You know what I haven’t talked about in a really long time? Okay, lots of things—Hugh Grant movies, Star Trek, FFG’s Arkham Files franchise. But the thing I haven’t talked about in a really long time that I’m going to talk about right now is board games. Specifically “Legacy” board games.
For those of you who don’t remember this deeply obscure bit of boardgaming lore that I haven’t really looped back to since talking about Pandemic: Legacy more than a year ago, a “Legacy” game is a board game where as you play it you make permanent changes to the board, cards and rules, so that the game is fundamentally different every time. Or at least the first 10-15 times. They naturally cap out after a while as you see all the cards and fill in all the tables and tick all the boxes. But then really how many big board games do you own that you’ve played more than fifteen times?
The first Legacy game was Risk: Legacy, which was kind of mind-blowing when it first came out because the sheer adrenaline rush of opening little boxes, tearing up cards and discovering that there was a little envelope taped to the bottom of the box labelled DO NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES was amazing. Buuuut it suffered from the core problem that it was based around Risk, and Risk is actually turning sixty this year. It’s quite a traditional game and has quite a lot of traditional game problems, most of which boil down to its being … just not very good. There are some fun variants that have come out over its very very long life (I enjoyed the 2004 Risk: Godstorm and I admit to being weirdly curious about 2018s Risk: Rick and Morty) but Legacy starts as basic Risk, which is a bit dull, and yes if you play it long enough it eventually evolves into a more interesting version of Risk but … you could just play one of the more interesting versions straight off.
As a result, the boardgames community’s mind was even more blown with the release of Pandemic: Legacy (which I spoke about at some length on this blog). As my personal favourite gaming review site put it, it had all the cool stuff that made you excited for Risk: Legacy, with the added advantage that the base game was actually good. Pandemic was a hugely enjoyable and classic game, one of the few titles I think you could unironically describe as “beloved”. And the Legacy version added a huge amount of nuance and complication to the game in well-timed increments that kept the level of challenge up for more experienced players. The second “season” of Pandemic: Legacy didn’t quite live up to the first, because it essentially took the opposite approach—instead of starting with base pandemic and building up, it started with a game that was kind of less good than Pandemic and slowly built up to a game that was … more complicated but still less good than Pandemic.
Once the “Legacy” concept became more baked into boardgame culture, you also started seeing games that were built from the ground up to be a Legacy game. The first of these was Seafall, which came out in 2016 and which I didn’t pick up because the reviews I’d looked at suggested it shared a similar issue to Risk: Legacy—the appeal was mostly in the novelty of discovery and the legacy features, not in the innate playability of the underlying game, which apparently took a while (and in Legacy game terms, a while means multiple full play sessions) to get going and wasn’t hugely satisfying even when it did. Then there was Gloomhaven, which I did pick up, because the reviews I read suggested that it was a stonkingly good dungeoncrawler out the gate.
That pretty much became my rule for Legacy games: only play it if you’d also play it if it wasn’t a Legacy game. Expecting Legacy elements to fix what you don’t like a board game is a bit like expecting marriage to fix what you don’t like about your relationship. It very seldom works and instead ties you into a long-term and likely quite expensive commitment you’ll probably regret.
Which brings me, after a mere seven-hundred-and-thirty-odd words, to the actual game I wanted to talk about today, which is Betrayal: Legacy.
The base game of Betrayal: Legacy is Betrayal at House on the Hill (which feels like it’s missing an article somewhere). And Betrayal at House on the Hill is … inconsistent. It’s not a bad game. It’s often actually quite a fun game. But it’s equally often a frustrating and pointless game. The basic premise of original Betrayal is that you are … kind of in a 70s horror movie? Or a spooky campfire tale? A group of you go up to this weird old hous house, and scary stuff happens to you, and then suddenly there is BETRAYAL and you’re pitched into one of fifty different scenarios (called “Haunts”), in most of which it turns out that one player was a bad guy all along.
Because it relies so much on randomness—a random house that you move around having random things happening to you which will randomly lead to a random endgame—and because keeping consistent quality over fifty unique stories-slash-minigames is a huge ask, it’s fairly common to get to the end of a game of Betrayal and think is that it? To put it another way, the saving grace of original Betrayal is that it’s short and low-impact, which is kind of faint praise. And I was trepidatious to say the least about investing £70 (about $90-$100 US depending on exchange rate) on a long-term investment in the Legacy version of a game when often the best thing you could say about the base game is often that it’s over quickly.
