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Co-op Case Studies: Betrayal Legacy

Betrayal Legacy was the next major co-op released after we finalized the text on Meeples Together. (It actually came out in early November 2018, toward the end of our Kickstarter.) However, we’re continuing to play and analyze new co-op games, so we’re pleased to offer this case study of one of our genre’s newest games.

This article was originally published on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Avalon Hill (2018)
Cooperative Style: Overlord / Hunter
Play Style: Adventure, Combat

Overview

Characters wander a spooky mansion, exploring it and encountering events, items, and omens as they do. Suddenly a Haunt begins and one of them becomes a “traitor”. During the Haunt, the cooperative players and the traitor each seek to accomplish their own goals, with conflict arising as they do. Afterward, a generation goes by, and a new game begins, influenced by what’s come before.

Challenge System

Betrayal Legacy has a very minimal challenge system, primarily focused on exploration. Whenever a player reveals a new tile, they’re forced to draw a card.  This could be a good item for the player or it could be an event that might be either helpful or deleterious.

However, things change when the “Haunt” occurs, as triggered by the draw of an omen card (and the roll of some dice). At this point, one of the players becomes a “traitor”, who then tries to kill the rest of the characters and/or accomplish his objectives before they accomplish theirs.

When this game’s predecessor, Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004), first used the term “traitor”, Shadows over Camelot (2005), which kicking off the traitor genre of cooperative play, had not yet appeared. That means that today, Betrayal’s use of the word “traitor” is somewhat archaic and definitely confusing.

The oppositional player in Betrayal is definitely not a traitor as the term is now understood, because they aren’t secretly trying to spoil the play of the other characters, like the traitor knights in Shadows or the traitor cylons in Battlestar Galactica (2008). Instead, they’re a fully cooperative player until the moment that the Haunt begins, at which point they become a open, fully non-cooperative opponent.

Meeples Together uses the phrase “later overlord” to describe the oppositional player in Betrayal, but in actuality, Betrayal’s special role lies somewhere between an overlord and a hunted character. Like an overlord, the Betrayal traitor learn some secrets of the scenario not know to the other players, and sometimes they get to control monsters. However, unlike a typical overlord, they don’t have much challenge machinery to work with. Instead, they use largely the same rules as the other players, but are working toward different (orthogonal) goals, usually enabled by unique actions; this is much more typical of the hunter style of play.

The Haunt phase of the game inevitably has some decay, though it’s entirely focused on the characters: as they become wounded, they become less able to succeed at tasks; and as characters die, the cooperators become less able to defeat the traitor. Despite its simplicity, the decay is meaningful, and the game becomes more frantic as it goes on.

Challenge Elements: Round and Exploration Activation; Card(s) andd Overlord Trigger; Decay; Skill and Combat Threats; Hidden (Later) Overlord.

Cooperative System

Betrayal Legacy is a weird cooperative game because it really doesn’t encourage cooperation in the first half of the game. Anyone could be the traitor, so no one really wants to help anyone else. Instead, the players each go off in their individual directions to explore. (You could make some of these same arguments for non-cooperation in an actual traitor game, but those games tend to be tense fights for survival from the start; the lack of real threat in the early Betrayal game, except from the occasional unlucky event, ensures that the game remain relatively non-cooperative at that point.)

The Haunt changes everything, as there’s suddenly both an opponent and a cooperative goal, neither of which were present in the early game. For the first time ever, the cooperators can strategize about how to succeed at their goal and how to defeat the newly coined overlord.

So how do the characters cooperate? Betrayal Legacy shows how much cooperation can be enabled (or not) by scenario design. At a minimum, a game of Betrayal Legacy supports tactical cooperation in combat, as the cooperative characters physically fight against the traitor. However, some scenarios also lay out one or more actions that players must take — in addition to combat, in advance of it, or even instead of it. These actions can enable complex strategic cooperation, as different characters take on different tasks, which all must be completed in order to succeed at the cooperators’ goal.

Adventure System

The strength of Betrayal Legacy’s design is not in its cooperative mechanics (or even its legacy mechanics), but instead in its adventure-game mechanics.

Like most adventure-focused co-ops, Betrayal Legacy has strong character, skill-test, and combat systems:

  • Each character is defined by four characteristics, which are both their health and their skill levels. The characters are further expanded by item and omen cards that they can collect.
  • Skill tests simply require players to roll a number of dice equal to a characteristic, with successes on their dice being measured against a specific target (or a set of ranges) set on a card, tile, or rulebook.
  • Combat is then a simple expansion of the skill tests, to make them oppositional.

However, Betrayal Legacy’s adventure system shines not in these mundane mechanics, but in its storytelling. Evocative and colorful story elements certainly appear in the house’s room tiles and in the item, omen, and event cards. However, the core story appears through the Haunt, which reveals some past or present horror, then gives both the cooperative characters and the traitor specific actions that they must undertake to defeat (or empower) the horror. The strength of a Haunt’s storytelling comes from the fact that these actions are evocative and often carefully layered. They allow the players to take part in a story through what they do in the game.

Betrayal Legacy takes its adventure mechanics to the next level through its legacy play. Items can become tied to families, and new events can be introduced into the house based on the outcomes of past games. The house itself can even change! As a legacy game, Betrayal Legacy doesn’t feel as deep as designs like SeaFall (2016), Pandemic Legacy Season Two (2017), and Charterstone (2017), all of which allow players to more explicitly and regularly expand the game; instead, Betrayal Legacy primarily applies its legacy play to its core strength: storytelling.

Expansions & Variants

Betrayal Legacy is essentially a variant of Betrayal at House on the Hill redeveloped for Legacy play. But the core gameplay is similar enough that this case study could largely by repeated for the original game.

Being a legacy game, it’s unlikely that Betrayal Legacy will ever be supplemented (though it does contain rules for continuing play after the legacy story is done). However, the second edition of the original Betrayal at House on the Hill (2010) does have an expansion, Widow’s Walk (2016). There’s also a variant game set in D&D’s Forgotten Realms called Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate (2017).

Final Thoughts

The challenge machinery in Betrayal Legacy is quite minimal. It’s most interesting for the fact that it flaunts the conventions of the co-op category by offering gameplay that’s neither entirely cooperative, entirely overlord-focused, or entirely hunter-focused. Meanwhile, its cooperative machinery offers another great lesson by demonstrating how a game can empower cooperation through solid scenario design.

“It’s a roleplaying campaign in a box.”

—Rob Daviau, November 2018, “Rob Daviau on the D&D Roots of Betrayal Legacy”, Dragon Talk, http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/rob-daviau-dd-roots-betrayal-legacy

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples