What a weird game. I’m not sure why it’s become such a seemingly big hit among boardgamers. I see it recommended all the time as a game for people who are interested in the hobby. If you get anything out of this review, hear this: Betrayal At House On The Hill is not a good “gateway” game, for two reasons. First, it’s not representative of the kind of games that define modern board gaming–it’s very odd and unusual. Second, it’s not good. Whatever fun there is to be had here (and it can be fun!) is going to happen in spite of all of the many problems with the design.
But Seriously That Name
Ok, enough being mean. How does his game even work? More importantly, why isn’t it named Betrayal At THE House On The Hill? Why not name it Betrayal At House On Hill at that point? But I digress.
The game is modeled after the horror B-movie trope of people exploring a spooky haunted house when suddenly everything goes wrong. The first half of the game will be spent wandering around, discovering new rooms, and having things happen to you. Each player takes a character with different skill types. Make sure you bring pen and paper, though, because the stat tracker components for these characters is actually the worst component in the history of board games. It simply doesn’t work.
Each room has some effect on it–maybe you’ll discover a random item, or an event will happen, or maybe the floor will have a hole in it and you’ll need to roll a speed check to see if you fall or not. Some of the rooms have omens in them. These special cards give you an item or ability, but more importantly they cause you to do a “haunt roll”. This involves rolling some dice to see if the haunt is triggered to start the second part of the game.
But in the first part you’re just going to be discovering rooms and seeing what happens. Every time you draw a new omen, item, or event card it contains a bit of flavor text about the spooky things that are happening. Some of it is marginally creepy, some of it is just a bit cornball. The main problem is that because the game is trying to be every horror theme at once, none of it has any narrative cohesion whatsoever. By being everything at once it becomes nothing at all.
It’s legitimately difficult, and maybe impossible, to create true horror in a board game, but this is not the way to do it. Horror can come from fear of the unknown, yes, but that doesn’t mean complete unknown. There has to be a twisted logic, the implantation in the mind of what horrors might emerge, to actually be scary. Of course, that doesn’t seem to necessarily be Betrayal’s goal. It is trying to be hokey, campy, and in the B-movie tradition. But it’s often not weird enough nor funny enough to fit in there either. After a couple of drinks it works better.
Eventually after a portion of the house is discovered, the haunt will happen, and the second act will begin. This is the coolest part of Betrayal, but it’s also the most poorly-executed part. In theory this is a fantastic hook for a board game–at some point someone betrays the rest, and a new scenario emerges from which the innocent victims must escape!
In practice it usually goes like this: you look up a table to figure out who is the betrayer (usually the person who finds the omen that triggers the haunt) and what scenario is happening. Then the betrayer takes his special rulebook, goes off into another room, and reads his set of rules for that scenario. Everyone else reads their set of rules, and once the betrayer returns everyone sits around awkwardly because the rules were too vague and poorly written. Because frequently each side will get knowledge in their set of rules that the other side isn’t supposed to know about, no one wants to say anything to try to figure it out so as to ruin the surprise. Furthermore, the general rules for moving, interacting, fighting, etc. have to be somewhat robust in order to cover all of the possibilities contained in the scenarios. But you don’t use many of those rules each game, so you very easily forget them and have to either dig through the rulebook or just pick something that makes sense because you don’t care enough.
That’s annoying, but more annoying is how imbalanced some of the scenarios seem. Now, I haven’t played even close to the 50 scenarios in the game, but I’ve played many of them, and more often than not the scenario itself seems either unbelievably unbalanced or highly dependent on the stats of the betrayer. The latter would be fine if there was some skill to advancing your skills, but it’s pretty much entirely random. Some rooms will increase a skill if the player ends their turn there, but to get that bonus you can’t explore a new room, which is entirely the point of the first segment of the game and the only part of it that’s interesting. If a game creates situations in which the least fun option is the best option, strategically, that’s bad game design.
But every once in awhile a scenario is both cool and provides some competition. This is where Betrayal can shine. Because of the silly theme, silly characters, and some of the silly situations they’re put into, this part of the game can be very engaging. I still remember one situation where a friend heroically sacrificed herself to run across the mansion and throw the one item we needed to defeat the monster just in the nick of time. I remember the one haunt where we slowly realized that (*light spoilers*) the enemies were escaping out of the windows of the mansion, and that there were so many windows! (*spoilers over*)
But I’ve spent more time arguing over ambiguities in the rules, finding myself getting beat over and over again by the rooms I’ve stumbled into that I’m on the brink of death and completely useless by the time the haunt arrives, and wishing I could burn those stat tracking clips in a fire than I’ve spent having fun.
Betrayal at House on the Hill, from any level-headed perspective, is a bad game. It’s very old-school in its design, with tons of dice rolling, character stats, and random events. It frequently completely falls apart when it should be getting interesting. But every once in awhile it gives you one of those fantastic, hilarious, memorable moments that make thematic/narrative board games great.
Plus, at the end of the night, when you’re tired and have a couple of drinks in you, your standards lower and you start to appreciate the ridiculousness of it all.
(Bonus: This game frequently reminds me of the single best joke in the entire run of 30 Rock)
+Some of the events and scenarios are hilarious and/or very creative
+Very rarely will create a fantastic narrative experience
-First half of the game is literally meandering
-Frequently completely imbalanced
-Contains the worst game component in the history of the world