Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Tuesday Reviewsday: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Players: 3-6, semi co-operative - more players is always better
Playtime on the box: 60minutes
Actual playtime: Up to 2 hours
Replay Value: 7/10
Is there someone in your group who likes to read the manual cover to cover? Good, invite them over and give them the rule book. Make them read it twice while you are cooking dinner. Then keep the rule book close at hand to answer your ten thousand questions.

Betrayal at House on the Hill was released by Avalon Hill and Wizards of the Coast in 2004. You are cast as a motley assortment of characters who have stumbled into a haunted house. So, of course, you decide to go exploring.

Each character starts with different basic stats, for example Ox is really strong, but has only 2 knowledge, whereas the professor is weak but intelligent. Each character has two mental traits (sanity and knowledge) and two physical traits (strength and speed).

You begin the game by exploring the house. Each time you walk through a door you find a new room, by drawing the next tile from the top of the deck. In the bottom corner of each tile is a symbol, either a spiral, a raven or a goats head. You draw a card that matches the symbol (spiral = event, raven = omen, goats head = item), follow the instructions on the card and your turn ends.

The first part of the game is a little odd, and occasionally a little boring. It's very directionless, every door you open could get you more loot, or the house could try and kill you. Certain rooms drawn will increase your stats if you end your turn there, other rooms will hurt you, others won't let you leave unless you can roll above a set number. In the beginning you won't know who the bad guy is (it might be you) so the best you can do is try and bulk up your stats in the hopes of not dying as soon as The Haunt is revealed.

The strangest thing about this part of the game is the pseudo-teamwork. You are among friends, so you want to help your buddies out, for example by giving them batteries for their torch. However you know that at some point, one of your 'friends' is going to try and kill you. Or the house is going to start trying to kill you and not everyone can survive. There is no way of knowing who will become the bad guy until it happens, so you will generally find yourself helping each other. That won't stop you from feeling a little nervous when you help someone out, wondering if they are going to stab you in the back later.

The good news (in a way) is that once the traitor is revealed, they are generally immune to all the bad stuff in the house, and the negative things that were effecting them go away. So you might as well help your friends, because the creepy evil house is going to kill you one way or the other.

The traitor is randomly revealed as you explore the house. Every time you draw an omen card (found by exploring the house) you roll 6 dice. If the number on the dice is lower than the number of omen cards that have been drawn, then The Haunt begins.

Dice have 2 blank sides, 2 sides with 1-pip and 2 sides with 2-pips.
I love this mechanic. There's a bit of holding your breath tension every time the dice are rolled, and because you have six dice it takes you a moment to count it up. It also means that it is possible for the traitor to be revealed very early in the game, but the likelihood increases as the game progresses. While this means you have more time to buff up your character before all hell breaks loose (sometimes literally) it can drag a little bit.


Once someone manages to roll less than the number of omen cards on the table (I find this generally happens between 5-8) you turn back to the rulebooks and figure out who the bad guy is. There is no way of knowing in advance, since The Haunt is decided by Room You Found The Omen In + What Omen Card Was It = Player With The Highest/Lowest of 'x' Stat or Haunt Revealer or Person to the Left/Right of the Haunt Revealer. It seems like that would be confusing, but you open the Traitors Tome and use the chart on the front page. The chart tells you what scenario (out of 50) you are playing, then you kick the bad guy out of the room, read your separate instructions and make sneaky plans. On rare occasions there is no bad guy, just the house itself trying to kill you, then you all get the same set of instructions.

Let me be honest, you don't want to play this game with me. I overthink this game way too much. In one case the scenario read "The Voodoo Dolls are in dangerous places". So I got caught up on the idea that 'dangerous places' meant rooms that could hurt the players, i.e. the furnace room. Turns out dangerous places just meant dangerous to the voodoo dolls, we found one buried in the garden and another getting haunted in the church. I've made this mistake on most games I've played. The basic interpretation of the scenario is generally the right one, and (unlike what I keep thinking) there isn't a 'hidden message', just some interesting flavour text.

