In recent years, board games seem to be experiencing a huge surge in popularity, with lots of new and interesting titles popping up in game stores, homes, and college dorms. The Settlers of Catan has become a household name, and games like Ticket to Ride, 7 Wonders, and Small World are following close behind. Games of this new generation tend to have complex rules, strong themes, and beautiful artwork. So far my favorite title from this board game Renaissance is Betrayal at House on the Hill, published by Avalon Games. The horror theme is something fun and different, but what really makes Betrayal stand out is its collection of 50 different “Haunt” scenarios, giving players a unique experience every time.
The premise of Betrayal is simple: you and your friends are exploring a creepy old house. It’s 3-6 players (though you can always team up to accommodate more), and the game takes about an hour, give or take depending on everyone’s experience with the game. Each player gets a character card to keep track of their stats and a figurine to move around the board. The board is built dynamically, piece by piece, as players explore new rooms across three floors. Some rooms prompt players to take actions or draw cards that have various effects on gameplay. The game is divided into two halves: general exploration, and the Haunt.
The exploration half of the game lets players explore the house to discover rooms, gain items, and increase (or accidentally decrease) their stats. All the text on the room tiles and item/event cards is spooky and meant to be read aloud in a haunting voice. One Event card, for example, depicts a ghostly couple seen wandering the grounds of the mansion. A dagger Item card describes in gory detail how the weapon draws its power directly from the user’s veins. With the right enthusiastic players (and the right horror movie soundtrack, if you’re really into it), this game can create a mood strong enough to send chills up your spine.
As the exploration phase is played out, the Haunt phase becomes more and more likely to be triggered (through the use of 13 Omen cards and ominous dice rolls). Players who love elements of mystery and deceit will find the Haunt phase to be the most appealing aspect of Betrayal. When the Haunt phase begins, players consult a chart in the rule book that designates which one of the 50 Haunt scenarios will be played and which player will become the “traitor.” The traitor must take the “Traitor’s Tome” rule book and physically leave the room, while the other players consult the “Secrets of Survival.” Both books contain a back story, rules, and win/lose conditions for each of the 50 haunt scenarios, but the exact information players are given depends on whether they are the traitor or the survivor. When both sides have read their rules and formed a strategy, the traitor is called back to the room to set up and initiate the Haunt. Every game is a mystery, with both sides trying to determine how much the other side knows and what they might be hiding.
The Haunt scenarios depict classic horror stories and characters–vampires, mummies, vengeful spirits, and the like. The traitor has usually awoken some terrible force sleeping in the house and is now possessed to do its evil bidding, which usually involves killing off the other survivors and performing some kind of ritual. The survivors must outwit the traitor (and whatever monsters they might be controlling) and banish the evil force. While most of the scenarios follow this sort of formula on a very basic level, the Haunts are extremely creative and rarely feel repetitive. The game uses players’ interactions with each other and with the house to spice things up (I recall one Haunt where I was struggling to diffuse the bomb strapped onto my teammate, while the traitor had a random chance of detonating either of our bombs and killing us both). A few Haunts break the mold completely by selecting a hidden traitor (only the traitor knows who they are, and must try not to reveal themselves until the right moment) or by appointing no traitor at all (a free-for-all, with all of the players battling for survival against the evil forces of the house, and each other).
Betrayal has great replay value, despite having a limited number of unique Haunt scenarios. I’ve played about 25 games so far, and have only had repeat Haunts two or three times. In my experience, even when a Haunt is repeated, there is still plenty of fun to be had. Knowing all the details of a Haunt is just another way to play (and remembering them in the first place is a challenge), and the board configuration, character stats, and friends you play with make each game unique.
Betrayal has so many complex factors that interact to form an exciting, compelling game, probably unlike anything you’ve played before. There seems to be a strange phenomenon that happens after you first introduce someone to Betrayal at House on the Hill: the next time you see them, they’ll tell you how they can’t stop thinking about that haunted house game, and can’t wait to play again.
As addictive as this game is, Betrayal is not without its faults. Like many of the newer board games on the market, Betrayal is pretty complicated. You need quite a bit of space to play, and it can take a while to explain all the rules, concepts, and conditions to new players, making for inconveniently long play times when first introducing the game (though this is almost always completely remedied after the first play-through). Since the game has so many different scenarios and rules, there end up being a lot of questionable situations where the rules aren’t comprehensive enough to give an answer. This can lead to arguments and lots of time spent trying to determine how to move forward. My games usually end up with a player vote on the interpretation of the rules, but Avalon has also released a fairly extensive set of errata that players can consult for specific questions.
Players who like strategy in their games may have a love-hate relationship with Betrayal. When the Haunt phase is triggered, there is an exciting flurry of speculation and planning and strategy on both the traitor and survivor sides, but at the end of most games, the outcome can usually be traced back to chance: which players’ stats happened to be good or bad for the scenario, which item happened to be drawn, which room tile never happened to be place, etc. This can be tough on players who play to win, or at least like their games to be fair. Betrayal is certainly not a fair game, and the odds are often stacked pretty high against one side or the other. Being the traitor can be especially frustrating when your 2-5 friends all get to win and you’re the only loser (though the thrill of getting to be the all-powerful bad guy usually makes up for it).
The game also has some physical defects, which is not something you usually have to worry about in a board game, especially one that costs $50. The pieces seem solidly made at first, but many players have experienced mild to severe warping in the room tiles. A friend’s tiles became so warped that the character figurines had trouble standing on them. My copy only has mild warping, and luckily all the tiles warp in the same direction so I can still stack them. There are lots of posts out there speculating about humidity and static and book-pressing that might help you mitigate tile warping, but I can’t speak for their effectiveness.
Another frustrating physical flaw involves the stat markers for the character cards. To keep track of your stats, you’re supposed to clip a little black pointer piece to your character card and slide it up and down as you gain or lose points. Unfortunately, many of the clips are too loose and slide on accident, causing you to lose your place. Apparently the clips in the previous version were too tight, so it sounds like the publishers just can’t catch a break with this tracking system and need to look into a new method. I just make it a habit to keep my character card as far away as possible so I don’t accidentally bump it and move the clips.
Even considering physical and gameplay flaws, this is still my all-time favorite board game. I’m constantly recommending it to people and hoping we get to play whenever friends come over. I think it really demonstrates the exciting possibilities that this new generation of board games holds. Every game has elements of mystery and intrigue, from wondering what room tile you’ll draw next, to revealing one of the 50 haunt scenarios, to wondering what the traitor is scheming in the room down the hall.
(If you’re interested in picking it a copy of Betrayal at House on the Hill, make sure you get the second edition, which comes in a green box and is about half as expensive as the loophole-ridden first edition (which comes in a red box). At the time of writing this, you can pick up Betrayal for just $40 on Amazon. Also, if you’ve enjoyed Betrayal and want to try something similar, I’ve heard that Arkham Horror fits the bill, though it is supposed to be much more complicated with longer play times (we stopped by a game that had apparently been going on for four hours at MAGFest!), though I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing it first-hand.)