A Story of Betrayal

Sometimes, a game goes badly. Whether due to the dice coming up snake eyes, failing to draw the right card at the right time, or making a bad move that snowballs, everyone has had a night at the table that turned out to be filled with more failure than fun. But a board game is more than than just the rules and pieces that make it. And while a bad session of play may be a source of frustration, it can also be an opportunity to form a special memory; one built on the shared narrative that is created when we gather around the board. This week, Leah brings us a story from the table (or perhaps from the things lurking beneath it) to show us how the stories we tell through play can last far longer than the game that birthed them...

From somewhere deep inside the house, Vivian heard a shriek. The sound was muffled by distance, by the labyrinthine maze that was the dilapidated manse; she couldn't tell what direction it had come from, or even what floor. It came suddenly, the sound gusting like wind over her skin and raising every hair on her neck and arms in a spine-tingling prickle, and it cut off nearly as suddenly as it came.

The silence of the house in its wake was awful.

For long moments, Vivian crouched where she was, frozen in fear, thoughts churning through her brain. Her left arm ached from elbow to shoulder where it had been crushed under her fall - she thought it was probably broken - and her hand trembled around the hilt of the dagger she held in her right. The grip was wet; she didn't know from what, couldn't tell, didn't want to look, but the ancient leather wrapping the metal was slick in her grasp. She worried that she would drop it the moment she swung; and she had no other defenses.

The room was dark, illuminated only by moonlight, which cast long, dark shadows across the deep red carpet, and threw the grim faces of the stone statues into sharp relief. She was grateful for her blurred, swimming vision; she didn't want to see the way they looked at her now. She knew, knew, that their vaguely creepy expressions from before would now appear twisted in anticipatory, gleeful, hunger. The knowing was better than the seeing, she thought. She hoped.

Dios mio, she was so tired. She leaned against the wood panelling, legs shaking. She wanted nothing more than to sit, to slump down to the carpet, hidden by the legs of the stone satyr she cowered behind. Wait for morning to come. Wait for someone to find her. Wait to wake up, from this wretched, awful nightmare. She was so tired, and scared, and...

Gunshots echoed, and she started, a small creature brought to stiff unblinking fear by the sudden noise. Her back immediately straightened; if she had had ears that could, they would be twitching and alert, listening for further noise. Her fingers curled more tightly around the knife as she held her breath, unconsciously counting the seconds, measuring the storm. No more gunshots came, but in their wake, and in her tense, breathless stillness, she heard a distant thumping crash, like a body falling to the floor.

The air left her lungs in a gasped, whimpering sob, a noise that felt as loud to her as the gunshots had been only moments earlier. She flung the back of her hand to her mouth to stifle the noise, dropping the knife and losing her balance, and there was nothing left to catch her fall but her aching, broken arm. It buckled beneath her and she toppled to the floor, falling into the beams of moonlight that streamed into the corridor. For a brief moment, Vivian considered just...staying there. Waiting. The creatures moved slowly, but inexorably enough, and in her current state of near-collapse there was no way she would be able to trap them all alone.

And alone was what she was, now. Alone but for the shuffling, shambling horde that she was sure were slowly closing in on her, right this moment. With her eyes closed, she thought she could heard their hoarse breathing, their quiet, unearthly groans, closing in on her, coming closer, the smell of grave dirt and something sweetly rotten filling her nostrils and making it hard for her to breathe. They weren't actually there, but that didn't really matter. They would find her eventually; something about them made it unfairly easy for them to hunt their human prey, and in her current state she was hardly any challenge. And it wasn't as though she could just leave...

The thought hung in the air, and her sobs quieted as her eyes opened wide. Why couldn't she just leave? What was stopping her, really - besides the agreement she'd made with five dead people that they, alone, were responsible for stopping the undead onslaught? She dug the fingers of her hand into the carpet and dragged herself upright. Cradling her broken arm against her chest, her chest heaving in deep, heavy breaths with growing excitement - relief - as she gathered herself, she tried to retrace her steps, remember the layout of the house as they'd explored it, recall the route she had taken to get here.

Vivian clambered to her knees, bracing herself against a statue, ignoring the stabbing pain in her thigh, ignoring the way it looked at her with its hateful, hungry eyes. Back through the corridor. The kitchen. The ballroom. Then the game room, and then--there was that room with all the boxes, and then the entryway, and the front door, and blessed, sweet escape. I can make it, she thought. She couldn't move fast, but it had been an eternity since she had last seen one of the creatures, and if they had been occupied with chasing the others, then she at least had a chance.