It turns out I shouldn’t have worried, because this seems to be the one in a million time when marrying a game really does fix your relationship with it.
Okay, the marriage analogy might be a bit weird. A better comparison might be with playing rock, paper, scissors. Which I appreciate is probably still a bit weird and in need of unpacking.
Played once, rock, paper, scissors is an essentially random game, or near enough to it. You don’t know what your opponent is going to do and while there are little things you can do to try to influence them (apparently a common tactic in what the pros call “street RPS” is to flash one of the signs while you’re clarifying that you throw after three not on three, and then throw the counter to that sign) but those marginal advantages only become apparent over a very large number of games. I suppose thinking about it professional poker might be an even better analogy. Contrary to the way it works in the movies, being an excellent poker player doesn’t mean you’ll always definitely win every hand (or even the crucial hand that matters when you’ve just bet your life savings or the nuclear codes), it means that—in the words of Kenny Rogers—you know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em, which leads to a net profit over many games.
Playing one game of Betrayal at House on the Hill (seriously why isn’t there an extra the in there somewhere) is like playing one game of rock paper scissors, or one hand of poker. Great if it goes well, entirely pointless if it goes badly. Of course because Betrayal is quite a thematic game, going well doesn’t necessarily mean winning. Some of the most satisfying games of BaHotH (and incidentally I’ve just noticed how fitting it is that Bahoth sounds like the name of a demon in a cheesy ‘80s movie in its own right) I’ve played have been ones where I’ve lost but it’s felt really appropriate, like when one of the characters turned out to be possessed by the ghost of a serial killer and tracked us all down one by one, or when as the traitor I’ve been defeated in an nailbiting final struggle against the one surviving player. The worst games are the ones where it either ends too quickly or too slowly. Where either the traitor got really badly beaten up wandering around the house and then died instantly the moment the turned evil, or where it was obvious really early on that the good guys couldn’t actually do the thing they needed to do because it was too long-winded and complicated or the scenario was just poorly balanced.
Betrayal: Legacy doesn’t strictly solve the problem of the game sometimes whiffing. You can still fairly often wind up just not really achieving much before your inevitable doom, but where in the standalone game that feels like you’ve just kind of wasted forty to ninety minutes, in the Legacy game even the most ignominious of endings and disappointing of outcomes become part of a more interesting wider story.
The core campaign of Betrayal: Legacy unfolds over thirteen sessions beginning in the sixteenth century and ending in the present day, with the house growing and filling up with spooky objects, strange rooms and peculiar inhabitants, many of which you name yourself. Each player takes control of a family that interacts with the house down the years, and every game you record your character’s name, age, and eventual fate. It’s deliberately set up so that if you’re a child in one game (and you often are if you base your character’s age on the model that represents them) and you survive you can plausibly come back as an adult in the next game, creating a real sense of continuity. In the base game the various items and events that pop up over the course of play can just feel a bit arbitrary and disconnected—why is there a mystical chalice in this room, a pair of glasses in this room, and a shotgun on the balcony? How exactly does the spooky apparition in this room relate to the bloody handprints in this room to the mysterious bright light in the basement?
Convert the game to a Legacy game and you get to build the house slowly over centuries. You know exactly what that random crossbow is—it’s the crossbow that you shot your friends with in the opening scenario. That ghostly apparition is specifically the spirit of the Viking berserker who possessed you in the second scenario when you found the strange object under the hanging tree. The marrow spoon that rewards you for eating dead people … yeah that’s still a bit random.
Without giving too much away, the game does a really good job of building on the silly, campy fun of Betrayal in a bunch of cool ways. It adds neutral characters to the house who can die and die permanently (which is anticlimactic if they snuff it in the scenario where they show up, but ah well), it introduces mysterious Hammer-Horror-level quasi-occult signs and artefacts. There are the usual boxes to open and envelopes to unseal, and they’re all presented in this knowing, slightly cheesy way that nicely marries the innate excitement of opening new bits of a legacy game with the spooooky hidden mysteries vibe of its particular flavour of pulpy horror. I mean it even calls the space underneath the box insert where you store dead and destroyed characters and objects “the tomb”.
