Review: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Summary

A great game, fun, quick to play but with a few fundamental problems that I would like to house rule… somehow. Anyways, I recommend it! 3 to 5 players, takes about an hour to play. Lots of replayability.

PROS

  • Easy and quick to set-up
  • Pretty components
  • simple dice mechanic that’s easy to use
  • Quick to learn
  • Atmospheric, intense and full of great references to horror movie tropes
  • Games are relatively short but memorable.

CONS

  • Rulebook is not very well organized or easy to use for quick references and rule checks
  • Components have poor usability
  • very, very random
  • “Traitor” phase can be ridiculously one-sided, one way or the other to the point of draining away all enthusiasm from some players

A friend of mine suggested that we try this semi-cooperative horror board game that she had backed on Kickstarter. As a fan of this genre of tabletop entertainment I was very eager to do so, especially when she explained that an average session only took about an hour. Compared with Arkham Horror’s three to four hour duration, let alone the short setup time. I was easily won over.

We played it three times.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a semi-cooperative board game for three to five players. I say “semi” cooperative because, like the board games Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Gallactica, one player becomes an antagonist about half way through the game.

The game was very quick and easy to set-up. While the rules were very simple and easy to understand, it took a while to parse through the small rulebook to figure things out. A handy reference/summary sheet, either on the back of the rulebook or on a card would have been really helpful.

The first half, the cooperative part, involves exploring a haunted house by taking turns moving around and drawing room tiles. This was my favourite part of all three sessions. You get to draw all manner of encounters, find cool items and slowly but surely increase an evil threat meter. At a certain point, the threat meter will change everything. That’s when the second half begins.

betrayal-tiles

The second half is the Player-versus-player segment. One player (or possibly more, or even all) becomes a Traitor and gets his or her own scheme that is read from a “traitors-only” booklet. The rest of the players read the equivalent anti-scheme in another booklet. Each side keeps their plans secret. Very interesting and exciting.

The components are really pretty. There’s great character art and great room details. The miniatures for each hero are nice enough and pre-painted. Unfortunately, while things were nice to look at, some parts failed in the usability department:

  • There are a lot of tokens that are used to track all kinds of things, from linked secret passages to items and even special room features, such as a closet or a safe. While they had different shapes that loosely grouped them into categories, they were all dark grey with white text. So they all basically looked the same while in a pile. It took ages to sort or search through them for that one specific token that we needed. I would have made these distinctly different colours or with images.
  • The character cards use plastic tracking arrows that slide along the edges. There are two problems with these: they aren’t really long enough to clearly point to the correct stat numbers (which are rather small to start with); and they easily slide around a lot by accident, causing potential errors and ambiguity.

The core dice mechanic is easy and fun, albeit very random and swingy. The game uses six-sided dice each with two blank faces, two “ones” and two “twos”. The results are added together in hopes of meeting a difficulty number (higher rolls are always better). Opposed rolls are subtracted from each other: the difference often determines how much damage the loser takes. That’s the core game mechanic, in a nutshell. It’s fast, easy and it works. But it feels horribly random at times. More than once we were stuck doing nothing but staying in place for several turns and rolling the dice in an attempt to win. That got really boring.

cast1

Each player got a chance at being the Traitor. While it was exciting to open up the Traitor book and figure out which climactic ending we were going to get, all three of us felt that we were at a significant disadvantage. There’s a lot of luck in this game, but I don’t know if it was a coincidence that all three times the traitor players felt a distinct lack of enthusiasm about the ending battles: we felt that the odds were stacked against us so badly that we hardly felt that it was worth the effort to go on.

I’ve found this to often be a problem with board games in which there is a single player vs all of the others. It always feels really stacked against one side or the other. My experience was the same with Doom, Descent and Battlestar Galactica. Perhaps that’s the way that it is, but I don’t know what it is with the tendency of american designers to do this with cooperative games. There always has to be some PvP, for some reason. Nearly all of these could have been like Arkham Horror, but for some reason you’ve gotta have a traitor player and have everyone at everyone else’s throats. Ah well, different strokes, etc..

Otherwise it was a fun game and I’d like to play it again.