So, when I’m telling people about Betrayal at House on the Hill (henceforth “Betrayal”), I usually tell them that “it’s more of an experience and less of a game.” Going and expecting it to play like a competitive or collaborative game is usually a recipe for confusion, if I’m being perfectly honest. You should pretty much start the game with the understanding that this will not be like most games you’ve played before, and that’s okay. I’ll elaborate more below.
I usually open up Betrayal by explaining either A) that you’re kind of the cast from Scooby-Doo and shit’s about to get real strange, or B) you’re 3-6 people who see a spooky house on a hill, and say “screw traditional trespassing and B&E laws, we’re gonna go in and explore this house, consequences be damned”. Either way, as soon as you enter the house the door slams shut and locks behind you. Normally this would be alarming, but given your almost-willful disregard of common horror movie tropes, your group decides to press onward.
First. Two books come with the game that aren’t the rulebook. DO NOT READ THESE. That will spoil the game. These are scenario booklets for later.
You’ll note that your starting state looks a lot like this:Basically, there are three floors to the house — a main floor with three rooms (Entrance Hall, Foyer, Grand Staircase), the Basement Landing (in the, surprise, basement), and the Upper Landing (on the upper floor). While there are clear stairs up to the Upper Landing, there are no stairs to or from the basement when you start, just a mysterious chute… (spooky).
Meet the Characters
You’ll note that there are different characters standing in the entrance hall. Those are our characters, and you’ll have to choose one to begin. You CAN pick them out, but more often than not we just deal them out to everyone. They’re double-sided, so each side has slightly different stats, a different name, and a different character backstory–these don’t really make much of a difference (this is a lie), so feel free to pick whatever you want. As for stats, however, you’ll notice that each character tile looks like this:
On the left (your physical traits), you’ve got Speed and Might, and on the right (your mental traits), you’ve got Sanity and Knowledge. These traits are set for each character at the start (note the green number), but they are different between characters (and also sides! Heather Granville has different stats than Jenny LeClerc). These affect your ability to make trait rolls, in which you have to roll a number of dice equal to your current value in that trait and compare that value against the value required for the roll. This can cause good (or bad, mostly bad) things to happen! Bad things are usually you taking damage in that trait (or worse…). Physical damage can be split between might and speed, and mental damage can be split between sanity and knowledge, but you might want to avoid hitting the skull symbol (spoiler alert: it kills you, sometimes. More on that later.). However, you’ll note that just because you lose a point in speed, for instance, Jenny won’t actually “lose speed”. She’ll go from 4 to … 4. This is actually a useful way to mitigate getting damaged, which you invariably will. Unfortunately, this also mitigates stat boosts, somewhat, as I found during this game. I gained two might and one sanity, ultimately taking my stats from 4/4/4/3 to … 4/4/4/3. You can keep track of your stats using the handy coffin-shaped slider things, but my roommates hate them so we tend not to use them. Instead, they’ve begun using post-it notes and writing +1 or -1 to the respective stats. There’s also apps, if that’s your thing. Personally, I prefer the sliders because it allows you to easily see everyone’s stats, which is helpful for when you
invariably have to kill them just want to check to see how your new best friends are doing.
The final thought on the matter is that rolling in this game is WEIRD. Now, if you’ve ever played Yahtzee or literally any dice game, you’ve played with a standard six-sided set of dice. There are eight dice in this game, and though they have six sides, each side has one of three values: 0, 1, or 2. Like so:This is how trait rolls can get weird. Even with six or more dice, it’s theoretically possible to roll all zeroes (0.015241579% on eight dice, for those of you doing probabilistic analysis at home). This sucks and can ruin you. Hilariously.
Phase 1: Explore the House!
