In Betrayal at House on the Hill, you and two to five friends ignored all horror movie logic and decided to explore an abandoned mansion. Then, one of you turned traitor. With the Dungeons & Dragons licence now at their disposal, however, Avalon Hill have swapped ghosts for goblins, werewolves for warlocks, and dumbwaiters for dungeons, with Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate.
But how does it differ from its predecessor? And is stabbing your friends in the back still as fun as it sounds?
It's all Fun and Games Until...
Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate remains a game of two halves. After a relatively brief set-up of between five to 10 minutes, players select their character from a number of familiar fantasy RPG archetypes (Cleric, Rogue, Bard). These characters then have their own special abilities, ranging from self-healing to unique attacks, and varying stat numbers for Speed, Might, Sanity and Knowledge. These stats indicate the amount of dice players roll for skill tests.
Having always started in the same location (the tavern, because D&D), the players are then free to explore the streets, catacombs and buildings, creating the board as they go. By opening doors, the players slowly expand the map, drawing location tiles which range from RPG staples like the Weapon Shop or Trading Post, to a Dead End or Trash Pile. Some locations then provide stat boosts, increasing the number of dice for skill tests and the likelihood of success, whilst others have hazards which risk inflicting damage. In a nice gameplay touch, player damage is applied by lowering one of your stats, weakening you for your next test. If one stat reaches the skull icon during the second phase of the game, that player is dead.
Most important, however, is the accompanying symbol on each location indicating whether that player draws an Item, Event or Omen card. Item cards provide players with equipment to further boost their stats, such as potions, rings or weapons. Event cards, meanwhile, are where most skill tests are found, with players being caught in storms, ambushed by bandits, or seeing glimpses of the future. Lastly, Omen cards move the game into its second stage.
Based around various spooky objects such as a Homonculus or Cursed Armour, when an Omen card is drawn that player must make a Haunt roll. In contrast to the occasionally clunky system in House on the Hill where players would always roll six dice and hope to roll under the number of Omen cards, in Baldur’s Gate players roll dice equal to the number of Omen cards in play. If they roll equal to or above six, the Haunt begins.
....Someone Turns Traitor
The Haunt is when the game changes to one of 50 possible scenarios, all vastly different from one another. Most of these lead to the game becoming one vs. all, but occasionally the game morphs into a full co-operative adventure or the traitor plays on in secret.
The player who triggered the Haunt must consult a table in the front of the Traitor’s Tome which informs them of the scenario and who has become the traitor. These scenarios draw from famous D&D adventures like The Gulthias Tree or Ravenloft, with flavour text establishing stakes and making each feel like a true role-playing adventure.
Often, the traitor will then remain in the room and set-up the board for that scenario, whilst the remaining players exit with the Survivor’s Booklet to talk strategy. The game that follows could then be an escort quest in which the traitor desperately fights to kill an NPC the survivors are protecting. Or, the traitor may transform into a monster determined to hunt down the survivors. The variance of these scenarios is one of Baldur’s Gate’s greatest strengths.
One particular favourite when playing was ‘Infernal Machine’. My character, now turned traitor, was consumed by the Infernal Machine and wanted to tear Baldur’s Gate apart. The survivors had to gather Arcane Instructions and then return to me to dismantle the Infernal Machine. Meanwhile, I used board-wide attacks to slowly wear them down.
Most exciting, however, was my ability to move any tile to another location once per turn. This meant that not only were the survivors co-ordinating on the best possible route to gather the Instructions and return to me, but I was constantly plotting how best to interfere with their plans and buy myself as many turns as possible.
Should I Play Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate?
Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate is unpredictable, both for better and worse. Although not co-operative, the first stage of the game maintains a lightness, with each character gaining items, exploring, and buffing themselves in preparation for the Haunt. However, the randomness of drawing locations means that one character may end up with five items whilst another has zero, causing a heavy imbalance the Haunt.
More so, whilst the change in the Haunt roll system adds further unpredictability, with the Haunt potentially starting after only three Omens, a game is also just as likely to go over an hour just exploring if players draw few Omen tiles.
Nevertheless, the flavour text and gameplay mechanics succeed in immersing you into the world. And the excitement constantly builds for the Haunt, with all the tension that comes with not knowing what will follow.
Indeed, the Haunts are where the game truly comes alive, introducing new and varied mechanics to engage with. However, these too are disparate in quality. For instance, in one game, after a particularly long first stage, the Haunt essentially reset the board and repeated the first stage with a lowered Omen target. After all the excitement of building to the Haunt, such a turn of events could not help but feel anticlimactic.
Yet, Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate remains unique. It captures all the spirit and excitement of a dungeon crawl and a role-playing adventure, translated excellently into a board game. Baldur’s Gate is one of those rare games where instead of taking it out of the box because it’s familiar, you bring it out because you are never quite sure what you are going to play.