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Betrayal at House on the Hill» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Like a flawed, cliché horror movie but so much fun. rss

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hench critter
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When I watch TV, I find there are two takes on movies. The first kind carefully establish the characters, then puts them subtly into the main story and does everything to keep the story credible. The second take just throws all the characters into a cliché situation. By doing this, the movie seems to say: 'yeah, the backstory was so artificial and crappy that we won't show it. We know that this situation has been done before and the characters should be established. But give us a chance and we'll show you we can do these clichés better and even throw in some interesting curve balls. If these clichés had no potential, they wouldn't have been used so much, after all”. Sometimes, they do exactly that.

Betrayal at house on the Hill (BaHotH after this) is the boardgames version of the second take. A group of characters (explorers in the game) enter an old abandoned house. They enter and the front door falls shut and can't be opened again. Then they start to explore the house, what could possibly go wrong? Cliché, I know, I used the word a lot and I'll need to continue to do so.

Each explorer's position in the house is marked by a miniature. Every character has a card with some background on it and stats. The stats are: might (the main combat stat), speed (the movement stat), knowledge and sanity. Each stat is marked with a clip. If a stat improves, move the clip up. If a stat is moved up enough, the value increases. But if an explorer takes damage in a stat, the clip goes down. After the clip goes a certain amount of steps down, the value decreases. If it reaches the bottom: game over. The stats also serve as hit points, this way. My first issue are the clips: not that clear. The numbers are too far from the clips, so clips easily wander into the unclear area between the numbers.

Now, I'm going over the game play. The words I'll use a lot, are 'random' and 'luck'. Once explorer's venture into an unexplored area of the house, they'll draw a random, room-tile and add it. By exploring, the players build their own house that's different every game. Some rooms have special text: you may need to make a test for a stat to cross or leave the room. Some rooms damage stats or even increase them. Most rooms let you draw random cards, I'll get on these later. The house has three levels. The entrance is part of a floor. A few tiles away from the entrance is a staircase that leads to the upper floor. But it is a matter of time before someone stumbles into the basement. The basement is a special case, because it does not have stairs ready. Yes, you have to find the exit from the basement, cliché once again. I like it because it conveys this feeling of getting trapped, so well to the players. But the downside is that you may be looking for that escape for a while. Even when the other characters on the other floors, are struggling for survival and doing other useful things.

Most rooms have a symbol on them. That means you take a card from the deck with the same symbol. The first deck are events. Most events require a test in a stat. Just roll the amount of dice corresponding with the current value of that stat and roll a certain amount. Success means the character can usually increase that stat. Failure means bad stuff, usually damage to that stat. This can become a vicious circle. Once I rolled poorly on my first few sanity tests. Once the value started to decrease, I got less and less dice for success so it became a festering wound. On the other hand, speed increased wildly in the reverse way. Then you may get items. There might be weapons (What use are these in an abandoned house among friends?) or other items that can be handy. Then there are omens, they are mostly items but initiate a game mechanic I'll cover later. The cards have a flavor text that often feature the supernatural. This is the starter for the main dish: the second part of the game.

The explorers will explore the house for a while. Most of their stats increase and they'll gain useful items. But remember those omen cards. Every time one gets discovered, a test needs to be made. The target number goes up with every omen card discovered. Once failed, the second part of the game (The haunt) is triggered. At this point two booklets are used. Take the omen card and the room where it was discovered, and a nice chart will tell you which scenario to play. Typically one of the explores turn on the rest and becomes traitor. The rest become heroes and must stop the traitor. The rules to play the scenario are split between the two booklets, on a need to know basis. Each side gets their own victory conditions.

The second part of the game is when it really goes loose. The traitor often opens a bag full of monster tokens, the game has many, to fill the house with supernatural cronies. The heroes run trough the house, searching for the rooms or items to stop the traitor. The themes are the supernatural with all kind of horror movie tropes running loose. Even before this part, the tension rises. Every time a players discovers an omen card, the dice will tell whether and who will turn on the group. Especially when the target number goes up, so does the excitement.

