Have you ever wanted to be in an episode of Scooby-Doo? How about reliving one of those cheesy 80’s horror movies? Well, do I have an adventure for you! But first, we should probably do something about that locked front door…
The name of the game is Betrayal at House on the Hill. The premise is a group of friends went to explore that old creepy mansion in town and as soon as they all went through the door: BAM! It slams shut and is locked tight. With no sign of a key or any way to unlock the door, our intrepid band of explorers set out to find a way out of the house. They flounder and flounce their way through danger and distraction until something ominous happens.
Betrayal is played over two phases. In the first, every player is building and exploring a three story mansion: laying down room tiles and discovering an array of different events, items, and omens. Every time an omen is drawn, the current player makes a roll; if it is less than the number of omens currently in play, the second phase of the game begins! In this phase, called the haunt, one of the players turns traitor and works against the rest of the explorers, now heroes! Each side has a rulebook that describes the scenario and how they can win.
The replayability of Betrayal is the game’s greatest strengths. The haunt plays a large role in that as the game comes with fifty different ones! Each has a different story and objectives. In some, you will have to fight a supernatural horror, like a dragon or a ghost. Other times, you will be trying to interrupt some eldritch or arcane ritual meant to cause the end of the world. Most often though, you’ll just be trying to survive and escape the cursed mansion. The variability of haunts alone means a lot of replayability, but consider this: you won’t discover rooms in the same order, which cards you draw and where will change, and when you trigger the haunt is never certain. Every game you play will be different.
The exploration phase also functions as a tutorial for the basics of the game. All you need to explain is what each trait is used for, how movement works, and how traits improve! New players will pick up the rest of the mechanics as everyone explores the house! Where the game truly shines though is in the narratives that are built through play: getting pulled through the walls into an ominous library; digging through a closet to find a pair of skeletons clutching a dagger dripping with blood; fleeing from a giant monster but managing to distract it with an enchanting music box, etc. These moments are what you’ll remember after the game is done and what bring you back to it time and time again.
The biggest issue that Betrayal has, however, is the rules. The general rules and components are mostly clear, with a few edge cases. There is an errata to cover those, though some of it has been outdated by the release of the second edition in 2010. You can find it here: http://avalonhill.wizards.com/rules under the FAQ symbol for the game. The true problems is the rules for each of the haunts. As mentioned earlier, each haunt has its own set of rules for the traitors and heroes. These rules can be oblique and poorly phrased. The traitor has it the worst, since they will have to work out what their rules mean, by themselves. They will also often have the most rules, both in terms of quantity and complexity. This puts the traitor at a horrible disadvantage if it’s their first time playing. The game also has serious balance issues. Depending on how the house was explored, what cards were drawn, and when the haunt occurred; any particular haunt could swing from being in favor of the heroes to the traitor steamrolling them all.
Now, Betrayal may seem like a mess to you and, quite frankly, it definitely can be, but that’s what makes it so fun. It’s a glorious mess of scrambling around the board while waiting for the haunt. Building your own story as you deal with the trials and travails that the game throws your way. Commiserating with friends as their fortunes turn sour or staring in envy as one of them gets an enormous boon. Betrayal is not a very serious game nor is it always very complicated. It is a game that you and your friends can have a fun and relaxed evening with. To add an extra layer of fun, agree that everyone should read every card in their best dramatic narrator voice.
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