Thursday, November 15, 2012

Partial Co-Op Horror: Betrayal at House on the Hill (3-6 players)

"Betrayal is an innovative, unpredictable and fun game, especially if you are a horror buff."

Betrayal at the House on the Hill is a partial co-op board game for 3-6 players, ages 12+, that draws its inspiration from classic horror stories; we've recently started calling it "Cabin in the Woods" The Boardgame.

What's a Cooperative Board Game?

Cooperative board games allow the players to work together against a timeline built into the game's mechanics. Each cooperative game handles the timeline concept differently, but this allows the players to work as a team to achieve a goal instead of working against one another. Cooperative games are great gateway games for people who have only played Parker Brothers-style games. They are also excellent introductory games for younger players.

Partial Co-Op?

Most cooperative games give options for adversarial play: Shadows Over Camelot spices the game with a potential traitor, while Pandemic has a Bioterrorist expansion. In Betrayal, the players work together through Act I only to discover that one of their allies is a traitor, triggering the Act II confrontation. The twist in Betrayal is that there are 50 potential Act II's and you don't know which terrible thing is happening until it happens.


In Act I, the players work together to explore an old house they've become trapped in. During this exploration phase each player moves through the board adding map tiles, finding items and triggering events, both beneficial and detrimental.

Exploring new rooms can effect your stats (stopping in the Gymnasium increases your Speed, while failing a check in the Junk Room causes you to twist and ankle and reduce your Speed). Rooms can also force you to draw Item, Event, or Omen cards. Item and Event cards are exactly what they sound like. Omen cards, though, are the heart of Betrayal's unique mechanic.

Omen cards can be items (like an amulet, book or ring) or living beings (madman, dog, young girl). After an Omen card is drawn, the player who drew the card rolls the dice. If the dice total is less than the number of Omen cards currently in play, the Haunt is triggered, one player becomes the betrayer and the game moves to Act II.

The Haunt that is triggered depends on the room in which the most recent Omen card was drawn. For example, if the Haunt triggered after drawing the Dog Omen card in the Servent's Quarters, you cross reference Dog with Servent's Quarters on a chart and it refers you to the Haunt called "I was a Teenage Werewolf." In that scenario, the betrayer becomes a werewolf out to murder his friends. The remaining players must find the right weapons to kill the werewolf and win, while their former ally (and his dog) hunts them down.

The "I was a Teenage Werewolf" Haunt has the simplest goal in the game--kill or be killed. Haunts are often a combination of completing rituals, finding items, or even escaping the mansion in a toy airplane. Of course zombies, vampires, mummies and murderous siblings also make appearances. I once triggered a ritual that caused the house to be sucked into Hell one room at a time. The other players had to locate specific objects and perform rituals in certain rooms to stop me, all while the house was collapsing around them. In that game, killing me wasn't the goal (though they tried anyway).


Map setup is easy. There are three tiles you need to locate; the Starter tile, the Coal shoot (the starting tile for the basement) and the Upper Landing (the starting tile for the upstairs area). The rest of the map tiles are shuffled and stacked to one side. Map tiles are drawn randomly as a character reaches an unopened door. The back of each tile tell you whether it can be added to the basement, ground floor or upper floor. If the tile on the top of the stack can't be added to the floor you're on, set the tile aside and keep drawing until you find one that can. Many tiles, like the Mystic Elevator, can be added to any floor.

Separate the Omen, Item and Event cards and put them to the side.

Each player then picks a character. There are six, double-sided colored character tiles (and six color-matched miniatures), giving you 12 characters to choose from. Once the players pick a character they take 4 plastic sliders, one for each ability score, and attach them to their character on the designated starting numbers. When the character takes damage or collects items, they move the corresponding slider to the new number.

The four stats are Speed, Might, Knowledge and Sanity. Speed tells you how many room tiles your character can move in a turn. Might is most often used in hand-to-hand combat. Knowledge is used to perform rituals, use mystic objects and pick locks. Sanity can be used to defend against events or use certain items. You can take damage to any stat and when any stat is reduced to zero, the character dies. Death, though, can only occur after the Haunt is triggered.

On The Table

The game isn't complicated, though the rule book makes it sound that way. After one or two games, mechanics like making skill checks become second nature. Part of the early game strategy is deciding if the players are going to explore the mansion together, split into groups, or divide and conquer. Since you don't know which Haunt you're playing until it triggers, the choice is uninformed and can make a huge difference. If the group is huddled together and the betrayer turns into a werewolf, the group may die before they can find the right weapon. However, if the group splits up and one player has an item that another player needs to complete a ritual, the betrayer may find a way to stop them.

The randomness of the Event cards reduces the feeling that the players have some control over their choices. Many events have the player roll dice to determine a random effect, which prevents them from being actively engaged in the story. Not knowing which Haunt will trigger can make exploration in Act I feel a bit random. Having said that, Act II has always been worth it.

Replay value is the game's most prominant feature. The combination of Omen and location tells you which of 50 scenarios the players will be acting out. I've played over a dozen times and have never played the same game twice.

Final Verdict

Betrayal is an innovative, unpredictable and fun game, especially if you are a horror buff. Like "Cabin in the Woods," Betrayal pays homage to scores of classic horror tropes. The mechanic pitting betrayer and betrayed against one another makes Act II engaging. Unfortunately, moving through Act I can sometimes feel like a grind if the Haunt takes a long time to trigger. The more often you play, though, the faster the rounds move and the quicker the game moves to Act II.

Like many games, Betrayal has a lot of cardboard chits. I always suggest picking up a box of snack-sized ziplock bags to keep your games organized.


Please remember to support your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) whenever possible. Many FLGSs have demo copies of their most popular games. They may also have game nights, tournaments and open demonstrations as well.

Live in the San Diego, California area? Visit my favorite FLGS: Game Empire. You can also check out gaming organizations like the San Diego Board Games Group, the College Area Board Games Group, and Geek Girls of San Diego.

Living in the Owensboro, Kentucky area? Check out my new favorite area store: Big Bang

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