Take a Deep Breath Before you Enter. It Might Be Your Last.
A mad scientist, a champion weightlifter, the girl next door, an unassuming fortune teller, and two creepy kids find themselves walking through the town on a dark and stormy night. They seek shelter in the House on the Hill, warm lights promising a cozy and safe place to wait out the storm. As soon as they enter the house, however, the door slams shut behind them, trapping them inside! They can’t find a way out and must wander through the dark corridors, full of dangers, omens, and dark traps. To make it worse, one of them will turn traitor against the group, vowing that none will leave the house alive.
Betrayal at House on the Hill is probably my favorite horror-themed board game and is a Halloween favorite in our family. We like it so much we already have included it in two of our articles: Best Scary/Horror Board Games for a Spooky Halloween and Best Cooperative/Co-Op Board Games.
A Brief Overview of Betrayal at House on the Hill
You’ll take control of 1 of 12 characters and enter the House on the Hill, a Vincent Price-inspired haunted mansion where all kinds of horrors await. The game starts out cooperatively where all the survivors explore rooms and pick up equipment before the “Haunt” is revealed. While exploring the house players are trying to build their stats and find items without getting cursed or injured before the “Haunt” begins and a traitor or monster tries to kill them all.
The game is divided into two phases – Explorations Phase, the cooperative part of the game, and the Haunt Phase where one of the players will be turned a traitor to compete with the other characters, now called the heroes, for their survival.
Every game is randomized and there are 50 different scenarios, giving Betrayal a huge replayability factor. Additionally, there are dozens of fan-created scenarios on the web, so you’ll have a hard time playing the same game twice.
Every time a “Haunt” tile is revealed the player will then roll six dice, and if they don’t roll high enough, the real game begins. The game is then assigned a “Haunt” and somebody, everybody, or nobody betrays the group. From there, winning and ending the game is now possible.
Haunt’s can be anything from classic horror to downright silly.
We’ve faced undead, witches, serial killers, or simply tried to murder each other in this game. No two games are alike. During one game my mother turned into a crazy cat lady while the rest of us were shrunk to the size of mice and had to escape the house in a toy airplane.
Versions & Expansions
First Edition – Is no longer in print.
Second Edition – Is currently available, released in 2010. This is the version that most of you will find, and what this review is based on.
Widow’s Walk (Expansion) added 20 new room tiles, creating an additional floor (the roof) for gameplay, plus 30 new cards and 50 new haunts, released in 2016. This is the major expansion to the game. Widow’s Walk basically doubles the size of the original game by adding 50 new scenarios and enough room tiles and item/omen cards to keep you busy for quite some time.
Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate – Dungeons & Dragons version, released in 2017. For those of you who don’t know, Baldur’s Gate is one of the fictional trade towns in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. It’s a major setting in the world and actually works quite well with the Betrayal system. Instead of exploring a mansion on a hill, you’ll be exploring the streets and back alleys of the city of Baldur’s Gate. Just as you could meet anything in a D&D campaign, you can also stumble across Mindflayers, Beholders and other monsters from the universe.
Betrayal Legacy features a prologue and a thirteen-chapter story, which takes place over multiple decades and was released in 2018. The Legacy system is absolutely fantastic. My experiences with legacy games have been the most fun I’ve had playing board games. There’s something about having a persistent story with upgrades between games that makes me happy.
The Betrayal Legacy system works by having each playthrough host a different generation of the same family. So each subsequent game, you will be playing the next generation of fools dumb enough to wander into a haunted mansion.
I’m rather impressed by the production value of Betrayal. There are a ton of different scenarios and each one could potentially use different tokens and markers, and they don’t skimp. Most of the markers you won’t use right away, but it’s nice to see some thematic variety to play with.
On top of all of the tokens, you get very well done player miniatures. The wargaming and miniature crowd will scoff at the paint job, but for those of us that are a little rusty in the artistic talent department, it’s nice to have a pre-painted miniature instead of a generic grey plastic model to play with.