So this part is simple. Go through the house! You can find a variety of rooms, each with either one of three symbols or no symbol on them. You can move a number of spaces equal to your speed (moving up or down stairs counts as a space unless otherwise stated), and you use this movement to open doors and enter rooms. When you enter a room, flip a tile off the room stack (the backs are labelled so you know which floor they go on) and that’s the room you find. If they have a symbol, they’ll have one of these:
- Event (spiral, usually something bad happens) – you encounter something in the house! Maybe you got covered in bugs or found a safe or fell down a magic slide. Usually this requires a trait roll, and succeeding does good things (gain stats or items) and failing does bad things (lose stats or weird things). These are the most common symbol BY. FAR. Beware Debris, Lights Out, and Jonah’s Turn.
- Item (skull, usually good) – you find something that can help you! These can be useful and let you use them by making rolls on your turn, they can augment your rolls by giving you extra dice, or they can boost your stats! Always roll the Dark Dice, but beware! The Amulet of the Ages can be a double-edged sword.
- Omen (a raven, usually pretty good but sometimes VERY BAD) – you find something … a bit spookier! Maybe it’s a skull that reminds you of a jester you knew, once. Maybe it’s a surprisingly not-useful medallion, or maybe it’s an awesome spear that’s used for
murderfriendship.These symbols force you to draw a card, like one of these:Then, whatever happens happens. Will you happen across a useful item in the Bloody Room? Will you find a spooky omen in the Kitchen? Or what event could befall you, should you wander into the Underground Lake? There are a wide variety of cool rooms and I won’t spoil them for you. The key thing is that some rooms are special, and they’ll have text written on them explaining what they do. These are usually helpful at best and deeply frustrating at worst. SUGGESTION: Some rooms have text that requires a roll to exit that room (say, a 3+ might check [meaning you have to make a might roll and the value must be at least three]). You should not explore past those rooms unless you want to frustrate your teammates or have literally no other options. As stated previously, once you find a room with a symbol you have to stop moving, but if you have some item(s) that require rolls, you can make those rolls before you end your turn.
Omens are a bit special, however. Should you draw an omen, they all will require you to make a haunt roll. For this, you take six dice and roll them, and if you roll less than the number of omens now on the board, Phase 1 is over. You have revealed something called… the Haunt.
Phase 2: The Haunt!
So those two books that come with the game? It’s time to break them out. There’s a chart in the Traitor’s Tome that shows who the Traitor is (if there is one) based on the room the omen was discovered in and the omen itself. Use that to figure out who the Traitor is and send them to a different room to read their scenario, while the heroes read theirs. Now, instead of being “explorers”, you are “heroes” and “the traitor”. Sometimes there is no traitor, and sometimes the traitor is hidden. These are frustrating but also sometimes hilarious.
The key insight here is that your party has now realized, to their horror, that they didn’t just “happen” across this super-spooky house, but they were rather led here, possibly by one of their own, for a horrifying haunt. Perhaps Dracula has returned! Maybe the traitor has figured out how to breathe life into dead flesh and revive Frankenstein’s (Frahnkensteen’s*) Monster! Or, maybe, a giant bird has lifted the house into the air and you have to fight your former friends for parachutes or risk being fed to its brood. You know, typical Thursday night. This causes some rules changes.
- You can now die. For some reason, you could not die before this point, no matter what horrifying thing you did to yourself. This is probably to make the game not-lame, but it’s a thing.
- Things are trying to kill you, probably. Conveniently, as soon as you are capable of dying something comes along trying to kill you. If you’re the traitor, it’s probably the heroes. If you’re the heroes, it could be anything from the traitor’s now-formless flesh blob to aliens to the other heroes! This means you’ll need to make might attacks to stop them. That’s just making a might roll against their might roll, and the loser takes the difference as damage (unless otherwise stated). There are some rules for stealing items if they’re holding any, but usually people find that people don’t need items if they’re, well, dead.
- You have a goal! Now, thanks to your respective books, you know that there are things you need to do to stop the traitor and / or flee the house. This actually gives the game some direction past the initial “let me find rooms oh my god I’m covered in blood and I fell into the basement” and adds a “and now there’s a dragon chasing me” element. It’s, you know, serene.
