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First Impressions: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Have you heard of this game? I hadn't. I got my first peek of it at PAX East 2010, while Austin and Chris were duking it out in their first game of Summoner Wars, and my wife was off in the food court acquiring Pepsi and snacks. Left out of the two-player festivities (3-player Summoner Wars? Bullshit!), my eyes wandered to the group at a neighboring table.

They were drawing tiles for a randomly-generated, ostensibly-haunted mansion.

“What?”

They were moving around delightfully crafted plastic player pieces, including a scientist, a football star, and a little white girl.

“What!?”

They were drawing items, fighting monsters, and reading flavor text aloud to each other.

“WHAT!?!”

Betrayal at House on the Hill Game was released by Avalon Hill in 2004. My game shop didn't carry it. Who knows how many hundreds of 'meh's' it elicited on the shelves, vying against such newly-released heavy-hitters as Power Grid, War of the Ring, Memoir, 44', and, for fuck's sake, Ticket to Ride. Six years later, its BoardGameGeek rating is also “meh” at 6.8. Fortunately, I don't have an iPhone, or an Android, or whatever, and I couldn't check the BGG while waiting for my hot wife to return with tiny delectations. I consider this a boon: Lacking any way to gauge the value of the game, surgically deconstructed by peers, I had a chance to evaluate it untainted by outside opinion.

Ooh, Shiny...

I guess that's actually unfair. After stealing a few glances at The Group At The Next Table, too awkward and tired to bother asking whether it was any fun, my first impression was formed the next day when I checked out a copy from the PAX board game library.

“Oh my God! Are you full up?” the stranger inquired.

“Yes,” Austin and I lied, still not swollen with the PAX spirit. (Forgive us, mysterious stranger!)

Dishonesty aside, that's a good sign. As it turned out, each time we checked out the game, someone was nearby asking to play with us. (We did relent, which turned out to be awesome.) Each time we turned it in, someone was behind us in line, asking to check it back it out. It doesn't matter how mediocre a game is reputed, if it draws that kind of interest, it's got to be good.

Part of the appeal may be its rarity. The game had one print run, and has drawn prices of $150 on eBay. That's more than I paid for my 1979 copy of Dune. Amazingly, two copies were available at the PAX library, and I have to thank the folks generous enough to entrust such a prize to the public. (A second edition has been announced for release winter of this year, but good luck finding an affordable copy until then.)

Gameplay

As we read the rules, I became even more enamored. We would slowly discover the layout of the House on the Hill, drawing room tiles randomly as we entered unexplored areas. Most rooms contain either an event, item, or omen. As more omens are drawn, it becomes more likely that a player will trigger what is ominously called the Haunt. When this happens, the game starts in earnest. The specific Haunt chosen depends on the room entered and the omen drawn. One player becomes the traitor and leaves the room, as in physically; gtfowise. Each “team” then consults their own game manual and reads their version of the Haunt story. The asymmetry informs each team's actions, and the winning condition for the opponent is unknown.

BAD.

ASS.

Naturally this leads to spoilers and diminishing returns on repetitious playthoughs, but still, I'm all for it. Storytelling in this game is also diverse. OMG SPOILERS: Although we were only able to play a single complete game, involving a giant spider and a possessed former teammate, other objectives include disarming bombs, the house coming to life (naturally), and constructing an airplane from found materials to engineer an escape.

Our playthrough was fairly short. The Haunt was triggered unexpectedly early, after the third omen was drawn. Austin, the power-lifting football star, was the unfortunate traitor, stuck in the basement after yours truly, the affluent precocious white girl, escaped in a magic elevator. With no better way to interrupt the “heroes'” actions, he chased Ben's character, the street-smart prescient urban youth, through the catacombs, tombs and game rooms of the House's lower level.

The heroes, meanwhile, were graced by fleetness and efficacy of Chris' monkey-toting scientist, who nigh-singlehandedly incapacitated the foe-spider, healed the victim Adrian, and freed him from the snarling web. He then deftly unlocked the House's front door, leaving poor Adrian to unluckily trip, fall, and die while attempting to follow, and exited the next turn, ending the game, the heroes victorious.

Assessment

I know what you're thinking: “That doesn't sound fair at all.” I agree wholeheartedly. There's a randomness to everything that can't be easily reduced in a game of this format. Austin was unfortunately placed, and the location and timing of the Haunt greatly favored the heroes. It was generally one-sided. But it was fun, and it was fun for everyone.

Here's what I think of the individual elements of the game.

Bits and pieces? Con. The items and board accessories come up lacking. Most items, monsters, and effects are represented by cardboard tokens. I tend to be less enthralled by a green square with text labeled “spider” than I am, say, a green square with at least a picture of a spider. Still, the plastic player pieces nearly make up for it, though rumor has it they may be missing from the second edition.

Map-tile drawing? Pro. Randomizing the board will make the game at least marginally different each playthrough, and deciding the Haunt based on the tile drawn makes it that much more interesting.

Theme? Solid. Any time you can play a game with wildly diverse objectives, I'm for it. One tends to get tired of destroying the same eldritch horrors time and again, and it's refreshing to escape a haunted manse via a hastily-constructed cardboard glider now and again.

Traitors? For it. I love a game that lets you fuck over your friends. It's a shame it's more overt than Battlestar Galactica or Shadows Over Camelot, but it's sweet that it's there nonetheless.

Replayability? Good. As I hear it, most scenarios ultimately amount to a few item-assisted skill checks. Ho-hum stuff right? But at least the scenario's different each time. I mean, shit, how many times do we have to run out of fuel one jump short of Kobol?

Roleplaying? Ehh, sorta. The character choices are limited, and each player disk is two-sided, meaning only one player can play a given character “type.” Getting into character is pretty trivial should you chose to, given your interests generally include such insights as “football” and “shiny things.”

Finally: Randomness? You're gonna hate me for this. This is a very random game. The board configuration, timing, and character placement when the Haunt is triggered significantly affect the outcome. If you're deeply into skill-based games, this is probably a major turnoff. While this is usually true of my own gaming circle, it's by no means absolute. Sometimes, you want to play a game like Galaxy Trucker. You get a bad draw, your ship gets mauled, and you laugh. It's not fair, but it's still fun.

Betrayal has that lighthearted vibe, and it's the crowning jewel in my opinion. It's not a cut-throat adversarial feeding frenzy like Puerto Rico, it's not as long and involved as the thematically-similar Arkham Horror, and it doesn't demand the same cooperation intensity as Pandemic. It's a game you pick up casually, crack a beer to, and poke jokes through for an hour or so. Grab it and give it a try with your less-competitive friends. It just might surprise you.

If you can find a goddamned copy.



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