Betrayal At House on the Hill Is Better As A Legacy Game
This is arguably going to be the most divisive article I’ve written yet. There’s a good portion of board game players who don’t love the destructive nature of legacy games. There’s also a good number of players who (fairly) dislike Betrayal at House on the Hill because it’s so unbalanced as a game. Personally, I see Betrayal at House on the Hill as a quirky B-rated horror experience and it happens to be one of my favorites, despite its glaring flaws. What Betrayal at House on the Hill got wrong mechanically and in the rulebook, it made up for in atmosphere and experience. When Betrayal Legacy released, I was thrilled to find that Avalon Hill took the time to improve upon both the story and technical experience.
Despite how many legacy games I’ve played through, this is surprisingly the first one I’ve written about so I want to take a moment to explain what a legacy game is for those readers who might not be familiar. Legacy games are a specific genre of board game that have only recently emerged. In these campaign style games, player choices permanently alter the physical game and their components. Sometimes this is done by adding buff or debuff stickers onto cards, altering their effects. Other times, it means destroying physical components that will never be a part of your story again. By the time you’ve completed the campaign, your final version of the game will be unique from anyone else’s as a result of the decisions you and your peers made.
The destruction of components means that the campaign can only be played through once per copy of the game. There some people that feel like that is a waste of money, but I argue quite the opposite. Legacy games are filled with sealed boxes of cards and components that are unlocked as players progress through the campaign. Discovering these pieces and how they change the game session to session creates a sense of excitement and discovery that entices players to play the story to competition. Most legacy games provide a campaign of ten to fifteen sessions with the ability to play in casual mode with all the unlocks once the story is over.
One of the biggest complaints about the original Betrayal at House on the Hill is how random and unbalanced the game is. Betrayal sends up to six players until a haunted labyrinthian house to explore, experience b-horror tier events, and collect macabre weapons and abilities. Eventually, a series of conditions will be triggered that reveals one of the players to be a traitor, dividing players into two groups (survivors and traitor) and pits them against each other in one of one hundred possible scenarios (if you include the Widow’s Walk expansion). It’s a blast to play, but with so many randomized elements, it’s entirely possible that players can trigger the haunt scenario too early in the game to stand a chance against the traitor. Random events can drop required player stats too low to have a fair shot at winning. Sure there are some vague rules in the original version that need to be tightened up, but much of its balance issues are a result of the wide range of scenarios event cards and locations would have to account for. I personally don’t mind the imbalance as I’m just looking to enjoy the experience and storytelling rather than a win, but for many, these issues ruin the entire experience.
While Betrayal Legacy can still be random, the legacy format fixed a lot of the above issues. With the exception of the prologue session, each game of Betrayal Legacy will trigger one of two or three possible haunts. By narrowing down the number of possible scenarios available per chapter of the story, it allowed Avalon Hill to release a more balanced experience.
The story of Betrayal Legacy evolves with each new session. Beginning in 1694, something within the house calls to five families and they set off to explore the infamous house on the hill to uncover its horrors. With each subsequent session the descendants of the original explores are called back to the house, unaware of how it has changed over the years.
Unlike the base game, the legacy version limits the number of rooms initially available to players. Over the course of the game, more rooms are unlocked and the house mysteriously expands with the mystery. To avoid spoilers, I’ll say little more than the fact that new rooms are often shuffled in as part of the rewards between sessions.
Players each select a character board to play as throughout the campaign. Each of these boards are identified only by their color and family crest. One of the simple but effective legacy features of Betrayal Legacy is the fact that players create a last name for their family and write it on the character board, making it a more personal experience from the very beginning. With each new chapter, players take on the role of a new character from the same family (unless their ancestor was lucky enough to survive the last chapter.
Were that where the family mechanics began and ended, it would be little more than a gimmick to justify the legacy edition. But these new features are well thought out and add mechanics that have a lasting impact on the game’s experience. Once per game when a player draws an item card, they may choose to make that item a family heirloom by taking one of their nine family crest stickers and placing it the item’s heirloom spot. That sticker will remain on the item card forever, permanently giving it additional effects whenever it’s possessed by a member of the family who claimed it as their heirloom. It’s a fun way to gain advantages and turn the tide of the haunt on a whim. While it may be tempting to heirloom everything you can, players only get nine heirloom stickers for the entire campaign so they’ll want to be somewhat selective. If a player runs out of heirloom stickers early, there’s a chance they’ll miss out on some more interesting items that appear late game.
It’s difficult to talk about the other permanent elements without spoiling any of the many exciting surprises, so I’ll keep it to only light hints. But where the heirloom system permanently adds bonuses for families, there are other elements that not only permanently alter the game based on what happens but also where and to whom it happens. While there is a pre-existing narrative, the most memorable moments are created by player choices and how they permanently alter the game.
The included story line is typically told from three different places: the chapter introduction cards, the haunt text when it’s triggered, and the haunt’s conclusion. However, throughout the game players will find hidden notes that provide extraordinarily vague hints at the over-arcing story. Generic horror text like “he’s coming,” are crudely scrawled on various cards to be discovered by players who choose to look for them.
