Game Night Verdicts #32 – Betrayal Legacy

Betrayal Legacy is a Legacy re-implementation of Betrayal at House on the Hill. A game which has a dedicated fanbase in the board game community, but just as many detractors. Set in a haunted house that 3 to 6 players get to explore, room by randomly drawn room, you wander around waiting for one creepy thing or another to trigger a mysterious haunt. This haunt usually splits off one player from the rest of the group, pitting them (the traitor) against the others. Mechanically, you‘re given a somewhat secret goal to achieve. Pursuing it usually means eliminating other characters in some gruesome fashion. This is a horror game, after all. Basically, it‘s the board game that Cabin in the Woods ripped off to great effect.

What makes Betrayal at House on the Hill stand out in comparison to modern designs, is the high levels of variance and randomization. With the exception of some rough guidelines the rooms you explore could show up anywhere in the house and in any combination. The items you need to help win the game are drawn at random when you happen to stumble into a room connected to the appropriate deck of cards. Most of the actions you will attempt need a successful dice roll. It is, generally speaking, not a game of long-term plans and victory point accumulation. What‘s remarkable about the game isn‘t its unpredictability, but the way that play creates unique moments. The kind of hilariously wacky scenes that could only happen in a b-movie horror schlockfest. And even then, you‘d find them hard to believe. There is something very appealing about games that fill players with giddy excitement, that you just „had to be there“ to fully appreciate. This is what the game does best.

Now, like a mad scientist cackling with delight as lightning crashes in the background, Rob Daviau has fused that game‘s skeleton with the flesh and skin of a Legacy game. In a move that was surely made to deliberately break my labored metaphor… the result is not some monstrosity that should not be, but quite possibly the best Legacy you can currently buy.

Betrayal backIf you‘ve missed the last few years in modern board games the Legacy format combines the excitement of expanding a game you know with new rules and the thrill of writing on game components and putting stickers on them. After a usually set number of plays, your copy of the game will have become uniquely your own. Pandemic Legacy used this set-up to lead the group through a gradually revealed storyline. In-between each play a plot would be told, setting up new objectives or replacing old ones. You wanted to keep playing to see the story through. In Betrayal Legacy a similar plot thread runs through the chapters of the campaign. Each adding another layer of history to the haunted house the original game had you play in.

In play, though, Betrayal Legacy does something that no other game of its type has really managed to do quite as well. Betrayal Legacy is a game about memories. The beating heart of the experience isn‘t with the torn up components or the conclusion of its storyline. As every haunt you play through creates memorable moments of random, yet fitting, wackiness, you realise that this box isn‘t a campaign to finish. It is a time capsule that you fill up with experiences. Your plays end up touching the rooms you play. When those rooms turn up again in subsequent plays, they echo through time bringing up memories of the highly dramatic events that unfolded in them. Or rather they would, if you had only known how precious those memories are for your future enjoyment.

Betrayal Legacy’s biggest misstep, of which there are few, is that it doesn‘t mention just how important keeping track of your exploits becomes over time.  Each game you play a character who is part of a long line of descendants tracing back to the very first game of Betrayal Legacy you will ever play. The results of each chapter in the campaign is then tracked on the back of your family card. You get to write down your character’s name, age, if you were the traitor and if you survived the haunt. There is a section called „fate“ in the middle of it, which the rules instruct you to fill in any way you want, because „this has no game effect and is purely for your narrative amusement“.

Betrayal characters
We were but strangers once… then the murders started.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything this is the most pivotal part of the entire experience. In fact, there should have been an entire journal in the box for players to fill out after each haunt. A document to write down who killed whom and where, to record what unspeakable acts were committed in some places. Something to record where characters were when their players made fateful decisions for them.

Legacy games often suggest to be about the sins of the past (games) catching up with the present (game). But what can feel like an awkward responsibility to not mess up the game for your future self is inverted in Betrayal Legacy. The past becomes a way to enrichen the experience as it deepens the lore your haunted house accrues over the decades.

When you reveal a room that one of your ancestors has died or murdered in, it feels like a sudden jolt of energy and melancholy. There is a sense of knowing recognition when you or one of your friends draws a family heirloom, which you claimed only a few games ago. You might find yourself chuckling at the macabre irony of drawing an omen card that spelled and doom and bloodshed for your families only a few generations before.

It‘s obvious that a lot of effort and care has gone into the creation of each haunt, but it‘s the moments that those haunts give rise to that elevate Betrayal Legacy into something remarkable.

