Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Avalon Hill Games

by Brian Judkins

If there is one game that has more power than any other to seduce people into the world of tabletop gaming, it must be Betrayal at House on the Hill. I no longer have fingers and toes enough to count the number of players who have been drawn in and possessed by the absolute, unapologetic fun of this game. My friends beg me to break this out, promising dates in advance. They just want to play it again and again and again.


How can a game like this be so fantastic? It must be the game play. The mechanics of the game must be so unbelievably awesome that we'll be salivating all over the cardboard. Unbox the game and you are promptly met with these two booklets. 




Do not read?! How are you supposed to understand what's going on? Maybe it'll be obvious once you see the board. So, take out the game board and — what? There's no board?! There's just the entryway to what you infer is supposed to be a large spooky mansion. But, where is it? How do I play? How am I supposed to strategize and plan ahead to defeat my opponents?

This is exactly what makes this game exciting like no other. Betrayal is not a game about you doing things, it's a game about things happening to you. Keep heart, there are some simple rules to get you started, so grab your favorite horror movie archetype character and let's go on an adventure.



Flashlights... that should protect you.


Gameplay

With the front doors locked, there's only one way to go and that's forward. As your adventurers traverse the blackness room by room, they will experience all the dangers horror buffs are familiar with. These dangers range from the simple trap of spider webs to terrifyingly homicidal puppets with a grudge against kneecaps. But it's not all bad. Players may discover items, stat boosts, secret passages, or even other allies to help them feel more confident in their exploration. But confidence is a fleeting feeling in Betrayal, because as the name suggests, something is about to go horribly wrong.

As more and more dark omens are uncovered throughout the game, your heroes grow closer and closer to unleashing the madness possessing the house, and maybe possessing one of your comrades.

This is where Betrayal at House on the Hill becomes very difficult to review because is relies so much on secrecy. I always make sure new players are equipped with only the basics to function within the game because the more unprepared you are for the horrors awaiting you, the more rewarding the game always seems to be. Once the Haunt triggers, the game takes a violent ninety degree turn and hurls you straight into madness where almost anything can happen.

And I do mean anything...



Betrayal comes with fifty, FIFTY, end game scenarios, and every one I've played has been unique and challenging. Without spoiling much (because again, prior knowledge dilutes the experience) we've had monsters, doppelgängers, aliens, vortexes, and even something akin to Disney's The Rescuers. Each one has had entirely unique set of rules and strategies explained by the rulebooks. That's right, the rules of the game change each time. Every play-through feels like an entirely different game making this the most repayable game I have ever owned.

Oh, and did you notice one of the rulebooks is called the Traitor's Tome? That's right, one of you is very likely to betray the rest of the group. Could be one, could be half the group, or maybe people are forced to switch allegiances in the middle of the Haunt. I should also mention that traitors and heroes have different rules and different win conditions often secret from each other. Asymmetric gameplay always equals oodles of replay ability.

With fifty different Haunt scenarios, that's fifty different play-throughs to enjoy, each with a different set of rules. Given that each event holds the possibility to be a traitor or not, that means there's at least  a hundred different ways to experience this game. How many games have you played a hundred times? How many games have you played twenty five times? With custom made Haunts online and rules to help you never repeat the same Haunt, this is an absolute must own in your collection. It will never play itself the same way twice.

Perfect?

There can be a crippling amount of randomness sometimes. I have heard some criticism in regards to Betrayal on a few points, but I wish to defunct them right here by a matter of perspective.  

It can appear that the true action waits for the Haunt to be revealed in order for the game to really get going, and I'll admit, after a few play-throughs, the random scary things waiting in each room seem less surprising and more familiar. Also, sometimes your heroes will manage to find a treasure trove of helpful items and stat boosts, making you (especially the athlete) literal superheroes before the true dangers show themselves. This can be very fun, but sometimes you only find bad things, leaving you crippled and crawling so that when the indestructible mutant comes through the walls, no one has the strength to stop it. 

Shouldn't have put all those points into Knowledge.


It's true, some experiences are less blockbuster than others. Also, with such variance amongst the Haunts, some work well after much of the house has been discovered, revealing a large play area. Others work better with three players all trapped in a tiny space, it depends on the horror revealed. When these components are mismatched it can lead to a quick, and seemingly unfair victory for the traitor (i.e. the players are left scrambling to uncover an undiscovered room they need to even compete), or the opposite when the challenge is not very challenging at all and the odds are stacked against the traitor so unfairly it may seem pointless for them to struggle in the first place. First time players may also feel overwhelmed if suddenly they are the traitor and everyone is out to get them, but this depends on the player.

This is a true gamble for the game but not a common occurrence. I have never been victim to such randomness and not been able to trace it back to fault of our own dice rolling, or a poor adventuring decision made earlier. Even after being obliterated by an unstoppable horror, emasculated beyond salvation, it is understood that our luck may improve on the next trek into the House on the Hill. In fact, that seems to be the universal sentiment after every game, the overwhelming urge to play again and try our luck once more.

The more you play, the more familiar the beginning bits of the game become, allowing you to traverse them with ease and get to the meaty bit more freely. This cuts down the game time, often allowing multiple runs in a single evening.

Verdict

As I write this I know Betrayal is in between printings, but I think it's so good you should be actively paying attention for the next release because you must own this game. I have yet to meet a person whose eyes don't dilate with excitement at the idea of running back into the haunted mansion. It would probably be easy to find an open copy at your local game shop if they run game nights, so definitely break it out the next chance you get. 

If someone is even remotely curious about board gaming but they're concerned everything runs like Risk or Monopoly, slap this game down in front of them and awaken them to the wonder and fun you already know. It's easily one of my all time favorites and the best bridge into tabletop gaming I've ever seen.

- Must play
- Must own