Who doesn’t love horror movies? There are few things more entertaining than watching a bunch of archetypal characters sneak through a clearly haunted house as some kind of mysterious threat is picking them off one by one. Whether you fear for our heroes’ lives or laugh at their stupidity, there’s certainly something in even the worst horror movies that can appeal to almost anyone. Unfortunately, the problem with horror movies is one often shared by board games: once you know everything about it, it stops being as interesting. Just like how the monster is no longer that scary once exposed to the light, board games often lose some of their appeal after being played through a dozen or so times.
“Betrayal at the House on the Hill” seeks to rectify both problems at once with a single, elegant solution: the threat is different every time. Imagine a horror movie where not only is the monster different every time you watch it, but the person who unleashed that threat is also different. It’s certainly an ambitious idea, but, as always, it’s all about the execution. So does “Betrayal” manage to give us some jump scares, or are its dark corners hiding only snoozes?
Overview and Rules
“Betrayal” is a horror RPG/exploration game for 3-6 players. Each player can select one of twelve different characters, each embodying a different horror trope: the school jock, the creepy little girl, the mad scientist, the woman with a mysterious past and more. Naturally, each of these characters comes with their own set of stats which display how physically strong and how sane they are, stats which can go up or down during exploration.
Exploration is one of the big draws of the game, as “Betrayal” provides players with an entirely different layout of the house every time they play. Each room is represented on a single tile, each with at least one doorway printed on its side. When passing through a doorway with no room on the other side, a player may draw a tile from the stack and position it so that the doorways connect before going in. Furthermore, some tiles may only be placed on certain floors (like the second floor on the basement), which in turn gives the game some much-needed verticality that many of its contemporaries lack.
Upon entering a room for the first time, the player will reveal a symbol or effect printed on the card. Some effects are straightforward and may apply to anyone who steps inside, usually resulting in some kind of stat change or the discovery of a hidden passage. Others, however, only apply to the one who stepped into the room for the first time: and those are drawn from three different decks of cards. As such, when you enter a room and see the symbol printed in its corner, you’re required to draw its corresponding card. These can be beneficial, such as items (weapons, armor, first-aid kits and other tools that can help you survive the house). Others may expose your character to unimaginable horrors, like the Events – they can make your hapless survivor stronger or further erode at their sanity, should they fail the die roll associated with them. And then… There’s the Omens.
Practically speaking, Omen cards are no different from the other cards – more often they function exactly like items, giving you some kind of (often supernatural) tool to use to defend yourself, or a decent stat increase due to a mystical event. But beyond their practical use as aids to the character, Omens also have a chance of turning the entire game on its head. Upon drawing an Omen card, the player must roll six dice (“Betrayal” uses special dice for its stat checks with zero, one and two dots on its sides). If the number rolled is lower than or equal to the number of Omen cards that have been drawn throughout the game, the Haunt begins.
The Haunt, of course, is where “Betrayal” truly shines. Depending on what Omen triggered it and in which room, one of fifty different scenarios will begin playing out (100 if you also own the expansion, “Widow’s Walk”, which adds more rooms and cards in addition to those scenarios). Depending on the rolled scenario, one player will be revealed as having been the monster this whole time, and will usually receive some kind of supernatural power-up. Perhaps they gain a pet dragon, or summon a ghost, or receive the power of immortality. Whatever the case, since the Traitor’s goal is now to hunt down and brutally slay the rest of the survivors, you can bet he or she will be appropriately powered up to do it.
On the other hand, the Survivors’ goal becomes to deal with the threat – and more often than not, it’s not as simple as merely killing the Traitor. Different scenarios will have different requirements which must be fulfilled, ranging from tracking down items in certain rooms to completing stat checks at various locations. While the Survivors are the majority, they also need to balance completing their objective with staying alive long enough to do it. The fact that the game can play out in one of fifty distinctly different ways (possibly even more, since it’s unlikely for the same scenario to also have the same traitor) keeps “Betrayal” fresh and enjoyable no matter how many times it’s been pulled out of the shelf.
As mentioned, the game gives players access to 12 different characters – each miniature can stand in for two different characters, giving you plenty of options to pick from despite the limited number of physical pieces. Those characters include:
Professor Longfellow, a brilliant, yet broke scientist of noble birth who’s looking for his big break, as well as Father Rhinehardt, a criminal turned priest haunted by both the crimes he hears about in the confessional and his own. Father Rhinehardt is notable for having the highest starting Sanity out of any other character.
