Jan 11, 2017

The Neverending Betrayal at House on the Hill

With the release of the Widow's Walk expansion I and my beloved boardgaming (also, you know, proper) friends decided to return to Betrayal at House on the Hill, only to discover we had never really left. We never actually stopped playing this game, and even though we were all busy appreciating what the expansion did for it, and how subtly Widow's Walk managed to integrate itself into the overall experience, I just couldn't help myself. I kept on wondering why on earth we were so happy with what essentially seemed like more of the same.

The obvious answer, of course, is that this was exactly what we all wanted. More of the same, only slightly better. More weird procedural buildings, and more weird stories to play through, even more variety, a few much needed clarifications, new cards, and an extra floor, and we'd be perfectly happy.

Then again, I do for a fact know just how easily I'm bored when it comes to playing the same boardgames over and over again. There are favourites of mine like Space Alert, Carcassone, and Ticket To Ride I haven't touched in ages, and I did notice three years separating my two latest Space Hulk campaigns. So, really, why have I/we stuck with Betrayal at House on the Hill?

Sadly, I haven't managed to come up with an incredibly elegant answer that will solve ancient game design problems and provide invaluable insights, but I have at least come to the realization that this game has a lot going for it, and it all starts with coming in a lovely box:

What's more, and beside those ominous greens, Betrayal is incredibly easy to explain to new players; even to complete boardgaming novices. The fact that it is played in two phases, with the first one being completely co-operative, further helps ease newbies into their first game, and makes sure they've got the game's simple set of rules all figured out before things heat up. When the haunting happens and the slightly more demanding and definitely more interesting second phase begins they are ready to enjoy the game.

Said second phase of the game where one (usually) player becomes the traitor and the rest work together to foil her/his satanic/silly plan is the meat of Betrayal, and sits comfortably at the core of what apparently makes me love it. There are, you see, 50 wildly different scenarios -- every haunting results in one being chosen -- offered in the base game, and another 50 in the expansion, and though not all are equally well designed or outlandish, they all come with their unique mechanics to play with and different stories to tell.

Things never get old. Never get boring or repetitive. The traitor might turn into a huge snake, the investigators might have to stop the mansion from flying away into space in true Rocky Horror fashion, horrible incantations might have to be chanted, a movie director might have to pick a suitable actor, and every scenario is so different on every level the game can never feel stale. Good writing, clear goals, dozens of counters for all sorts of monsters and items, and mechanics that change but remain familiar, certainly do more than merely help support things. They turn the game into a consistent canvas for the dozens of its scenarios to be played out.

Even if/when you get to run into the same scenario twice, chances are the role and condition of each player and the layout of the mansion will be different. Besides, knowing what to expect from the other side will allow Betrayal to become more strategic than usual. Oh, and did I mention how delightfully asymmetric the game is or how cunningly it disguises the goals of each side from the other? Well, it is and it does, and it's all the better for it. 

To the clever mechanics and the constant expectation of fresh stories, add the procedural nature of the game board and the Event and Omen cards that sometimes manage to construct brilliant micro narratives within the main stories. Simply exploring the mansion and expanding the board is a joy in and of itself. And I did once draw a card that had my future self appear and give me some rather handy weapons, only to draw another card 5 turns later that had me giving items back to my past self. 

Frankly, I can't help but enjoy each and every one of those delightful moments Betrayal at House on the Hill has to offer. I can't help but appreciate every weird new idea the game presents me with. And I frankly can't think of anything else to add, but suggest that you try Betrayal out at least once, and that you should feel free to make more games like it for me to enjoy. Oh, and have a look here to get an idea of how the thing plays.

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