REVIEW: Betrayal At The House On The Hill

“The creak of footsteps on the stairs, the smell of something foul and dead, the feel of something crawling down your back – this and more can be found Betrayal at House on the Hill. This fun and suspenseful game is a new experience almost every time you play – you and your friends explore “that creepy old place on the hill” until enough mystic misadventures happen that one of the players turns on all of the others!”

Just the Facts:

Players: 3-6

Playing Time: 60 minutes

Age: 10 to adult

Publisher: Wizards of the Coast / Avalon Hill

MSRP: $49.99

The Gameplay:

Betrayal at House on the Hill is an exploration game that plays out over two phases. In the first half of the game, each player controls one character in a cooperative group that wanders deeper and deeper into the mansion. While the board starts as a set of three small rooms, players will place new room tiles to gradually expand the play area, which spans multiple floors linked by staircase tiles. During this process, there is no defined goal to the game other than to strengthen your character through the collection of items and omens, or the experience of events. All of these are handled through separate decks of cards, which are drawn at the end of each turn after the placement of new tiles.

A roll of the dice determines when the game will move into its second phase, referred to as “the haunt”, and the odds are raised every time a new omen card is drawn. When the haunt begins, the group will be split in two, with one traitor opposing the remaining explorers. The setting for each haunt varies depending on which of the fifty scenarios that can be played. Yes, this game is filled with replay value! Two scenario books, one for the traitor and one for the explorers, explain any unique rules, hidden information, and of course, that side’s victory condition.

The meat of the game lies in the use of each character’s stats, tracked as four separate traits: speed, might, sanity, and knowledge. Performing any action beyond simply moving will require a roll of the dice tied to one of these traits. Many of the event cards and room tiles themselves also require rolls of the dice, which can lead to positive or negative developments for your character. Trait rolls are easily made, as the character’s value for that trait is how many dice are rolled. The dice are added up and compared to the target number printed on the card or tile. Generally, players will have to role above a certain number to successfully perform the desired action.

There is combat in the game as well, and players can accrue both physical and mental damage. When engaging in physical combat between a player or against a monster encountered in the mansion, each character rolls their might dice. The higher roll wins, and the difference is how much damage is dealt. Damage results in the lowering of a character’s traits, which are kept track of with sliders on the character cards. If any one trait ever reaches the lowest value (represented by a skull), that character will die, and be removed from the game.

Setup for the game is fairly quick. Players simply need to place the starting tiles, shuffle the rest into a stack, and pick their characters. The character sheets are also double-sided, allowing for two versions of each character per model. Each has a focus in a different stat area, so players can choose whichever fits their style. The variety of characters helps keep the game fresh in light of the large number of possible scenarios, which lend the game to be played over and over again. With a 60 minute play time, you just might get a few rounds in at once.

The Components:

• 6 pre-painted plastic Character miniatures and corresponding Character cards

• 80 cards (Event, Omen, and Item decks)

• Rulebook

• Traitors Tome booklet

• Secrets of Survival booklet

• Game dice

• 45 Room tiles

• Over 100 game tokens

The first thing you’ll notice when you open the box is that the character miniatures come pre-painted. You don’t see this very often, so kudos to WotC for including them. Looking through the cards and scenario books, the game also makes excellent use of text. I encourage players to act the part a bit when playing this game, so having some great flavor text to read out on your turn really helps set the mood. No, it’s not going to actually scare you or put you on edge, but it’s well-written and campy in a way that the horror genre does best.

The changes made between this reprint and the original are all beneficial to the game. The scenario books have been expanded by 8 pages, and include new modes of play for a hidden traitor. The item deck has also been increased by 5 cards, and the tokens all remade for easy identification. Finally, the new box has been completely restyled, with a spooky picture of a house replacing the original’s comic book art imagery. I was never a fan of the original’s box, as it didn’t look appealing to players and the style didn’t fit the theme, so it is nice to have this new version.

On the downside, the components get in the way of the gameplay as the cardboard tiles are very prone to warping. The process of shuffling the tile stack to start the game had an added phase in our play test rounds where we sorted out the most warped tiles and placed them on top, otherwise the stack would likely tip over. This is no slight warp but somewhere in the ballpark of a 40 degree deflection in the worst cases. The box itself is also not made of very dense cardboard, and I would hesitate to place it low in a stack of games on a shelf for fear it might get crushed.

Also, the character tiles and skill point sliders have an issue where they don’t hold their position particularly well. If you bump into your character tile, expect the sliders to shift drastically, so try your best to remember what skill points your character had before you inevitably pick it up by accident and all of the markers fall off. Hopefully nobody is taking the game too seriously or you may have an argument on your hands as to what the character’s stats were before you lost track.

Final Thoughts:

It really is a shame that such a fun little game can be plagued by such large component issues. I looked at two different copies of the game, and both had these issues, so buyer beware. However, word from Wizards of the Coast is that replacement tiles are expected in early 2011. While I can’t comment on those until I see them, here’s to hoping there will be a marked improvement.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is an otherwise great game to bring some new players into the hobby. The game reliably clocks in at an hour as advertised, the rules are not intimidating, the cards are very self-explanatory, and the game is very easily taught through demonstration or a sample turn. There aren’t many other “gateway games” with a mystery/suspense theme (Arkham Horror, this is not), so there is definitely a niche for this product.

This title has been out of print for years, with copies reaching nearly $200 on eBay. If you’ve been waiting on this purchase for a long time, I would still not hesitate to purchase a copy. The game is definitely improved in several areas, and you’ve waited long enough. If you are new to Betrayal at House on the Hill, though, it may be worth waiting to see if Wizards can iron out the kinks with their cardboard printing process.

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