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Betrayal at House on the Hill Review - Danger Behind Closed Doors

  • Players - 3-6
  • Mechanics - Dice Rolling, Modular Board, Traitor Element, Cooperative
  • Theme - Haunted Houses and Horror Stories

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We’ve all been dared to go somewhere scary before or sat around as a group with sleepovers by torchlight and heard horror stories of kids, teenagers or young adults who have ventured off into a house and never been heard from again. There’s always that one house in the neighbourhood, or the area of the school where someone died and a ghost now roams after darkness, looking for a body to make his or her own. In Betrayal at House on the Hill, a motley crew of 3-6 will enter the house as friends, looking for adventure and stories of bravado, but only finding traps, hauntings and cursed items that will eventually claim one of them, causing them to turn on their fellow adventurers to plot their demise. How many will escape the Betrayal at House on the Hill?

Whatever Horrors the House Holds:

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a game of two parts, with the initial phase allowing the group to explore the haunted mansion in a cooperative fashion. The available characters are truly a diverse, although stereotypical, group ranging from a primary school girl, a high school sports star, a middle age gypsy woman, to an elderly scholar. Each player has 4 traits, grouped into Physical (Might and Speed) and Mental (Knowledge and Sanity) that will govern their effectiveness as a character. Speed determines the number of rooms a player can move between, Might will determine combat strength (only applicable during Phase 2) and Knowledge and Sanity are used during character checks when events are triggered. All characters will begin in the entrance hall and as they explore doors, they will draw a room from a stack, corresponding to the level (ground, upper floor or basement) that they are on. The room tile can be placed at an orientation chosen by the player, and then a card corresponding to the symbol on the room entered will be played. Players are also allowed to trade items, attempt challenges such as opening safes and chests and use items that they may have in their possession that grants bonuses. 

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The three decks to be drawn from are the Event, Item and Omen decks. Events are spooky occurrences that may affect your character positively or negatively, often through a trait test. Will a phone call from a creepy old lady steel your character’s resolve or make them quake at the knees? Having a floorboard falling beneath you may improve your character’s reactions, or have them take damage by falling to the floor below. Items will assist you with bonuses, generally to stats or benefits to re-rolls and other perks to keep your character both sane and healthy. Omen cards can offer great benefits to the character finding them, but at the cost of awakening the evil in the house, raising the haunt level which at the beginning of the game starts at 0. After each Omen card is drawn and the haunt meter raised, the player drawing the Omen will roll 6 die (with only 0,1 or 2 pips on each side) to test whether the evil of the Mansion has awoken. Should the player roll less than the haunt level, the player will trigger the unspeakable horrors of the house, and so begins the phase is where Betrayal at House on the Hill shines. The Haunt begins…

Classic Horror Story Immersion

Depending on which Omen card was drawn, and what room it was drawn in, the haunt scenario from one of 50 possible will be selected and the traitor (if there is one) will be chosen. While every exploration phase follows the same procedure of exploring as much of the house as possible and trying to collect items to improve your character, the haunts vary massively, borrowing from possible tropes from the horror genre. Initially the traitor and survivors will split into two groups to discuss their options, each with a rulebook that outlines their objectives and specific rule sets. Some elements of these are hidden from the opposition which means that discovering your opponent’s weakness or strategy may only be possible through careful observation or trial and error. For example, our last game haunt scenario was based on the curse of Dorian Gray, with the traitor needing to destroy the cans of paint hidden around the house to protect his painting in the gallery, while the survivors needed to gather the paint and take it through to the gallery and roll to paint over the portrait. Survivors did not know that the traitor was immune to all damage except for the paint on the canvas, while the traitor did not always know the exact location of the paint tins to be found. 

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Some scenarios revolve around combat, where might is rolled by opposing parties, plus whatever bonuses they may receive from items and the difference is subtracted from the physical (or in some cases mental) attributes of the person being attacked. Rooms can still be explored and items collected to improve the chances of the survivors, or to find elements that they need to complete objectives that may be hidden still in the draw pile of rooms. Whoever completes the objective is proclaimed the victor/s, and will leave the house alive.

Avalon Hill’s Betrayal at House on The Hill is a game that pulp horror fans will adore for the numerous stories that you’ll enact through the Haunt phase of the game. On our few plays we’ve had an invisible man methodically cornering each survivor one by one and killing them only to be picked off by a young boy who had in his company a deranged mad man with a mythical spear, a necromancer raising an undead army from the basement and a Haitian priest hoarding clues of voodoo dolls hidden around the mansion, slowly killing off the survivors turn by turn, lest they find them. With a few plays under my belt, I can already see the replayability offered with the 50 scenarios, and the modular method of building out a different haunted mansion each and every time. Starting each game with no idea what’s in store is a wonderful mechanic, one based on the concept of fear, that there is nothing more terrifying than the unknown. There are great moments in Betrayal at House on the Hill, magic moments of storytelling that can happen when Frankenstein’s monster grabs the last surviving cheerleader as she reaches for the door, or when the traitor realises that they have been stabbed with the one weapon that can damage them. However, there are often moments that are not.

Often the opening phase of the game can be lacklustre. No players can die before the haunt begins and the events and omens are not limited that in after around 5 plays you’ll be able to recognise many of the events which can make this phase less exciting. Many of the events could also be assisted with better flavour text, with the tests feeling in most cases to be simply a dice roll, rather than a direct impact of your character development and feels more mechanical than it should. Exploration can drag in some cases and pales in comparison to the second phase of the game.

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Haunts can also be very inconsistent as well, with some seeming to have a very skewed balancing due to the randomness of the exploration phase. For example, the maniac killer could be the character near the entrance hall that everyone needs to escape through, and be armed to the teeth with a pet rottweiler that he gained as a companion through the exploration phase. In our Dorian Gray scenario, the traitor was initially in the study with 2 paint cans in adjacent rooms, and his objective was simply to gather 3 out of 6 paint cans to win, meaning that survivors had little hope in any chance of success. Not every scenario, also due to randomisation factors, will be a winner, but the game limps a few more times than it should. 

Components are molded in a lovely B-grade aesthetic, much like the horror stories told through the scenarios. Characters are all from genre stereotypes and the modular board pieces have artwork that fits an older house, however the components are not the amazing miniatures and detailed artwork that other publishers are famous for and in some cases falls pretty flat and hinders the atmospheric requirements of a horror game. The painted miniature characters are the highlight of the package, while the game tokens, both monster and object as well as the lack of any card artwork are definitely the low points of the design.

In closing, Betrayal at House on the Hill is a great game, but may be one that will struggle to keep a regular spot on your gaming table. When it works, it’s one of the greatest pulp horror games that touches all the bases, with great moments such as the last survivor falling into a pit of the ravenous undead as he was making a run for the front door and tripped. Sadly it will also have whimper moments where a gamer with less imagination and creativity will be given the traitor role of giving clues to find hidden objects in the mansion for them to win. The game can also serve scenarios where the balance between survivors and the traitor is out of sync and the resolution leaves players a little unfulfilled, kinda like the belly of a geriatric werewolf without any teeth. If you’re a lover of B-grade horror and your group enjoys reruns of the Evil Dead and classic Tales from the Crypt, you may just get the board gaming equivalent in Betrayal at House on the Hill but for most players, it might be a gaming experience you enter at your own peril.

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