Betrayal at House on the Hill | Case Study

by Shawn Kays on September 05, 2020

Welcome to my designer journey where I play and critique board games to expand my game design repertoire and improve myself as a game designer by examining their game design, mechanisms, and game theory. I hope you'll benefit just the same.

What a better way to start this new series than with a classic: Betrayal at House on the Hill. I always want to call it Betrayal at THE House on the Hill, but you have to remember that House on the Hill is the official proper noun on the deed. I realized after writing that dumb joke that the official rulebook refers to the house as “the House on the Hill” (page 3), so I don’t know who to believe anymore.

Pre-Haunt

Betrayal breaks down into two phases: Pre-Haunt and Haunt. Each player’s goal in the Pre-Haunt phase is to prepare for the Haunt by exploring the mansion through Map Addition, collecting ideally useful Items and Omens, and revealing hopefully useful Events. Whether you end up as the Traitor or a Hero during the Haunt phase, your best friend is always the luck of the draw of Items, Omens, and Events.

There’s almost no reason to Trade cards with other players and no opportunity cost in revealing new rooms (to draw more Omens, Items, and Events); therefore, Betrayal’s Pre-Haunt phase has one and only one strategy: reveal as many rooms as possible and hope you receive a beneficial card. Some players may receive much more useful benefits than others based on sheer luck. By the same token, some players may be wacked in the head and thrown to the basement, so Betrayal’s luck can be quite abrupt and harsh.

Each explorer chosen by a player begins the game with their own initial Trait values for Might, Speed, Knowledge, and Sanity. Players may receive a card or even a Haunt that will either provide a significant advantage or disadvantage based on their explorer’s Trait values, so certain explorers may randomly be better than others during any given game rather than provide engaging asymmetric gameplay.

Sometimes players will want to consider Trading cards to mitigate explorer disparity in the very rare case when two players both have a card the other wants. This doesn’t occur often because both players not only must have different Trait values from one another but each card in the Trade must benefit the other player equally. There’s no reason to Trade to benefit other players and not yourself since anyone can end up as the Traitor; and if the Trade isn’t equal, you don’t want to potentially benefit the opposing team (whether Traitor or Heroes) more than your benefit from the Trade.

To make Trade an even more rare phenomenon: if you Trade, you still want to reveal a new room for a card on the same turn, but both players must be in the same room to Trade. Other players (including the person you’re Trading with) most likely gain a card lead on you if you don’t keep enough leftover movement from the Trade to reveal new rooms.

Heroes have a reason to initiate one-sided Trades during the Haunt phase since they’re all working together toward a common goal and against a common enemy (the Traitor), but regardless the Traitor is stuck with the luck of the draw from the Pre-Haunt phase.

Ultimately luck determines each explorer’s preparation for the Haunt.

The luck continues in the combat and some of the cards because they involve rolling dice. The Trait values determine the number of dice rolled, except Speed. Speed is a flat value for movement to avoid the Roll and Move mechanism, which I’m sure would have pushed Betrayal’s luck and lack of control over the edge for those who can handle the luck without it.

Cards constitute Betrayal’s luck mitigation by providing benefits such as combat bonuses and single-use guaranteed rolls. Cards can also adjust Trait values. Trait values in particular are essential in Betrayal because they serve as the player’s health (if one Trait reaches zero, you die) and affect the number of dice rolled in combat and certain Omens, Events, and Items. Since Traits directly cause the number of dice rolled, Betrayal has a very noticeable snowball effect—high Trait bonuses usually lead to cascading success while low Trait values lead to cascading failure.

Despite the cascading success and failure, Trait management is the most interesting aspect of Betrayal because of the health integration (you choose which Trait to lose points from) and how the Traits combine with the luck mitigation of cards to determine combat, movement, and card outcomes. Unfortunately, sheer luck determines the cards you draw and the type of card you draw (Items and Omens are more often than not preferred over Events) for your luck mitigation. Players don’t have control over card draw; they simply move from one room to the next and hope the next revealed room helps them.

Before the Haunt even begins: Betrayal has one dominant strategy, luck determines your preparation for the Haunt including luck mitigation, and the asymmetric explorers hurt more than help the game. Even if the one chosen Haunt out of 100 (with expansion) is excellent, Betrayal is at a significant deficit. The first Haunt chosen for us by the game was Haunt 82.

Haunt 82

Players are theoretically prepared for the Haunt by the end of the Pre-Haunt phase. To trigger the Haunt, one player rolls a Haunt check every time an Omen is drawn. Your chances of triggering the Haunt increases per Omen collected. Once the Haunt triggers, then the explorers split into two sides: the Heroes and the Traitor. Each side privately receives their own goal for the Haunt.

Keep in mind that Betrayal contains 100 Haunts (with expansion), so your experience may differ.

