Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review: Betrayal at House on the Hill

A horror-themed board game in a neat 60-90 minute package

Back from vacation, and it's time to fire up the blog again.  While I'm mulling where to go next with the Asian-themed D&D setting, and plugging away on the Black City's dungeons, I'm taking a quick side trek to review a horror-themed board game.  I like board games as a change of pace when we don't have a full table for the weekly RPG, or as a way to get the non-gamers and family to the table when they don't want to commit to a 3-4 hour role playing session.

Betrayal at House on the Hill quickly builds suspense and excitement as players explore a haunted mansion of their own design, encountering spirits and frightening omens that foretell their fate. With an estimated one hour playing time, Betrayal at House on the Hill is ideal for parties, family gatherings or casual fun with friends.

This is a tile-based game where the players cooperatively explore a creepy haunted house, building the game board as they go along.  When a player moves his or her miniature figure into an unexplored room, a new room is pulled from the deck of room tiles and revealed - so the board is always different.  The house has a ground floor, an upstairs, and a basement - of course.  Any given room will usually feature a creepy Event, a useful Item, or a dire Omen.

About halfway through the game, the number of Omens discovered reaches critical mass, and one of the players will be revealed as "The Traitor".  That player takes control of the monsters and tries to squash everyone else, who team up to defeat the scenario.  There's a clever mechanic that cross-indexes the triggering Omen, the room it was discovered, and the current characters, to identify which monster and scenario is involved and which player becomes the traitor.  There are 50 scenarios in the 1st edition of the game, more in the new one, providing a ton of replay value.

The 1st Edition box cover
I have the 1st edition of the game from 2005 or 2006, and there were plenty of issues - the FAQ document that provides errata and clarifications was like 20 pages long!  However, the 2nd edition that was released in  2010 purports to clear up most of the issues, while adding additional cards and scenarios.  It looks like the 2nd edition retails for around $45, with online purchases around $35-$40.

The game uses dice to resolve combats between the players and the monsters, and whether characters can solve puzzles or avoid being affected by creepy things in the house, losing sanity and other attributes.  The end-game is an elimination game, as the monster tries to kill off all of the explorers and take dominion.   The game plays quickly, getting done in 60-90 minutes, and the desperate fight against the monster usually goes very fast.  There is a lot of swing to the endings; sometimes the explorers need a room or an item that hasn't even been found yet, and they're quickly trying to find the missing stuff while the monster hunts them down; sometimes the explorers have everything they need and can take the fight right to the monster.  Either way, It seems the monsters win more than half the time - isn't that how it should be in a horror game?

That was our experience when we played over the weekend; our brainy scientist player was exploring the upstairs of the house, when he discovered a magic skull.  Unfortunately, picking it up allowed the Worm Ouroboros to take over his body, splitting out of his corpse and quickly spreading its coils around the upstairs of the house.  We had to kill the two snake heads of the demigod before too many body coils entered the mortal plane!

The guy playing the little girl character sent his dog to retrieve the magic skull, and he handed it off to my character, Peter Akimoto, who faced down one of the snake heads.  It took a few rolls, but the scenario allowed me to cast a magic ritual that weakened the Ouroboros and made it temporarily mortal.  Now all we had to do was kill the two heads.  Unfortunately, Peter was eaten shortly thereafter and I was out of the game.

The last two players desperately tried to catch up to the snake heads before Ouroboros became unstoppable.  The little girl had the mystic "blood dagger", and was able to use a secret passage to get upstairs and stab one of the heads to death after a few rounds of combat.  But our hulking tough guy, Ox Bellows, was constrained by all the body coils that snaked down the stairs into the foyer, stretching throughout the first floor, and he couldn't catch up to the other snake head before Ouroboros burst completely into the mortal world, destroying the rest of the house and killing all the explorer players in the rubble.  The monster player won.

Every game of Betrayal at House on the Hill is different; it's quirky, fun, and has plenty of enjoyable horror atmosphere and themes.  Although Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness have 'bigger' names in the horror board game field, the fact that Betrayal gets done fast (60 minutes or so) is a big plus for me - we can play it and still get in other games as well.  I definitely recommend it.


  1. I've recently discovered this little gem of a game myself. Very enjoyable.
    The only weakness i've found is that sometimes the haunting takes a litle too much to happen.

    1. It's funny when the opposite happens - you hit 1 or 2 Omens, someone rolls disastrously low on the Haunt roll, and now you're dealing with the monster before you've found enough good stuff!

  2. "Asian-themed D&D setting"

    Which bit of Asia? The latest update on Ken Hite's adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess is in (this from the indiegogo campaign page):

    "Got a preview of the Kenneth Hite adventure. The working title is “The River of the Lost Shell” and it’s got a Southeast Asian thing going on.

    His “elevator pitch”:

    The general feel is Valhalla Rising + Apocalypse Now + the war sequence in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Lots of smoke, steam, fog, mist, grasses and mangroves, like the Dead Marshes of LOTR. All around, sorcerous echoes and explosions in the skies, but as a constant drumbeat of vile thunder, not as anything aimed at anyone in the same country.

    The adventure is a sandbox, with random encounters (bandits, armor-stealers, villagers, merc patrols, soldiers, carrion beasts, cannibals, monks, myrmidon egg hosts, naga-kin, etc) for the various main segments of the valley and geographical features (swamp, paddy, canal, village, river, thicket, hill, temple)."

    Sounds exciting, but maybe not the Asia you're after?

    1. I actually got to speak to Kenneth Hite at Gencon, and got the scoop on the new adventure a few weeks ago. Evidence: Cthulhu Gaming Roundup. Muhaha. Definitely looking forward to it.

      For my own setting, though, it's shaping up to look like feudal Japan, during the Warring States period.

  3. Betrayal is a pretty great game, when the first edition was out of print and before they did the reprint, it was going for an amazing amount of money on eBay and the like.

    I think we've actually only had a handful of monster wins in our gaming group; it's a small sample size though and we haven't had any really early betrayals. What I like about it is that it tends to be very tense and it feels like the whole game hinges on a couple of rolls, although there's usually a riskier Plan B that you're forced to resort to after the initial strategy fails -- we've had a bunch of the latter work out and it winds up being something like "the last living character, the little girl, shoots the werewolf through the eye with the silver bullet, leaving her alone in a house full of corpses."

    When we first were setting it up, I giggled with glee when I saw there were "Stomach Tokens". Still never got that scenario.

  4. I played Betrayal once and we got Worm Ouroboros, too. From the one playing I did not feel it had the depth of Arkham, but we did enjoy it. Certainly a good one to have on your list of cooperative games. I'd put Battlestar Galactica in the same category: Coop with betrayal.

    As to the Asian-themed game, lots of good advice in your next post about the workshop in Gencon. I have a Korean-themed game I wrote for 2nd Edition D&D that I keep thinking about reviving. I aimed for the 3 Kingdoms period. I did not get far. I made all the mistakes you mentioned in the other post.