Designer: Bruce Glassco
Artists: Jon Schindehette and Ryan Sansaver (2nd Edition)
Publisher: Avalon Hill Games
Play Time: 1 hour
Target Age Range: 12+
Published: 2004 (original), 2010 (2nd Edition)
Halloween was last week, and to celebrate, we went for a spooky game. This is another classic, though it’s a semi-new edition. This week, we’re reviewing Betrayal at House on the Hill (2nd Edition). Betrayal was first published back in 2004, and it quickly became a cult favorite. Unfortunately, it also had several scenarios, or “Haunts” as they’re referred to in the game, that were so unbalanced that the game was rendered almost unplayable. (Also, the house in the first edition somehow had an “Underground Lake” stashed away in the attic.) In the original edition, the creators actually put out a pdf with a sizable rewrite of the game. Still, the game was fairly popular, so when it went out of print, it became a hot commodity.
In 2010, Avalon Hill released a second edition of the game, replacing eight of the original Haunts, cleaning up a few of the rules, and moving the Underground Lake down to the basement, where it could properly brood and listen to emo music.
For those who aren’t familiar with the game, Betrayal at House on the Hill plays with the classic group of misfits exploring a creepy old mansion. It’s a tile-laying game, where each time a player opens a new door, they take a tile from the stack and lay it down matching up the doors. Some rooms have Events, Items, or Omens tied to them (each tied to a separate deck of cards), and some rooms have events that are specifically tied to them. (For example, the Coal Chute immediately sends your character down into the basement.) Because there are dozens of different tiles that can be laid in dozens of arrangements, it’s virtually impossible for you to play on the exact same board twice. When players draw Omen cards, they have to make a saving roll to delay the Haunt from triggering, but with each Omen, it gets harder to make that save. The longer players can go without triggering the Haunt, the more time they have to find helpful items and develop their characters’ stats. Once the Haunt triggers, though, the players are fighting the clock—as well as one of the other players, who turns against them.
We had the full compliment of six players this time, and the flow was great. Once the Haunt triggered, our Traitor went into another room to read from the Traitor’s Tome while the rest of us read from the Survival Guide to learn our respective win conditions. While there was a little bit of confusion regarding the wording of some of the win conditions, it was relatively clear what we needed to do.
Betrayal at House on the Hill was designed by Bruce Glassco, with Art Direction on the 2nd Edition by Jon Schindehette and Ryan Sansaver. Both the first and second editions were published by Avalon Hill Games, which has been making board games since the 1950s. Avalon Hill became a subsidiary of Wizards of the Coast in 2004, whose most famous properties include Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. Wizards of the Coast is, itself, a subsidiary of Hasbro.
Betrayal at House on the Hill is another cooperative game—until it isn’t. The game starts off with everyone working together to explore the house. But once the Haunt is triggered, suddenly it becomes a 1-vs-many game, with one player turning traitor. (In-game, this can be one of the characters betraying the others, or it can be a monster attacking and killing the character, with the player then assuming the role of the monster.)
Each player has a pentagonal card representing their character, and each character has four stats: two physical (Might and Speed) and two mental (Knowledge and Sanity). Different events and items can boost or lower those stats. If any of the stats gets too low, the character dies and the player is eliminated from the game. The numbers represent the number of dice that player can use for various rolls, so the higher the stat, the more likely they are to succeed. Speed also represents the number of rooms through which that character can move on his or her turn.
The gameplay is a lot of fun, and it’s really fun not knowing exactly what to expect. You don’t know what room you might be entering, you don’t know when the Haunt will begin, you don’t know who the traitor will be (and sometimes, even after the Haunt begins, the traitor’s identity is secret), and you don’t even know what the actual win condition is going to be until the Haunt begins.
Because of the randomness of the titles and the fact that there are so many dice being rolled, there is a lot of chance involved in the game, so if you don’t like games with a lot of randomness, this game might not be for you. But the dice themselves are pretty cool. The game uses 6-sided dice, but the numbers on the dice only go up to 2. There are a pair of 1s and a pair of 2s on each die, with the remaining two sides being blank. This keeps the values rolled low, even if you add in several additional dice. It also means that, even if the odds are slim, there are often chances to beat those odds and succeed (or fail). Each additional die you roll is important, so bonuses from cards are valuable.
This was definitely a fun choice to play for Halloween. The familiar feeling of a group of explorers searching an old mansion is well-represented, and the uncertainty of not knowing what will be behind the next door you open is genuine. Many of the events and rooms have a decidedly creepy vibe to them, and the Haunts are, well… haunting, so some more sensitive people may not enjoy the game. If you’re aiming for exploration and being a bit creeped out, though, it’s a lot of fun.
