all players had the opportunity to prevent their fate at least once. Otherwise, one player would have been running around alone, and that’s just not fun for anyone.
Betrayal at House on the Hill can often be a broken, sloppy, unbalanced mess, but it’s always an absurdly fun ride. The catch is that you can’t play to win. When you sit down to play Betrayal you should be looking for a story and a game experience rather than a strategy heavy game where players can experiment with clever approaches to the competition. No matter how unevenly the game plays out or unbalanced the scenario is the experience itself has stuck with my group for a very long time.
Considering that the first half of the game is all about low risk exploration and discovery, it’s a fantastic game to help introduce new players into the world of modern gaming. Betrayal At House on the Hill is a great way for new players to learn game concepts like variable player powers, complex rule sets (haunt scenarios), semi-cooperative games, exploration, and dungeon crawlers (an otherwise vast genre of games). As these ideas are central to so many other modern board games that it makes Betrayal a great way to help introduce people to common board game concepts in a less competitive setting than most games offer. My wife and I spent some quarantine time with my in-laws in their 70’s who quickly grasped and loved Betrayal. It’s even easier to teach those who are at an age with more neuroplasticity.
Two additional versions of the game were released since I first started playing Betrayal at House on the Hill which offer arguably better versions. Betrayal Legacy is the legacy version of the game that released in 2018, which I’ll eventually cover in a spoiler-free review once my group finishes our last three scenarios.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of a legacy game, players experience the game together in a set number of predetermined scenarios as the game gets permanently altered by player outcomes. Cards and components may be torn up and permanently destroyed as players go through the story together. Depending on the scenario and who wins (traitor or survivors) certain game components or story elements may never be experienced as they no longer pertain to players’ story. While the idea of destroying components is an uncomfortable one at first, it becomes a uniquely interesting part of the experience. Destroying elements of the game means that at the end of the campaign players will be left with a unique version of the game. Unlike many other legacy games, Betrayal Legacy is designed to be enjoyed with all of the earned bonuses and penalties in a casual mode that mimics the gameplay style of the original game.
In the case of Betrayal Legacy there is thirteen different story campaigns, plus a prologue scenario that makes for the perfect tutorial. During Betrayal Legacy‘s design process, a lot of time and effort was put into streamlining some of the messier rules. As new and more complex rules get introduced to the game incrementally, Betrayal Legacy is a much cleaner experience going through the campaign. I wish I could say more about it without spoiling anything, but I can’t. Betrayal Legacy has a ton of surprises that have kept each new session just as exciting as the last and I can’t recommend it enough.
The most recent edition was the most unexpected and welcomed re-theme of the game. Thanks to the team at Avalon Hill, we now have a kids friendly version titled Betrayal at Mystery Mansion. In this version players take on the roles of classic Scooby-Doo characters to experience a streamlined gameplay that replaced gruesome tiles like the Bloody Room with Tennis Courts. Even the mental stats were renamed to Courage and Brains instead of Knowledge and Sanity. Down to the very colors used, Betrayal at Mystery Mansion is a brighter and friendlier game than the original, without compromising the core experience of discovering quirky stories and just having a good time.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Betrayal at House on the Hill is an unbalanced mess but I’ll still play it any day of the week. It’s not a deck builder, 4X, or area control game that requires to have preexisting knowledge of the game. Betrayal is a simple game that welcomes players of every skill level and age (pending thematic content) for a night of pulp horror stories, murder, and a lot of laughs. It’s certainly not the ideal game for everyone, especially those in search of heated competition, but it does allow anyone to join which immediately makes it a winner in my book. Critics of the game aren’t off base and it definitely has its problems but there’s nothing some friendly house rules can’t fix. Betrayal at House on the Hill isn’t a game to win, it’s an accessible game to experience with friends and if you’re looking for me this Halloween season, I’ll be at home murdering friends with a dragon over a few Hot Toddys.