The game does, however, has some serious issues. Almost everything is random and from that originates most problems. For example, the roll that starts the scenario. It can start on turn one or when almost the whole house is discovered. So that means two extreme things can happen. First: After the frontdoor has slammed shut and the first explorer enters a room, the haunt starts. The heroes find as victory condition: “To find the weapon that can kill the monster, perform the following ritual: find this room in the house then find in the basement room so and so, which will tell you which rooms to visit next and repeat this till...”. The traitor only needs to put his powerful monster on one of the three rooms present, with the words “Dinner is served master” and victory is almost assured. The second scenario is where one player explored the whole basement, learned to be more dexterous from jumping over a pit, found police riot gear, the AK-47 from the vault and used the firing range to become a sharpshooter. Another player went up, found Sinbad's compass, wood from the true cross, a mad scientist's lab and got the death ray there online. The last players got a beam on its head, the sanity got damaged by a corpse in the garden, then spent most of its time under the bed in the bedroom, this in fetal position and lastly became the traitor. In both cases the big showdown between heroes and traitor will be an anti-climax. But I also saw some close games but these are not the norm. Forget balance, the game has little. Also dice determine most outcomes. A lucky or unlucky roll can make or break you.

Another issue is that the game is more heavy then it looks. It is not a gateway game and not newbie friendly. The first part of the game is easy. Even better, since it is cooperative, you can give a newbie advice. Even better, just let the newbie play and the first part of the game is easily explained on the fly. But then the haunt starts. The newbie might become the traitor and need to plow through rules and set up the tokens and the haunt. Even with experienced players, understanding how the scenario works, makes or breaks the game. Setting the game up with tokens, the game has many and zip-lock bags are essential, is also a task. I have found the haunt a good time to let people do a toilet brake, get drinks and let the new rules settle in. With a newbie as traitor, that newbie better be smart. I'm lucky I have a second edition game. The rules are complex but do make sense.

Would I recommend this game? It depends. This game is not gateway: all players in the group need to be able to pick up and understand a rulebook. Also if you want good game balance and despise randomness, then this game will be a horror story in all the wrong ways. This game has big flaws but one big trump card: theme. The creepy house that keeps expanding when you explore it. The cards with flavor text that do add flavor. The rolls to check if the traitor is revealed, build up the tension. And if you fail the role, then you can open up the Halloween present: who is the traitor and what must you do. With 50 scenarios and a changed house every turn, the game remains interesting. This game is like a well made cliché horror movie: yes, it is flawed but it can suck you in. That is if you let it. Once you get sucked in, it is so rich in theme that you forget and forgive its flaws. If you are the kind of player that is willing to let yourself get sucked in: you will probably love it. It works for me, I consider this game almost a guilty pleasure and I love it.
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Garrett Stewart
United States
LOS ANGELES
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I have to disagree with the gateway thing.

Brought this game to my group of friends who have almost never played board games besides Monopoly etc and they said they wanted to play it over and over, and even we're interested in other games.
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hench critter
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GretSeat wrote:
I have to disagree with the gateway thing.

Brought this game to my group of friends who have almost never played board games besides Monopoly etc and they said they wanted to play it over and over, and even we're interested in other games.
I once played with a girl that had plenty conventional board-game experience. But she just did not get this game. I was so glad she did not become the traitor, otherwise the whole game would have been ruined.
 
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Britt Rosendahl Hansen
Denmark
Copenhagen
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My god, it's full of stars!
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Very nice review.

Wrt. whether this is a gateway game or not, I must agree with the reviewer. So much so, that my house rule (after 2-3 bad experiences) is that a "new player" will not be the traitor. The experienced players roll a die to see, who becomes the traitor. After that, we just swap the miniatures around and give the traitor the card that triggered the haunt as if he/she had actually walked into that room.

The term "new player" is subjective. There are people I play with, who will still not be the traitor even after having played the game a couple of times. It really comes down to whether they can understand the instructions a traitor is given. Even those of us who've played it several times struggle with some scenarios..
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