I have a friend – let’s call him “Dallas” – who is as avid a tabletop gamer as I am. The two of us play together frequently and together have a wide collection of different board games, card games, and RPGs for our group to enjoy when we meet up. Last Christmas, Dallas got a couple of different new games and we’ve been trying to slowly break them all out at get-togethers over the course of the past few months. One of the games, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Card Game, I discussed a couple of months ago. At that time, and at get-togethers since, Dallas has been trying to get everyone to play the final game. This one, unlike any of his other board games, he needed a group as large as our whole crew of players because it needed a minimum of three people and played best with five or six. Unfortunately, every time we grouped up it seemed that interest was low.
Dallas was patient but persistent, and though it took nearly five full months from the day he first opened this tantalizing new board game, the time finally came when we found a group of folks willing to come together and give the game a try. With eager anticipation Dallas opened the box, meticulously laid out all of the pieces, and began to explain the rules. We played a full game, slowly working our way through the rules and learning to understand the various pieces and mechanisms. When the first playthrough was done someone asked if we were going to play again. The look of joy on Dallas’s face was priceless, but at this point it was clear that no one was playing out of obligation anymore – the game had shown us what it was capable of, and we were excited to see more.
This review is the story of that game: Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate. I’ll be discussing the game’s mechanisms and miniatures (which would make a great segment name for my board game reviews, I just realized) as well as our experience with it at the table. Factors such as length of play and potential replayability will all be considered as well, but keep in mind these thoughts are my first impressions of the game based on two playthroughs done consecutively in a single evening. While I cannot speak to the longevity of the game from the perspective of one who has experienced it over and over again over the course of weeks or months, these first impressions should give you a clear indication of whether or not Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate is a good fit for your style of play.
Pictured above are the box for the game showing some of the components inside as well as the rulebooks. All of the components fit neatly into the box and there are specific sections for organizing the most important components: board tiles, character markers and miniatures, cards, and then the various miscellaneous pieces that may or may not be used from game to game. The simplest way to discuss the many components of the game is to discuss each of them in order as they come into play. Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate is a startlingly simple game to learn – when the box came open and I saw the various pieces I was expecting something much more complicated. Using Mansions of Madness as my reference point, I expected a lengthy setup and lengthier play session that would have every new player at the table thoroughly confused. Instead, we were able to quickly pick up the game just by taking some turns and engaging the various mechanisms one at a time. Betrayal is a well-designed game in that respect; just the act of playing it introduces everything slowly so you can learn the game in manageable chunks.
Based on the Forgotten Realms setting in the world of Dungeons and Dragons, Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate gives you six different character cards that each have two classes on them. The cards are divided by race – there are two human cards, and one card each for elf, dwarf, halfling, and half-orc. While some races are pigeon-holed into roles, such as the dwarf card having two classes with focus on physical power, others do a good job of offering you some variety based on which of the two classes you choose. There are six miniatures to accompany the six cards, and they are attractive pieces. The details are well-done and the pieces are already painted. These are the only six minis in the game and they serve as your primary means of interacting with the world, so you definitely want them to look attractive.
Each individual character card outlines your race, class, the character’s name and age, as well as their four ability scores and their unique class ability. The ability scores in Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate can be divided broadly into two categories: physical and mental. The physical attributes are might and speed, and the mental attributes are knowledge and sanity. Might represents your default attack power and your defense against physical attacks. Speed represents how far you can move in a single turn and is used defensively against traps. Knowledge interacts with various items and can serve as offense and defense for certain magical abilities. Sanity resists traps which present mental danger and also double as offense and defense for certain magical attacks. Each character has different values ranging from zero (0) to eight (8) in each of these four attributes, and different starting values in them as well. If any attribute falls to zero (0), your character dies. Attributes are increased and decreased as the result of resolving various effects in the game.
