There is an unexplained attraction to the sinister, the malevolent. What should send us running for the hills, instead ignites a deep seeded curiosity, and fearful though we may be, we stare those horrors down and delve deeper into the mystery. The horror genre has become even more popular over the years, where it was once limited to literature and the occasional psychological thriller, we are now inundated with slasher movies, gory video games, and zombies wherever you look. Even music has gotten into horror, there’s literally no place in the modern world where the genre hasn’t slithered into. Maybe some find it comforting in a way, no matter how scary the real world is; at least we’re not facing some alien virus or mass murderer (well, hopefully not). For some, it’s the adrenaline rush, and for others, simply an attraction to the macabre. For whatever our reasons and however far we take it, we all seem to like a little dark fiction here and there.
Horror has been at home in gaming since the beginning, since gaming is essentially rooted in storytelling, whether actually creating a story, or just running through one, and horror is all about stories. Board games and role-playing games favour the horror genre especially, as the settings are always thick with suspense and always carry an aspect of dealing with the unknown, which keeps games fun and exciting, and keeps players involved and engaged in the action. But often the success in such a game will depend a lot on the players themselves, how well do they get into their characters, how precisely was the plot planned and executed, was the mood set, and did the group cultivate a sense of increasing apprehension as the story unfolded. Sometimes, even with a brilliantly designed game, with new players or the wrong environment, the feeling of the game just doesn’t capture those elements essential to horror.
Betrayal at House on the Hill is not one of those games. The designers of this game really tried to cover all the bases on this one, and I think they have done so more successfully than any other horror board game on the market. The game follows a very simple initial premise of a small group of people who get trapped in a ‘horror house’. The people are forced to explore, if for no other reason than to find a way out. Here, Betrayal makes its first step in keeping the game fresh and exciting, by using the tile system of revealing a game board instead of having a fixed, never changing layout for the house. By using this method, each turn a player explores further into the house, a new, random room is revealed, meaning no two games will have the same layout, and there will always be a sense of anticipation.
Is it a good or bad location, is it the room you’ve been searching for, or something that will further hinder your progress? Just like a good horror movie, you can’t really predict where you’re going to wind up next. Each tile is also marked with a symbol, indicating a development in the story; maybe the player has found some gear, or a trap he needs to overcome, or an omen of dark things drawing closer. With the symbols, and card decks they correspond to, Betrayal adds another layer of randomness to the game, but unlike other games, there is an order to these random encounters, because for each dark omen faced, the game moves one step closer to the lurking threat becoming revealed, and the second phase of the game beginning.
The next point, and probably the most innovative idea to keep that suspense from dying down in game, is the Haunt phase. When enough omens have appeared, a haunt will begin. There are 50 different haunts, each an entirely unique horror scenario within the house, that each challenges the players in completely different ways. The Haunt phase also introduces another game mechanic to keep the players on edge: The Traitor mechanic. As the haunt is
revealed, which will explain to the players exactly what kind of evil they’re up against in this hell house, it will also expose a player or players as the enemy, whether through possession or having secretly been a traitor all along, or one of the other many scenarios - the game will explain exactly who the heroes and villains are, what they’re trying to accomplish, and what they need to do in order to win. And these scenarios are so diverse and well planned, from stopping a mummy curse, to swarms of monsters, or a psychopath who has set the perfect trap. Players are kept on their toes, exhilarated and excited, from the moment of selecting a character to play, to the time of their heroic victory, or their gruesome demise. Game play is simple and easy to jump into, the board tiles and cards all look suitably creepy, and the figures help players to really get into the visualization of the nightmare unfolding before them.
Some people have complained that due to the randomness involved in the game, sometimes one side might be overpowered when the haunt is revealed, or an objective might be far too easy to achieve simply because of the order of which tiles or cards had come into play. Yes, sometimes a game might be much easier than another due to this, and sometimes it might be insanely difficult. This might be something that could annoy a player with the game. But keep in mind, this isn’t really a competitive game. Yes, there are victory conditions according to the scenario revealed, but the game is really more about the unfolding story, and about the fun in playing it. Sometimes those completely unbalanced games actually make the best stories after all. And the best stories always make the best memories.
Boardgame and graphic novel enthusiast. Marvel or DC? Image. Old-school gamer. Avid role-player. Kermit for president. I believe that werewolves will rule the world one day.
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