Vivian Lopez, a small bookshop owner and a closeted arsonist who fears burning alive almost as much as she loves watching other things burn, alongside Madame Zostra, a fortune teller who hit it big with her own astrology business. Madame Zostra’s stats are very balanced, while Vivian is very physically weak, but book-smart.
Ox Bellows, a big guy and a bully forever changed by an event in his past that made him go too far, as well as “Flash” Williams, a track runner suffering from paranoid delusions who feels that he’s constantly chased by something. The stats here should be obvious – Flash has the highest speed out of any character, while Ox is no pushover in a fight.
Jenny LeClerc, a quiet bookworm orphaned at a young age when her mother disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and Heather Granville, a vain, popular girl who sees herself as perfect and hates the idea of anything having flaws, least of all her. Heather is a more all-around balanced character, while Jenny is smart, but not very strong.
Peter Akimoto, a boy abused by his family who often spends his days outside hunting for bugs, and Brandon Jaspers, an athletic kid tormented by a haunted puppet. These two characters are the most similar to each other, as Peter is a little smarter while Brandon is a little stronger, but beyond that they have the same stats.
Zoe Ingstrom, a small child emotionally scarred by a family tragedy that uses dolls to relay her emotions, and Missy Dubourde, a psychopath in the making that loves to kill small animals and cut them up to examine their insides. These two are like polar opposites of each other, as Zoe’s tragedies have strengthened her mental fortitude while Missy is teetering on the brink of insanity.
The Big Problem
While the randomized nature of “Betrayal” is by far its strongest asset, it’s also, unfortunately, undoubtedly its biggest weakness. It’s important to note that while the Haunt is guaranteed to happen after the 12th Omen card has been drawn, it can also happen at any point after the first, and when exactly it occurs will shift the balance of power towards the Survivors or the Traitor, at times drastically. Given the power-up that the Traitor receives, an early-game Haunt practically guarantees that the Traitor will mop the floor with the Survivors, some of whom might not even have any items yet. On the other hand, a late-game Haunt, where the Survivors have explored most of the house and are armed to the teeth with armor and weapons, means that the Traitor’s odds of winning are slim to none.
There’s also the fact that, even ignoring that element of randomness, some scenarios simply favor the Traitor or the Survivor. One scenario will give the Traitor no power-ups except for a banshee that he or she can’t even directly control. Another will shuffle the rooms entirely and force the Survivors to re-explore the entire house from scratch while taking damage every turn – damage which lowers their stats, reducing their chances of succeeding in the roll with every turn. While that’s obviously not true, at times it certainly feels like not all of the scenarios included in the game have been properly tested and balanced, and most lean heavily towards one side or the other.
Of course, this is only a problem if you’re playing to win… Which isn’t always the goal of a board game, even competitive ones. If you go into “Betrayal” with the mindset that you’ll be giving it 110% to walk out a winner, expect to be disappointed. That’s simply not how the game works, and there is no optimal strategy to help you secure the win. Even if there was, that would probably ruin half the fun. After all, the randomness of “Betrayal”, and being forced to deal with unexpected events as they happen, is part of the fun. While you can probably min-max every available scenario, that would likely result in very boring games.
Overall, if you’re not looking for something crazy competitive, we can’t recommend “Betrayal” enough! Not only does its main draw of shaking up the game every time you play work wonderfully, but it also manages to take several complicated mechanics (RPG stat checks, map exploration, item and resource management, etc) and simplify them down to their barest essentials, so that they work for the game rather than against it. You don’t need a group of RPG nerds to appreciate this one – you can play it with your friends, co-workers and family, and they’ll all have a spooky good time!
OUR RATING: BUY IT TO OWN
(Possible ratings: Buy it to Own, Play at a Friend’s House, Ignore it Forever, Burn it on Sight)
- The game plays very differently every time
- The scenarios are extremely creative and borrow from all of horror history
- The RPG mechanics are simple and offer depth without being overwhelming
- Six hand-painted minifigs and dozens of tokens and elements
- Extremely unbalanced and not particularly fun to play competitively
- Some scenarios favor the Traitor or Survivors a bit too much
I am a professional copywriter and editor for big iGaming companies. Board games are a big passion of mine! I love playing board games with friends, testing and reviewing new ones.