Betrayal at House on the Hill starts out like any classic haunted house story. In this 3-6 player board game, your ragtag group of adventures set foot in a mysterious house for the sake of exploration. As they delve deeper into the house, a series of troubling events occur until one big event changes the entire trajectory of the game. From that point forward, it’s a battle for survival, as the remaining adventures try to fend off the traitor and the supernatural beings they command.
For a game with a fairly rigid progression, it has a lot of smart mechanisms to keep things fresh, from a house that randomly generates each time you play, to 50 different scenarios that occur once the betrayer reveals their true colours. Are these enough to keep you coming back to a house where death for some is inevitable?
Before setting foot in the house, every player takes on the role of a character. The game comes with six figurines and one-double sided character card for a total of 12 different playable characters. Each character is unique based on their stats in four categories: Might, Speed, Knowledge and Sanity. Your rating in each category will dictate the amount of dice you can use when you’re put to the test, though having a lot of dice doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Also, don’t get comfortable with your starting ratings, as they’ll likely drop during the course of the game.
Keeping track of each character’s stats is crucial to the experience, though the mechanism for tracking is heavily flawed. The pentagon-shaped cards are fine, but the clips that come with the game don’t clip. Since the gaps in the clips are just a bit too large, they freely slide around or off of the card completely with just the slightest nudge of the table its resting on. For a hit game from one of the biggest gaming publications in the business, the sad state of these clips is inexcusable.
I highly suggest that before you play the game, find an alternate solution to tracking, whether that means downloading printable character sheets, grabbing a tracking app for your phone, or making physical modifications to the cards or clips so that they fit better. For now, I have small bits of duct tape lined on the inside of each clip, which looks ugly, but does the job. Since you only need one side of the character card at a time, I put the ugly side facing the table so that you can’t see my poor craftsmanship during gameplay.
Once your characters are set, the game begins with every character standing in the front entrance, which is part of a three-space tile that also includes a foyer and a grand staircase that leads to the upper floor. An upper floor tile and a basement tile are also in play, though you can’t access the basement until you find the stairs that connect it to the main floor. As for the rest of the house, its tiles are shuffled together and kept in a stack to the side. When players move into a new room, the top tile in that stack becomes the room they walk into. Because of this, the layout of the house will change each time you play.
I generally like this system. You never know what perils await on the other side of each door, and certain rooms that are empty now may play a critical role later once the Haunt begins. However, despite their best efforts, there will be cases where the doors won’t clearly line up. There’s an in-game story conceit to explain this phenomenon, though it’s not ideal. Since the rules state that a floor can’t be completely locked off from adding additional rooms, there may be instances where an entire floor might have to be remodeled to accommodate, which can impact the outcome of the game while making no sense within the context of the story.
There will also be instances where elements like trap doors or holes drop characters into lower floors. Due to the context-sensitive nature of the world-building and the additional rules that come with each element, you never get to let the rulebook go, as you’ll go back to try and reconcile the weird scenarios that are created along the way. I like the dynamism created by this system, but it’s hard to just play it without constantly referencing the rules.
During your travels, you’ll find items and trigger events. Some of these will hurt you while others will put you at risk of harm. Ideally, you want to strengthen your character and arm them with gear before things hit the fan. The scariest thing you can encounter during the early game are Omens. When you enter a room with a spiral icon, you must draw an Omen card and follow its instructions, which are usually bad. Then you must roll six dice to see if the number you get is higher than the total number of Haunt cards drawn. At first, the likelihood of triggering the Haunt is low, though the odds of it happening build gradually as more Omen cards are in play. That tension that builds over time is great, though the surprise that comes with quickly triggering the Haunt is also fun.
Eventually, someone is going to set off the Haunt. At that point, the game takes a dramatic turn, as someone is deemed the traitor based on where the Omen took place and what Omen card was picked up. These two factors also determine which one of the 50 different scenarios are now in play. Once these are figured out, each opposing party gets a unique handbook with specific story beats and winning conditions on their perspective. The game also recommends that the traitor leave the room at this point so that the explorers can come up with a strategy to defeat the backstabber.
When play resumes, things become a riot between the remaining explorers and the now-overpowered traitor who probably has control over some form of supernatural beings. One memorable scenario we played involved the reanimating of Frankenstein’s monster. This added the monster to the game, who could basically kill anyone in one or two hits if he got close. However, he would die if the heroes could hit him five times with torches. In order to do that though, they’d have to go to certain rooms to collect them. Unfortunately for the survivors, those rooms just so happened to be right beside where the monster spawned, so they were pretty much screwed as soon as the Haunt began.
Exploring the house is cool, but it’s the Haunt that really brings the game to life. With a clear objective now in play, both sides are working hard against each other to lock up victory. A good strategy can go a long way, though you’re also dependent on the luck of the dice. Playing the same scenario again still has value, as different people might end up being the traitor and the layout of the house can drastically change how a scenario unravels. However, with 50 different possible scenarios, the back half of this game is going to stay fresh for a long time.
All things considered, Betrayal at House on the Hill is a very cool horror game that is dripping with thematic flavour. If you want the sensation of exploring a haunted house and then living through a messed up conflict, this certainly fits the bill. The experience isn’t perfect, as there are some fiddly aspects of the game that don’t always have clear resolutions in the rules, and the stat tracking clips are actually the worst components I’ve ever dealt with in a board game. However, these aren’t enough to detract from a solid game overall.