Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate

This week Wizards of the Coast announced Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate, a D&D-themed version of their acclaimed Betrayal at House on the Hill board game. My first thought: “Great ideas win out—even if it takes a while.”

“A while” being “fifteen years, give or take” in this case.

When I first saw the game that would become Betrayal at House on the Hill, it was one of the last Milwaukee Gencons, 2001 or 2002. I was a D&D designer for WotC, so I spent most of my Gencon time speaking on panels or running the Delve (a continuous four-day pickup game) inside the WotC castle in the exhibit hall. Nice work if you can get it, eh?

I was hanging around the castle after a shift DMing the Delve when the head of RPG R&D at the time, Bill Slavicsek, grabbed me. “Follow me—we need a fourth player for a game we’re trying.” With me in tow, Bill scurried over to the open board game area, where we met two designers in Hasbro’s board game operation: Rob Daviau (who later went on to pretty much invent legacy board games) and Mike Gray (who’s been key to more Hasbro games than I can list).

“It’s a haunted house game,” Rob explained. “Here, pick a character.”

What I played over the course of the next hour or so was a 80% complete version of what later became Betrayal at House on the Hill. The characters were horror-movie archetypes (cheerleader, professor, and so on), the stats were tracked with paperclips on cardstock, and the room tiles even had decent graphics. The traitor mechanic was there, though the supply of plots was much thinner.

After a brief explainer from Mike and Rob, we were able to hit the ground running—and it was fun! When it was all over, Mike explained that while Hasbro’s board game group liked the design, they weren’t going to be able to do anything with it. (I can only imagine the business and logistical concerns for an operation of Hasbro’s scale.) WotC had a separate line of board games, though, and they weren’t beholden to the same set of concerns.

“I think you guys could take the game if you want it,” Mike said. Then Rob piped up. “It doesn’t have to be a haunted house, you know. Look at the tiles and the monster tokens and the items. This could be a dungeon…”

One thing led to another, and the game did wind up on the WotC side of the fence, where Mike Selinker, Teeuwynn Woodruff, Bill McQuillan and a bunch of other people whose names I’m cruelly forgetting turned it into Betrayal at House on the Hill a couple years later.

Rob’s “it doesn’t have to be a haunted house” observation sat latent for years, but now that game’s structure will support a new theme, some 15 years after that Gencon afternoon in the board game hall. Rob gets his wish, and the haunted house becomes a dungeon.

It was a good idea then, and it’s a good idea now. Board game production requires a surplus of patience, whether you’re a huge corporation or an adorable indie. For all my fellow designers who’ve touched the various incarnations of this game over the years, I think 15 years of patience will pay off this October.

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