Betrayal at House on the Hill Review – Traitors and Omens
There are certain games that are just difficult to review. Whether it is due to specific components, or the size of the game, the theme, or specifically one or two mechanics, there are certain games that just slip through the net as hard games to talk about. Today’s game, this one right here, is one of those games. That game is Betrayal at House on the Hill.
Betrayal at House on the Hill is a game we have a bit of a history with. It was, as board gamers, the first big box game we ever bought. Released in 2004, it has now been around for almost 16 years. It was designed, amongst other names, by Rob Daviau, the mind that later graced the world with the smash hits Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 and Season 2. He is also the designer who came up with Seafall, a statement that I will leave there.
Betrayal at House on the Hill is a game that I have actually talked about with Wil Wheaton himself, at Destination Star Trek. It is a game my partner and I have absolutely loved as a couple, and then…since then…everyone else we have introduced it to has either mildly enjoyed it or hated it more than life itself. We have one friend who ranks it in his worst ever games, meanwhile we still have a special place for it in our hearts.
Today, we’re going to break that down a little bit – what is it that makes Betrayal at House on the Hill interesting? What is it that makes it so inconsistent? What is it that makes Betrayal at House on the Hill what it is?
What is Betrayal at House on the Hill?
Betrayal at House on the Hill is a 3-6 player, horror based, exploration game designed by Rob Daviau and published by Avalon Hill. It is advertised on the Avalon Hill website as taking an hour to play. In reality, it easily takes 2 hours.
Betrayal at House on the Hill, which is regularly shortened to simply “Betrayal”, is a game in which players first of all work collaboratively to explore a haunted manor, before the game switches half-way through. Halfway through, the game changes and one player becomes a traitor. The survivors and the traitor then get separate halves to a new story, or plot. From that moment on, the game shifts. It is now a game of the traitor vs the survivors, and only one side can win.
How do you play Betrayal at House on the Hill?
Explaining how to play Betrayal at House on the Hill is not an easy task. The first half of the game is always the same. Players each choose a character, one of two options of up to six miniatures. That character represents that player, and with four stats apiece representing Speed, Might, Knowledge and Sanity.
As players you all start off in the main hallways of the manor, a haunted mansion of magnificent proportions. You, as the players, take it in turns to explore the rooms, moving and uncovering tiles from a stack when you get to a door. Once you open a door the player can come across either a normal room, with nothing special (in which case they keep moving) or rooms with Events, Items, or Omens. These add flavour to the game, kitting players out and adding special occurrences to make everything feel incredibly active and relevant. Sometimes the rooms add on an additional specific effect, adding a bit of a risk and a gamble to exploring the house.
Events are the life blood of Betrayal, adding in specific moments of horror. Omens, however, are a core mechanic in the game. Every time an Omen is uncovered or explored, dice are rolled. That test, the roll of the dice, is pivotal to the game of Betrayal, as it gets harder with each and every new Omen. If that roll is failed, the HAUNT begins.
The Haunt tends to mark the midway point in a game of Betrayal at House on the Hill, and it is also the reason explaining the rules is so hard. Essentially, when the haunt happens, depending on the omen that triggered the Haunt and the room that omen was found in, there is a whole reference table of options, showing what the haunt could be.
There are 50 options at that point as to where the game could go. The Haunt will then specify who the traitor is (usually, but not always, the person who found the Omen) and the real game begins.
At that point the Traitor and the Survivors are split into two groups. The Traitor takes the Traitor’s Tome, whilst the Survivors have the Survivors’ Handbook. They each turn to the number of the haunt and now there are new rules to the game. The Traitor has their victory conditions whilst the Survivor has theirs.
This is where things can get weird. The Traitor has their own conditions – however, they may not be alone. They may be with a monster or pack of dogs. They may have evil on their side, or they may be trying to raise creatures from the dead. Anything can happen, and each time the rules are different.
At the end of the game, one of the two sides will have won – either the Traitor or the Survivors.
What is it like playing Betrayal at House on the Hill?
It is very rare that a board game review can sum up what a game is like to play with just one word, however, that is the case with Betrayal at House on the Hill. Betrayal is, rather unfortunately, an incredibly inconsistent game. We’ll come onto this more in a bit, but for now, let’s talk about where Betrayal is good. This is because, when Betrayal is good, it really is great.
There are very few games that can instil a sense of dread well. The horror genre is hard to do justice to via the board game medium, namely because the atmosphere is rarely at the level it needs to be for effective horror.
This is one place where Betrayal at House on the Hill is incredibly strong, not because it instils a sense of dread once the haunt has begun, but rather it instils that sense of dread whenever an Omen gets revealed. Every time the little crow icon, denoting an Omen is uncovered, there is this fantastic moment when all the players hold their breaths. Will this be the moment? Will this be when the Haunt begins?
Ironically, the real dread in Betrayal at House on the Hill doesn’t come from the horror, but rather it comes from the anticipation of horror. It comes from the anticipation of the haunt, and there is something truly magical about that.
At its best, the exploration is exciting and new. At its best, the characters feel like extensions of your own playing ability. At its best the haunts are thrilling and amazing and have you sat on the edge of your seat for the entire game. Will you win? Will the traitor? Will the survivors? Who knows!?!
Betrayal at House on the Hill is one of those games that can glow, and that is one of those things that can’t be said very often about any game. It is a game that truly shows that board games can be something different other than Monopoly or Scrabble or Cluedo. It is a game that proves that something different can happen almost every time you play. It is a game that shows that board games can evolve and adapt. It is a game that is phenomenally exciting to discover as a new player – LOOK AT IT AND LOOK AT ALL THE POSIBILITIES!!!
