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.

Navegador

Image by Peter D

In my thoughts on 2010, I mentioned one game I really wanted to try but missed out on was Navegador, the latest in the rondel series of games by Mac Gerdts. While I enjoy Antike and have warmed up to Imperial, neither are games that really demand my attention. When information on Navegador came out it looked like it may finally be the rondel game I’ve been wanting. Thankfully I received a copy from my BoardGameGeek Secret Santa shortly after the new year and have had a few opportunities to table it up!

Players in Navegador are Portuguese sailors navigating the African coastline trying to expand the Portuguese empire. You discover new colonies to trade with, build up your production capabilities at home, construct fleets of ships for exploring and look to the church for more manpower.

Navegador takes place over three eras triggered by a player sailing into specific sea regions on the map. Over the course of the game you will be able to collect privileges from powerful Portuguese families to earn you victory points for various game aspects you have focused on. For example, one will give you points based on the number of factories you have built while another earns points based on the number of colonies you have settled.

There are really three things that drive Navegador:

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* The Rondel – Mac Gerdts loves his rondel and it makes yet another appearance in Navegador. For those not familiar, the rondel a circle of actions players traverse to choose their actions each turn. You start the game on any rondel space but may only advance up to three spaces for free on future turns. This creates a somewhat a pre-programmed sequence of actions but you decide how quickly you move around and which actions to take or skip.

Unlike Antike and Imperial, I think Navegador really makes the rondel shine. In those other games your choices around the rondel were generally obvious and the game was more about what you did within those actions. Navegador flips that around and really puts the emphasis on deciding when and where to stop around the rondel. Only the market action appears twice so skipping any other action means some time before it will be available to you again. I think the order of the actions is really well designed as you’ll find yourself making extremely difficult decisions on how quickly you need to get around the rondel.

* The Market – While the rondel drives your decision making, the market really is the focal point. It’s the only portion of the game featured twice on the rondel – a good clue that it will see lots of action.

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Like many other games with markets, prices fluctuate as goods are bought and sold to simulate supply and demand. Here, though, the concept of goods is abstracted out and you simply receive cash for your exchanges. Selling goods from a colony to the market back in Portugal will earn you money and drive prices down while using your factories takes goods from the market, driving prices up and giving you a return on the profit margin made. You want to sell when prices are high and manufacture when prices are low.

Again, this isn’t an innovative mechanic but not many games make it such a central part of the game or do so as elegantly. Everyone will be using the market and the trick is figuring out who is buying or selling what and when so you can find the perfect time to cash in big. Of course that ties back to the rondel; sometimes to get that big payout you’ll have to pass up other actions that may earn you points or build your economic engine.

* Finding Your Niche – It’s no surprise I’m pleased with Navegador’s multiple paths to victory. What really makes Navegador interesting is that a strategy’s viability depends on what everyone else at the table is doing. The player to your right will heavily influence your choices as you want to avoid following in their footsteps; ideally you play off of them while carving out your own niche. This aspect is certainly found in other games (Puerto Rico immediately comes to mind) but I’ve found it works really well in Navegador. There are enough different strategies and they compliment each other nicely so you can find something that fits in with everyone else. You need to be aware of how your choices ripple down to everyone else; you don’t want someone else to cash in too big from you! Yet letting any single player go uncontested in any aspect of the game will almost certainly mean victory while everyone else butts heads.

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Going into Navegador I was hoping for a fun rondel game. What I discovered is one of the more fun pieces of cardboard I’ve tabled up. Heavy use of the player-driven market mixed with carving out your scoring opportunities easily lend Navegador to repeated play. There are many difficult decisions to make but the rondel helps narrow your choices on any given turn and allows you to plan a couple of turns ahead. While there’s no direct player interaction you need to be aware of what everyone else is doing so you can benefit most from their actions while helping them out as little as possible. It doesn’t hurt that the game features a beautiful map and quality components that help sell the theme even if the mechanics do feel a bit abstract.

If you enjoy a solid Euro-style game or are a fan of Mac Gerdts’ other rondel titles, be sure to give Navegador a look. It has easily shot to the top of my list.