At the start of May, I was able to attend Direct Play’s DPX. There are two things I try to do when I’m there: put out my pile of unplayed games, looking for players; and find the big table games so I can join in. The latter is my favourite since it gives me the opportunity to try games that I have never seen before, the kind of games that are best played by 4 – 6 people, games that don’t fit in my pocket, or my budget. This year, my discovery was Betrayal at House on the Hill, by Avalon Hill, Wizards of the Coast, and Hasbro.
This is not a fast game or a simple one, but with an experienced person teaching you how to play, it doesn’t take long to get started. The game was created for 3 – 6 players, but is most enjoyable with at least five. BaHotH was originally created in 2004, but an improved Legacy version was released in 2010. The box contains an extensive collection of supplies, including three books (two of them clearly marked Do Not Read); six pre-painted miniatures that match the six double-sided character disks; a large set of room tiles; decks of Item, Event and Omen cards; eight special dice that roll zero, one or two; and, finally, a vast selection of tokens appropriate for any possible situation.
Set up is actually fairly straightforward. Players choose their characters and take the matching miniature and cardboard disk. Take the black clips (I loved the fact that the game owner called them coffins) and set them to the starting trait levels for the two physical traits (Might and Speed) and two mental traits (Knowledge and Sanity). Place the starting map tiles in the center of the table: the Entrance, Hall, Staircase, Upstairs Landing, and Basement, and keep the rest of the room tiles within easy reach. Every player starts on the Entrance tile.
The trait disk for each character includes their age and birthday; the starting player is the one whose character birthday is closest to the current date. Each character’s movement is determined by the Speed trait. The starting player can choose to walk down the hall or go through any door. If you leave the starting tiles, you take a random tile, creating a new room in the house. Some tiles can only be placed on the second floor or the basement; others can go anywhere. You can keep moving until you use up your Speed, or until you enter a room that has an Item, Event or Omen symbol and draw the matching card type. A player keeps any items they get, unless the item is lost or stolen; if a character dies, all their items are dropped in whatever room they are in. Events occur the first time a room is entered, and may or may not affect future visits. Some events, like secret passages, may permanently change the layout of the house. Omens are very special cards. Not only do they have their own effects, but every time an Omen is revealed, the player must make a Haunt Roll. This roll becomes more difficult the more Omens have been revealed.
When a player fails a Haunt Roll, the game enters a new phase: the Betrayal. The focus changes from exploration to survival. There are several factors that determine which scenario plays out, including which room the character was in and which Omen was activated. This is where the two Do Not Read books come into play: the Secrets of Survival and the Tome of the Betrayer. Each book contains separate instructions for each scenario, detailing the different goals of the Betrayer and the Survivors. There are a hundred different prepared scenarios, plus 50 more in the expansion, The Widow’s Walk, and many more fan-created ones that you can get online. The other main difference between now and before the Betrayal is that when one of your stats goes down to zero, your character dies.
There are even a few scenarios that have no Betrayer at all. The first game we played turned out to be a straight up escape game, with a story that made me laugh. A giant monster bird “the size of a 747” had picked up the entire house and was flying away with it. Somewhere in the house there were three parachutes (why?), for six of us. The game became hilarious when a series of botched rolls meant that a fully grown jock was unable to take a parachute away from two small children and a woman.
I had to leave the second game in progress because I had an early morning work shift the next day, so I don’t know how it ended. It involved the Betrayer character falling into a magical sleep, and their nightmares coming to life. Our goals were two-fold, to prevent the Nightmares from escaping the house, and waking the Sleeper, using the Holy Artifact item that my character had coincidentally found only a few turns earlier.
Betrayal at the House on the Hill’s defining characteristic is randomness. The house is different every time, any room could appear anywhere; players could get trapped in the basement, or never discover it at all. Events, Omens, and Items are equally random. The biggest risk of all is that you may get the Betrayal very early, or very late. We didn’t experience either of those situations ourselves, but I saw a photo on the Board Game Geeks entry for the game, of a table almost completely covered in room cards, with the caption “this house isn’t haunted, it’s just weird”.
There were other minor issues we encountered during play. Some rules were not completely clear. For example, during the flying house game, we had a long discussion on what would have happened if anyone had been in the basement. Would they have automatically escaped the house, or would they have appeared in a random room? (According to the internet, the second option is correct.) Another question we had: if a character has a Companion (for example, the Madman) following them, what happens to that Companion when the character dies?
The closest we came to having a complaint was that there are so many different types of game tokens that it was difficult to find what we needed. I would suggest that anyone who buys the game should take time to organize the tokens using their own plastic bags.
If you are the type of person who likes to embrace randomness, who believes that the experience of playing is more important than structure and rules, then this is the game for you. It would be a great centerpiece for a mystery-themed party. And if you are looking for something a little bit different, the folks at Avalon Hill / Wizards of the Coast have recently made a Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate version.