Once the traitor is revealed, the game very quickly becomes 'do this thing, and DON'T DIE!'. Not dying is pretty tricky. I've played games where the bad guy is invisible, games where he set traps all over the house, games where he was a stupidly powerful mummy and a game where we killed the bad guy, but were still getting picked off because our voodoo dolls were suffering. Half of the time it doesn't matter if you kill the bad guy, you can still lose.
'Doing the thing' is where the variety lays, and the panicky strategy. The objectives vary, but so far seem to consist of finding an item, then either destroying it in a fancy ritualistic fashion (standing in the right room, rolling some dice and announcing that you win) or using it to clobber the bad guy (and if you fail, he normally squishes you). In every game I have played we've needed to go to a room that wasn't in play yet. So we had to waste time running around trying to find the right room, which generally turned us into sitting ducks for the bad guy.

A couple of the scenarios don't feel balanced (the Mummy sucked) and some feel plain impossible (kill the invisible guy who keeps stabbing you in the back and running away) but I still quite enjoy this game. It has gotten better with time, now we understand most of the rules (after about 5 play-throughs) and don't have to constantly recheck the rulebook. You need to play with a good crowd of people who are happy to debate tactics, argue and put on funny voices. You (or your friends) will die. It's a horror movie condensed down into a board game, so in most cases only one or two of you will come out alive. If you have good friends, dying isn't such a drawback because your character dies, but you are still actively involved in scheming and planning. Quietly, under your breath, so the bad guy (aka, your friend sitting across the table) doesn't hear your plans.

I won't lie, there are a lot of flaws in this game. Every time I've played we've had to Google a rule. And not because of my group's normal level of nit-picking and trying to MacGyver the rules but because it just plain didn't make sense. Thankfully the internet has encountered the same problems, so they are normally pretty easy to find, but typing "Betrayal at House on the Hill" into your phone is a pain. As I mentioned earlier the balance feels off, we've either gotten our asses kicked, or waltzed through the game (with a couple of deaths). We did have one game that came down to the wire, but that one took so long everyone else had left the room, and it was just me (playing a 9 year old girl) defeating the mummy.

As much as I hate how 'overpowered' the bad guy is, it also makes sense, because if the bad guy wasn't able to crush you with his mighty fists, he'd probably lose. Maybe I'm just being bitter because I tend to be the first person killed.

So many tokens!
The pieces that come with the game aren't great either. The character models are detailed, but the cards you use to track stats are so bad that a free app has been developed by a fan to replace it. The room tiles that build the house are nice and sturdy, and the cards are good quality, but there are enough cardboard tokens to drown in. I popped out over 100 tiny tokens that I barely use. When you do need to get them out, it takes a frustrating amount of time to sort through all the tiles until you find the right one. Generally we encourage people to keep playing while one sucker hunts for the tiles, and the effect often gets removed before we even find the marker for it.

A typical house set up after six turns
Moving away from the flaws though, this game is pretty fun to play. It's a semi-cooperative game, so you get to team up with most of your buddies, and still mess with someone. The game has a lot of replay value since there are 50 different scenarios, and the board is constructed as you discover new rooms, meaning you get a different layout each time.

This game isn't one of my favourite, and it does take a long time to play, but it has a lot of character. The details on each room card are gorgeous and the flavour text is humorous. However the game relies very heavily on luck. I found a lot of the dice rolls to be frustrating, and the house layout never seemed to be in my favour. Maybe I'm just having a whinge, but it is frustrating to roll six dice and only score 2. The odds on that are terrible, but when I rolled for high numbers, I always got low ones, and when I rolled for low, I would get high. Whenever I needed to get to a room in the house, it was always as far away as possible. When I needed to get out of the basement, the last very last tile drawn was the stairs. That variability keeps the game fresh, but it makes me a very disgruntled loser.

I'll still play this game regularly, but I play it as a 'middle' game. It's not a good one for starting a day, or for finishing on. It belongs in the middle of a games day, sandwiched between "Quick and Easy" and "Scheming and Laughter". If you are into horror movies, willing to role-play your characters with silly voices, and have a bit of luck with dice, it's a great game for murdering your friends, if they don't get you first.


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