Last night a few of us got together to play Avalon Hill’s classic 2004 spooktacular: Betrayal At House On The Hill with the 2016 expansion: Widow’s Walk. Now, this first impression review will focus on the style and function of the base game; as this was my first time playing the game, I have no frame of reference to tell you whether the expansion makes a difference or changes anything. From what I can tell though, Widow’s Walk mainly adds new bits and bobs to expand your options if you’ve played the base game a few times.
I felt very excited when I sat down and saw all the little pieces laid out ready to play. One of our group (Doddy, of SummonedGames) had played the game a fair few times so we were in safe hands, but everything seemed pretty intuitive and not much prep was really needed before we got right in and chose our characters.
You get a little pentagonal card with your character’s identity and stats on it which has plastic slider clips to keep track of the numbers; a very nice little tracking system, better than a load of counters clogging up table space that you get in games like Talisman.
Once we’d picked our character (I chose the erstwhile Professor Longfellow) and claimed a pre-painted playing piece, all which were fairly thematic, we placed our “explorer” on the Entrance Hall tile and were ready to kick off.
The game starts you out with a few tiles on the board which represent the “landings” in the house, which are points from which the floors of the house branch off. Each of the landings are connected to each other , so you can actually travel in 3 dimensions in the game, which is very interesting.
The style of the game is very simple: you have a “speed” stat, which allows you to move that number of spaces along the board, until you hit a doorway, at which point you declare that you are heading into the next room and you pluck a new, obscured, tile off the top of the stack. Theses tiles can include all kinds of special room with rules on them which surprise you or give you choices you can use to gain effects or items. Normally there is a little symbol on the tiles which correspond to one of the three card types in the game: Item, Event or Omen. If the tile you draw has one of these symbols, you draw that type of card and resolve the effect, or claim the item if it is one.
The above describes the gameplay loop when you begin, so each character goes off on their own, usually exploring a different part of the house and laughing at each other’s misfortune as you face spooky ghosts in the garden or fall down the coal chute into the basement, or becoming envious of the shotgun they just found in a drawer.
The game heats up when, after a few rounds, you begin resolving more and more of the Omen type card. Whenever you draw a tile with an omen symbol, you draw an omen card, which can be good or bad or even an item – after which, you must roll a “Haunt Roll”. At the beginning of the game, when you’ve only drawn a couple of omen cards, you’re not at a high risk of resolving the Haunt, but as more and more get flipped and the Omen Counter grows higher and higher, each Haunt roll gets more and more risky and the tension builds.
Then it happens. If you roll under the number of omen cards that have been drawn on the Haunt Roll, then the Haunt resolves and the game pauses while the players look at the grid table that will determine which particular Haunt scenario is going to befall the group.
The Haunt is really where the game comes into it’s own: depending on the scenario outlined in the “Traitor’s Tome”, one or more players – determined randomly, become a traitor and from that point on, each side has specific and secret objectives which they have to meet in order to win the game. So the traitor takes the tome and rushes into another room to read their secret dossier and the remaining explorers do the same. After that, the traitor comes back in with a smirk on their face and quietly sets up the various tokens and adjustments to the board as specified in the special rules of the Haunt.
In our playthrough, I was actually the traitor. My explorer immediately died and became a zombie lord with accompanying undead minions and it was my objective to mercilessly murder the rest of them. Only one player could harm the zombie lord, so what was a casually paced exploration game with a few twists and turns, became a mad dash to grab as much stuff as possible to be able to face off against the enemy.
I quickly dispatched the players who were unable to harm my zombie lord and after a few turns, on the first floor landing, there stood poor Peter and his loyal dog, wielding a sacrificial dagger covered in chalk. He drove it deeply into the zombie and won the game.
One thing you can really say about this game is that it’s exciting. You never really know what you’re going to get and most of the strategy in the first phase, before the haunt, seems to be gathering as much stuff as you can in the hopes that it will help you post-haunt. The amount of emergent gameplay is astounding, I’ve never really seen a game like it for this; you can literally play tens of thousands of times and never play the same game twice. Very good value for money at being around the 35 dollar mark, with the expansion another 15 or so. There are tons of other haunts too; the scenario we played was only one of around 150 or so unique scenarios if you include the expansion.
I’d say the strengths of the game are also its weaknesses. The game is more of a wild ride that you feel yourself taking part in rather than a true test of your strategic thinking; you make choices and go your own way, but I’d imagine that most of the time you’re basically trying to make the best of the random items you’ve picked up by the time the haunt rolls round, at which point a lot of your agency goes out of the window as the game state changes altogether.
The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating and so it really speaks volumes to how I’d rate this game when the first thing that came into my head when we’d finished was “I want to play again!”. You can’t really put a price on a game that values your time like this one does, especially with the plethora of replayability options on offer. I’d say that Betrayal is good for gamers of any skill or experience level – not necessarily the best intro game, but I don’t think anyone would object if it was pulled out of the cupboard.
Click the link and head over to SummonedGames to check out the video of our Playthrough