We play a ton of board games over at Fort Gibberish. The vast majority of them are straight up, head-to-head competitive games. Games like Galaxy Truckers, Carcassonne, Monopoly, and Micro Mutants have little to no teamwork involved, other than the pseudo-gaming of “don’t attack me and I won’t attack you.” Until I do attack you, of course, and by then it will be too late.
Betrayal at the House on the Hill by Wizards of the Coast is partially co-operative, and partially competitive. And it’s totally fun.
The overall premise of Betrayal stays the same every game: you and your fellow adventurers enter a haunted house. As soon as you do, the door slams shut and is locked by a mysterious force. From there on out, every game has the (great) potential to be different. I’ve played the game about a dozen times, and have yet to have a repeated endgame.
About the characters
There six character cards (one for each player, six players maximum). Each character card has two sides. One side is usually a more optimistic / positive version of the other side. Or more pessimistic / dark version, if you prefer to look at it that way.
Characters have two groups of attributes: physical and mental. The two physical attributes are strength and speed. The two mental attributes are knowledge and sanity. Every character has different starting values for these four attributes. Some characters have MUCH greater variance in their attributes, whereas some may not have particularly great potential, but are “steady” no matter what happens to them throughout the game.
Attributes change frequently throughout the game through the positive and negative effects of Events, Items, and Omens.
The board and action cards
The game board starts out with a landing tile on the main floor, a single basement tile, and a single upstairs floor tile. From there on out, the game board is dynamically generated. A player places an room tile whenever they enter a new, undiscovered part of the house. Some of the rooms are boring — like hallways — and nothing happens.
Player figures on the opening ground floor tile
Other rooms require the player to draw, and read aloud, an Event, Item, or Omen card.
Event cards are weird things that happen in a weird house. These cards are the most common. My favorite so far is a card that describes the player in front of a mirror. They see a future version of themselves in the mirror, and apparently they are in distress. The current-self player smudges out “THIS WILL HELP” on the mirror and passes one of their Items (if they have one) to their future self. The player’s gains an increase of an attribute as a feel-good rewards. The best part is that there’s another card where the player sees a version of themselves from the past. The entire card is written in mirror text, and you have to get up and read the card in a real mirror. Of course, the last line of the card is “THIS WILL HELP,” and the player gets a free Item.
Of course, not all events are good. For example, you find a coffin in the center of a room. You look inside, and it’s you. Failure to make a sanity check means a reduction in either your sanity or your knowledge attribute.
Item cards are almost always beneficial. Some of the more powerful cards have powerful drawbacks. I forget the name of it, but there’s a card basically like a Witchblade. You gain some sweet attack power, but can’t use any other weapons. This may not seem super terrible, but there are some weapons that are needed at the end of the game and if you’ve got the Witchblade on … welp.
Omen cards serve two purposes: scare the crap out of the players and hasten in the Haunt, which signals the end of the co-operative part of the game and ushers in the start of the competitive part.
The Haunt can take many forms, but the structure is always the same. The storyline is determined by a combination of the Omen card and room that triggered the Haunt. The table also determines who will be the villain. That player takes a special Haunt book and leaves the area. The remaining players are the heroes, and consult another special book to plan on how to defeat the Haunt.
The “metagame” aspect of this part of the game is amazing. Heroes cluster around each other, whispering strategies and re-reading the hints over and over again to make sure nothing was missed. We typically texted the Haunt player when we were done, although “BRING IT ON, MOTHERFUCKER!!” may or may not have been shouted when there weren’t any children around.
We’ve only experienced a fraction of the Haunts, and the rules suggest several times that reading the Haunts ahead of time will ruin some of the fun of the game. I totally agree. It was great fun trying to figure out how to kill a dragon that ripped through the house, or playing the Haunt villain in control of a multi-dimensional tentacle beast.
Overall, I like the first half of the game better than the last. Everyone is having a good time, and if you play with the same group often enough, a certain amount of distrust starts to formulate. You might give a weak player an item you found to help them, but what if they become the Haunt player later in the game? That’s like giving Barrett rifles to the Afghanis.
Once the Haunt started, however, my appreciation of the game fluctuated wildly. There are too many luck factors involved. Sometimes the heroes get lucky and already have items needed to destroy the Haunt. Sometimes the Haunt gets lucky and starts right next to a cluster of players. Some Haunts can be defeated with combat, others have to be defeated in other ways. Of course, part of the story is that you don’t always know everything — until it’s too late.
My friend Pants summed it up best, and this helped my enjoyment of the game: “don’t think of it as trying to win or lose. Think of it as telling an awesome story.” In that case, my game-stupid action of charging a monster became a typical scene out of a horror movie: there’s always one guy who tries to take on the demon and loses. Losing became easier to stomach once I thought about Billy squaring off against the Predator in order to buy his friends time.
You also have to be a little forgiving as you learn to play the game. The rules are pretty well written, but the multiple combinations of rooms, omens, events, items, and haunts can lead to some confusion.
For example, Pants and Roclar are each reading three separate rule books trying to figure out what to do, while I start losing my patience.
You’ll get the basic game play down after a few games, but even veteran players may disagree with some of the Haunt rules and situations. When in doubt, channel Pants: “what makes the best story?” Remember, there’s all sorts of bullshit reasons you may win or lose, but make it fun.
My most enduring critical complaints about Betrayal is the quality of the components. We played the game once in Virginia and then it remained boxed up for nearly seven months before being played again. In that time, the majority of the player and room tiles warped. Badly.
These are supposed to be flat.
In addition to the warping issue, the plastic pointers used to denote a character’s attributes are easily nudged out of place. I wound up writing down my character’s attributes and changing them like an old pen and paper RPG character sheet.
The game also has an incredible amount of tokens that get used depending on what cards and Haunt make an appearance. There might just be one or two tokens necessary for a storyline, but you’ll have to dig through them all. Tokens are roughly the same size and shape, further adding to the pain in the ass.
Betrayal at the House on the Hill is a lot of fun to play. If you are fixated on winning (or not losing), then this may not be the game for you. We had a great time playing with Sedagive?, Roclar, Pants and Gojira — we dimmed all the lights and passed a flashlight around to read the different cards. It was super awesome to watch a 12-year old transform into the ghost of an old woman and screech out an Event.
However, I believe the game is priced a bit steeply at $50 MSRP. I was given mine as farewell gift when I left my employer in Virginia, and I know that Amazon has run sales on the game for as low as $20 with free Amazon Prime shipping. As of this writing it’s $40, which is a decent price given the game’s replay value. At $50 I might be swayed to buy other games.
Strongly recommended if you can find it on sale, recommended otherwise.