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Tuesday, March 15, 2005
DWNTACBW: Board Games
To celebrate the day when Caesar should have kept a closer eye on his mates, I'm going to talk about a board-game I really like, Betrayal at House on the Hill. In this game, three to six players take turns exploring a reputedly haunted mansion. Players choose from one of twelve characters to play, each character having a unique figurine and character card displaying what your character's beginning characteristic in the four "traits" of Speed, Might, Sanity and Knowledge, as well as a few basic facts about your character such as hobbies and birthday. Play starts with the character whose birthday is closest to today's date.
Players build the board by placing various room tiles off of the entrance hallway. Doors marked on the room tiles must be placed with existing doorways in order to create as logical a floor-plan as possible. There are four door ways off of the entrance, and two special tiles that are set aside to represent the second floor landing and the basement entrance. Certain room tiles can only be placed on certain floors, so while the exact layout of the house will vary from game to game, there are some rooms you can reliably expect to find on certain floors. In case you need to get to them in an emergency. Most of the rooms require players to do something once they've entered the room. This usually involves drawing an "Event" or "Item" card, but sometimes there are hazards in the rooms. These hazards mean you must attempt to succeed at a trait roll or face a penalty, usually losing a point in a trait or taking some damage. There are a few rooms that actually allow you to increase one of your traits. Items are, unsurprisingly, items you find in the house that could be useful to you. Events are strange happenings relating to the forces that haunt the house that can either hurt or help you, depending on how well you roll on a trait roll.
There is a third card type, and that's where the game gets interesting. The "Omen" cards that certain rooms instruct you to draw are a special mix of items and events that directly relate to the specific evil haunting the house. Each time a player draws an Omen card, after following the instructions on the card, that player must make a haunt roll on the games special dice (they're numbered from 0 to 2). If the player rolls a number that is less than the number of Omen cards that have been drawn by all players since the game began, the "Haunt" begins. The Haunt is the specific terrifying event that the players must contend with that night. A special chart is included in the two Haunt booklets that has you look up which Omen card in which room the Haunt started in to determine not only which Haunt is to be played, but which player is actually a traitor and working against the other players. In most Haunt scenarios the traitor has a certain number of monstrous assistants to aid him or her in the traitor's efforts to destroy the other players.
More than the randomness of the board layout and the specific Haunt, it's the presence of the traitor that makes the game unique each time you play. It's a mechanic that allows the players to not only work together as a co-operative game, but also adds an element of competitive play. The rules of the game and most of the haunts, are stacked against the heroic players, and they have to work together to stop the traitor from completing the conditions that would allow the traitor to win the game. This is why making certain to build the board as logically as possible in the early game is important. You don't want to be a hero and need to get The Ring and The Girl into the Chapel when it's twelve spaces away, you only have a move of three, and there are two mutated cannibals and the traitor between you and your goal.
Now, as much fun as this game is, there is one caveat I must give you if you decide to buy it. You must download the errata. I suggest printing it out and keeping it in the box. Whoever edited the game should not be working as an editor. There are lots of little omissions and a few serious misprints, such as an Underground Lake that, inexplicably, only appears on the upper floor. But more seriously, on many of the Haunt scenarios, important information is left out...such as victory conditions for either the heroes or the traitor, or the stats for some of the monsters. It's very frustrating to know that you need to make a successful Sanity attack against the Demon Lord in order to beat him, and then not know what the Demon Lord's Sanity stat is. But if you get the errata, there are no problems to the game, and Pete and I have had hours of enjoyment playing this game with our friends.