You’re part way through a horror movie with an ensemble of characters exploring a creepy mansion, getting little hints of the greater evil lurking in the shadows. Then, all of a sudden there’s a revelation… the friendly doctor was working with the monster all along. Things go from a crawl to a manic race in order to get our heroes to escape with their lives. This is the experience Betrayal at the House on the Hill seeks to emulate, but it also provides one of utter chaos as working parts from two halves of the game try to interact with one another.
Betrayal is a broken game; that’s something you need to go into this accepting. It’s more satisfying this way, rather than butting up against it. There was this time where the mansion was being transported away and people had to fight over parachutes. My character was pinned under rubble and only able to be helped out by others, who saw me as one less person to fight for a parachute, so they left me there. Another time, I was a servant to a Dracula and turned half the remaining heroes over to my side. The others were trapped in the attic… I’m getting ahead of myself, though. You should know how this game works.
Everyone gets a character with a set of skills measured out on little plastic sliders a little too loose to stay comfortably on. There are great apps on iOS and Android, so we generally use those instead. You all start in the hallway, having fled into the spooky manor. Then you go room to room, drawing an event, item or omen depending on the symbols on the tile. If you see a symbol you draw it, resolve it and your turn ends. Easy. The room tiles have backs illustrating whether they go upstairs, downstairs or in the middle, so you keep drawing until you get one which fits your character’s floor and if you’re me, find yourself dropped into the sodding basement in every damn game. Events are good or bad, it’s really too much of a mixed bag to tell whether you want them. Sometimes you get plunged into darkness, find a hidden vault or see the walls oozing illusory slime. There are two fun events which can cause a loop as a reflection offers you an item in one and then you give your reflection an item in another. Items are good but few and far between. Then there are omens, which advance the plot and generally offer nothing of use. You find a skull, or maybe a feather or a creepy child. Each omen risks a roll to see if The Haunt happens. You all hold your breath as you watch the person try to roll equal or more than the number of omens. The dice have zero, one or two pips on their sides so at first it’s fairly easy but as you get seven or eight, the tension rises. If you succeed at the roll then play continues as normal, if not then The Haunt has begun.
The Haunt is where everything changes. There’s a chart showing you which of over fifty haunts you’re in depending on the room and omen. This means that you don’t know what horror movie you’re preparing for until it’s possibly too late. One player (often but not always the person revealing The Haunt) is the titular betrayer and has to go into another room with their special book. The other players get to read the corresponding section of theirs and between the two sides you have the rules of how to win or lose the game. Sometimes there’s a little conferring when one faction don’t know how they win as it’ll be contained in the other book. Sometimes people already have the victory condition 90% of the way there. This is where the game-breaking of the system happens, I assume as it would have been a ballache to playtest 50 scenarios a bunch of times. Also there’s no accounting for getting the holy spear just before having the objective which wants you to use it. This game won’t be fair, much like another game I’m a fan of; Bang. Still, it’s the journey and the experiences you have which make it entertaining. The tension after drawing an omen and the mad scrabble to get your objective to trigger. Sometimes there isn’t even a traitor, sometimes there’s a bastard roc lifting the mansion off to its’ nest so that you can feed its’ young.
Games of Betrayal are short, the kind of length which means that if it’s done quickly you can easily fit another game in. The box comes with a million little tokens and I’ve probably used 10% of them in about a dozen games. There’s a lot which I have yet to discover. If you want a more involved, intricate game then you’ve got Mansions of Madness which is a lot more controlled. This is a mess, but gloriously so. Not just that but there’s an expansion coming soon which adds a rooftop to run about on and another fifty Haunts. As long as you embrace the absurdity of some of the Haunts and the idea that it could be drastically over in one way or another then you’ll be in for a fun time.