The next thing you’ll notice is a lot of dice, but you’ll notice something odd about them. Instead of the traditional numbered six-sided dice Betrayal’s dice has two sides that are blank, two sides with one pip, and two sides with two pips. This means that whenever you have to make a roll there’s always a possibility of failing terribly, and usually a possibility of succeeding gloriously. It definitely adds to the tension.
Finally, you will see several pentagonal character boards with little black arrows. These show who your characters are and they keep track of the stats. You’ll soon discover after your first playthrough these character boards are some of the most poorly designed in board game history.
How to Play Betrayal
There are two main stages to the game.
In the Exploration Stage, all players are on the same team. You’ve all foolishly decided to go out together and enter the House on the Hill. From here, every player will wander around and explore rooms to try and pick up items and increase their stats without hurting themselves too much.
As you explore a room, you’ll draw a random room tile and lay it in the place where your character is moving. By doing so, you are building the layout of the house, which is different in every game. The only spots that stay the same are the Entrance/Foyer/Staircase, Basement Landing, and Upper Landing tile. Each playthrough will be a completely different layout. You can try and think strategically here and build rooms that are easier to get to or are harder to get to. You can also try and build an organized floor plan in case your OCD doesn’t allow the kitchen to be 5 rooms away from the dining room.
Bad home design aside, how you lay out your house can greatly affect the game after the Haunt. If the traitor or survivors need to go to two specific rooms and they’re right next to each other, then it’s going to be a short end-game. If they’re far apart and terribly hard to get to, then someone is getting an advantage. It’s all part of the fun.
For every new room you explore, there will be a symbol in the corner somewhere. The swirl symbol indicates an Event card, the bullhorns indicate an Item card, and the raven indicates an Omen card. Omen cards require a Haunt roll.
Drawing a tile with the swirl (Event tile) ends your movement. You then draw an event card and proceed to follow the instructions on the card. They can sometimes be good, but usually, you end up hurting yourself. Events cover the whole gamut of horror tropes. You could end up buried alive, facing ghost children, or have giant spiders landing on top of you. Typically you make a roll with a certain trait and the higher success, the more likely you are going to get something good (an item or stat boost). If something bad happens and you’re injured, don’t worry too much. It’s impossible to die before the Haunt. You might enter the endgame weaker than other players, but it’s all part of the story.
Items are probably one of the best tiles to land on, so of course, there’s only a few in the whole game. Item tiles allow you to immediately draw an item card, and then your movement ends. The item cards can be anything from weapons to a medical kit, with liquid adrenaline, a music box, and a lucky stone in between.
Every Omen tile drawn pushes your game closer and closer to stage 2, the Haunt. When you explore a room with a raven symbol, you get to draw an Omen card and follow the instructions on the card. They are usually some kind of powerful artifact or item that gives you a bonus. Not all of them are great and some can even harm you. After the card is resolved, you then have to make a Haunt roll.
After every Omen tile is resolved, you then make a haunt roll. Whoever explored the room will take six dice and roll all of them. The object is to tie or exceed the number of Haunt rooms opened up. So on the first Haunt roll, you get six dice to roll at least a 1. It’s uncommon, but it is possible to have the Haunt start on the first or second round.
2. The Haunt
This is where the real game begins. This is the point in the game where almost anything can happen. To actually find out what to do, you’ll refer to the “Traitor’s Tome” booklet. On the first page, there’s a chart that will tell you, based on the last Omen room, and Omen card drawn, who is going to betray the rest of the group.
The traitor could be anyone or it could be everyone. That’s what makes so intriguing. Every scenario is different, and the game is able to cover almost every horror trope imaginable. There could be Vincent Price-style horror whodunit, classic monsters (werewolves and vampires), and even modern slashers like the Saw movies. They can be downright silly and also horrifying. I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just say I’ve played the game many times, and there are still some scenarios I haven’t played.
Your First Game of Betrayal
As with most games you play for the first time, chances are you’re going to play wrong. It usually takes me a few playthroughs of a game before I’ve figured out all of the rules. After you get a game under your belt, it’s very simple to play. A lot of games seem to be far more intimidating and rule-heavy than they really are.
