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.”

Image by mikehulsebus

+ 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.

Shadows Over Camelot

(image courtesy Erich @ BGG)
Board gamers tend to be geeks and geeks tend to love Monty Python. It’s inevitable that Monty Python quotes will occasionally come out during gaming sessions. Pull out Shadows Over Camelot, though, and it is a guarantee. If you want to have some fun, keep a running log of how many seconds it takes upon pulling out the box before the first quote comes out. The results may (or may not) surprise you.

Shadows Over Camelot is in fact about King Arthur and the Round Table. Dark forces are taking over the land, Camelot is under siege and one of the knights may even be a traitor! Similar to Battlestar Galactica, Shadows Over Camelot is a cooperative game with a traitor element. Each player is a Knight of the Round Table and at the beginning of the game everyone is dealt a secret loyalty card that says if they are loyal or the traitor. Given the game’s setup there is at most one traitor but it’s possible there may be none, adding a bit to the suspense.

Players work together completing quests and try to out the traitor (if one exists). As quests are completed, white swords are placed on the round table and black swords are added as quests fail. The game is over when all 12 spots on the table have filled. If half or more of the swords are black, evil prevails and the traitor – if there is one – wins the game. Should the knights manage to have more white than black swords, though, they have kept evil at bay and rejoice merrily.

(image courtesy kilroy_locke @ BGG)

At its core, Shadows Over Camelot is really a rummy game of sorts. You are trying to collect sets, straights and pairs of cards to play on different “quests.” Some quests – like the duel against the black knight – may only be attempted by one player at a time, while others allow multiple knights to work together. You may only play one card per turn so generally you need to work together to complete quests in a timely fashion.

Completing quests quickly can be important because at the start of your turn you must first “progress evil” which involves drawing and resolving a card from the deck of bad things. Generally these cards push a single quest closer to failure. As these bad things come out on each player’s turn it really is important that the players work together; it’s not unusual to see your hard work go down the drain quickly with a few bad card draws.

The knight’s special powers and the traitor mechanic really make the game. Each knight has a rule-breaker specia
l ability that they may use on their turn. King Arthur, for example, can exchange one card with another player while another knight may use special white cards as a free action. Some knights work well together, others just help the group as a whole. You really need to make sure you put your special powers to use as they can easily be the difference between winning and losing.

(image courtesy flieger @ BGG)
Then there’s the traitor mechanic. At the start of the game a deck is built consisting of one loyalty card per player plus one traitor card. These cards are shuffled and one is dealt to each player. Players look at their card in secret and now know their role for the game. Odds are there will be a traitor but there’s a small chance there’s none so that adds a fun unknown element. The traitor has a very important part to play as they want to influence events so that the heroes lose but want to keep their identity hidden if possible. Most cards are played and discarded face down so you never know the true value or type of card someone got rid of. The traitor could, for example, sit on the quest for Excalibur and throw away all of their best white cards. While each white card discarded moves the Excalibur quest one step closer to victory, by burning their best cards the traitor is making the group weaker as a whole.

There’s a lot of subtlety when it comes to playing the traitor. Once there are six swords at the round table or six siege engines at Camelot, players may start making accusations. If the player make a successful accusation then one white sword is added to the table; guess wrong, though, and one white sword turns to black which can be devastating. Should the traitor make it to the end of the game undetected, two white swords will turn to black which will almost certainly equal doom for the good guys.

Unfortunately I think there’s almost too much subtlety when it comes to playing the traitor. My main complaint is that, as the traitor, there’s really not a whole lot you can do. Sure you can waste some time on a quest here, throw away good cards there and try to generally play sub-optimally without giving away that you are the traitor but none of those actions are all that exciting. Shadows Over Camelot is a challenging game all by itself. There’s often not a whole lot the traitor even needs to do to tip the game in their favor.

(image courtesy kilroy_locke @ BGG)

Mechanically the quests work but I also find they are not all that exciting. All you do is play cards in various ways on different locations. That’s fine, but when battling off the Saxons and Picts involves playing a straight and dueling the Black Knight has you playing two pairs… well, that doesn’t do much for the theme. You are also only allowed to play a single card per turn. This forces cooperation as players need to work together to complete quests quickly but it also means that your individual turns aren’t all that exciting. If you have a straight in your hand you may spend the next five turns at the Picts playing them down, which can be quite dull as you wait for the other players to go.

Given my complaints you might think I dislike Shadows Over Camelot. Quite the opposite! I think it is great fun, especially with the right group of people. By the nature of the game the traitor can often be difficult to weed out but it is really necessary for the heroes to do so if they want to succeed. Drawing from the “bad deck” each turn means that the group’s priorities are constantly in flux. A single quest can easily go from nearly complete to just about to fail in a few turns, so the group is always re-evaulating what needs attention and trying to coordinate how to best tackle the issues at hand.

(image courtesy IntvGene @ BGG)
What really impresses me most is that I don’t think I’ve found anyone that just does not like Shadows Over Camelot. The rules take a little while to explain but are pretty straightfoward once you start playing; combine that with the gorgeous art and components and the Knights of the Round Table theme and you have a game that you can teach to anyone and have fun. I’ve played with gamers and non-gamers alike and it goes over well every time. The game is not without its flaws but the good parts are good enough to make for a great gaming experience. Personally I find Battlestar Galactica to be the more engaging cooperative/traitor style game but Shadow Over Camelot‘s relative simplicity makes it a better introduction to cooperative gaming.

