Sunday, June 22, 2008

Board Game Review - Betrayal at House on the Hill

At long last, I have internet at home again. This means that I can start updating this site again. I'll try to maintain my rigorous schedule of one post every Sunday.

So for my return post, I'll review Betrayal at House on the Hill. This is nominally a horror game, but I always prefer to think of it as an adventure game. What appeals to me is not the horror genre aspect, but the surprise twists of the scenarios.

First, let's get the proper statistics here:

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 4
Humour: None.
Attractiveness: Pretty.
Expected Length of Game Play: one hour.

So what is this game? Well, to start, it's played on a board of tiles. Each represents a room in a haunted mansion. You choose a character (there are six templates with two variations on each: strong, smart, and balanced in each gender) and place the appropriate painted plastic figurine in the entrance hall. You have a tile that displays your strength, speed, sanity, and knowledge on sliding scales with your starting value clearly marked. At the start of the game, the entrance hall (along with the two attached rooms: the foyer and the grand staircase) is the only room on the ground floor, while the Basement Landing and Upper Floor Stairway are set aside to represent the appropriate levels. On your turn, you move through the mansion exploring rooms. When you move through a door into an area not yet represented by a tile (an "unexplored room"), you draw a new tile from the room stack and place it in the newly explored area.

Most rooms have one of three symbols on them. If you are the first person to enter a room with such a symbol, your movement stops and you draw an appropriate card. After carrying out the instructions on the card, your turn ends. The first symbol is a spiral: this represents an Event. You draw an event card and follow the instructions. Usually, this is a Bad Thing, and you have to roll to see if your character can avoid the disastrous consequences of the bad event. If you don't, you usually lose points in one of your stats. However, if you succeed, then often you get a bonus to a stat.

The second symbol is a steer skull. This represents an item card. If you are lucky enough to find a room with an item symbol, you draw an item card and place it face up in front of you. Your character now has access to that item (which can be anything from the simple and mundane (such as a candle), to the very useful (such as a revolver), to an item of questionable use (such as the Blood Dagger), to the surreal (such as the Toy Monkey).

The last symbol is the raven, which represents the Omen Cards. With one exception, Omen cards are helpful. They can represent items, which are either useful or give you a bonus to some stat, or they can be companions, which generally raise one or more stats (and sometimes also gives you a small penalty to another stat; the Madman raises your strength but lowers your sanity), and sometimes have useful abilities of their own (the dog can travel up to six rooms away to fetch items for you).

However, the real effect of omen cards is to trigger the Haunt. Each time a player draws an Omen card, he must roll six dice. If the total is less than the number of Omen cards drawn so far this game by all players, then the Haunt begins. That is, you look in the rule book for the chart that details which scenario you will be using. For example, if the haunt is triggered when someone draws the Madman Omen in the Kitchen, you'll be playing the "Supper's Ready" scenario, while the Girl card in the Conservatory will trigger the "Hell's Fiddler" scenario.

In each case, the chart also tells you which player is the Traitor. The Traitor takes the "traitor's tome" and leaves the room to read the instructions for the scenario. The rest of the players (the Heroes) read their instructions in the Heroes' Handbook. This details what the objective is for each player for the rest of the game. From there on, it's a case of the Traitor versus the Heroes.

This tactic of having different scenarios is the game's strong point. I like the idea of not knowing what the objective will be when the game begins. It's exciting not knowing who will become the traitor.

The flexibility that allows this is the game's weak point as well, however. In order to accommodate so many possible scenarios, the rules have to be left somewhat vague, and this can be confusing at times. It has been remarked that the new rules added in each scenario can be quite confusing (and given the nature of some of the scenarios, I have to agree). Also, there are quite a few errata (which is available at the Avalon Hill website, but still, it's just a bit of a problem).

In all, I like this game. It's a fun way to spend an hour or so. But it's best not attempted with more than one new player who's used to complex games of this type.

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