- The house is on the traitor’s team. As if they needed any additional boons, the traitor can ignore any harmful text on the house tiles and choose for event cards to not affect them. This also means that their monsters have similar qualities. In fact, while you have four traits, many monsters only have max three, so you might not even be able to attack them! That’s kind of a bummer.
- Unless otherwise stated, the first person to take their turn after the haunt begins is the person on the traitor’s left. It’s just nice to know. There’s no ulterior thing here, it’s just not always clear that this is what happens. Someone may lose a turn, yes, it sucks. Sorry.
- Enemies affect movement. If you’re in the same room as a monster or the traitor as a hero (or vice-versa), it costs an extra speed to exit the room unless otherwise stated. This means that you can get trapped in a room if you’re not careful. Keep this in mind, because it always causes problems.
- You can only make one attack per turn, unless otherwise stated. Just, useful to know.
See, you’d think there’d be a lot of insight as to what a good strategy is for this game, but honestly, there are over 50 scenarios (there are some bonus scenarios online), and though I’ve played almost all of them (skipped one), they are so wildly different that there are no consistently useful strategies. Even then, here’re some suggested courses of action if you are looking to win.
- Try to explore as much of the house as possible, prior to the haunt. The more house that’s been explored, typically the harder it is for the traitor to win. No particular reason why, just that more rooms tend to have been revealed so you’re not looking for as much.
- There are four rooms that boost each of your stats. If someone finds one, go to it. A free stat boost is literally, always worth it, and it may not be to your benefit to try stopping in a room during the haunt.
- Do not heal anyone or trade items before the haunt starts. While it may be a bummer to see one of your friends injured when you have a perfectly good medical kit, it might not be useful to heal someone who may then try to sacrifice your body to summon their dark god. Trust nobody, because they may eventually try to murder you. This is also great advice for shopping on Craigslist.
- Try to avoid long, straight hallways. It’s a great horror movie trope, and it also works here! You’ll be running down a hallway for something and come to a dead end and die. Just, always. If you find that you’re going too far in one direction, double back!
- Stick together. Again, another great horror movie trope. You should never run off on your own, especially once the haunt starts, unless it’s absolutely necessary. Since you can only be attacked once per turn, it means that if the traitor decides to come mess with you then he or she is risking a bunch of attacks from you AND your friends. Usually. Unfortunately…
- Sometimes you have to leave someone behind. Better them than you.
- And finally, always roll the Dark Dice, always roll the Mystic Elevator, and always drink from the Bottle. What could go wrong?
Other than that, personally, I find the Professor / Father hard to play (white), whereas I don’t have many opinions about other characters. It’s mostly because he’s stacked mentally but not physically, which means that it’s hard to move around in the beginning of the game. If you can gain physical stats early, he’s pretty much unstoppable. Your mileage may vary on this, though. I would also not recommend him for new players for the same reason.
Thoughts / Verdict
As usual, I’ll go through the pros and cons. I’m saying as usual because I did this once already and two points are all you need to make a line. This is a fact that isn’t related to anything but I’ve already started typing this sentence and can’t stop.
- Being real, this game is a ton of fun. If you ever wanted to be in a haunted house or play out a horror movie, this is a great way to do so.
- To that end, it also lends itself well to a bit of roleplaying. You CAN have your characters make worse decisions if they have low knowledge, but honestly, it’s also fun just to pretend to be the characters. I usually refer to myself in third-person if I’m playing as Ox Bellows, since he both has low knowledge and high strength, and honestly it’s fun to be kind of dumb. This is also a great way to see if people would be interested in a game of D&D, but that’s another conversation for another time (it also has skill checks!).
- The haunt adds significant tension to the game. It’s nice being able to see monsters on the board chasing you, and there’s a legitimate sense of dread if you’re running away from them and hit a dead end or fall into the basement. This really lends itself well to the horror-movie theme of the game, which makes the theme overall super strong.
