On paper, Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate sounds like a cynical exercise. Take Avalon Hill’s cult classic, Betrayal at House on the Hill, dress it up for fans of Dungeons & Dragons and push it out the door as quickly as possible. But, as it turns out, this new title is more a proper sequel than a cash grab. It captures what made the original game such a hit, and reimagines it for a new audience.
Unfortunately, Baldur’s Gate still suffers from the same uneven play experience as the original. You still have absolutely no idea what will happen when you sit down with your friends for the evening. Sometimes, that can turn your game night into a disaster.
Baldur’s Gate works almost exactly the same way as House on the Hill. Players take on the role of a pre-generated adventurer ripped from the pages of the Player’s Handbook and plopped down at a tavern in the city of Baldur’s Gate. Each one has a set of stats, including mental and physical abilities. Each player takes turns moving around, revealing new rooms randomly from a pile of tiles.
Of course, one of the reasons that House on the Hill is such an immersive board game is because it creates a haunted mansion, room-by-room and floor-by-floor, over the course of several hours. By the end of the night, players have a believable floor plan laid out in front of them. Baldur’s Gate is less effective in this regard, mixing street scenes and interior scenes seemingly at random the result is something much more artificial looking when all is said and done.
Where Baldur’s Gate shines is with its characters. You get 12 of them out of the box, and each of one feels unique thanks to a powerful trait or perk. Avrixis Mizzrym, a drow ranger, can use her hunter’s mark ability to improver her attacks, while Aldan Pyrite, a dwarf fighter, can take a bullet for his comrades if they’re standing on the same tile. It’s a great implementation of the D&D theme, and contributes to some interesting opportunities at the table.
Just as in House on the Hill, eventually players trigger a haunt. Depending on which cards have been pulled and what location players are in at the time, there are fully 50 different scenarios that can play out. One player takes a separate rulebook, called the Traitor’s Tome, and leaves the room to read from a new set of rules. Then, they come back into the room and the game turns from cooperative to adversarial.
Perhaps the traitor has become possessed by a demon, or turned into a monster. Maybe they’re trapped inside an arcane device or slip through to an alternate plane of existence. Each of the haunts is completely unique, and very few of them feel like straight rip-offs from the original game.
But, just as in House on the Hill, haunts can also go spectacularly sideways.
The first time I ran the game at my house the traitor happened to be a player with a stockpile of powerful items. They were also blessed with a particularly generous set of new abilities thanks to that haunt’s special rules. They were, in effect, invincible but lacked the offensive power to fight back. The other players at the table spent the next three hours in a futile attempt to bring them down before they decided to call it quits for the night.
The second time I ran the game, the haunt triggered about an hour-and-a-half into the play session. The rules for the traitor were elaborate, as were the rules for the remaining players. After a solid 20-minute strategy session, the group came out of their separate corners ... and ended the game in about 30 seconds with the equivalent of a headshot.
That’s just how the Betrayal franchise works, though. Two other games that I played ended up feeling both fair and concise.
The quality of the components here is top notch. The original House on the Hill was notorious for it’s poorly painted miniatures and defective character cards. This time around, the miniatures are extremely well-detailed and the plastic clips included to keep track of player stats do their job.
Overall, it’s an excellent purchase at $50. You will be hard pressed to find another game with more replayability. Just have a backup game ready, and prepare new players ahead of time that things may not always go as planned. Pre-orders begin shipping on Oct. 6, the same day it lands at retail.