Visual/Physical Appeal (6.5/10)
I’m of mixed minds about this, because while the game does a good job of portraying the creepy feeling of a haunted house and the Event, Item, and Omen cards are very well crafted, many of the components feel… cheap. All of the cardboard components feel thin and a bit insubstantial, including the monster tokens, the player cards, and even the room tiles that make up the board. The art on the room tiles is thematic, though a bit generic. I understand the reasoning for the construction quality, because with so many possible paths, the game contains an enormous number of components to account for any eventuality. Still, some of the pieces that are used in every game could stand to have a bit more effort put into them.
One touch I did like is that even though there are a maximum of six players, each character card has two options on it. Both of those characters look similar, so the figurine the player moves around the board could work for either one. It’s an efficient way to include a bit more variety in a game that’s already rich with options.
When it comes to the character cards themselves, on the other hand, I’ve got some issues. The game comes with four little clips for each to indicate each player’s current stats. While good in theory, the clips don’t really fit the cards well, and so they slide if you just look at them wrong. With each character’s stats being so important to the game, you could have a pretty big mess on your hands if someone accidentally shakes the table standing up for a snack (or to go read the Traitor’s Tome when a Haunt is triggered). Fortunately, there are a few dedicated apps out there people can download to their smartphones to keep track of character stats, which is what a few of us did. It worked fine, although it wasn’t quite as convenient to reference, since you have to open your phone each time you want to look. Also, it makes it so other players can’t see your stats as well, which can lead to problems.
The figurines are nice to have, but again, the quality is lower than I would like. Perhaps I was spoiled by the quality of the figures in Shadows Over Camelot last week, but they seem lightweight, with very little detail. The lack of detail does make it easier to link both of the two different character options on the corresponding character card, though, so make of that what you will.
My last complaint is with the box insert. As I’ve mentioned, there are a lot of components in this game, but the insert only provides two over-sized bins to hold them all. We decided to just punch each token as we need it, but that’s only a temporary solution. Eventually, unless we go in and bag them ourselves, all the tokens will mix together, and it will become very difficult to find the exact ones we’re looking for.
Setup Time (5-10 minutes)/Play Time (~1 hour)
The biggest obstacle to setup time for this game is the huge number of tokens, but technically, you don’t have to search through them all until the game calls for it. Still, having them ready and waiting can streamline gameplay a little. Really, though, all you need to do is have the players select their characters; lay down the Entryway, Basement Landing, and Upper Landing cards; and shuffle three decks of cards, and you’re good to go. Gameplay is pretty quick, though, and it only took us about an hour or so to get through a round. I can see how it might go longer, but our playthrough felt like it would be pretty representative of a typical game.
One thing to keep in mind: This game is going to take up a lot of real estate. You’ll need to space out your Upper, Ground, and Basement levels from the start, because each has the potential to grow a huge amount, and they’ll start to run into each other. Plus, since the game is made up of separate tiles for each room, and some of those rooms will have tokens on them, moving after you’re several turns into the game can turn into a production.
Complexity (Rank 6)/Teach Time (~5–10 minutes)
Out of our group of six players, only two had ever played before, and they were able to explain the game fairly easily to the rest of us in about 5 minutes. The game is pretty simple—move your character according to your Speed trait, follow the symbols and text in each room you find, and try not to die. Since the game is so different each time, the Haunts themselves add additional rules, which you read together once the Haunt is triggered.
This is what Betrayal at House on the Hill is known for. Every time you play the game, it’s going to be different. You’ll have a different game board every time you play. You may go through the same rooms, but they’ll be in different places, which can have a huge impact on gameplay. Different characters will have different stats, so they’ll have a better chance at succeeding or failing certain tasks. Even if they have the same stats, though, those stats are tied to dice rolls, so you never can predict the outcome. And with 50 different Haunts, unless you play a lot of this game, and nothing else, chances are you’re not going to come across the same one twice. (The rules even include an option for alternate Haunts in the event you do trigger the same one.)
I think all of us really enjoyed this game, and I’d love to play it several more times. I’d love to see how some of the other Haunts play out, and I’d love to play it with different people. I feel like there’s enough variety to keep me coming back, though I’d like just a little bit more flavor text than we got in the Haunt we did. (#11: “Let Them In,” for anyone who’s curious.) Still, it was definitely fun, and I’m looking forward to the next time I can play.
— The Innkeeper