Finally, each class has unique special abilities that allows them to function differently in play. The elven warlock, for example, can execute a ranged attack using sanity as the damage source rather than might. The halfling rogue can move at normal speed through spaces occupied by enemy tokens. When playing as a half-orc paladin, each turn you can choose to ignore one event card (more on that later) and continue your movement. Naturally, some abilities feel inherently more useful than others and your playstyle will influence the ones you enjoy most. If you’re a D&D veteran, though, don’t expect to love or hate the classes based on your normal preferences. I love to play rogues and I personally found the rogue character rather useless, while I had a much better time with the warlock despite hating playing magicians in actual Dungeons and Dragons.
After everyone at the table has chosen characters, you place them onto the game board. The board itself consists not of one large foldable piece but instead of a number of small tiles that can be laid out side by side in any fashion. Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate has two distinct areas: an upper city and a lower city. In the beginning you start with the Elfsong Tavern along with its kitchen and inner chamber in play aboveground, and the kitchen basement and catacomb landing below ground. On each tile there are a number of doorways leading off in various directions, and these doorways serve as the connections between tiles that allows you to put new tiles into play. In this way, the two major sections of the board can expand outward in various shapes – sometimes in an organized square, other times in a chaotic mess of long, straight lines extending out in the cardinal directions. This makes it very difficult to find a playing space that provides the amount of room needed to hold Betrayal at Baldur’s gate. We used a coffee table and frequently found ourselves having space issues. If you don’t have a large dining table or dedicated gaming table, you’ll probably find yourself jury-rigging some unusual setups to get everything to fit. If everyone in your group is capable of sitting comfortably on the floor, that might be the best place to put this game because of the myriad ways in which it can expand.
How does the board expand, you ask? On each player’s turn, they go about exploring the city of Baldur’s Gate and its extensive catacombs. When you occupy a tile with an exit door which leads to a space that does not yet have a tile in it, you draw from the appropriate draw pile and reveal a new room on the map. There are three room types: buildings, streets, and catacombs. Each type has a selection of different rooms. When a room is revealed, there are generally effects to resolve based on the individual room. Some have beneficial effects such as giving a one-time bonus to one of your attributes. Others have deadly traps that active upon revealing the room, while still others may slow down movement or allow quick movement between specific locations. Quite a few rooms serve as a connection between the catacombs and the city, allowing you to move from one floor of the map to the other at a number of connected points. Most rooms activate one of three broader effect types that we will discuss in much more detail: items, events, and omens.
Items, events, and omens are all represented by decks of cards. You draw the top card from the associated pile when discovering a room that activated one of these effects. Items are exactly what they sound like: useful objects which your adventurers can carry around on their person and drop or trade as they see fit. Some of them are weapons, some armor, and some have other useful effects. During both of our playthroughs an item called the necklace of fireballs made an appearance, and it serves as a sort of magical grenade that can be used to attack everyone in an adjacent tile. I had a nifty item called the gambler’s dice that allowed me to put one of my mental stats at risk in order to reroll one of my dice during an action. Some of the items seem to be opportunities for the creators to wink at the players and make fun references – the cloak of the bat, for example, is a defensive item which uses speed of movement to ignore damage and certainly brings to mind a certain cowl-clad superhero.
Events are one-time occurrences that could turn out to be good for the player or which could turn very, very bad. You reveal the event card, resolve its effect, and then continue play as normal. One event we saw frequently was the appearance of arcane gates, which connects the current room to a room chosen by the player anywhere else on the map. This can be used to create some essential shortcuts, but if you pull it very early in the game like we did it can also end up connecting the city and the catacombs in a pair of rooms that already did just that. A particularly insidious event we saw come into play was a gripping claw that damaged its victim over time – the conditions for being rid of it were relatively simple to satisfy but our player found himself in a situation where he was trapped and unable to get to where he needed to go, causing him to very nearly lose his life over the course of multiple turns. Where items are generally positive, events can be good or bad depending on which one you get and on how you roll once you activate it.
