Betrayal at House on the Hill

Does anyone else find this title rather awkward? Shouldn’t it be “the House on the Hill” or something?

Regardless, what we have here is, in style, essentially an extremely light roleplaying game. Each player gets a “character” who is rated in two physical and two mental attributes – Speed, Strength, Sanity, and Knowledge. You then wander around a randomly-constructed house, making ability checks (which are done by rolling a number of d3s equal to your rating in that ability against a target number), and gathering stuff, Talisman-style.

At some point then one player is revealed to be a traitor. He or she then faces off against the remainder of the players, with both sides reading separate entries corresponding to a randomly-generated scenario and are given distinct victory conditions. First to succeed at their appointed task wins. This is unlikely to be the traitor.

For those of you who were playing AD&D circa 1980, you may remember that in Appendix A of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (© 1979), page 169, there was a scheme for randomly generating dungeons that you could “play” solitaire. This reminds me of that, albeit with the “betrayal” twist. Admittedly, if you’ve got more than 3 players, the Traitor is likely to be creamed unless he’s very lucky.

This kind of game (one versus many) can be done, and has been done well in the past – Lord of the Rings: Sauron, for one, or Scotland Yard. I think what kills this game is just the probabilities. The amount of fun you are going to have is directly proportional to the number of decent or interesting “keeper” cards you draw throughout the game; you get these randomly for exploring the house. If you draw a few and they are useful, you’ll have some tactical and strategic options, and the game could theoretically be minimally engaging. If you draw few or none, you’ll be bored silly, and if you turn out to be the traitor, you’ll be roadkill. With more than 4 players, it’s overwhelmingly likely someone (or two) will be in this position (I pity the poor traitor facing down 4 or 5 other players). Even with 4, there just aren’t enough good cards distributed to make the game engaging for everyone.

The other problem with the game is that I have no real evidence that any of the scenarios were proofread, never mind playtested. My impression is, it’s kind of a crap shoot – maybe you’ll get a scenario that sounded good when the author wrote it; or maybe you’ll get one someone actually played once or twice.

“But it’s an ambiance game!”, I hear you cry. To which I say, bah. How can you really get into a game which is so random? If you were playing a D&D dungeon crawl, and it became apparent that the DM was just rolling up the dungeon as you go along from that aforementioned solitaire D&D system, and it didn’t matter if you went right or left, wouldn’t that kind of kill the game? Ambiance requires structure at some level. This game doesn’t have any.

Now it should be said, I am clearly not in the target market for this game. This is aimed squarely at people who like Munchkin, a game to which it is a close relative, although it is somewhat less tedious. I’m not clear if this is a target market that actually thinks Munchkin is a great game, or if they prefer unchallenging games (activities really), or if it’s a segment that simply doesn’t know any better – the reasons for the popularity of Munchkin are ultimately elusive to me (I certainly appreciate the humor, but that clearly only accounts for about 20 minutes of the play time of the first game). Anyway, I doubt there are too many serious Munchkin fans amongst my readers, so Betrayal at House on the Hill is probably one to avoid.

Postscript: I see that the designer is Dr. Bruce Glassco. I remember reading recently (I think it was in Against the Odds, actually) a bit complaining about game designers – wargames designers in that case – who use the “Dr” honorific in their design credits, even though their PhD is at best marginally relevant to the task of designing games. This is, apparently, a no-no. I am sympathetic to this complaint; Herr Knizia certainly is never credited as “Dr.”. I don’t know if it’s an issue in this particular case (maybe Glassco really does have a game design PhD?), but one would have to say that the odds are pretty low.

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