Gamers’ Games are Major Fun for the more experienced gamer. For one reason or another, these games are a bit more difficult or require a greater time investment than the games we generally award BUT we feel that they are well worth the effort.
Betrayal at House on the Hill by Avalon Hill / Wizards of the Coast is just such a game. The premise is very cool: you and the other players are exploring a creepy old mansion when you find yourselves part of the plot of a familiar horror movie. As you explore the sprawling edifice you will be attacked by mysterious forces and you will discover strange and powerful items. The tension mounts as you look through the rooms until the Haunt occurs, at which point everything changes and one of the players could become a traitor…
There are a lot of pieces to the game. This is one reason we felt that Betrayal is more suited for experienced gamers. There is a lot of reading so younger players might need more support. There are three rulebooks. Yup. THREE. This sounds more intimidating than it really is, and I’ll talk about the books a bit later. For all its pieces, the game breaks down to a few important items: 8 dice (the dice are numbered 0-2 instead of the traditional 1-6); character cards (information about your character); room tiles (add these to build the mansion); Event/Omen/Item cards (things that happen to the adventurers); and the Haunt Books (what to do when the Haunt occurs).
Much like one of our earlier Gamers’ Games, Forbidden Island, this is largely a cooperative game. Before the Haunt occurs, players simply wander through the house, collecting artifacts and items that may help them (and in some cases hurt them) later. Even after the Haunt begins, most of the players will work together to defeat the evil that they face.
The early phase of the adventure is all about exploring the house. The players start off on one long tile (the Entrance Hall, the Foyer, and the Grand Staircase). Doors lead off this tile but players don’t know what they will find on the other side of the doors. When someone goes through a door, he or she draws a room tile (there are 44 possible rooms) from a shuffled stack. The room is revealed and something can happen to the character. There are generally four possible outcomes to entering a room: an event occurs; an item is found; an omen occurs; or nothing (this is very rare). Events usually require the character to roll dice to see if they are hurt or helped by the event. Items are generally useful although some can also hurt the character (a statue that gives you more dice to roll but lowers your sanity). Omens provide useful items BUT they also herald the beginning of the Haunt. Each time an Omen is revealed, there is a chance that the Haunt will begin (determined by rolling dice). Each time an Omen is uncovered, the chance that the haunt will occur increases (50% chance with 6 Omens and 100% at 12).
The Omen device creates palpable tension, especially as the characters approach the fourth or fifth Omen. There is a lot of pressure to explore rooms to discover useful items as well as some of the dangers that exist in the house. The more you know about the house, the better prepared you will be for the Haunt BUT the more you explore means the more Omens you will find.
When the Haunt bursts onto the scene, the game makes a sudden shift. At this point, one of the players usually becomes the enemy, a Traitor, and tries to defeat the other characters. A chart tells the players what to do. Players look at the chart to find the last uncovered Omen AND the room in which it was found. The chart provides the name of the Haunt and the identity of the Traitor (there are a few Haunts in which there is no Traitor, but the mechanics are essentially the same as what I will describe here). The Traitor takes one of the rulebooks called the Traitor’s Tome and leaves the room. The rest of the players get the rulebook called Secrets of Survival. Both the Traitor and the Survivors turn to the page that describes their Haunt. This page provides a set of goals and instructions for winning the scenario. If the Traitor fulfills his or her goals, then the Traitor wins. If the Survivors fulfill their goals, they win.
There are 50 different Haunts!! Each one corresponds to storylines you have probably seen in various horror movies and novels. They have names like “I was a Teenage Lycanthrope” and “The Heir.” Perhaps the hardest thing about this game is refraining from reading through all the Haunts. The Traitors and Survivors are not supposed to know what each other is trying to do. In one game I played, the survivors had to escape the house but we were under attack by the Traitor and his minions. The process of escape was complicated so I thought that if I attacked the Traitor, he would have to defend himself and leave the others alone to make good the escape preparations. I was wrong. The Traitor’s character on the board was completely irrelevant to his victory conditions. My character went mad. His minions kept up the attack and the other Survivors met a gruesome death. Major Fun for all!!
The first game you play will probably take a while (over an hour) but successive games are much faster, sometimes over in 20 – 30 minutes. There is a lot of replay value, even with Haunts you know. The house constantly changes and there is room for many different strategies. Ultimately, Betrayal succeeds so well because it creates tension like any good piece of horror AND the Haunt scenarios engage players in familiar but challenging plots.
Betrayal at House on the Hill was designed by Bill Glassco and is © 2010 by Wizards of the Coast.