[Tuesday Board Game Night] Betrayal at House on the Hill

Alex, Sascha, Luke and Nonnie (left to right) all look on at the house on the hill in all its Escherean architectural glory.

Alex, Sascha, Luke and Nonnie (left to right) all look on at the house on the hill in all its Escherean architectural glory.

Board game night this week was a real treat. In honor of the Halloween season — and the fact we hadn’t played it in pretty much a year — Alex brought Betrayal at House on the Hill, an Avalon Hill title dating from the days when Wizards of the Coast actually published games under the imprint that aren’t Axis & Allies.

Let me be frank up front: I adore Betrayal at House on the Hill. And by “adore,” I mean “squeal gleefully as it’s unpacked.” It has everything I love in a board game: strong theme, cooperative play, utterly unexpected twists and a delightful sense of humor.

When the game begins, every player chooses a character. I selected the young ruffian “Flash,” who’s as speedy as the name implies. Flash and the other four characters gathered in the entry hall of an old house up on the hill, resolved to check out the spooky goings-on. Since Betrayal at House on the Hill is about emulating horror movies at its heart, the first part of the game is about the characters exploring the dilapidated hallways and bizarre rooms. Naturally, the best way to do this is to split up, in true horror movie fashion.

The house is randomly generated every day. When a character passes through an unexplored door, a tile is drawn from the deck. The back of each room tile indicates on which floor it might be found; so when my character Flash immediately ran upstairs, whenever he entered a new room up there, the tile drawn could only be one marked as Upper Level on the back. Inappropriate tiles are discarded, to be recycled later. Depending on the room drawn, one of four things might happen:

  1. An Omen appears. Omens are signs and objects that portend the haunt portion of the game. Sometimes it’s a horrifying sight, like Hanged Men, other times it’s a bizarre artifact like the Spirit Board. Whenever an Omen is drawn, the player rolls dice equal to the number of Omens that have been drawn. If they roll less than the number of Omens drawn, the haunt begins. So rolling high is good in this case and becomes progressively more unlikely as characters explore the house and trigger more Omens.
  2. An Event occurs. These are spooky occurrences that are usually detrimental to the characters who experience them, but not always. On Flash’s first move, he stumbled into a revolving wall in the Library and wound up trapped on the other side, because I didn’t think he had the Knowledge rating to figure out how the reverse mechanism. The bummer was he could have bumped up his Knowledge if he ended his turn in the Library.
  3. An Item is found. Usually they’re helpful things like a Lucky Stone or Rope. Nonnie was the queen of found stuff this game, not only breaking into the Vault in the basement, but picking up odds and ends everywhere in her travels.
  4. Nothing happens. I found this the most anti-climactic of possibilities, since I like something to happen when I enter a room, even if it terrible for my character.

So that’s how the game went on for a good long while. Flash made good use of his high Speed tearing around the upper floor. Alex’s mad scientist joined me. Sascha’s scrappy kid picked up an alarming amount of arcane knowledge kicking around the ground floor, including a most unsettling mask that reduces Sanity as it bestows Knowledge. Nonnie’s fortune teller fell down into the basement, where she successfully broke into the Vault. And Luke’s teeny-bopper, well, I’m not sure what she did, beyond miraculously not trigger any Omens or acquire Items.

Eventually, though, we revealed enough Omens that someone couldn’t make the haunt roll. As it happened, it was me who caused it upon finding a Crystal Ball. It’s hard rolling six hits on dice with blanks and no side with a value more than 2. This began the second half of the game, dubbed the haunt, which is a scenario that usually involves one player becoming the eponymous traitor, pitting the other players against him or her. When the haunt triggers, the players consult a table. By cross-referencing the Omen that triggered the haunt and the room in which it was uncovered, we found we would be playing a scenario entitled Lost. Luke’s teeny-bopper revealed herself as the traitor, so he left the room with the traitor’s manual to discover his goal while Alex read out our information from the survivor’s manual.

As fate had it, this particular haunted house was a transdimensional vehicle of sorts. The final Omen caused it to abruptly shift to another plane entirely, the one from which Luke’s character happened to originate. In the process, the architecture of the house shifted in bizarre ways. None of the characters knew what might lie outside the room in which they stood. All we knew was we needed to play the organ successfully to go home — 18 hits on a Knowledge roll — which Luke elected to relocate to the basement, when it had only been a few spaces away from my own Flash. There were also a number of aids we could seek out to boost the result of that Knowledge roll: music sheets in the Library, a Book of arcane lore, star sightings from the Tower, and so on. We had to hurry, too, because the noxious atmosphere from outside slowly penetrated the house, poisoning our characters. And Luke’s character had an agenda to fulfill: killing us.

So the haunt turned out to be more of the first half of the game: re-exploring a house that was completely different in layout from the one our characters entered. Since Nonnie had the Spirit Board, which allowed her to peek at the top of the tile deck, and I had the Crystal Ball, which let me search for specific cards and tiles to place on top of their respective decks at the risk of going insane, we had an advantage in trying to find specific rooms and Items. I kept prowling the upper story of the house, since I assigned myself the meta-mission of finding the Underground Lake, which happened to have been incorrectly labeled on the back as an Upper Story room; I love pulling that tile, just for the ludicrosity of a lake on the second level of a house. Along the way, Flash discovered bizarre stuffed trophies in the Game Room that gave a hint as to where the characters foun themselves and put the Book at the top of the Omen deck for Sascha’s scrappy kid to find. The extradimensional atlas did nothing to allay the kid’s creep factor.

Meanwhile, Luke positioned himself beside the Organ Room itself, apparently taking the stance of waiting for us to come to him. That changed, however, and he started exploring the house himself, probably looking for gear to help his character in offing the rest of us. He also got way into the role of the horrific nemesis, laughing madly — though with good nature, I hope — as our characters began to suffer the deleterious effects of the local atmosphere and particularly when dust clouds choked Flash, dropping his Speed from a healthy 6 to the last stop on that character’s card before death.

Even after Luke’s teeny-bopper took the fight to the hapless investigators, we didn’t suffer too badly. Alex’s mad scientist took an entire hit from the atmosphere poisoning himself, since he, Sascha and Nonnie had coordinated a mass drop and pick-up of equipment that included a very handy Healing Salve. Upon grabbing all the Knowledge-boosting and scenario-specific items, Alex dropped into the basement via the Coal Chute and promptly banged out the right song on the organ to return the house to Earth, handily rolling in excess of the eighteen hits we needed thanks to the bonuses the investigators amassed.

And that was one truly amazing Betrayal at House on the Hill session for me. The game’s just as magical as I remember — though the fact the haunt scenario made sense certainly helped; some of the scenarios make less sense than others. It’s also out of print and ridiculously hard to find, so if you ever get the opportunity to play, take it!

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