by Dave Chalker
Betrayal at House on the Hill
Published by Avalon Hill
Designed by Bruce Glassco
Ah, Halloween, time for horror games. Unlike most in the genre, Betrayal at House on the Hill isn't a simple dicefest against monsters, nor is it a roll-and-move-type exploration game. You get a little of both, but you also get a game with an odd mix of cooperation and betrayal, and an innovative "horror plot twist" mechanic. You spend the first part of the game exploring (and building) a haunted house. The more the players explore, however, the higher the chance “The Haunt” is triggered by discovering a new omen that foretells doom. The players consult a book with various horror scenarios, and based on the events of the game, one of the characters flips out and betrays the party. And then, the monsters show up. From there, the remaining good players try desperately to fend off the traitor and his monsters while going for their own, newly revealed objective while the traitor tries to stop the good guys and, often times, kill them off.
"It comes with a free frozen yogurt, which I call frogurt!" "That's good!" "The frogurt is also cursed." "That's bad."
The game comes with 6 pre-painted miniatures, double-sided character cards to go with each, plastic clips to indicate your character's current statistics, a pile of heavy tiles that make up the house, 8 three-sided dice, three books (the Traitor's Tome, the Survival Tome, and the rulebook) and three decks of cards. The decks comprise Events (things that happen as you explore the house), Items (objects laying about the haunted house, some of which come with odd curses), and Omens (foretellers of the doom that will be coming, which trigger a roll to see if the action starts.)
It also comes with exactly one butt-load of counters, which are for the various monsters that will eventually pop up (zombies, bugs, slimes, werewolves, etc). The number of counters looks pretty intimidating when you first open the box, but you'll find it's nearly essential to separate them since you'll only be using one certain colored pile per game. It works very nicely to replace the little monster tokens with miniatures if you happen to have the right ones. The zombies from Zombies!! fit in the best, being almost the same scale as the character minis included. If you were especially demented, you could replace the minis that come with the game with Scooby-Doo minis for a slightly... different... experience. But really, who has Scooby-Doo miniatures? Ahem...
"Let's split up, guys."
The game starts out fairly peacefully. All the players start out in the
main entrance, and begin to explore the house. Whenever they enter a door,
a new tile is added from the stack to add another room to the house. These are a mix of ordinary looking rooms (like hallways and bedrooms) and disturbing horror rooms (the operating laboratory and the graveyard.)
Some rooms have special text on them, like the Library which gives your character additional knowledge for spending his/her turns there. Most of the rooms contain a symbol corresponding to one of the three decks of cards, which the intrepid explorer draws when he enters the room. The Vault, for instance, has an item symbol, meaning someone entering the room gets a new item to use against the forces of darkness (or, possibly, against the other players) later on. Most of the rooms have the event symbol, which is a deck made up of random creepy things that happen while exploring. These range from the house being filled with silence which can impact a character's sanity (my favorite statistic in the game) to discovering a secret passage that leads to another part of the house. The cards add an extra level of ambience to the game, especially if they’re actually read out loud as the rules suggest. The cards reminded me of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, specifically the introductory adventure “End of Paradise” about a haunted movie theatre. The game makes liberal use of “Lovecraftian” elements, like eldritch tomes that raise your knowledge at the cost of your sanity.
"How will we know the Dog is evil?" "We'll give it shifty eyes."
Then there are the Omen cards, which range from the Madman to a little
Girl to a magic Spear. By themselves, they act like items. But their other
function is that discovering them may trigger "the Haunt." Six dice are
rolled, and if the result is under the amount of Omens already discovered, the Haunt begins, and the game shifts gears.
The two Tomes that came with the game are consulted, and the players cross-reference which Omen was discovered in which room. A chart on the same page determines who becomes the Traitor. Often times, the Traitor is whoever triggered the Haunt, but it can also be keyed to other game statistics like lowest sanity, highest might, or simply to a specific character.
The traitor takes the Traitor's Tome, and leaves the room. The remaining players take the Survival Tome. Each side then looks up the specific Haunt scenario to find their goals and powers. The Traitor often gets a pile of monsters to command against the players and a hidden goal, such as retrieving a certain item from the players or simply wiping out the good guys. The good guys, on the other hand, get more vague information, but a clear way to stop the bad guys. One touch I really like is that the good guys can't kill the monsters: they can only temporarily stun them, and have to achieve more strategic goals in order to stop the menace. So even if the players get absurdly good rolls when confronting the monsters, they still can't win that way and need to actually plan something. The game then proceeds as normal, except that all the heroes take a turn, then the traitor takes a turn with his Traitor character, and a turn with all the zombies. The first side to complete their objective wins, and there is an accompanying bit of text to give the story closure depending on which side won.
My first play of the game led to me being the "haunt revealer" and getting killed by the Madman commanding an army of zombies. I then took the role of the Madman trying to kill the rest of the party. I was also given 6 zombies to control in order to attack the party, along with specific ways the zombies moved and attacked. The good guys were given the information that there were zombies after them, and that they needed to trap the zombies in specific rooms in order to stop them. Thanks to one pumped up little girl, the zombies were fended off and trapped, but not before I killed off one of the party and seriously injured another.
"Here's your problem. The switch was flipped to Evil."
I enjoyed the game quite a lot, despite losing it. The first time through is definitely the best: discovering the rooms in the mansion, revealing the events and omens, and preparing for the Haunt. It was especially satisfying to unseal the two books for the first time and look at what a scenario is made of. It has a cooperative feel to the beginning of the game, but still gives a foreboding feel that any of us could go crazy at any time.
The game is not without issues, however. The rules were unclear at many points, especially regarding how items worked. For example, as far as we could figure out, a group could sit in the same room and pass the same revolver to each other and fire at the monsters every round. Makes it difficult for the slow moving zombies to attack the heroes when they can just sit in an elevator passing a gun around, taking a potshot each turn. The rulebook often included rules that were essential to certain scenarios in small out of the way sidebars. There were also some misprints among the cards: we were pretty sure the underground river shouldn't have been an "upstairs only" card.
The core of the game may also not appeal to some people. The biggest issue I've heard is that it's very difficult for the Traitor side to win. I haven't played it enough to be the judge of this personally, but you may need to tweak it if you find that happening among your group. There is also a limited number of scenarios (50, to be exact) so while you'll get a pretty decent life out of the game, you may find that after a number of plays, there are very few surprises left. Finally, it does resemble a standard wargame in a few respects: there is player elimination, a lot of dice rolling, and when one side is down it's hard to come back, which often drags the game on. For fans of other Avalon Hill games, this probably isn't an issue, but for fans of German-style games you may find some of these issues a problem.
"And I would have gotten away with it too..."
Betrayal at House on the Hill has a lot going for it. It's got an innovative system, heavy amounts of mood, and fun mechanics. If you're a fan of exploration/monster fighting games, this has something for you, and if you're a fan of games with plot twists, well, this is the only one I know of, and it does the job quite well.