Disclaimer: Sometimes, a third edition is a person’s first.
The first edition of Betrayal at the House on the Hill burst onto the gaming scene in 2004. Published by Avalon Hill, the core concept of a survival horror game that offered a brand-new story every time you played it resonated with a fanbase hungry for games that offered challenge and longevity in equal measures. With a tight focus on randomised events, secret scenarios, and its literal killer hook – the moment in each game where one player turns Lex Luthor on his one-time allies – the game nevertheless suffered at the hands of reviewers. The ruleset was confusing, game-breaking exploits proliferated throughout, and scenarios were often poorly written. Still, others praised its ability to simulate the storytelling capacity of role-playing games while removing the need for a GM to ensure everything ran smoothly. The game went on to win the much-coveted Origin Gamer’s Choice Award of 2004.
A second edition was released in 2010, followed by an expansion in 2016 called ‘Widow’s Walk’ and two special themed editions, one based on Dungeons and Dragons and the other on Scooby Doo of all things. A ‘Legacy’ version came out in 2020, offering a prologue and ongoing campaign that spanned decades as per Daviau's Risk Legacy formula, after which Avalon Hill went quiet on the franchise for a couple of years.
And if that recap brings warm and fuzzy notes of nostalgia to your sensibilities. If it reminds you of soft-focus memories of extended sessions of backstabbing betrayals and skin-of-the-teeth saves back in those ancient, pre-iPhone, not-quite-yet-online early noughties. Then, well, kudos to you. Because the truth is, this game slipped right past me. The first edition failed to register, and whilst I recall manhandling the second edition at a gaming store somewhere in the lower East side of Washington, DC, I never went through with the purchase. Nor, for that matter, did any of my gaming buddies.
As I said, sometimes a third edition is your first, and I confess, I went into this review a certified betrayal virgin.
The Third Time’s A Charm Offensive
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a fresh pair of eyes.
Betrayal at the House on the Hill arrives as a rather modestly sized box set. Inside, you’ll find a series of map tiles reminiscent of Mansions of Madness, laid out similarly, with players revealing new areas via actions within the game. There’s no need for an app here since all the instructions for the various scenarios are contained within one of two booklets—more on those later. Up to six players take on the role of investigators and take turns exploring the haunted house tile by tile, collecting items, resolving events, and encountering mysterious ‘omens’ --magical tools with game-changing properties -- via three separate decks of cards of the same name. Players might experience a trap, find a lucky rabbit's foot, brave a sudden storm, make their way to a different part of the mansion via a dumb waiter, or lose their minds at the uncovering of forbidden knowledge. It’s all standard fare for a game exploring a haunted house.
Until it isn’t, this game is – after all -- about a betrayal at the house on the hill.
A haunt will begin at some point, and in most cases, that means that one of your allies around the table will turn on you. Who that person might be is controlled either by the cards themselves – with a player drawing a card that informs them that they are indeed something of a treacherous swine who simply cannot be trusted – or by a roll of the dice – with a ‘haunting’ becoming increasingly likely as the game progresses. Regardless, the game's second phase starts as soon as the haunt begins.
Herein lies the intrinsic brilliance of the game, a central conceit that stands in testament to the game’s longevity. The aforementioned twin booklets come in two flavours. Secrets of Survival provides those players who have remained faithful to the group with all the information they need to play out the particular haunt fate has thrust upon them. The second booklet – the aptly named Traitor’s Tome -- contains all the necessary information to screw over your former companions if you find yourself playing the role of the not-so-friendly turncoat for the evening. Both sets of instructions are kept secret from one another. What follows is a generally asymmetrical struggle between the players and the perfidious supernatural being you once considered a close friend and now suddenly find yourself attempting to murder.
Game Over It
Avalon Hill has done a masterful job here with Betrayal. The game is well-written, easy to pick up and, frankly, a shed load of fun. Combine that with quality, beautifully illustrated tiles, and thoughtfully crafted card decks, and you have a game you’ll want to come back to. There are 50 different scenarios to play through, and even if you find yourself repeating one or two of them, the inherent variation of tile placement and randomly selected traitors keeps things fresh. Facing off against an (often overpowered) player-controlled villain forces levels of cooperation rarely seen in such games; all for one and one for all feels like an apt descriptor for once.
The game is also mercifully brief; set up takes minutes, and playtime is around 60 minutes. Playing several games in a row is perfectly doable, allowing everyone a chance to turn traitor.
Because, let’s be honest, that moment of cackling betrayal? The chance to stab your mates in the back and lord a stupendous victory over them?
That’s the best bit, eh?