Cooperative Series: Betrayal at House on the Hill

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There are lots of factors that go into a great game, but what I love most are those that leave you with memorable moments.  When you start tabling up a game, I love it when the group starts talking about those crazy I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened moments that have happened before, often a long time ago.  Sometimes it comes from a brilliant or terrible move, other times from an incredible string of good or back luck.  Whatever the cause, I always look for games that give you those lasting memories.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a game entirely about those types of moments.  At the start of the game, all the players are working together to explore a creepy old mansion, dealing with whatever threats they encounter.  Bad omens are everywhere, though, and at some point one of the players betrays the rest which kicks off a showdown (The Haunt) between the traitor and the remaining heroes.  Here’s what makes the game work:

+ Simple Rules: Betrayal’s rulebook is very short with fairly straightforward rules. You can teach players the basics in a few minutes and as the game starts off purely cooperatively you can explain how many things work as you play.  That low barrier to entry really is key to Betrayal’s success as players are able to focus on the fun things happening instead of worrying about individual rules.

There will be ambiguities at times, but the rule book sums it up nicely: “Don’t let [questions] slow you down. [Come] to an agreement as a group for what makes the most sense and go with it.”

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+ Theme: With such a simple rule set, Betrayal at House on the Hill really is all about the theme.  There are several different characters in the game, all based on horror B-movie stereotypes.  Players explore the mansion by revealing random tiles resulting in  a different mansion layout each time, adding to the suspense and replayability.  Most rooms result in you drawing an event card causing some sort of crazy thing happen to your player.  All of the flavor text on the cards and the events in the Haunts really nail the horror movie theme.

+ The Haunt: At some point during the exploration phase, enough bad omens will have been encountered and the Haunt will begin.  Haunts are scenarios that give the story and rules for how the second half of the game plays out.  A quick look at a table in the rules tells you which haunt to play (or you can just pick one you haven’t played yet) and which person betrays the group.

Then the brilliant part starts: the heroes are given one booklet to read while the traitor is given a separate booklet and ideally walks off into another room.  The booklet give you a description of the scenario, your goals and what you know about the other side.  What really makes Betrayal shine is that you do not have perfect information about your opponents goals!  The heroes may know that the traitor has turned into a shambling zombie and you need to kill him, but they may not know that if the zombie traitor makes it to the laboratory they’ll get to inject themselves with a serum that turns them into a super-mega-zombie! (Don’t worry, I just made this scenario up.)  Having that bit of hidden information really makes the game work.  It adds a level of suspense and urgency to what would otherwise be a very simple game with dice-based combat.

As I mentioned earlier, the game comes with fifty different scenarios and any given scenario will probably take around an hour to complete.  That’s a lot of replay value for one game!  Even if you have played a scenario before and know the “secret” to it, the special rules are usually written to prevent you from being able to spoil or break the win/loss condition for either side.  Of course I would never choose to play a scenario I’ve done before because the real fun comes in discovery during the haunt, but it seems like replaying a scenario shouldn’t break the game.

While I really enjoy Betrayal, there are a couple of things that could easily sour someone on the game:

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– Randomness and Balance: With all the randomness in tiles, cards and dice you are bound to have some players feel like they are getting the brunt of the bad luck.  The scenarios themselves aren’t necessarily designed to be balanced, and that can be further compounded based on what random things have happened leading up to it.  That level of randomness and chaos is bound to be a major turn-off for those looking for a deeper gaming experience.

– Rules Ambiguities: You will run into times when the group needs to agree on how something works as all the cases and questions that come up from scenarios simply can’t be covered in the rules.  Generally it’s not too difficult to come to some sort of consensus, but this is not a game to play with “rules lawyers” that feel the need to find every answer to a question in a rulebook.  As the rules explain, make a quick decision on what makes the most sense given the theme and move on.

– Replay Value: While there is a nice variety of events and omens, you will probably have seen them all after a couple of games.  Most of the cards have a variety of outcomes based on dice rolls so things will rarely play out exactly the same, but more cards would always be welcome.  While you will run into the same cards from game to game, the Haunt adds enough to keep things fresh.  Still, I could see some players getting tired of having the same event cards come up, especially if you play two or three games back to back.

If you like light, highly thematic games, Betrayal at House on the Hill is sure to deliver.  It’s fast, easy to teach and may result in more memorable moments per dollar than most any other game.  For me, Betrayal is a great game to table up a few times a year.  There’s not enough depth to make it a staple for your game nights and the fun is in the discovery and randomness, so I find it’s good to let some time pass between plays so everything feels fresh all over again!

Make sure you get a copy of the new second edition (green box versus the red box of the first edition) as the rules and scenario books are much better written and edited.  Note that some people have been having issues with warping tiles and cards, but it sounds like Wizards of the Coast will send you replacements if you get in contact with customer service.