She had to stop to take a breather in the game room, shuffling her way under the billiard table to hide in its shadow as she rested and caught her breath. They were much closer than she had thought, but she thought she had slipped past its rheumy eyes undetected. Eyesight didn't mean much, to be fair; the creatures seemed to be preternaturally able to smell humans, but better not to give them any kind of advantage. From her position on the floor, she could see the hallway through the junk room. It was so close, freedom was so close, that she could nearly taste it.

As soon as she felt like she had her breath back, she scrambled out from under the table. A low moan sounded from behind her, and she whirled around to see one of the creatures had found her, and was currently shambling across the parquet floor in the ballroom in her direction. The panic rising, she whirled, and ran. She cried out at the stabbing pains in her leg; the pain set her eyes to watering, made it hard to think, but she could see the entryway, and freedom, and that was the only thing on her mind.

It was the only thing on her mind as her leg twisted out from under her, and she toppled sideways with a cry. It was still the only thing on her mind as the impact knocked her all adaze, sprawled in a pile of boxes stacked far higher than human arms - or human common sense - should have allowed. It was still on her mind when the pile shifted and swayed, and in slow-motion, the barely-balanced heap came crashing down, plunging Vivian Lopez into a final, black oblivion, mere steps from safety.

Not every board game is a great strategic masterpiece. Depending on who you ask, that can be a good thing, or a bad thing. Betrayal at House on the HIll is one of the most divisive games I've ever encountered in the modern board game hobby, for precisely that reason - you can be the smartest, most strategic player in the room, and still end up losing because of a bad die roll or a really crummy set-up. But one thing that Betrayal excels at, in my opinion, is in creating a story.

The above is a dramatisation of a game of Betrayal that friends of mine and I once played. That particular instance of the game was really bad for us players, exactly what critics point at when asked why they dislike it so much. We got the haunt too early; the house was poorly set-up, and hardly explored, and we'd had too many die rolls already, and none of us had much in the way of items or omens to help us out. Our win conditions were pretty much impossible. We did our best, but we finally ended up in a situation where it was a guaranteed loss; just one player left alive, and barely, at that, and an entire horde still loose in the house.

For the heckuvit, we decided to house-rule the game; if our last surviving player could just make it out of the house, we'd chalk it up as a win. Sure, the creatures might descend upon the rest of the world and trigger the start of some sort of apocalypse, but she'd live, and that was good enough.

She was close. The creatures were closing in on her, but we figured that it was just barely doable, with some lucky rolls. She made it literally right to the last room before the entryway... and then failed her roll on her way out of the junk room, taking a last, fateful point of physical damage.

So yeah, we lost (and we were never really going to win) but that story - and the narrative we constructed around it--still sticks with me two years later. I still reminisce with the people who were around the table that night about that game in particular. We all remember the details and have told and retold the story to all sorts of people. Some of you might have even heard it from me, at the Castle, if you asked about the game, and whether it was good, and what it was all about.

The thing is: human beings love stories. We read books; we watch movies, and TV; we listen to podcasts, and comedians, and musicians. There is something about that structure of beginning, middle, and end that we crave. We tell each other stories, and we write our own stories, live our own stories, every single day. Sometimes we forget the details, but sometimes, they stick with us, becoming something more than just the recounting of facts and circumstances.

I like to think that the modern resurgence of board gaming is, in part, borne out of our desire to reconnect with people. We're starting to get tired of messaging, and screens, of spending time with people either in silence at a movie or screaming to be heard over loud music at a bar. We are starting to miss the frequency with which we are creating stories with each other. And while there is a lot to be said for spending time together over an exquisitely designed strategy game, or a perfectly balanced worker placement, or a quick and easy party game, there is also a lot to be said for a board game that generates new memories - new stories - with each and every play.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a semi-cooperative game for 3-6 players that, in my opinion, perfectly captures the spirit of all those “so-bad-its-good” B-movies. It’s currently on its third edition. The publisher came out with an expansion, Widow's Walk, in 2016, and it was given a fantasy retheme as Betrayal at Baldur's Gate in 2017. A Legacy version of the game is also due to arrive in-store before the end of October, making it a perfect Halloween gaming experience.

Leah, Verbose Purveyor of Fiction & Fancy
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