This is a slightly different Nostalgia post. Usually, we post about games we used to play a long time ago and still remember fondly. This one is a game I fondly remember wanting a long time ago, but I only got a copy quite recently. The game is Betrayal at House on the Hill, first released by Avalon Hill in 2004. I only managed to get the second edition from 2010, though; Even that was difficult because even now the game is a bit of a pain to get in Germany.
Why did I want this game so badly, anyway? Mainly because I am a huge horror movie geek, especially for haunted house movies, and Betrayal at House on the Hill lets you play through exactly that kind of story. It is also a classic American style boardgame, so it focuses strongly on narrative over mechanics. It’s halfway to a role-playing game, really, exactly what I would want from this experience. And I’d been wanting it for a long time before I finally got it.
In Betrayal, each player picks one of six characters, ranging from elementary school kids through a college athlete to an aging professor. Each character is defined by two physical stats, Speed and Might, and two mental ones, Sanity and Knowledge. At the start of the game, all players are standing in the entrance hall where the front door just fell shut behind them and now refused to open. There are doors leading off in all directions, and ahead of them the stairs lead to the upper floor.
Part of the fun in Betrayal is that at first the players have no idea what is going on in the house on the hill. And so they set out to explore the house, fully in cooperative mode at this point. Whenever someone moves through a door with no room on the other side, they draw one from a stack of room tiles. There are not many restrictions which room can go where, as long as it’s on the right floor. Some rooms can go everywhere, but some may only be in the ground floor, or the upper floor, or later in the basement. And that’s all it needs to put that room there. Even other doors don’t have to fit: Haunted houses have fake doors, that’s not new. You will construct a labyrinthine horror this way.
A few rooms are only there to walk through, but that’s the minority. Most rooms have special text rules, icons, or both. The text rules can be anything, but common ones give you a point to one of your stats if you end your move there, or require you to roll a check on an attribute to pass through. A Speed check to jump a across a hole in the floor, for instance. More common than text rules are the three icons that make you draw cards from one of three piles: Events, Items and Omens.
Those cards have all the elements, or cliches, you might find in a haunted house. The Events have things like the Walls starting to bleed, you seeing yourself in a coffin, muddy footsteps charging towards you – you know, the good stuff. They typically make you roll the dice and, depending on the result, cost you stat points or give you some. Some also make you put tokens in the room, that’s how you get things like secret passages. You need secret passages in a haunted house! Items also have everything you might want: weapons to shoot or stab monsters once they show up, magical knickknacks that give you bonuses while you carry them, the works.
But things really get interesting with Omens. Omens are extra creepy items, and they are what will eventually start the haunt. Every time someone draws an Omen they roll a handful of dice. As long as the total roll is higher than the number of Omen cards drawn so far, things keep going. But that can’t work forever, sooner or later someone will roll low, and that’s when the haunt starts and the whole game changes. This is when the house reveals its sinister secret.
There are fifty possible haunts in Betrayal at House on the Hill, and which one you get depends on two things: the Omen card that triggered the haunt and the room where it was drawn. With those two things, you look up which haunt you get, and who will be the traitor. For instance, if the haunt was triggered by finding the Crystal Ball in the Furnace Room, then you get haunt number 32 and the traitor is the player with the highest sanity.
I won’t go into the details of any of the haunts here, I don’t want to give spoilers here. But generally, the traitor now works against their former friends. They read up their story and special rules in the Traitor’s Tome, the other players do the same in the Secrets of Survival. The two sides might not even know each others’ victory conditions. Then play continues with some changes. Characters can now die in most haunts, traitor and survivors can attack each other, they can steal from each other, and a number of monsters may suddenly appear in the house to make things fun.
Now, I said I wouldn’t give any spoilers, and I won’t, but I can tell you this: Whatever you’d want to find in a haunted house, it’s here. Mummies? We have them! Man-eating plants? Get the fertilizer. Werewolves, poltergeists, plain old bombs, it’s all there. How the game ends depends on the haunt, but let’s just say the game is not a coop any more once the haunt starts.
Betrayal at House on the Hill was worth pining for all these years, it remains my guilty pleasure. It’s a guilty one because, I have to face it, in rules and balance it’s a horrible, random mess. We had games where the haunt literally started on the first turn, which is possible because the dice have blank sides. We had other games that lasted an hour before the haunt even started. We had games where the survivors didn’t have a snowballs chance in hell, and others were the traitor was up the creak without a paddle. Or a boat. Or his pants. And we had games that were beautifully tense.
And even the messy games, even the games where one side of the haunt couldn’t figure out what their actual rules were, mostly had one thing going for them: they told a good story. Betrayal at House on the Hill is a prime example of a classic American style game: It puts the narrative front and center, the mechanics are just there to create the story. So I might call it a guilty pleasure, but it is a pleasure. I should have gotten it earlier.