I was the Traitor—a butler who had to either kill every Hero or drop the Rope in the Dining Room on exactly Turn 12. The Heroes didn’t know my objective nor did they know about the Turn limit.

The Heroes had to establish alibis by using Items in Alibi Rooms. Additionally, I can’t hurt a Hero if they’re in any Alibi Room. I knew their objective and their invincibility; however, I didn’t know that one of the Items used to create an alibi had to be the Rope (the other Items can be anything).

Pretty much right away two of the three Heroes reached their Alibi Rooms and established their alibis. They have to roll to establish their alibis which seems a little silly since they’re safe from me in their Alibi Rooms and they’d win if they ran out the Turn counter, but the rolling at least provides one action for Heroes who would otherwise sit there without anything to do while waiting for me to walk away from their vicinity.

I figured I should chase after the last Hero (I’ll call Colton) who was revealing new rooms to find the last Alibi Room, since it’s game over for me if he finds that last room.

Whelp, ends up his explorer’s Might was just as high as mine, even with my Might bonus from being the Traitor. He stole the Rope because of a lucky combat roll (at this point I realized they needed the Rope) and ran away. I chased after him hoping I could beat the Rope out of him. Thankfully many of the Items only apply for players who initiate the attack so I’d have a fair leg up against him as he’s the defending player. Unfortunately I didn’t draw any useful cards from the Pre-Haunt phase and I’ll never draw anything in the Haunt phase because, as the Traitor in Haunt 82, I would be helping the Heroes by revealing new rooms and I need to instead chase down Heroes to knock them out.

We wounded each other in the ensuing combats, but since he drew much better cards than me, he was able to use a couple healing Items to heal back up. Kenta followed up by attacking me with an Item that gave him 3 extra dice in combat, so needless to say, the result was not in my favor.

Meanwhile, Joshua moves out of his safe Alibi Room to explore for more cards and to help Colton find the last Alibi Room. The first room he reveals sends him to the basement, he takes physical and mental damage to his Traits, he spends an additional turn making his way back up, and finally he stays in his Alibi Room because Kenta just found the third Alibi Room for Colton. Not only did the game spend one whole turn screwing Joshua over but he also had to take the next whole turn to correct his course. He contributed nothing not because he didn’t want to but because the game dictated so; he was significantly punished for even thinking about contributing to his team.

In the meantime, Kenta freely explored around with no particular worry or urgency since I was forced to pursue the last Hero. Kenta knew he could walk back to his safe Alibi Room in a jiffy.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is filled with a frustrating amount of luck and lack of player agency, laid bare by Haunt 82. Even if Haunt 82 isn’t representative of Betrayal’s Haunts, unfortunately we’ll never know because a Haunt that I can only presume wasn’t playtested made it into the game. If you’re afraid that a piece of your product doesn’t accurately represent the whole by providing a subpar experience, then throw it out. If you don’t playtest your game, then throw the whole game out.

Thankfully I’m not alone in this assessment. From what I can gather, Betrayal’s Haunts are infamous for their imbalance and poorly written rules.

Inconsistency & Rule Clarifications

In fact, the biggest rule gripe within our gaming group related to Haunt 82 and was previously asked on Board Game Geek and even answered by one of the designers of the game. However, the designer’s answer is simply incorrect if we cross reference the 2nd edition rulebook and the expansion’s Haunt 82. There’s plenty of empty space on the Haunt pages for rule clarifications or additional rules to help maintain a functional and smooth experience.

Betrayal’s rule language suffers outside of Haunts as well. It’s inconsistent and, in many cases, requires clarification for all players to understand the card, rule, or tile. That alone produces a significant hurdle in learning and playing the game—enough of a hurdle to push new players away who don’t have much experience with game or rule language, especially for a game with Hidden Information.

Card descriptions for Vial, Crystal Ball, and Ceremonial Robe.

Vial, Crystal Ball, and Ceremonial Robe all say “once per turn” in different ways. The inconsistent language can confuse players especially because “once on your turn” and “once during your turn” mean something completely different from “once per turn.” We can only assume Vial and Crystal Ball intend to say “once per turn” because they don’t clarify enough otherwise and only some of the “once during your turn” cards specify to discard after use.

Card descriptions for Secret Passage and Secret Stairs.

Both Secret Passage and Secret Stairs attempt to say the same thing but differently: “You can then use the Secret Passage” and “you can follow the stairs right now.” Card discrepancies like this give me the impression of an unpolished and untested game, even if the game was in fact tested.

Probability of Dice Outcomes

Betrayal sometimes uses probability to its advantage.

Description of the card called Vial.

If we take a look at Vial, it specifically asks the player to roll two dice. The faces on each die in Betrayal comprise values 0-2 rather than the typical 1-6. If we draw out a two-dice outcome table, we can see that Betrayal recognizes the probability of outcomes by indicating “no effect” on the most likely outcome.

