[TT] Betrayal at House on the Hill

Yes, that’s the real title.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is one of those games you want to like for its atmosphere and for what it does well, but I have yet to find myself able to because of two significant problems.

You the players are a group of people who have come to (the) house on the hill for reasons. In the first phase of the game, your group of up to six are exploring the house. You find interesting rooms, events, items, and hauntings. The house is subject to impossible architecture, because you draw the next room randomly, which is perfectly in tune with the haunted setting. Eventually, one of those haunt cards starts the second phase, the Haunt. One player becomes the traitor, and based on what triggered the Haunt when, you start one of fifty Haunt scenarios, which could be an actual haunting, alien abductors, cannibals, or pretty much anything on the big board in The Cabin in the Woods. When that happens, one of the players becomes the Traitor, and now you have different teams and rules and goals. That is a great idea for a game, with a lot of variety, atmosphere, and potential fun.

The first problem is that Haunt/Traitor transition. The Traitor goes into another room, and now everyone reads rules. You know that part at the start of a new board game when maybe one person knows the rules, and you spend a long time reading and/or explaining the mechanics, and maybe you need to work out some ambiguities in the rules and fumble through it for the first quarter of the game? That happens pretty much every single game of Betrayal, and it happens as the central event in the game. “Now that your group is building up momentum, send someone into another room, and everyone gets to read for a while.” This is probably a good time to check for online errata, because there are ambiguities and outright mistakes in the rules, although I think (hope?) the second edition fixed the possibility of flat out unwinnable games.

The second is the high degree of randomness. Frequent readers know that I am not a fan of either visual novels or games where randomness dominates, because if player choice is not having a meaningful impact on the outcome of the game, you are not playing a game. The first half is entirely randomized exploration with few to no meaningful decisions, followed by a random Haunt, at which point the game may or may not be entirely tilted towards one side. Balancing fifty haunts around an unknown random house layout is more or less impossible, so you get what you get. A reviewer at Board Game Geek summarizes the situation as “the first half isn’t even a game and the second half is an unbalanced mess.” And this is a positive review endorsing the game. My first game was almost a guaranteed Traitor win based on the layout of the house, and “almost” went away when the Traitor rolled well on one turn. We could have just rolled a die at the start to see who won then read aloud from the booklets instead of going through the motions of playing a game.

I said that quote came from a positive review, and it is positive on the basis of experiencing a story. This is not a serious strategy game, and there may not even be much gameplay to be had. If you are comfortable with that, and just sort of let the game happen around you, you could enjoy this. The randomness can be exciting, the Haunts are interesting ideas and stories, and the whole thing is atmospheric from the Lovecraftian architecture to the creepiness of the haunt cards.

It’s just not much of a game, and if I want a story, I can read or watch one that is not hamstrung either by trying to fit together random elements or by the trappings of a game. But I am not unwilling to repeat the game, both because of the interesting story content and in the faint hope that it will be fun if I am not expecting a real game.

: Zubon

One thought on “[TT] Betrayal at House on the Hill

  1. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    I think it’s a game, and a pretty fun game. But, you can’t go into it with usual board game expectations. The first part is about exploring the house and making plans. There’s a meta level to the game where you start making escape plans, or figure out where to make a last stand. Or, where the “good guys” are likely to do the same if you become the traitor. And, I never found the rules to be overly confusing for the second half. Admittedly, I haven’t played through every scenario yet.

    You also have to accept that the game is usually unfair. The person who found all the items might turn traitor and all those items are lost to you. Or, maybe the person who found the items will be Buffy who saves the rest of the Scoobies. Maybe you’re the person who got nothing, and your job is “to be the Xander”.

    I think the game sets up the atmosphere well. There’s a good amount of tension at the beginning and then all hell breaks loose in the second half. It gives you that horror movie feel of scrambling to find a way out of the mess. You get a human opponent to pit your wits against. But, ultimately, it’s not a game you can invest a lot of ego into if you win or lose, it’s about spending some time with friends playing a wonderfully horrific atmospheric game.

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