Review: Betrayal at House on the Hill
Designer: Bruce Glassco
Artist: Dennis McClain, Christopher Moeller, Peter Whitley
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Category: Adventure, Exploration, Horror
Price: $31.79 Amazon.com
Betrayal at House on the Hill is a semi-cooperative horror adventure game from Wizards of the Coast/Avalon Hill. Originally released in 2004, it was considered a “cult classic” board game for many years, until it was reprinted in 2010. In recent years, its popularity has grown substantially.
Betrayal at House on the Hill encapsulates all the flavor of cheesy horror movies. Its fifty unique story scenarios involve all kinds of classic tropes, some of which are darker than others. They contain everything from poltergeists to mummies to cannibals to cultists. The themes are spooky, but not overly graphic or explicit. Some cards and stories involve themes of magic, including a Crystal Ball item which can cause a character to “stare into hell.” Additionally, players may uncover unsettling locations like the “Bloody Room” and the “Operating Laboratory.”
While some content may be a bit intense for younger players, the game doesn’t take itself seriously at all. If players are okay with some scary themes, Betrayal is an amazing experience.
Betrayal at House on the Hill has special significance to me. When I was first getting into tabletop gaming, I heard it touted as the most amazing board game ever made. It was chalked up to be this epic horror adventure game where one player becomes a traitor and everyone else has to fight to try to stop him. I was told it had every monster you could imagine, and to top it all off, there were fifty different horror scenarios in the game!
There was only one problem: at that time, the game was long out of print and almost impossible to find. As much as I wanted to try it, I never could. It was like this white whale that I would never catch.
Then, several years after it’s original release, a new edition came out, and I could finally play this elusive mystery game. It’s weird to say that a board game changed my life, but in a very real way, it did.
Betrayal at House on the Hill was the game that made me a gamer.
[In order to keep this review to a reasonable length, I’m going to make the overview brief. The following is a very basic synopsis of how the game works.]
Betrayal at House on the Hill puts players in the roles of explorers who have just entered a creepy, old, totally-not-haunted house. The game is played in two phases; you can think of it as Act I and Act II.
The beginning of the game (Act I) has no defined objective, players are simply exploring the house. As they explore, they will face events, find items, and uncover omens of their doom. When enough omens have been found, something will happen that will cause one explorer to betray all the others, thus beginning Act II. The game contains fifty unique story scenarios, collected in a pair of books. When Act II (also known as “The Haunt”) begins, the traitor takes one of the books and leaves the room. The rest of the players then open the other book. The books will tell both sides, traitor and heroes, certain information about the story, and how their side wins the game. Each scenario includes special, story-specific rules that will dictate how players must work to meet the listed objectives. Once everyone has read his own side of the scenario, the traitor returns to the room and play continues. At this point, the game becomes a tooth-and-nail fight between the traitor and the heroes. When one side has accomplished its victory objective, the game ends.
Betrayal at House on the Hill is a marvel of game design. Just the sheer hubris of including fifty unique scenarios, each with two sides, shows how big and grandiose it wants to be. One of the most deeply thematic games there is, every scenario encapsulates the flavor of some campy, B-grade horror movie, complete with necessary stock characters like the priest and the jock. The text on the cards, the graphic design of the rooms, and even the box art make the theme really pop. The narratives are dramatic and exciting, leaving you wanting to play again.
It’s odd, though. Betrayal is one of the most fun, immersive experiences you’ll ever have gaming, but it’s not actually a good game. From a design standpoint, it’s chaotic, random, and woefully unbalanced. The rules are vague, even self-contradictory. Some scenarios are extremely confusing, and others are just silly. There are not enough opportunities to find item cards, the game doesn’t scale well, and the list goes on.
Normally, any one of these criticisms would be enough to give me pause, and all of them together would surely make my recommendation a firm “Don’t play this game under any circumstances, ever.” But that’s not the case here.
Despite all its flaws, Betrayal at House on the Hill should be in EVERY game collection. It’s a unique specimen, a rare instance in which the fun supersedes a whole slew of issues. As you explore the house, you feel like you’re really there, ascending that dark, cobwebbed staircase or standing on the precipice of a bottomless chasm.
The tile-laying aspect adds to the mystery of the game; you never know what’s waiting on the other side of that door. As you explore the house, you feel the tension brewing, knowing that any moment someone will turn on the group, maybe even you. This suspense factor suits the game perfectly.
I mentioned before that the game is unbalanced. I’d like to elaborate a bit. As you probably gathered from my overview, the best part of Betrayal at House on the Hill is the Haunt phase, when the heroes and traitor are fighting for the win. It’s the climax toward which the whole first half of the game builds.
