Betrayal at House on the Hill… Where to put my Pentagram Chamber

Base Game Review

Player/s: 3-6

Play Time (Box): 60mins

Play Time (Goof): 60-90mins

Producer/s: Avalon Hill & Wizards of the Coast

Designer/s: Rob Daviau, Bruce Glassco, Bill McQuillan, Mike Selinker & Teeuwynn Woodruff

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Living in Australia, I grew up hearing a lot of mixed views on Halloween. Some people felt that the holiday was only introduced here for commercial purpose, others thought we were too heavily influenced by holidays overseas. I fell into a different group. I love the various celebrations around the world, seeing them as a way to express excitement and joy about particular things, and in regards to Halloween – an excuse to dress up in costumes.

I love all kinds of costume parties, but Halloween feels like that one time a year (outside of conventions) that people truly embrace dressing up. Costumes are fun. They’re a way of expressing yourself, trying out something different, expressing a different part of your personality or simply feeling like a badass.

As it’s October and the costumed excitement that is Halloween is quickly approaching, I thought I would review some games with a spookier theme. Starting with a game that was a nightmare (pun intended) to get my hands on when I purchased it. It was sold out Australia wide. I only hope that it’s easier to get my hands on the expansion that’s released this month.

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Gameplay (10/10)

In Betrayal at House on the Hill (such a long title), there are two main phases. During the exploration phase players explore the house, uncovering new rooms, items, events and omens as you proceed. The mechanics that drive this are really interesting – It’s essentially a tile laying game, with restrictions for which floor they can be placed on. The master bedroom, for example, can only be placed on the upper floor- because the people who made this house are pretentious like that. Whereas the pentagram chamber has got to be in the basement (I prefer my pentagram chamber to be near the bathroom to expedite my morning routine).  What this creates is a completely unique house each time you play, with the directions in which you choose to explore the house having significant consequences later in the game. Every step through a door could mean a new weapon or item to help you survive – or some horrific event you need to try to survive. These various factors add a ton of replayability.

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The second phase, the haunt, is the exciting climax in this horror story. Each time an omen is discovered by a player they roll six custom dice that can each result in a zero, one or two. The amount of discovered omens is how what the roll needs to at least equal. I really like this, and I’ll talk about thematically why later. But mechanically it means that the haunt is on a soft timer, with it more and more likely to happen as you get towards the thirteen omens in the game (those of you counting along at home will notice you can only roll up to twelve).

When the haunt does trigger, it has the potential to create one of fifty different scenarios. Fifty. That’s… like a lot. Which haunt you get depends on which omen was found last in which room. And the traitor (if there even is one) depends on a number of factors that the game will quickly run you through (haunt revealer, highest might or whether your character likes camping). It sounds overwhelming but the game handles the enormity of the variability in a really simple way and doesn’t slow down the gameplay.

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There are a couple things that bother me though. Firstly I feel that the game balance is rather random. If the haunt triggers too early or there are either too many or not enough players for a particular random scenario then it can be obvious early on who’s going to win. In most games I’d say this was a huge issue but here it kind of works. You’ve explored this house, you’ve been instrumental in the way the game has been played up until this point and now with a bit of luck you’re in a position to take advantage of those decisions. I’m still calling it a negative, but a small one.

Maybe I’ve been spoilt with the people that I play with, but the fact that even the traitor doesn’t know they’re the bad guy in the beginning seems to actually work really well for this game. It means that during the exploration phase everyone isn’t eyeballing each other. They’re not being completely altruistic, sure, but I doubt many people would be if they were exploring a creepy house that’s trapped you inside. It leaves you feeling that you’re better off helping each other with the hopes of putting the majority in a good position for the haunt, but not putting yourself at a disadvantage.

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Pros: +Unique board each time, +Soft timer, ++So many scenarios!, +Variability with simplicity, +Excellent traitor mechanic

Cons: -Can be unbalanced

 

Theme (10/10)

The storyline in this game revolves around a group of people who end up in a creepy house together. They know each other from around town, maybe they’re friends or relatives. Each one has something in their background that makes them slightly twisted. The sort of lovely people who you’d rather avoid and can’t quite put your finger on why. When they enter this house, the door slams shut. And in all likelihood one of them has lured the others here.

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The flavour text on the character sheets, cards, events and even the character bios in the back of one of the books provides a real background to this game. It’s the perfect balance of already established lore, and freedom to make the characters your own. When you read your specific rules to each of the haunts, you have an introductory paragraph that gives you enough understanding that your imagination runs wild. The fact that the explorers and the traitor each have different information further helps to separate them. I can’t rave about the flavour enough. This game is exploding with it.

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I spoke earlier about how the haunt rolls initiate the second phase of the game. What I want to focus on with it here is that right from the beginning there’s a chance of a haunt, so the players are never really safe. However because it seems so ridiculous, most players toss the dice without thinking too hard about it and the other players usually remain fairly casual. To me this simulates the theme so well – you’ve found this odd looking thing that has your mind darting to concerns about something dark and twisted. It makes you uncomfortable. But no, don’t worry about it. I’m sure it’s nothing. Those sorts of things don’t really exist. As the omens continue to be uncovered, more and more of you start to worry that something else is going on. Maybe after three you have one or two people start to be a bit more concerned. If you make it to six I guarantee you’ll all be at the edge of your seat, a sense of dread with each roll. As a side note, the fact that the game comes with thirteen omens is a nice thematic touch.

