Saturday, December 27, 2008

Betrayal at House on the Hill Review: Very Nearly Great...

This isn't so much a review, as an exploration of what I think is "off" with this game. Don't get me wrong though, I actually really like this game. (I tend not to play games dozens of times if I don't.)

I'll get back to the vaguely similar Arkham Horror in a future post.

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This isn’t going to be a detailed exploration of how this game works, or even why I think it’s good. I simply wish to explain why I feel it has the potential to be really fantastic, and why I think it falls short of this.

All things considered, I think BaHotH (worst acronym I have ever seen) is a very good game that definitely deserves a reprint, and if you have a chance to snag it for cheap, I’d go for it. There’s a lot of "game" in here, not in the sense that there is any real depth to the gameplay, but that you will have many very different experiences, and two games will virtually never play out the same way. That said, I feel that the game was designed in a rather silly way, which I think needs to be addressed for any potential reprint. Allow me to explain...

For the uninitiated, the way the game works is that, after exploring a creepy old mansion for a while, a "haunt" (scenario) will start, at which point one player will automatically and titularly betray everyone, and the remaining players will frantically work together to fight against some threat ranging from zombies, a giant spider, or even the whole house slowly sinking underwater.

Some scenarios are definitely more balanced than others, and the revised scenario booklet seems to be a bit better than what you get in the box, but as long as you are into the story and theme, and don’t take this sort of game too seriously, this shouldn’t be a problem. Personally I like being thrust up against impossible odds and desperately trying to prevail, though I did run into one scenario (with an alternate dimension and a lot of poisonous gas) which, if I read everything correctly, seems utterly broken.

The problem, for me anyway, is not in the game’s balance. Because the way that the game unfolds is always a little (or sometimes a lot) different, it would be basically impossible to make every scenario balanced for every setup, and I think this variability is a large part of the game’s appeal. The problem I have with the game is this: There are 50 different scenarios, yet only 45 event cards. For most games, the number of cards would be more than sufficient. The problem here is that, while you will only see one scenario, in each game you will see at least a dozen events.

I’ve probably played this game about 20 times, and I’ve never been bored by the scenario itself, but the buildup, where you explore the house drawing cards, begins to feel extremely stale. For example, in at least one out of three games you are likely to be menaced by the ghost of a gardener. When he’s already menaced you in five previous games, he ceases to be particularly threatening or interesting.

From a gameplay perspective, there isn’t all that much variation in the events, and adding more would be a bit redundant, but from a thematic standpoint, the limited number really begin to make the game feel all too familiar. The first 2/3rds or so of the game really isn’t about gameplay anyway; by exploring the house and drawing cards, you are basically randomizing and determining the layout of the house, and the items and stats every player will have when the "real" game starts. This could be done in a far less time consuming manner with some sort initial rolling and shuffling, but the point of it is that it is thematic. You are warily creeping around a house as the tension builds, waiting for the haunt to be triggered. It’s actually a lot of fun... the first couple of times. By the twentieth time it feels like playing a game of Candyland in order to randomize the map for Settlers.

Despite some balance issues, I congratulate them on managing to pack in 50 scenarios, but frankly the game just doesn’t need this many. I’ve played a couple of scenarios more than once, and I can say that they definitely didn’t play out the same way each time. (In fact, I think there’s a lot more variability between two games of Betrayal with the zombie haunt, than two games of Zombies!!!) As I said, I’ve played this game about twenty times, which means that I’ve only seen about a third of the scenarios in the book. Granted if the book were smaller I would have seen more of the same scenarios multiple times, but as I said I don’t see this as a problem. I’d love to face off against Crimson Jack again, but it’s very unlikely that I’ll end up with that scenario a second time. Sure I could simply choose to play that one, but my point is that less time should have been put into making scenarios, and more of it should have been put into making cards. Perhaps the cards were significantly more expensive to produce than pages, but then I say that more events could have been fit onto each event card, and you would have only one of them based on which floor your character happened to be in, like in Arkham Horror.

Personally I much prefer this game to Arkham Horror because it scratches roughly the same itch for me and is far shorter (about 45 minutes), but I say you should go even further. The rules state that the haunt starts after you roll under the number of revealed omens with 6 dice, but I say make it 5, 4 or even 3 dice. You may have to do something to help the good guys out in some way, as they won’t have as much time to beef up, but this will really cut down the tedious early game and get things moving along, and it is how I intend to play from now on. If a new edition is ever released, I hope it either has more event cards (and perhaps fewer and more playtested scenarios), or at least does something to accelerates the early game in some way.

All in all, I really believe that this game deserves a reprint. It has produced very memorable gaming sessions, and I’m very glad I decided to pick up a copy. The way the scenarios work, where the traitor goes off and reads a different set of rules from the good guys, feels very different from anything else I have played. The heroes might need to get a particular item and perform a ritual in a particular room, and the traitor likely has no idea. Maybe the zombies can be killed with the gun, but you won’t know until you try.

This aspect of the game is fun, but the concept of hidden rules has a lot of potential that isn’t fully utilized here, as anyone who has played Mao knows. You could have all kinds of stuff like maybe a witch who curses any player who says a certain word or who has their character pawn facing a certain direction. The possibilities with hidden rules are practically limitless, but the concept is utilized in fairly repetitive ways here. Generally the heroes have to perform one or more skill checks in one or more secret rooms, and the monsters have some stat or item weakness that is unknown to the heroes or the traitor. One of the reasons that there are so many scenarios is so that players won’t remember how to kill zombies, or in what room a ghost must be exercised, but I feel that if the concept of hidden rules isn’t going to be utilized to its fullest potential, these hidden factors might as well be determined through a separate deck of cards denoting particular items or rooms as being important. In this way, the scenario could simply be read aloud by everybody, and only the heroes or the traitor would be allowed to view the cards with the pertinent information such as which rooms were important. I’m not saying that it should have been done this way, I merely wish to reinforce my point that the huge number of scenarios is unnecessary.

Another area in which the game simultaneously succeeds and fails is in the components. They are rather nicely done, and quite durable and nice to handle, but there are also far too many little tokens. In fact, nearly every scenario utilizes a different set of tokens, so there are literally hundreds of little tokens to hunt through when you need twelve of the little round ones that say "Bat." There is nothing particularly thematic or menacing about a little cardboard chit with a word on it, and they all could have been easily replaced with two-dozen generic tokens of some sort. Instead of a scenario asking for some bats, it could simply ask for some of the generic purple triangles, and I assure you that this would be no less thematic. (Bats do not wear little "Bat" nametags in the same way that Radioactive Man does not wear a T-Shirt with his picture on it.)

By shortening the early game, and generifying your tokens so that you don’t have to hunt for the correct ones (or even have to bag them all in the first place), you can cut at least 10 or 15 minutes of fat from what is already an agreeably short meal.

All things considered, if you at least like the concept of B-Horror, and don’t take your lightweight gaming too seriously, BaHotH is almost certainly worth adding to your collection. I’m fairly tired of it now, but it was definitely a fun ride while it lasted, and easily worth the 40 bucks or so CDN I paid for it. There’s really nothing quite like it that I have ever played, and I hope that it or something similar once again sees the light of day in future. But now I have to go. As it turns out, I’m the traitor.:devil: Bwahahahaha...

Happy Haunting!goo

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