- The house-exploration mechanic is super cool. Most people I play with agree that it’s super fun to assemble the house as you explore it, and it really adds a lot of replay value since the house will never be the same twice. It also, thematically, makes sense for it to be a spooky semi-magical house that can change its shape sometimes, which I like. The only game that comes close to it in that department is the phenomenal Castles of Mad King Ludwig, which has an amazing assembly mechanic of its own.
- It’s both co-op and competitive. It’s nice to have a game that changes like that halfway through, as it builds a nice tension since you can’t trust anyone even though you need to work together. I think it makes it nice at the beginning, since everyone can help new players, and then at the end it becomes a giant mess as only a werewolf trying to turn or kill everyone else in the house can.
- The game has a TON of replay value… to a point. There are exactly fifty scenarios, and each one is pretty significantly different. However, once you’ve done that there are some more scenarios online, maybe. I’ve played it pretty aggressively for a year and played all of the scenarios (except one), and I will happily keep playing the scenarios again. Bringing in new people makes it fun because they’ll act differently, and also the house’s constant reshuffle makes it so that you can never expect how the game will go. Sometimes the house is better for the heroes, sometimes it’s better for the traitor. You’ll only know once the haunt begins. To that, I think $50 is a pretty reasonable price for how much I got out of this game, but you’ll definitely be able to find it for cheaper, usually (currently it’s on Amazon for $40).
- If you’re playing it strategically, you’re gonna be disappointed. Not much to say there, unfortunately. It’s a heavy dice game with drawing cards, and sometimes you’ll make bad rolls. It happens.
- Heavy reliance on dice make it incredibly luck-based. I can’t get on Catan’s case for doing this without also pointing out that Betrayal does the same thing. Just saying. I’ve seen a six rolled on three dice and a fifteen rolled on eight dice, and I’ve seen zeroes on both. It happens.
- The game isn’t what you would call, “balanced.” As you might surmise from the prior two, sometimes as soon as the haunt starts you know that you are going to win or lose. I’ve been effectively at min stats and the traitor when the haunt started and I got punched to death. Sometimes you’re the character with all physical stats and the haunt is all mental-based. It happens. With fifty scenarios, I doubt they were able to balance all of them for any configuration of the house with any number of players, and it occasionally shows. I’d argue it’s a credit to the game that it doesn’t show as much as it does. Even then, it can kind of be a bummer if you’re the traitor and you know you’re going to lose, especially if …
- Some scenarios are just, terrible. Yes. I’m just gonna say it. There’s one where everyone gets shrunk and the traitor is trying to feed them to his cats. For some reason the traitor shrinks himself, too. This is unclear. It’s just … not fun at all. I personally was the traitor for one where I apparently buried someone in the basement, alive. Nothing spooky, nothing creepy, just someone buried in the basement somewhere. The heroes had five rooms to choose from, and they found this person pretty much instantly. It wasn’t fun, it was just boring. We have those marked with a huge X in our booklet, never to play them again. We will just change the room or the omen, rules be damned.
- Scenarios don’t have a lot of replay value if the traitor is supposed to have hidden knowledge. This is a bit of a nuanced complaint, but sometimes it helps the heroes a lot if they know the traitor needs the book or the ring or where the traitor has hidden something. This really only affects the game if you’ve played it enough times that a now-hero remembers playing this scenario as the traitor, which is uncommon. If it happens, just change the haunt to something else.
- Some components aren’t as nice. Those sliders are … not great. Everything else is pretty good.
Overall: 9 / 10
You know what? I don’t need to rate it as a game for strategy purposes, but I’m going to say this. Play it for fun, don’t play it to win. If you’re looking for a good strategy game to play, play Splendor or something. Play this when you want to mess around with some friends and you don’t mind getting horribly mangled by an angry cat or turned into a frog by a witch or something. This is one of my favorite games in my collection. It’s worth it.
Thanks to Jess and the Motts for letting me take pictures during our last game.