That is Betrayal at House on the Hill at its best, and it will be its best a good 1/3 of the time. One in every three games will be amazing and new and fantastic and brilliant.
But then there will be the other 2/3 of the time. We’ve played Betrayal at House on the Hill more times than I can count, most of which were around 4 years ago. We’ve has some amazing nights exploring the mansion, and discovering new things. Then we’ve had nights where everything has been…well…okay. Everything has been fine. In fact, I would say, 1/3 of the time things have been generally…okay.
Now there is nothing wrong with a game occasionally giving an okay experience. You may be in a different mood as a player, or the roll of the dice may mean something happens too early or too late. Rooms or events may come up that may penalise you, and the haunt may not be quite what it was the game before. That is generally okay as a one off; however, Betrayal is oddly consistent with its inconsistency. Around 1/3 of the time things will be fine, and when things are only okay one third of the time you do start to question – do those times when the game is amazing make up for it?
Finally, there is the other 1/3 of the time when the game just isn’t enjoyable. The rolls are horrible, the tiles/rooms come out in the wrong order, the players just don’t get into it. Those are all things that are forgivable in their own right; however, when the plot is unenjoyable, when the haunt is not fun, that is where the issue lies.
There is a problem with Betrayal at House on the Hill where the haunts are relatively inconsistent (there is that word again). Sometimes they will be wonderous and fantastical. Other times, the will feel dry and be a real push. They can turn into a slog. You can now probably see why this game is so hard to write about from a review perspective.
Okay, so, is Betrayal at House on the Hill a good game? This is something I actually tried to rationalise mathematically a year or two ago (on this very blog, I believe). I probably failed back then, so let me answer from a review perspective instead. Yes and no.
Personally, I believe that if you are a player of RPG games or like games with a lot of exploration then yes – give Betrayal at House on the Hill a go. Even if you are a D&D fan, try Betrayal at House on the Hill before you try Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate. It is, in my opinion, a better game. Betrayal at House on the Hill was made for RPG fans, and it placed players in a more confined space that really truly pushes them to their limits in regards to exploration and, in some cases, teamwork.
If you are a player who enjoys the one-against-many traitor style mechanic, then YES, give Betrayal at House on the Hill a go. The whole game will pay off big time, almost every time you play. It uses the traitor mechanic well.
If, however, you are the kind of player who prefers more consistency and more structure to your games then maybe give Betrayal a skip. If money is an aspect, then spend your money on something more consistent. If you just don’t like roleplaying games, then don’t play Betrayal at House on the Hill. Go for something more robust like Dead of Winter. You’ll probably get more out of it.
TL;DR: The Good, The Bad, and the Horror Stories
Like all games we can now break down what we believe are the good, bad, and neutral points about Betrayal at House on the Hill.
- When it is at its best, Betrayal at House on the Hill can be gripping and thoroughly enjoyable. It has a few moments of fantastic tension that can stay with you after the game.
- Some of the Haunts are well written, innovative, and fantastic to play though.
- Betrayal at House on the Hill can be a great game for RPG fans. The exploration and story based elements are generally strong.
- The traitor mechanic is really well done, and it divides each game into a cooperative exploration followed by a one-against-many style mission.
- There is a lot of content in the box for the price tag.
- There is a lot of luck in the game. This can be seen as adding flavour and randomising events. It is fine if you approach the game from a story telling perspective; however, it may annoy fans of games with more structure.
- Betrayal at House on the Hill is an incredibly inconsistent game. Where the haunts are incredibly strong 33% of the time, the other two thirds run the risk of being fine to disappointing.
- The exploration aspect of the game can sometimes be too short or too long. If the Haunt is triggered too early, it makes the game far more difficult for the survivors due to certain mechanics that end movement when an event is met.
- Some of the Haunts are disappointing to play. This can be managed if you have played several games before; however, if a poor Haunt comes out when you are introducing new players to the game the odds are they will lose interest in Betrayal at House on the Hill.
Betrayal at House on the Hill Review Conclusion
This has not been an easy review to write. Betrayal at House on the Hill is a difficult game to talk about and even make sense of because there is so much there to try to unpack. Should you buy it? Well, the simple truth is – I don’t know. So, with that in mind, let me end with a bit of an explanation of the first time we introduced it to our regular gaming group.
Myself and my partner had be playing Betrayal at House on the Hill for around six months before we introduced it to our regular gaming group. Until that moment we had introduced it to small groups of family and friends, and we had, generally speaking, had great fun.
So, we were really happy when we brought Betrayal at House on the Hill to the table. We were ecstatic in fact. We unpacked the box, and we started the game with 5 players. Everything went incredibly well during the exploration, right up until the Haunt.
Then a rubbish haunt came out. It was horrible and broken and frustrating. I don’t remember what the haunt was, but there was anguish around the table. That was over 4 years ago, and to this day our gaming group refuse to replay it. It was suggested that, if I want to bring it to the table again, I actually filter through the haunts to see which ones are best so we can play those. I don’t know. It just wasn’t good.
So, if this a game that has you and your regular gaming buddies excited then YES, buy it. It is a box of amazing fun; however, if only you are the excited one, then this may just be a box of heartache.
Wow, what a melodramatic note to leave on, but we will leave it there. Betrayal is a game that still holds a very special place in my heart, and if myself and my partner can find a third player to play it with then I am sure we will have an amazing time again.
So, on that, what are your thoughts? Do you enjoy Betrayal or would you rather stay away? Let me know in the comments below.