That said, there are still a handful of annoying elements to the design, that muddy up an otherwise pristine experience. One of which is the scattered and stitched together feel of the rules as the game progresses. While it is undoubtedly a feature of the Legacy format to slowly introduce new rules expanding the focus of the opening chapters, it also leads to an increase in overhead. The razor-sharp experience of the early games gets replaced by a more unwieldy and slower play. This slow-down isn‘t just due to more rules and exceptions at the table. There is also the simple fact that the decks of cards and room tiles grow and expand after almost every chapter. By increasing the variance players encounter during the campaign, each haunt feels a little more diluted than the one before.

Betrayal rooms
This isn’t a house… it’s a manor with an estate attached

What starts out as a thematically rich and delightfully short game, eventually gains enough component heft that it may end up outstaying its welcome on occasion. The moments when you get to thin the decks are promising at first, but end up being quite rare. When Betrayal Legacy can keep its momentum up, playing it is a delight without compare. But when the sprawling layout of the house, the stuffed card decks, staggered objectives and some unlucky dice rolls enter the game, it can easily devolve into something repetitive and disengaging. To be fair, it‘s obvious that a lot of work was put into the individual haunts to hopefully avoid this happening in play. But in the bulk of rules you eventually deal with, it is easy to miss a vital phrase or overlook an important detail.

Aside from individual plays ending in a downbeat note, it also strains your enjoyment of the campaign. It was a recurring source of frustration for me to pack up the bits after a game only to realize that the outcome of the haunt might have been fundamentally different, if only I had remembered this one ability, or used that one card correctly, or.. or.. or… Even though it was enormously satisfying to add new rules to the manual and expand key parts of the game, what we really needed was a rules aid to keep things running smoothly. Or at least to avoid feeling like the outcome of a chapter was down to our choices, and not down to our playing the game slightly wrong.

As an aside, while I do enjoy filling in empty boxes in my manual with stickers, it‘s not the most practical way of introducing new rules to play. Because how often are we really going to re-read the entire rulebook, to make sure we didn‘t miss something?

Betrayal cards
Final deck size

Just like its source(s) of inspiration, Betrayal Legacy is at its best when played with gut moves and lots of heart. As soon as you start to abstract the situation, analyze your options and optimize your turn for tactical advantages convenience, the joyfulness peels off and reveals fairly bog-standard core mechanics underneath. It‘s like pointing out the plot holes and contrivances in a horror movie, instead of just strapping in and going along for the ride. Criticizing the game based on an analysis of its rules misses the point.

This encouragement to play Betrayal Legacy with a certain attitude does open up the game in more ways than one. Once I was willing to break with my own gaming habits, and simply made rules calls based on what seemed most interesting, or called off a haunt, because we had maneuvered us into a dead end with only one possible solution… things got much easier. I also began to let go of the worry about how making the wrong choice now would make the experience worse for me later on. Once I shrugged those things off… a lot of the game suddenly clicked. But I’m not entirely sure, it should have.

Betrayal Legacy is a game of two sentiments in conflict with one another. On the one hand, you are supposed to embrace the wacky high points of a game of Betrayal. Like when one of the characters faught a monster with a weapon so powerful it sent the enemy flying through six rooms. Playing this game brings countless horror movie scenes to life with you in one of the leading roles. It is as hilarious to players as often as it is terrifying to the characters.

But on the other hand, Betrayal Legacy wants you to remember everything. Because these moments you share and experience with your friends are gone so quickly, and you can never quite get them back. When I packed up the box after we finished the campaign, I was surprised to realise I felt something like regret. I thought about all the opportunities we missed, the experiences we could have had. After each game, history moves on and the deeds and deaths of the characters are eventually forgotten by us. There is something unexpectedly resonant about repeatedly inhabiting the descendants of these families, who die (and sometimes survive) traumatic episodes in the history of this haunted house. Especially as they fade from memory.

I am not saying that Betrayal Legacy purposefully makes some great statement about family history and the deaths that define it. But despite itself, despite trying only to be a fun and entertaining diversion for few weeks, when it ended it had stepped out of the confines of the emotional register we define as “fun”. I enjoyed playing it, even the parts that I didn’t. But I also remember it in a way that I only remember a select few of the games I’ve played this year or this decade even. This game does something that no other Legacy game has managed to do. That alone makes it stand above its peers.

Betrayal Legacy is a remarkable game, because its campaign isn’t just a story you finish or some epic challenge you overcome. It’s a history you live through. This imaginary house made of room tiles and card decks has weight and importance because of the memories that sleep within its cracks. In the end, it isn’t just your house on the hill. It is of you.

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