This is a good time to discuss how the dice work in Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate. There are eight dice included with the game, and each one has six sides – but they are not your typical d6. Instead of having faces with numbers one (1) through six (6), they have two faces with two dots, two faces with one dot, and two blank faces. This means that the highest number you can roll on any individual die is two (2). When it’s time to make a roll, you generally roll a number of dice equal to your rating in a particular attribute, and if you beat your target number you succeed on the check. The target number will vary from situation to situation. Sometimes the conditions are binary pass/fail; you succeed on avoiding the trap or the trap stabs you for physical damage, for example. Other times you get different effects for rolling within a certain range. These can generally be broken down into a success, partial success, failure model: you avoid damage and get a bonus, you just avoid damage, you take damage. Events are the main trigger for dice rolls related to your attributes, but there is another major mechanisms which require the dice to hit the table: omens.
Omens have an interesting blend of both item and event; some omens resolve and then don’t really stay in play after that while others are magical artifacts or weapons that can be used again and again throughout the rest of the game. Many omens we found increase the stats of the one who found them as long as the omen is still in play. Omens are significant in a way that items and events are not, though, in that they connect to one of the most significant mechanisms in Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate: the haunt. Each time you draw an omen and resolve its effect, the one who revealed it rolls dice equal to the number of omens that have been revealed. When the dice show a result of six or more, the haunt begins and the game moves into a dramatically different phase of play. Remember, the highest number on any individual die block is two (2), so you need at least three omens to be activated in order for the haunt to even be possible. Once you have three or more omens in play and you successful roll a 6 or better on the dice, the haunt begins and you break out the additional rulebooks for the game.
Yes, you read that right: there are not one, not two, but three different rulebooks for Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate. All of the core rules of the game are contained in the main rulebook. In addition to that you have the Traitor’s Tome and the Secrets of Survival. These special rules and scenarios do not come into play until partway through the game when you’ve revealed enough omens in order to begin the haunt. Everything leading up to the haunt can be thought of as a preparation phase of sorts. You spend your time expanding the board while hunting for good items and beneficial effects to make your character as powerful and versatile as possible. You don’t have a specific goal in mind – you’re buffing yourself for when the haunt begins and things get really crazy. The haunt is the moment when the victory conditions of the game are revealed, the stakes are established, and everyone leans forward in their chair. Things are about to get serious.
There are a number of possible haunt scenarios in the game – a total of fifty different situations that can vary even further depending on which characters are in play on the board. The specific haunt you’ll be playing is decided by the omen which ultimately caused the haunt and the room that the omen was activated in. Most haunts have a traitor, an individual at the table who is now in opposition to the rest of the party. The traitor may be the person who revealed the haunt, a particular character, or it could be based on the stats of the characters in play or even the position of the players relative to the person who revealed the haunt. The traitor gains access to privileged knowledge and additional rules in the Traitor’s Tome. Everyone else at the table becomes a hero and they read their rules and instructions from the Secrets of Survival.
Each haunt has different conditions for victory and different special rules that are introduced. In our case the haunts we ended up playing were called Rats on a Pier and Darkness Falls. Rats on a Pier pitted a traitor and his wererat minions against the rest of the party in a race to rescue the civilians of Baldur’s Gate – could the wererats turn the townsfolk before the heroes led them to safety? This scenario introduced special rules for moving and protecting civilian tokens and for turning defeated civilians into wererats. Darkness Falls had no traitor, instead pitting the full party against a city cloaked in darkness along with dangerous cultists. We had to rearrange the board and rediscover the city, collecting objects and delivering them to Elfsong Tavern while also avoiding the cultists. This scenario introduced new rules for the item, event, and omen reveals as well as detailed instructions for how to operate the cultists since they were not controlled by an independently-operating traitor – technically, everyone moving the cultists and describing their actions wanted the cultists to lose, so the directions for how to control them had to be quite detailed.
The unique haunt rules put a fun spin on the game. During preparation you have no idea who your enemies will be or what you’re going to have to accomplish. Should you explore more of the city or more of the catacombs? Which character ability will be useful to you? Will you benefit from more items or from higher attributes? You do your best to make preparations for a threat you do not yet understand, and then once everyone knows exactly what’s at stake you hope your preparations were enough to ready you for the events about to unfold. Once the special haunt rules are revealed, you then continue play using the haunt rules in addition to the basic rules about movement, discovering new rooms, and making attribute tests.