These scenarios; they are incredibly different. I’ve played a dozen games and only had to repeat one. It’s the main selling point of this game. I’ve left talking about it until last in case you’re adamant you don’t want to know any of the scenarios, you can just skip the rest of this section (minor spoilers ahead).

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Some of the scenarios I’ve played have involved an old ghost wishing to be reunited with their lover, an immortal child stealing the youth of the explorers, alternative alien dimensions who’s inhospitable environment is killing everyone, a virus that is slowly turning others into traitors, damn goo people, and a giant damn bird who decided to pick up our house. I’ve glimpsed tokens and scenarios that would suggest Werewolves and Dragons have parts to play. Each haunt feels incredibly different, all within a familiar and simple framework. It’s like dungeons and dragons in a more contained space, and without the need for a dungeon master. I really enjoy this game.

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Pros: ++So much flavour, ++Atmosphere matches theme, +Each scenario is unique

Cons: None

 

Production (5/10)

The more games I play in general the more I realise how rulebooks are really an art form. You have to portray information in a way that’s clear and concise, and in an order that’s conducive to learning. There’s no point talking about scoring if you haven’t first established how to set up the game. I really like the way it’s done here. There are essentially three rulebooks, with the core rules in one and scenario specific rules in the others. It breaks it up into digestible chunks, and doesn’t overwhelm you as you open the box for the first time.

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Each model has two potential characters that you can play as. I love this. It means that you always have the option of who you play. Even if you’re playing with six people and everyone else selects first, you have a choice. I’ve seen people spend more time on which side to flip their character sheet than which model they want to use. When you think about it, the designers didn’t waste space. They could have easily have left the characters to just six, and had the other side as blank. But they took the time and went the extra mile. And it makes a big difference.

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But while on the topic of the models – they’re very budget. The paint job on them is quite awful, and despite the fact the colours make it easy to determine which model is which, I find that the low quality models really detract from the overall production quality. Maybe I’m spoilt with all the fantastic miniatures that have been coming out these last few years, but this feels like a miss.

The artwork in this game has that old-timey feel, which matches here beautifully. The almost ink-like drawings on the items cards are a real asset. And something this game has made me realise is that the colouring of your cards can be really important. I don’t just mean for ease of gameplay, although the orange, green and yellow are distinct enough to help, but also for the feel. The production choices here to make each rulebook and card have a slightly worn look make you feel like everything in this house is old and teeming with mystery. It’s all consistently excellent.

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The drawback as far as the design of the cards are concerned is that they’re oddly proportioned and really seem to be quite flimsy. When we first unwrapped them they appeared to be curved in the middle due to their shape and poor quality; and over time that seems to have gotten worse.

There are twenty-two items in this game, and the tiles allow you to gain six of them as you explore the house. Add to that you can gain several items through events and you’ve got the ability to get about eight to ten items a game if you happen to get lucky. It’s true that during some games you may not get many but it wont take too long before you start to see some items repeated. The same can be said for the room tiles. There are forty-four room tiles in the game, and you’re turning anywhere between three to six tiles over per turn. This gives you between fourteen and seven turns before you see them all. While that’s unlikely to happen, certain haunts require you to search for certain room tiles and perform actions in those rooms; so the designers had to make it reasonable to go through a majority of the deck. This reduces the amount of excitement and intrigue as you explore the house over multiple games. I guess what I’m saying is that if you play this game too many times too quickly, you have diminishing returns on the exploration phase of the game. It can even be argued that you have to replay this game less times than other games before this starts to take place. A big part of the selling point was the replayability factor, which is why I’m calling this game out. The haunts absolutely make the game feel incredibly different and unique from game to game. But they’re the climax, and it’s starting to feel like work to get to that point.

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I have never been more excited to implement an app into a game as I have been for Betrayal at House on the Hill. For one reason in particular: the damn character chits they give you to track your stats are stupid. They don’t stay where they’re supposed to, they’re difficult to move when a stat changes, they’re difficult to read at a glance and don’t get me started if someone bumps their character card. Give me Arkham Horror’s character sliders over these any day.

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Pros: ++Clear concise rulebook, ++Character options, +Artwork and Colours

Cons: –Low number of items, -Awful stat trackers, -Low quality models, -Warped cards

 

Conclusion

This game is fun. I highly recommend getting it. I’ve pointed out a few flaws here that really bother me, especially when you consider that the game is so enjoyable that we played three times the first day we got it. Chances are we’ll probably never see all the different haunts there are in this game.

I’ve pointed out some of my biggest issues, and I’m really holding out that the expansion will fix a lot of these (fifty extra scenarios!?!).

I give Betrayal at House on the Hill:

8/10

 

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If you enjoyed this article then share the joy on social media so others can enjoy it too. And check out our other reviews. They’re always good for a laugh. 

Please comment, lets get the conversations flowing.

Want to see this game in action? Check out the episode on Wil Wheton’s Tabletop here or the Game Grumps play it here

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