The first thing you’ll need to do is choose your character. There are 12 total characters, but only 6 character pieces. If you flip the cardboard character pentagons, you’ll see that each side is a different character with different abilities. For example, the red-colored player can either choose to be Flash who has a much higher speed stat or Ox Bellows who has the higher strength stat. Either option is fine and has all the stats necessary to play the game.
If you do the math, you’ll notice that although the stats are distributed differently on each character, they all have the same total number. I’ve played games where the physically weakest character was able to win the game because the scenario favored a high mental trait.
The Pros and Cons of Betrayal
The game is just fun and goofy. It’s like taking part in a classic horror movie with all your friends. The theme is phenomenal and the replayability of the game is impressive. I’ve owned a copy for several years, and we bring it out a lot throughout the year, not just on Halloween.
The overall production value exceeds expectations. As I mentioned earlier, you normally get a dinky character piece that’s a hunk of grey plastic, indistinguishable from the next hunk of plastic. The added pre-paint job really adds to the thematic elements of the game and is a nice change to see in a board game.
If you’re into shared storytelling and social aspects of gaming then this is a must. I honestly think that this is an excellent gateway game for new players as well. Many anti-board game weirdos immediately think of Monopoly as the only choice of board games. So, if you manage to convince them to sit down to a game of Betrayal, it usually shows them the light. I’ve seen several of my shy friends get into character and make some really creepy Professor Longfellow voices.
If you ask someone what they think about Betrayal after their first game, chances are they are going to be gushing about how cool it was and for good reason. It’s got such a great blend of mechanics that are completely unique.
Now if you ask someone what they think after they’ve played a few games, some common flaws start to pop up. The game can sometimes easily feel one-sided, which it can go both ways. Some games the survivors absolutely mow down the monsters, or two rooms that they need to perform a ritual in are right next to each other. Other times, the monster can attack a mental trait and the hulked-out players with all the weapons are completely powerless to stop it.
However, the most unforgivable aspect of Betrayal isn’t about balance. It’s the way you keep track of player stats on the character boards. The game comes with little plastic arrows that are supposed to sit around the edge of the board and point at the stat number. In theory, it’s a nifty way to keep track, but for all of its great production value, they really skimped on this. The arrows don’t fit on the board and a slight tap will send all of your markers flying. The arrows themselves aren’t even long enough to actually reach the numbers, so if it’s not perfectly pointing at a number, it can get into a he-said, she-said argument when looking at stat numbers.
There is an upgrade sold separately for the character mats that fixes that problem by adding an integrated stat wheel that won’t go flying off if you touch it.
With 50 scenarios and special rules in the game, Betrayal can sometimes seem very complicated. It usually takes me a few playthroughs of any game before I’m playing it correctly 100% of the time. Luckily the Second Edition clarified some of the rules and Avalon Hill/Wizards of the Coast has posted a pretty in-depth FAQ for things that don’t really make sense.
If you’re still unsure about a rule, just barrel through the game and house rule it until afterward when you can take the time to figure it out. That way the game isn’t stopped for 15-20 minutes while someone sits there reading the rulebook.
If all else fails, shoot me a comment/message and I’ll help you figure it out.
Betrayal is a fantastic game with great thematic elements that make it perfect for Halloween or during your regular rotation of games.
Technically it does have some flaws. The character cards never really stay together, sometimes it can seem like the game picks the same players to be the traitor, and some of the haunts can be one-sided.
For all of its technical flaws, I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from a game of Betrayal disappointed or frustrated to the point where I wanted to write it off. If you’re like me and play board games to bring family and friends together then you’re going to have to really try to find a game that beats Betrayal.
The replayability of the game is incredibly high. If you played every scenario once, that’s a minimum of 50 games before you have to go back and replay a scenario. There are not many games out there that claim that at least 50 games will each be completely different. On top of that, the layout of the house is different every game too. If you’re really dying for more, there are fan-made scenarios online, one major expansion, one thematic alternative set in the Dungeons & Dragons world, and a Legacy version of the game.
That’s a lot of hours sitting around a game table. And as I said, I’ve never left the table without a smile on my face.
What do you think about Betrayal at House on the Hill? Drop a comment below and let us know your thoughts.