With that said, Haunt scenarios can hinge on several factors. For example, a Haunt might require the traitor to eliminate all heroes in order to win. In this scenario, the number of players really matters. A game with only two heroes will be much easier for the traitor to win than a full game with five heroes. Additionally, the layout and size of the house often matter immensely. Some scenarios favor one side greatly if the house is, say, small and compact or large and open. It can even matter if a certain room has/hasn’t been discovered. Some stories will require the heroes to find a particular room and perform a task in it. If that room is not already in the house when the Haunt begins, heroes may have to play “go fish,” exploring rooms randomly until they find it, all the while being attacked by the traitor and his monsters. (Oh yeah, I didn’t mention, the traitor usually controls beefy monsters that can help do his dirty work).
To be fair, some scenarios are balanced better than others. The game is kind of a mixed bag in that way. You just never know how a game will go. In fact, some of the best Haunts have a hidden traitor or even no traitor at all!
It’s important that all players go into this game with the appropriate expectations. It’s an adventure. It may go their way, it may not. It may be super unfair, it may not. The enjoyment of this game comes from the experience, so if everyone is there to have fun, Betrayal should be a home run.
I’m going to digress for a moment here.
Since I first played Betrayal, I dreamed of an expansion for the game. I loved the original so much that I even wrote my own Haunt scenarios after completing the fifty that were included. (Not sure whether to be proud or ashamed of that…)
In 2011, I reached out to designer Bruce Glassco and asked him if there was even the slightest chance of an expansion. I thought, coming off of a new edition of the game, it would be the perfect time to release new content. He said he had often thought about it, but there were no concrete plans. As time went on, it seemed less and less likely. By 2013, even the second edition had sort of come and gone. But then, the game was featured on Wil Wheaton’s “Tabletop.” This exposed a over a million new people to the game, and reinvigorated interest in it. Wizards of the Coast rode the hype train by ordering a new print run to meet the sudden demand. It was cool to see new players enjoying this awesome game, but still, no expansion.
I’ll never forget the day the announcement came. I can’t even express how excited I was. A whopping twelve years after the game’s initial release, Betrayal at House on the Hill: Widow’s Walk was announced, an expansion that added new cards, rooms, and most importantly, fifty new scenarios written by the who’s-who of geekdom. Here are my thoughts on the new content:
The new components are a welcome addition. They really cleaned up some of the game’s rough edges. There is an entirely new floor of the house to explore, which is awesome in and of itself. The expansion includes many more rooms where players can find item cards, something the base game was sorely lacking. It also adds a new movement mechanism that allows players to travel around the board more efficiently. All this together really helps the overall flow of the game.
Of course, the most significant content is the new Haunts. I haven’t played nearly all of them yet so it’s hard to formulate a full opinion, but I get the sense that the designers were trying something new with them. By inviting high-profile geeks like Rob Daviau, Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Pendleton Ward (!) to contribute scenarios, there is some major variation in the feel of the Haunts. The ones I have played so far really capture their authors’ voices (yes, the Pendleton Ward scenario is just as silly and outlandish as you’d expect). Unfortunately, many of the scenarios are underwhelming, but it’s refreshing just to have new Haunts to try.
Overall, I think Widow’s Walk has really breathed new life into Betrayal at House on the Hill. I encourage anyone who likes the base game to check out the expansion as well.
One of my favorite memories of Betrayal was playing it by candlelight on Halloween, with creepy music on softly in the background and a dry ice witch’s cauldron sending an eerie mist across the table. This faux-creepy atmosphere was perfect, and the experience was awesome (except for the die-falling-in-hot-candlewax thing—that part was less awesome).
Betrayal at House on the Hill is everything people love about 1980’s cheeseball horror movies in a game. Like these movies, it somehow manages to be bad and fun at the same time. It’s over-the-top in all the right ways. Mechanically, the game is lacking, but it’s so entertaining that it doesn’t seem to matter. Above all else, games are supposed to be fun, and Betrayal delivers. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all, and it’s the better for it.
As I said at the outset, this game is really special to me. There are a lot of memories attached to it, and it is absolutely the reason I call myself a gamer today. I think of Betrayal as a flawed masterpiece. It’s the best bad game ever made, and I give it my utmost recommendation. If you only buy one board game in your lifetime, make it Betrayal at House on the Hill.
The Bottom Line
Betrayal at House on the Hill is the greatest bad game ever made. Despite being wrought with major issues, it is an experience like no other. If you're remotely interested in gaming, Betrayal is a must-play.