I always describe Betrayal at House on the Hill as two games. When explaining the rules to new players, I always start out by saying, “the first half is a haunted house exploration game and the second half is you getting trapped inside a horror movie.”
The expansion Widow’s Walk, which is the game’s first expansion in nearly a decade, adds a third element to this already packed experience: casual role-playing.
For those who haven’t played this game (and you really should), Betrayal at House on the Hill is a board game that takes up to six players and lets them explore an oddly-designed mansion. Each person turns up a tile on the ground floor, the upper floor, or the basement, which can trigger an event or allow them to discover an item. You slowly build the house until, at one point, you activate what’s called “the haunt,” which means you’re thrown into one of 50 stories, with typically one of the players turned into a “traitor.” Throughout this first half, you’re wracked with anticipation, wondering what story you’ll get, if you’ll become the traitor, or if you’ll get to work with your fellow players. The fun in Betrayal is that you don’t know what’s going to happen once the haunt occurs. Your character could die, and you could become a witch that turns people into frogs. You could become a werewolf. You could go on a treasure hunt while the whole house collapses around you.
So with 50 stories to get through, there was almost never a need for an expansion. You’re guaranteed at least that many rounds, and that doesn’t include the scenarios you might play multiple times in different roles. Widow’s Walk just makes it more difficult to “finish” since, just like with the original game, the creators don’t skimp on the story. In fact, there’s 50 new stories to get through in the expansion. Along with now having 100 scenarios to survive through, there’s also a new floor–the roof–and new rooms, including the house’s first bathroom, and new events, items, and omens to uncover in those rooms. If you happened to get through every haunt in the base game, you’ll find plenty more to do in the expansion, and it’ll probably take the same amount of time to get through, and it only costs half as much as a full version.
But the crew behind the game wasn’t satisfied with just creating 50 new stories. They catered dozens of guest writers to craft stories: from Pendelton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time, to Cards Against Humanity’s Max Temkin and Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian, allowing for new perspectives to craft horror stories. The original game had villains such as witches, eye monsters, and dream demons, but with the help of the guest writers, Widow’s Walk has even more unique monsters, such as a haunt that allows you to fight the darkness (and no, you can’t attack the darkness), and one that pits you against an evil presidential candidate.
And while I haven’t been able to get through every new haunt in time to write this review, the ones I have experienced aren’t straight scary scenarios. While the original game’s haunts didn’t encourage role-playing, many of the new ones do, having the players change their real-life behaviors according to the rules. The aforementioned haunt, called “Burn Out the Darkness,” has the players cast as the darkness only able to talk in a creepy whisper.
I got the opportunity to demo the Betrayal at House on the Hill expansion Widow’s Walk at PAX East this year, months before its release in October, and while sitting down at a table with a group of complete strangers, we had to interact with the game in a more intimate manner. The haunt, called “Shush,” took away everybody’s voices, except for the traitor, so we were forced to find other ways to communicate strategy. We exchanged Google Hangout handles, passed each other notes, and passed confused and awkward glances at each other, much to the amusement of the Wizards of the Coast representatives supervising the game.
These new features add an element of surprise to the haunts, which are already surprising the first time you encounter them. You’re always jumping into the unknown once somebody says that you’ve activated The Haunt, but not knowing who is going to be the traitor, how you’ll be able to communicate, and what you might have to do to achieve your goals is one of the things that made the original game so special. Now with Widow’s Walk, the mystery builds up even more anticipation.
However, since the expansion adds so many new elements, some which allow you to move about the house faster or get out of failed dice rolls, it leaves a lot of room for the game to break, or to end up unbalanced. I haven’t been able to play every haunt yet, but these issues seem to vary from game to game. In the game “Sushi Night,” for example, where you have to kill a merperson, a killer plant item that can deal excessive amounts of damage bends the game in the survivors’ favor. When you play through at least 45 minutes of a game, only to get into a scenario that you could never win, it can sour that session.
Those moments are based on luck, though, so the correct tiles, items, events, omens, or anything else you may uncover factor into your haunt. You can play the exact same haunt with entirely different items and it’ll play out in a more balanced manner. The random, spontaneous nature of Betrayal at House on the Hill has always meant the game’s been unbalanced. This hasn’t changed with Widow’s Walk. It’s frustrating if you happen to fall into one of these traps, but for the most part, the game is just as it always was, except it’s more.
Widow’s Walk does all that a board game expansion is supposed to do, with the added bonus of new features and new types of games. It’ll ensure that the game never gets boring and that you can continue playing for another ten years before the next expansion.