0

0

1

1

2

2

0

0

0

1

1

2

2

0

0

0

1

1

2

2

1

1

1

2

2

3

3

1 1 1 2 2 3 3
2 2 2 3 3 4 4
2 2 2 3 3 4 4

 

Hidden & Complete Information

Haunts require the Heroes and Traitor to keep Hidden Information from each other; however, once you play the Haunt, then you have the Complete Information for subsequent plays (all players know all the rules including hidden rules). If the designers intended players to play Haunts with Hidden Information, then Haunts are not replayable since players know the Hidden Information for subsequent plays.

Betrayal offers 50 (100 with expansion) Haunts presumably to offer the intended experience for 50 plays, and that’s more than enough because the average player will not play one game that many times. However, Betrayal’s Haunts are determined randomly, so it’s entirely possible to play the same Haunt 50 times in a row, or more realistically, players virtually must play significantly more than 50 times to experience all 50 Haunts as intended. Players replay the same Haunts over and over with Complete Information in order to achieve the intended experience of playing new Haunts with Hidden Information, so there’s no reason why the Hidden Information shouldn’t be Complete Information from the start.

Additionally, players with Complete Information have an advantage over players with Hidden Information. If Betrayal removed Hidden Information, new and veteran players alike could enjoy the game without worry. From my playthrough of Haunt 82, I’m more convinced that I would’ve enjoyed the Haunt slightly more if I knew the Complete Information that the Heroes needed my Rope and if the Heroes knew the turn limit.

I’d expect Betrayal to allow players to choose the Haunt scenarios rather than a random selection if Hidden Information was actually an important part of the game.

Random Haunt Selection

Regardless if Hidden Information is important to the game, Betrayal’s random Haunt selection hurts player retention. Betrayal is perfectly set up to keep itself fresh each playthrough by maintaining a stream of new information through new Haunts, but unfortunately doesn’t capitalize on it because of the random selection.

A potential benefit to the random Haunt selection would be to dynamically set up the Haunt scenarios so each Haunt replay provides a different experience depending on the explorers’ positions and revealed rooms. However, Haunt 82 requires the Heroes to move their explorers to the Dining Room so their positions at the end of the Pre-Haunt phase doesn’t matter. On the other hand, the revealed rooms mattered but for all the wrong reasons because they caused the Heroes to complete ⅔ of their objective almost immediately.

Again, I haven’t played the other Haunts, but if the designers were comfortable with adding Haunt 82 in the game, then it’s fair for me to assess that it’s representative of the game.

I at least enjoyed how the drawn Omen that triggers the Haunt is then used in the Haunt which decreases set-up time. However, Haunts require a decent amount of set-up and rules reading regardless of any minor set-up conveniences.

Improvements in Betrayal at Mystery Mansion

In Avalon Hill Games’ recent Betrayal at Mystery Mansion, Haunts no longer contain Hidden Information. Haunts can now be learned together as a group. In addition to addressing my previous Hidden Information concerns, the removal of Hidden Information prevents the scenario where one side or the other (particularly the Traitor) doesn’t understand their Hidden Information but they can’t ask for help from their group (i.e., someone who knows the game better). This is especially important for a reimplementation with a more family-friendly theme.

The removal of Hidden Information also means groups can now learn Haunts together. Group interaction is the most important component of board gaming for many people, so this is a welcome change.

Additionally, Betrayal at Mystery Mansion determines Haunts less randomly. You choose one of five cards at the beginning of the game, then the Haunt is chosen randomly from one of the five Haunts on the chosen card. Betrayal at Mystery Mansion would greatly benefit from 50 Haunts because they’re now less randomly determined and players have a much more reasonable chance of playing through them all before collecting dust on the shelf, but perplexedly, Betrayal at Mystery Mansion only contains 25 Haunts instead of 50. However, 25 plays is most likely still higher than the average player will play, notwithstanding the randomness that extends the 25 Haunts much further than 25 plays. Additionally, the controlled randomness overall increases replayability since there’s less of a chance that Haunts outstay their welcome before all available Haunts have been played.

Conclusion

Luck drives pretty much everything in Betrayal at House on the Hill—Traits, combat, rooms, drawing cards, and often using cards. If you take a big hit or receive a big bonus to Traits, expect a noticeable snowball effect. One dominant strategy constitutes the Pre-Haunt gameplay, to the point where the game wouldn’t change for the most part if the Pre-Haunt phase was removed and instead the rooms were laid out in predetermined configurations and the cards drafted or divvied out. The rules are inconsistent and unclear. We didn’t have player agency or choice in Haunt 82 (and the Pre-Haunt phase for that matter). Betrayal is a great example of a game that doesn’t feel polished or playtested.

My gaming group and I would like to give the game another shot to try out another Haunt, but unfortunately our initial experience certainly burned us to the point where I’d rather invest the time in a different game. If we end up trying a different Haunt, I’ll write about our experience in a future post.

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