Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Dumb Name, Great Game

My interest in standard board games is strictly hit-or-miss. And, as a general rule; movies, games, or books of the classic horror genre which don't have at least a sprinkling of scifi elements don't get my propeller spinning. So when a friend showed up at the house for a regular X-Wing session with Betrayal at the House on the Hill tucked neatly under his arm... I was less than enthusiastic. As 50% of the other members of my household are unappreciative of war-gaming, and in the interest of crossing off from the to-do list the obligatory "do something with the family this weekend", I accepted my fate of abject boredom and dejectedly settled in at the kitchen table.

Wrong is wrong... and I was indeed that.

Outside of the weird title, which still feels to me like a bunch of words strewn together for effect, I can find absolutely nothing to complain about when it comes to this board game. As I have elevated nit-picking and complaining to an arcane art form, that's saying something. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I immediately placed an order on Amazon for a personal copy.

BatHotH (looks even dumber as a acronym... lets just call it "Betrayal" from here on out) is a Wizards of the Coast offering touted as a "fun and suspenseful game" which "is a new experience almost every time you play". Recommended age is 12+, and the game is designed to be played with 3-6 players. You could probably make it work with a two-player session, but the experience would be diminished for the good-guy side as it would be extremely rough going. The 'why' of that last bit is explained below.

At first glance Betrayal appears to be a standard build-as-you-explore format. Player characters advance through the square grid'd map and tiles are randomly drawn as the player moves through a door or up/down a staircase to reveal the 'room' beyond. As the room card is revealed, a symbol printed on the room tile corresponds to one of three specific piles of randomized cards and indicates whether the player has discovered an item, unleashed a random creepy (and generally highly detrimental) event, or unearthed an 'omen' and accelerated the encroachment of the "haunt". It is the "haunt" mechanic that makes this game stand out.

While I won't go into the minutia of the game mechanics, suffice to say the players want to hold off the haunt as long as possible while gathering items and powers will assist them once all hell breaks loose. The more 'omens' that are on the table, the better the chance (its a die roll) that the haunt begins and the players are up against it.

Here's the hook: there's a traitor in the player's midst, and no one playing has any idea who that malcontent is until the haunt begins. Not even the soon-to-be traitor themselves. So while the first portion of the game is 100% cooperative, there is an overarching air of suspicion and tension... however unjust. Once the haunt finally drops, players reference an easy-to-read table based on the name of the room where the last omen was drawn, the player who drew it, and a small number of other factors. This provides a 1-100 result which corresponds to a page number in the included "DO NOT READ" scenario booklet. It is at this point that that traitor's identity is revealed (much to everyone's surprise) and the vs. phase of the game begins, with the traitor on the side of the house/monsters.

The end result is 100 separate potential scenarios involving anything from werewolves to carnivorous creeping vine plants to vengeful soul-sucking poltergeists. The good guy players receive one set of secret instructions/goals, the traitor receives a differing set of secret instructions/goals, and the information is not shared between the two. The traitor knows that the players are up to something which could defeat the monster(s), but not exactly what that 'something' is... and vice versa. The game is won once one side is, erm... well... dead.

This all translates into 2-5 players on the side of good (more akin to "survive") versus 1 player and an equivalent number of monsters on the evil house side. Despite the apparent inequity in numbers, the game is remarkably scaled depending on total number of players and balanced enough to ensure both sides have a fighting chance at ultimate success.

The randomization of potential scenarios and layout of the house itself, and the fact that the the "bad guy" could be any player in any game, make Betrayal eminently re-playable. There are elements to the game that some may find disturbing (ritualized demonic summoning, lots of gruesome descriptions, pervasive creepy concepts, monsters, etc.), so not strictly a "for the whole family" entertainment option. Age 12+ is probably close to spot-on. YMMV

In case it wasn't painfully apparent, I thoroughly enjoy this game and have no issue making it a strong recommend. As a bonus... it makes the "spend family time" obligation much less painful. As of this writing the second edition version (most recent) it is going for under $35.00 on Amazon.

More information: https://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=ah/prod/houseonthehill

To my adoring wife: if you are reading this, spending time with the family is not painful. This was just dramatic prose. No, really... I mean it! Nothing is better than family time. Nothing!


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