Prior to Betrayal, my experience with Legacy mechanics was that they worked when they took an already excellent game and added depth and complexity to it, accentuating the positive like the song says. Betrayal: Legacy is the first Legacy game I’ve seen that successfully uses Legacy elements to do the opposite and eliminate the negative. It’s true that the first couple of times you play it, the game you’re playing is effectively a stripped down version of base BaHotH, but unlike—for example—Seafall or Pandemic Legacy Season Two where it feels like you have to play about halfway through the campaign before the game is even really feature-complete, Betrayal: Legacy’s early game is effectively a distillation of everything that makes the game actually fun to play, with all the other stuff that can get in the way stuffed into legacy decks and sealed boxes for later. In the first scenario, the “house” on the hill is quite specifically a colonial-era homestead and contains barely a dozen rooms. Which means yes, you don’t get as much of the “wandering around finding weird things and having weird encounters” part of the game as you normally would, but it also means that you get to jump very quickly to the Haunt, which is the part of the game that’s actually unique and fun.
Basically it’s exactly as enjoyable as the original game, with the two significant advantages that the Legacy bells and whistles are fun in their own right, and that building into an overarching haunted house story makes even individually disappointing play experiences satisfying long term as you realise that the character who turned evil and murdered all his friends in the previous game died bathetically at the hands of a bad horse in this one.
As always I should wrap up with the “is it good for couples or children” questions. The first is easy: this game does not work at all with two players—it’s based on the premise that one player unexpectedly turns on the rest and while there’s some effort made to balance the game around 3, 4 or 5 players, it’s generally not possible for one player on their own to beat a player-turned-traitor with monsters backing them up. Also, some scenarios have a hidden traitor, and that mechanic goes out the window with two. Three is a hard minimum and it’s best with four to five.
The question of playing with children is … a tricky one. It wasn’t until I was typing up this review that I quite realised how odd it is that Betrayal (both the original and the legacy version) is a game in which you regularly play small children and those small children regularly die horribly. Perhaps the best way to think about it is in terms of traditional spooky campfire stories—when you think about it, for all we worry about children being exposed to violent content from modern sources (online, in video games, on TV), the kinds of stories we habitually tell children in certain contexts (like fairytales and traditional ghost stories) are crazy bloody. Heck, the Lizzie Borden song is a children’s rhyme and it’s literally about a girl who murders her parents with an axe, and is based on a real crime. I should probably clarify that the game isn’t actually that explicit about its violence or its horror aspect, and it steers very heavily into straightforward horror and haunted house tropes. It’s just that those tropes do include things like “axe murderers” and “dismembered body parts” as well as “vampires and mummies.” As always, mileage varies and different people will draw their lines in different places so. Yeah. Is what it is, y’know.
In a lot of ways I think my final thought on Betrayal Legacy is a lot like my final thought on T.I.M.E. Stories (yes, I know I’ve now just compared the game to a completely different game that I haven’t mentioned at any point in the last 2,500 words, sorry I am terrible at structure) in that I think whether you should buy it depends a lot on whether you have the kinds of gaming friends it works with, and those types of friends might wind up being quite specific. The base game skews casual—it’s a low-investment game with a short playtime that’s sometimes disappointing but usually a decent way to pass a smallish chunk of your afternoon, so it’s a nice option to have on your shelf for if people fancy it and doesn’t require your friends to be super into boardgaming. But Legacy games are kind of the opposite—you’re committing to playing one game with one group of people, semi-regularly, for at least thirteen sessions.
I think if I had to sum up the friend-group you need to get the most out of this game, it would be a group of people who really like board games but don’t mind not taking them super seriously. People who won’t look at you funny when you start saying “hey, let’s play this game that might take us the best part of a year to finish and which also requires you to put stickers all over the board and tear up the cards” but who also won’t get hacked off playing a game that doesn’t really involve any kind of strategy, often turns on an extremely swingy dice system, and is likely to be more silly than scary most of the time.
One sentence summary: Like the original but better. Worth a look either as a straight upgrade over base Betrayal, or as a fairly low-impact introduction to Legacy games in general.