Betrayal at House on the Hill, besides having maybe the most awkward title of any board game ever, is really, really great fun. The box describes it as a strategy game, and while I love strategy games, this is not why I love Betrayal.
First things first: the box is a lie. Betrayal is not remotely a strategy game. Its gameplay is too simple for that. In Betrayal, the players are exploring a spooky mansion (I’m sure there’s a really good reason why), working as a team to uncover its secrets, while surviving its creaky dangers and uncanny encounters. Each player has four stats, which are tested against the tiles they uncover -make a speed test to dodge the collapsing floor, stamina test to avoid the old man dressed as a ghost to scare the kids out of the abandoned fairground, etc. As the tiles are uncovered, the mansion grows on the table, and encounters and items boost the player’s stats and abilities. Everyone is working together, allowing for sharing of items. And that’s pretty much it. These basic systems are what govern the game play, making for a very straightforward move, uncover and roll system. The game looks great, and the tiles and encounters are fun, varied and thematic, but ultimately all worked out in the same way.
What makes House on the Hill something more, indeed, something great, is the Betrayal element. This is the game’s turning point, where, after playing for a more or less random amount of time, the secrets of the house are revealed, as is a betrayer amongst the players. No-one is a betrayer until this point. No-one is dealt a card, or has a secret objective from the beginning. Someone just picks up a certain object in a certain room, and a chart is consulted. Not very exciting sounding, it’s just the game’s way of determining what scenario is to be played. Which ‘Haunt’ will govern what happens next. Haunts are what the scenarios are known as, and there is a big book of them. One book for the betrayer, and one equivalent book for the remaining players, suddenly elevated to the ‘heroes’. There are 50 Haunts, each one with an objective for the betrayer, and an objective for the heroes. You won’t know what the other side’s objective is, and there is a lot of hidden information on both sides.
I’ve played the game twice, and reading the next paragraph outlines which Haunts we drew, and how they played out. I don’t really know how to illustrate exactly how amazing the game is other than to talk about these scenarios. If you want to avoid spoilers, now’s the time to stick your fingers in your ears and hum loudly to yourself. When you’re done, you can scroll down past the next two paragraphs, skip to the comments, or just point your browser in another direction. I won’t hold it against you. Come visit us again sometime!
The first haunt was more or less a straightforward haunted house. A vengeful ghost had been summoned, and the heroes had to find his remains in order to placate, and then exorcise him. The betrayer had summoned him with an ouija board, and guided him around the house. As the heroes, what we didn’t know was that the betrayer now carried this ouija board with him, and attacking him would have gotten us this item and ensured victory. While we knew there was a ghost, we had no idea what would happen if we attacked it, how powerful it was, the kind of damage it could do us. So we had go in blind, and all the while the house literally crumbled around us, being torn apart by the ghost, killing any player in a collapsing room. The Haunt was exciting, tense, mysterious, and over far too soon, with the ghost being destroyed by a hero attacking it with a magicky ring thing they happened upon.
The second haunt: this was something different entirely. This is what changed Betrayal from being a really fun night to an essential experience that overcame all of its mechanical shortcomings. The second haunt made the game an experience that is going to be remembered and talked about for far longer than I will remember the rulebook and mechanics. In this Haunt, the betrayer shrunk everyone down to the size of mice, and let loose cats in the mansion. In the interest of (mad) science, of course. To escape their deadly paws, we had to find a toy plane, start it up, and fly it out of an upstairs window of the mansion. All while tiny-sized and terrified of cats, who, if they caught us, would toy with us for a whole round before devouring us. Never has a game surprised me so much, and swung so wildly in tone in between plays. All while maintaining the tension that underscored our first haunt. One by one the cats tracked us down, stalking us through the mansion, and when the remaining few finally managed to get airborne, thinking we might actually make it out, one of the malignant moggies batted down the plane and cornered the remaining survivors. Back on the ground we didn’t even manage to get the plane started again before becoming cat food. It was hilarious and brilliant, and something I dearly hope further playthroughs can replicate, in terms of pure enjoyment, if not exact scenario conditions.