Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Board Game Review: Betrayal At House On The Hill

Mummies creeping out of closets? Lurking horrors stumbling down the creaky hallways? Vampires emerging from the shadows? If you're looking for a reliving of every schlocky B-grade horror flick you've ever seen, you need to check out Betrayal At House On The Hill.

In Betrayal, players are exploring a haunted mansion. Players take on the persona of a stereotypical horror film victim--a creepy old priest, a precocious child, a mesmerizing dame, and so on. Each has a simple set of stats--Might, Speed, Knowledge, and Sanity.

At first, the game is somewhat cooperative: players are basically exploring the mansion, finding hidden rooms and creepy dens and gross laboratories. Most rooms will trigger an Event (something weird happens with an immediate effect); an Item (a strange object that will help you in some way) or an Omen (something daunting that may be good or bad or just weird.) Other rooms grant some sort of bonus, or require a die roll to escape, or something to that effect. Character stats fluctuate based on different things. And so on. The board is modular, so the game will look different each time you play. There is an upstairs floor, the ground floor, and the basement.

There's a small set of rules that cover things like attacks, and stealing items, and movement restrictions once the traitor is determined. 

Any time an Omen is triggered, the player who triggered it rolls some dice; if the result is equal to or less than the number of Omens that have occurred, the haunt begins.

When the Haunt starts, the game shifts in tone. One of the players is now the traitor and they turn against the other players. Exactly how this plays out changes from game to game; there are over 40 haunts listed in the manuals. One time, it might be a vampire who has to turn all the other players into vampires, while the other players have to survive until dawn. Or maybe it's a tentacle that has overtaken the house, and must pull its victims to its arms to kill them. The rules change drastically from game to game, so it's literally an entirely new game once the haunt starts. The non-treacherous players, of course, have to use whatever Items, Omens, and other resources they've been accumulating the first half of the game to defeat the traitor.

The thing is, neither side knows what the goal of the other side is. The game comes with both a survival guide (for the heroes) and a Traitor's Tome for the traitor. Each side takes their respective booklet and reads up on what their side needs to accomplish, what restrictions they have, and what special abilities they now acquire. They may or may not tell the other side, depending on the scenario.

Because the second half of the game is so different, the goal is different each game as well. It may end after a certain number of turns, or it may not end until someone kills all the other players. Or whatever.

What I Like About The Game:

  • The first half of the game is simple, quick, and fun. Players are basically exploring the house, turning over tiles, and resolving conflicts. There's very little pressure; players are just getting the "feel" of the house. (And, yes, that's a thing--it's creepy when you realize that, say, one segment of the house is blocked off from the rest.)
  • The haunt rolls get increasingly more tense. At the start of the game, the chance of a haunt is small, and people are comfortable. But as the Omens stack up, everyone starts freaking out that they aren't prepared--and guess what? You're never prepared, and it's eventually going to happen! The tension that this simple die roll makes is fantastic. 
  • It's very creative. Once the haunt begins, there's a huge pool of material to pull from. And no two games are ever going to be alike: not only because each scenario is vastly different from the others, but the house itself is going to be different each time. The characters develop much differently each game--in one game, the scientist might have gotten a lot of Might bonuses and a bunch of weapons, whereas the next game he might be a borderline lunatic. 
  • The entire concept of having two sides who have information the other side doesn't is just fun. Having one person scurry off with the Traitor's Tome to read secrets in another room--there's just something amazingly awesome about doing that. 
  • The format of the game lends itself nicely into teaching it. In the first part of the game, players are all helping each other, more or less,so it's easy to discuss rules without consequence. By the time the haunt begins, players are familiar enough with how things work that the few "extra" rules (how to attack, for example) will be easy to teach.

What I Don't Like About The Game:

  • Because of its two main selling points--a modular board and a new "rule set" in each scenario--it can become very unbalanced. Many scenarios require having a certain item, or going to a certain room. If you happen to lose that item, or if no one has it, you're in for a long game; whereas if you do have it, it's going to be much easier. It can be very frustrating when you need to get one specific thing and all you can do is sadly roll dice until it happens. Thankfully, most scenarios give you multiple routes to accomplish things, but it can still be a huge pain.
  • Also, because of the fluctuating rules, the haunt can be intimidating for new players. It's hard to guide someone when you aren't supposed to know all of the stuff they need to do, especially if they aren't familiar with board games in general.
  • Board game purists are going to hate this game. It's very luck-dependent and, because of the huge divergence in rules, there's going to be a lot of times where players just have to come up with the best solution of an ambiguous problem. Most things require a simple common-sense sniff test, but if you're the type of player who needs clarity and well-defined boundaries you're not going to find it here.
Betrayal isn't just playing a board game--this is definitely an experience game.Strip away all the wonky rules and die rolls, and you can really feel a story being told. Every single game I've played of this has been a memorable experience, so much so that I immediately wanted to play again. As I mentioned, the sort of gamers who need to win within specifically delineated rules aren't going to have much fun with this. But if you're a fan of horror movies and can paper over some rough patches, Betrayal At House On The Hill is a fantastic game. I'd grade it a B- as an actual board game, but a clear A as an "experience."

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