That’s the beauty of Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate: the game cleverly introduces you to all the mechanisms slowly. You spend the time before the haunt learning how the basics work, and then once the haunt starts you get some exciting new rules into play that finally tell you how to win the game. But even those additional rules are still built on the same core principles. Combat rolls are attribute tests where someone’s defense roll is your target number instead of a specific range outlined on an event card. When the haunt begins, the time for learning the game is over and you are ready to put your skills to the test.
We’ve gone through the rules of the game step by step and discussed each of the components at length. But how does it all feel when you put it together? Because Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate has two distinct phases of play, each one has a different tone. Before the haunt, you casually explore and gain helpful items. Banter around the table is friendly and for the most part folks are concerned mainly with taking their own turn and then can tune out. It’s fun, it’s casual, and it’s a great environment to learn the basics. Once the haunt comes into play, the tone shifts. One person at the table is the “bad guy” now, everyone else is allied together behind a common cause, and a win condition is clearly in play. During these times we found ourselves thinking more seriously about the actions on our turns and discussing strategy across the table. “If I move my piece here and attack will you defend these NPCs?” “It might be better for you to move that direction since your movement is higher than mine and you can navigate the traps better.” These kinds of discussions took over the table as the party of heroes began to operate as a coherent team. It’s a good structure for a game as it followers what I find typically makes sense for the dynamics of a game night – you start with casual fun and socializing and then dig deep when the game gets more intense. Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate has a structure which intentionally draws upon that dynamic and uses it to create a specific atmosphere at the table.
While the core rules are simple enough to understand and the game does a great job of teaching them, we did run into some issues while playing. There are certain places where the rules seem to contradict or at the very least do not offer enough structure and as a result become muddled and unclear. During the wererat scenario that we played, for example, one of the win conditions for the party of heroes was to kill all the wererats. The thing is, the rules for monster combat say that monsters cannot be killed, only temporarily stunned. They come back after one turn of being knocked out. Did this meant that our party of four had to knock out four wererats simultaneously in order to win the game? There seemed to be no additional mechanisms for killing a monster in the special haunt rules, so there was some confusion as to how we were supposed to interpret that particular victory condition. These kinds of situations with vague rulings in the actual materials for the game required us to spend time in discussions about how to handle them, only to realize later that our decisions didn’t make sense because of some third mechanism we didn’t happen to be thinking about at the time. This wasn’t always a problem, though, and the rules had explanations for apparent contradictions more often than they had issues which had to be resolved by player discussion.
One final consideration to keep in mind: Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate is set in an established universe. The Forgotten Realms of Dungeons and Dragons have a rich history and this game does pull from that history in a way that could add an extra layer of fun for those who are familiar with it. One card, for example, referenced characters that I remember meeting in the computer game Baldur’s Gate when I played it years ago. Elfsong Tavern, the game’s starting location, is actually where you start in the video game Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. These sorts of touches won’t mean anything to those who are unfamiliar with the game world, but if you have that familiarity, there is a small payoff for it. This is done in such a way that it isn’t pandering, though, and people who don’t have any familiarity with the Forgotten Realms or even D&D in general should have no problem picking up and appreciating this game for what it is.
Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate is a compelling game that is easy to learn and strikes a good balance between having lots of fun mechanisms while not taking too much time to play. It starts you off in a fun, casual space and then gives you the opportunity to focus in and strategize with your friends. The haunt system means you’ll never know exactly what to expect when it comes to how to win the game, and the large variety of haunts in addition to having variable traitors means that it will probably be a long time before you’ve seen everything that this game has to offer. If you enjoy board games which feature exploration, combat, strategy, and teamwork, Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate offers all of those things in combination with a surprise element which will likely keep you coming back for a long time. Based on my two playthroughs of it, I think it is a well-designed game that delivers on the promises it makes.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts, adventurers! Have you played Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate? Would you recommend the game to others? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments of the article, and if you still have questions now that this review has come to an end, post those in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer them to the best of my ability.