*Photos and review by: Dylan Terry
Note: This review contains minor spoilers for a game which values secrecy, mystery, and surprise. I try to minimize the amount of information revealed, but keep that in mind.
Betrayal at House on the Hill is a game for three to six players with an estimated playtime of one hour. The players explore the house by drawing and placing Room tiles, which can fit into either the Basement, Main Floor, or Second Floor of the house. Most of these rooms feature one to three symbols, indicating the discovering player draws an event, item, or omen card. Events tend to require a dice roll to overcome, items grant a bonus or malus, and omens tend towards special, unique effects. Draw enough Omen cards, and you trigger the Haunt, which turns one player traitor and begins the end-game.
Published by Avalon Hill and Wizards of the Coast, Betrayal truly shines when experienced by a full group of six. Unlike most other games which remain mostly static throughout a playthrough, Betrayal is noteworthy for the mid-game twist called the Haunt. During the exploration of the house players will sometimes draw Omen cards, ranging from things like “Bitten” or “The Spear.” After each Omen is drawn that player makes a Haunt roll; if the number showing on the dice is less than the total number of Omen cards drawn that game, the Haunt begins.
This introduces a substantial amount of tension from the very first turn, as the inevitability of the Haunt looms over the players and reaches a high point whenever that raven symbol appears. Your stomach drops as you count the numbers on the dice and realize that one (or in some case, more than one) of your friends will soon turn traitor. The player who performed the fatal Haunt roll consults the table in the rulebook, comparing the room, Omen, and listed traitor, hands the Traitor Tome to that player, and takes the Survival manual. Each party reads the relevant rules and play continues with new items, actions, and objectives.
For example: in my most recent play with my gaming group, one of the players moved into the Gymnasium, which requires an Omen draw. She drew the Bite card, rolled the dice, and ended up getting underneath the required number, triggering the Haunt. After looking at the relevant charts, the listed Haunt was number 35, called “Small Change.”
We had all been shrunken down to mouse size and the cats were hungry. Our goal was the find the Toy Airplane, gather the survivors, and flee the house.
The Traitor and his cats devoured us, one by one.
This was my fifth game, and the fourth time the traitor succeeded. Other scenarios have included killing a dragon, finding hidden treasure, and escaping from a pocket dimension. There are 50 Haunts included in the main game, with enough variety to make nearly every game different. It would take a dedicated group of gamers to experience all of the content this game has to offer.
As with most Wizards games, characters have stat arrays, represented by tracks and plastic markers. There’s a large assortment of cardboard tokens representing everything from monsters to items to hidden staircases. Sometimes it’s a bit to sort through, but everything is clearly marked with legible text. If you take some time beforehand to implement some minor organization the components sort themselves out.
Of course, not everything is so clear-cut. With as much content as this game contains, the rulebooks often struggle to keep up and many, many rules questions are left for the players to figure. My own group has implemented a “logic houserule” where any rules question left unanswered are resolved by majority based on what feels right. Oftentimes this question is “who controls the monsters,” and the answer is almost always “the traitor.” If you have any experience with tabletop or hobby gaming, you know that rulesets aren’t always the most intuitive.
If your group prefers a rulebook which answers all the questions you might have, you might have a little more trouble with this. I recommend this game based on the atmosphere (turn the lights down, put on some ambient music), variety of content (five games in and each has been a significantly different experience), and stories it can generate (eaten by cats? How often does that happen?). While the experience is sometimes interrupted by rules questions, vague descriptions, and searches for just the right token, Betrayal at House on the Hill deserves a spot right next to the other games that encourage you to kill your friends.
For Fans of: Twilight Creations Zombies!!!, Steve Jackson’s Munchkin, Fantasy Flight’s Mansions of Madness
Evocative of: Twilight Zone, Insidious, Goosebumps
Available at 3 & Up: Yes!