I again find myself limited in what I can say and how I can say it by the International Spoiler Bylaws of the Internet that I believed passed around late 2017. What I can say is that Betrayal Legacy is worth it for the story surprises alone. In the earlier chapters I was convinced the overarching story was going to go in the direction of the Amityville Horror House and was quite underwhelmed. We were all enjoying the gameplay experience and creating our own stories as we went along, but cared little for the overall story. When the secret threats of the house revealed themselves, I was visibly overjoyed and fell in love with the game all over again.
It was at that moment that the themes and hidden notes all came together and I saw how all the clues fit together to shape the big reveal. In a series of games that has otherwise been quite random, it was a nice change to see a well planned story.
Once the thirteen chapter story has come to a close, players will have a version of Betrayal Legacy that is unique to them and the decisions their group made. Unlike some other legacy style games, Betrayal Legacy can be played in casual mode, allowing players to re-experience some of their favorite haunts, as well as others they may not have encountered in their main story. All of the Heirloom item effects remain in place, as well as all the other rules I’m not allowed to share. The end result is a custom experience that can be played and replayed to the heart’s content.
Some other legacy games are possible to replay in a casual mode with heavy rules modifications. Pandemic Legacy Season 1 for example can be enjoyed after the story if players treat the board as if it was unaltered by player decisions throughout the campaign. On the other hand Betrayal Legacy was designed with post-campaign replay in mind. Players can enjoy a Betrayal At House On The Hill experience with the board in its final altered state, capturing the memories and reminder of previous choices, both good and deadly.
Even without the casual mode, Betrayal Legacy is well worth the money. It’s an odd concept to purchase a game with the pre-existing knowledge that part of the goal is to permanently destroy it. I feel it’s a fairly safe statement to say that regular board game players have games on their shelves that they haven’t played more than two or three times. I’m guilty of that myself. I have yet to touch Star Wars: Imperial Assault or the Black Rose Wars expansions. Even some games that I adore like Deep Madness or Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island have only been played a small handful of times. Many of those games and the content I’ve collected come in well over a hundred dollars and it’s unlikely I’ll get to any of them again. I’m someone who needs a good story to drive them to continue to return, and Betrayal Legacy does just that. The story mode kept me driven to keep coming back through each of the chapters and I managed to sneak in a few casual plays after the fact as well. For all that time spent playing Betrayal Legacy, it’s easy to justify the $75 over what I pay for most Kickstarter titles.
Some would argue that legacy games aren’t worth the investment because you so often can’t go back and enjoy the story mode over again, and to that I say “bahumbug!” I was hesitant at first as well, but after my session, I was an instant convert. Much of the legacy experience is about the twists and turns of surprise and discovery and event for the legacy games that offer reset packs that roll the game back to an earlier state, you can’t be surprised by the same twists twice. I love replaying games but sometimes the experience the game creates, rather than the sum of its mechanics, that what leave you with the lasting impression.
And that’s precisely where Betrayal Legacy‘s strengths lie. Even as a long time fan of Betrayal at House on the Hill, the legacy edition managed to surprise me. There were well developed new mechanics that reinvented a game I was over-exposed to in ways that made me rediscover my love for its pulpy B-horror plotlines. It’s that type of anecdotal experience that can’t be measured in a dollar value, but were I to try I would say the price of Betrayal Legacy is the same as taking a family a five to a single movie. For the price you’d pay for an ninety to two hundred minutes of a movie, you could get fifteen to twenty hours of entertainment doing something together.
If I have any gripe about Betrayal Legacy, it’s the component quality. The cardboard map tiles and punchboard tokens are all fairly sturdy and on par with the original Betrayal at House on the Hill and don’t bother me at all. But for a legacy game, I expected a little bit more than basic stock six sided die and faceless miniatures. To be fair, these are relatively inconsequential complaints in the grand scheme of the experience. However, I’ve come to expect a higher level of component quality from games like Hellboy The Board Game and Project: ELITE that retail for about the same cost. It feels a bit like Betrayal Legacy missed an easy opportunity to further step up its game by providing elevated levels of components.
Betrayal Legacy fixes a lot of what was broken about the original game experience while still providing the same degree of pulpy straight-to-DVD-horror that the original did. What it lacks in competitive production value it makes up for in surprises. Of all the legacy games I’ve played so far, Betrayal Legacy was the one that excited me the most and has left the most lasting impression and I expect it will be quite sometime before another game can dethrone it.
1 – 5 players
45 – 90 minutes
Betrayal Legacy is incredibly easy to teach. The core mechanics are simple and intuitive and by the time the Haunt is triggered, players will have become familiar enough with all of the core concepts to not be overwhelmed by the new rules introduced by the Haunt scenario.
Everything about Betrayal Legacy oozes theme. From card flavor text, to token artwork, and scribbled notes throughout, Betrayal Legacy nails the feeling of pulpy horror. However, the production value of the components feels a little lackluster.
Betrayal Legacy‘s campaign is a single-playthrough experience, but after the story’s conclusion, it can be replayed again and again. However, the number of haunts available in the legacy edition is significantly less than the original.