When you take a group of friends into a haunted house, it’s almost a guarantee that something crazy is going to happen, and one of those friends will definitely betray you all. Unless it’s you, then you’ll just betray everyone.
At least, that’s what happens in Betrayal at House on the Hill, a thematic horror game that tells the story of a foray into a haunted house, and the mayhem that ensues. But is this ghost story worth telling?
How it Plays
Each player controls a character, represented by a plastic miniature on the board and a stats counter in front of them. Stats are speed, strength, knowledge, and sanity, and each character has different minimums, maximums, and starting points for each, in addition to a few character details such as height, age, hobbies, etc. Each stat counter is double sided, so you can get slight variations of each character.
The game happens in 2 parts. First, you have the Exploration phase. In this phase, characters start in the foyer of the titular House on the Hill, and move through the house exploring new rooms. Rooms are represented by tiles that are revealed from a stack when a new room is explored, and connected to the house by matching up doors, a la Carcassone or Zombies. Some rooms are empty. Some are dead ends. Some require a skill challenge to pass. Some drop you through the floor into the basement. In addition, many rooms trigger Item, Event, or Omen cards, which provided various bonuses or challenges to the players.
Eventually, though, you will encounter one too many omens, and that will begin the haunt. The actual Haunt scenario is determined by the last Room and Omen card revealed, and with about 50 possible combinations each corresponding to 1 of 50 scenarios, you won’t be playing the same scenarios repeatedly too often.
At this point, the traitor is also determined. Each group separates, and privately consults the scenario in the appropriate booklet, which gives an introduction to what’s going on, and the specific things that they need to do to win the scenario. This means that neither side knows exactly what the other team needs to do to win. Which is terrifying.
From then on the game plays out differently depending on the scenario. It may involve attacking some monster and destroying it before it destroys you. It may involve protecting an item or NPC from harm. It may involve closing the gates of hell before before fires from the deep consume the house. There are 50 wildly unique scenarios so you could be doing anything. Most of them specifically involve making skill checks with the specialized dice (the dice have 1’s, 2’s, and blank sides).
Eventually, one team will meet their winning condition and declare victory, at which point the game ends. All of this takes less than 1hr.
Haunted House or Nothing To See Here?
Describing the rules of this game actually makes it sound a little boring. The mechanisms are not deep or complex at all. It sounds pretty luck-based, and it is for sure. But that’s not the point.
At its core, Betrayal at House on the Hill is an extremely thematic storytelling game. It’s not about efficiently plotting resources or out-tacticianing your friends. As you explore the house and then unravel the haunt, a story unfolds as told by the whole group.
The cards, tokens, and board pieces are dripping with thematic flair – but they are just generic and cryptic enough to allow you to fill in the gaps with your imagination. It becomes an exciting adventure as you put together the pieces you reveal into a cohesive story. The items, omens, and events all play together so that when the haunt is revealed, you piece together a story from everything you’ve encountered so far. The rooms in the house range from generously useful to downright dangerous, making the exploration phase tense and exciting – especially the prospect of you being the one to draw that omen that starts off the Haunt. What did you touch? They’ll shout as the house starts shaking and things go crazy. What did you do?
If you don’t have much of an imagination, or don’t like filling in the gaps, you probably won’t enjoy BaHotH very much. The story is what makes it fun, because the actual mechanics are very very simple. It’s not a complex mystery game, or even a challenging cooperative horror game like Arkham Horror.
Betrayal does accomplish one thing that most heavily thematic games do not do – it keeps it simple and short. All games I’ve played have been about 1hr long. I haven’t played every scenario, so maybe there are some longer ones – but in all likelihood, it’ll fit into your lunch hour. It also avoids be complex – you have 4 stats that all function mechanically the same way, but are juts applied in different situations or contexts. The foundation of success is simply trying to increase these stats as much as possible before the Haunt happens, so you’ll be ready to face whatever challenge awaits you. Items can be picked up, traded, and used in the same fashion, without nitpicky rules about who what when where why and how. The specific rules for each room and each card are clearly stated on the card and the tiles, so you won’t have to constantly look up, “wait, what does this room do again?” There’s just not a ton of work going on here… just enough to build a framework around with to tell your story.If there’s one flaw, it’s that the Haunt seems a little stacked against the Traitor, especially with more players. While the Haunts do scale a bit based on number of players, the “survivor” team gets a whole lot of moves in a row before the Traitor gets to do their thing. Now, some quests feel balanced anyways, but there are at least a couple that will make it tough for the Traitor to do their thing.
I’ve heard of warping issues in earlier editions of Betrayal, but the copy I have access to seems very high quality. The cardboard is sturdy, there are plenty of tokens – both generic and specific – to fill the needs of each scenario, and the minis are painted. However, the plastic sliders used to indicate the current stat level on each character board are far too small. They just barely grip on the character board, they come off easily, they slide around easily, and the point is so far away from the number it’s hard to tell which number exactly it’s pointing at. Still, you generally don’t need to handle the character boards very much, and if you’re careful it’s workable – you just shouldn’t have to be careful, and all it would take would be slightly larger plastic clips.
To wrap up, Betrayal at House on the Hill is a fun game that tells an exciting adventure/horror story with simple mechanics in less than an hour. It’s not a tightly packed, cerebral euro or a tactical combat game – it just tells a fun story about a haunted house. If that’s what you’re looking for, look no further. Betrayal is a winner.