Note that there is an expansion for the game called Merlin’s Company. Stay away: you have been warned. Some folks complained that they had pretty much “solved” the base game so Days of Wonder put out an expansion to bump up the difficulty level. Unfortunately I found that the expansion just sucked all the fun out of the game. The main offender is that you now have random encounters as you move from quest to quest and usually the encounters involve bad things happening like you losing your turn. You are already so limited in what you get to accomplish each turn that I found this expansion to be maddening, not fun. Stick with the base game and enjoy.

Battlestar Galactica

(image courtesy Surya @ BGG)
Competitive/cooperative games are sort of the new hotness in board games. Shadows Over Camelot is one of the most popular in the genre but there are others like Bang!, Saboteur and Betrayal at House on the Hill. Typically these styles of games have players working together against the game system; the catch is that one or more players are secretly working against the “good guys” and are trying to make them lose. It’s a really interesting mechanic that adds a lot of tension to a game and generally results in a lot of player interaction.

Battlestar Galactica is the newest in this style of game. I’m a huge fan of the television series so I was both excited and nervous about the game. Like video games, board game movie tie-ins generally don’t turn out to be that good. Usually they are just a cash-in on the franchise. Early press made Battlestar Galactica sound like little more than Shadows Over Camelot with a science fiction twist. Thankfully it turned out to be much more!

(image courtesy @ henk.rolleman BGG)

Here’s a real quick rundown of the story as it applies to the board game. Humans created a robotic race called Centurions to do their bidding. Eventually the Centurions rebelled, left on their own and created the Cylons, robots that look and act exactly like humans. Finally the Cylons invaded the human home world of Caprica and forced the remaining survivors to flee and look for a new home. The humans are looking for the mythical planet of Earth and need to get to the planet Kobol which supposedly will point them in the right direction. They are being chased by the Cylons, though, and worse yet have no idea who in the fleet may in fact be one of them!

Mechanically this sets the game up perfectly for a hidden traitor mechanic. At the start of the game everyone picks a character and is then dealt a loyalty card that says if you are human or Cylon. If you are human you want to get the fleet to Kobol; if you are Cylon you want to blow up Battlestar Galactica, overtake the ship or make the humans run out of resources. Only one side will come out victorious.

As a Cylon you generally want to keep your loyalty hidden as you can do a lot of damage that way. Each turn players draw a set of skill cards of five different possible colors, defined on their character sheet. Then they take a “good” action which might involve fighting Cylon ships, repairing Galactica or throwing someone in the brig. After that you are forced to resolve an event which is never good. These represent things like new Cylon ships appearing, prison riots, hostage negotiations and the like. At the bottom of the card are symbols showing if Cylon ships attack and if the battlestar spins up its faster-than-light (FTL) drives which is key to jumping closer to Kobol.

(image courtesy filwi @ BGG)
The top portion of the card is typically some sort of skill check to pass or a decision to be made and these are the real crux of the game. Decisions are made by either the current player, the president or the admiral (roles that are assigned to players over the course of the game). Usually you have to pick between two different bad things and decide which is the lesser of two evils. Skill checks make up the bulk of the event cards. On the card is shown a target level, which of the five skill card colors apply towards success and what happens if you pass or fail the check. First, two random skill cards are added to start the pile, then going around the table each player has the option of playing face-down as many skill cards as they would like. Once all the cards are in the pile is shuffled and the cards are totaled. Each skill card matching the colors on the event adds its value towards success while each non-matching cards subtracts its value. If the total equals or exceeds the target you pass, otherwise you fail.

This part of the game really lets the hidden Cylons mess with the humans. Assuming everyone is loyal there should be a maximum of two bad cards in the stack if both random cards were bad. Everything else should be good. If not, you know someone intentionally played a bad skill card! As a Cylon you can try to toss in bad cards to push the event towards failure but you risk revealing yourself. While you don’t know who threw in a specific card, process of elimination based on what color the card was and what skill cards each player draws can help narrow down the traitors. There’s also the possibility for some bluffing and blame-laying; you can even toss in cards to try and frame someone else! The amount of mind-games and deduction is extremely fun and players are always interested as the totals are added up.

There’s one more mechanic that makes Battlestar Galactica work. At the start of the game the loyalty deck is built with a specific number of human and Cylon cards based on the number of players. Only half of the deck is dealt out at the start, giving each player a single loyalty card. Roughly halfway through the game the second half of the deck is dealt, giving each player a second loyalty card. This means you may have been a loyal human at the start but you have now switched and become a Cylon! Players may have had everything figured out from the start but halfways through it can almost become a new game as the paranoia settles in all over again.

(image courtesy avyssaleos @ BGG)

While I love Battlestar Galactica, it isn’t perfect. My first complaint is that they used stills from the show for a lot of the artwork; this is going to make the game age really poorly. Second, the pace of the game is often determined by the random event deck. Sometimes you can go awhile without anything too exciting happening. Granted, skill checks always keep people involved but the game is typically more “fun” when there are Cylon ships attacking as well. There’s also the possibility for a player to get stuck and unable to contribute much to the game if they are in the brig or keep getting sent to sickbay. Finally, it is a long game (plan on 3-4 hours) and might outstay its welcome for some.

For me, though, Battlestar Galactica is pretty much the ultimate competitive/cooperative game. It improves upon other games in the genre by adding in the second round of loyalty cards (allowing for changing loyalties) and players are involved every single round as they add cards to skill checks. I do think it runs a bit long and there are some minor balance issues but I’ve had a ton of fun every time I’ve played. It does a great job of invoking the feeling of the show and I think fans of the series will get into the game even more. Both sides of the game – human and Cylon – are engaging throughout the entire game, something other games in the genre struggle with. Assuming we have the time, Battlestar Galactica will always be my “traitor” game of choice.