And thus I clove my naked villainy... and seem a saint when I play the devil!" The Book of Betrayal foretells a time when four Lords will wrestle for power against their rightful King and Church. And it is in the book we find the true story of the West Marches' darkest hour.
Four equally-matched nobles seek power. They must dominate the courts of both King and Bishop, then depose them. Either noble has to manage estates, gather taxes, build armies, wage wars, spy and thwart the similar plots of his peers.
The four players each choose a starting station - Knight, Baron, Earl or Duke - which allots them a variety of villages and a number of courtiers. They must then travel to the villages collecting harvests and return to court for political manoeuvres. Your aim, playing in rotation over turns, is to control the twin courts and thus take power in the West Marches.
Vaulting ambitions are still governed by three major factors. Firstly, a Lord must have representatives at both courts, which requires the payment of taxes. Secondly the Lord must have some spare cash and an army for travelling. And finally he will need peasants, who make all the money and supply the soldiers.
In the Villages
As Lord and Master over a number of villages you have total command of the peasants' lives and actions. Villagers serve four vital purposes: growing wheat to eat, making pottery to sell, forming militias for defence and supplementing your personal army. Villages should be self-,wbr>financing units, after they've paid taxes, otherwise their up keep comes out of your personal fortune.
The economic balancing act is as tricky to master as it is to understand. Making the most of fluctuating prices and the grouping of villages into units is vital as you try to offset expenditure (on the armies) against production (corn). The proximity to court becomes important as well, because each harvest has to be overseen personally.
In a court comprised of 24 courtiers, a majority of 13 is needed to overthrow the Monarch or Bishop - and both must be replaced to win. Your numbers can be increased in various ways, of which the most moral means is tax payment. For each Lord one unit of tax must be paid per twelve-moon cycle. If you offer more, and there are vacancies, then the King or Bishop may let you have more places.
There aren't always openings for thrusting young courtiers, so some have to be engineered. Assassins can be hired and enemies can be accused of treason if you've collected some evidence scrolls, or they can be purely outbid for position. Each action in court, though, requires your presence and takes a whole game turn to execute, whereas with moves outside the court the turn is split into six segments. So very few power moves can be attempted per twelve-turn year.
On the Road
The least predictable element in a world awash with betrayal is travel. The overall game map is quite unreliable, medieval cartography being made realistically duff. While travelling, as well as the problem of getting lost, you run the risk of being attacked by bandits or other Lords. On the up side you can also attack them and their villages or stumble upon goodies that have been left lying around.
Battles for villages and between warring groups can be fought out as small arcade games. Two lines of troops wander towards each other, with you controlling one warrior. Below is a battle bar which shows who the next combatant is for either side. The fight continues until one team runs out of troops, so it pays to borrow the occasional soldier from friendly militia whenever possible.
If defeated, you're captured and can be held ransom or even banished, events which can both terminally hamper your game-winning chances.
Playing forces you have to combine all these elements into an overall strategy. The choice has to be made between using all six turn segments to ride around the West Marches managing your serfs, or going to court and trying a power play. Both must be done at least once every twelve turns, but which will pay the biggest dividends? Can your fellow players be trusted to keep their word or will they attack? Have you enough courtiers or is it open season for assassins? All these questions have no definite answer in a world of Betrayal!
GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Betrayal is a strategy game, so the graphics are subservient to the intricate gameplay. Yet the graphics maintain a respectable level. The scenes involving your Lord are mainly notational, intended to convey information via symbols, and so lack great realism. The battles are the highlight, with trolls trashing troops and heaps of broken bodies lying around.
Initially appearing patchy, the graphics hang together as a shorthand system that makes the game prettier and more playable. As for sound the only real feature, apart from the Olde England style theme, is the mad horse you ride whinnying at every turn.
Betrayal has great appeal to groups of players. It works as a 'one man versus the world' game but is far harder to understand and win. Playing alongside fellow novices nullifies the learning problems. Then, as they learn the parameters, players will start exploiting the game's strategic elements and rely less on sheer military power.
Single players must be read for a long manual session and many inglorious defeats. The economics are sound, but awkward, and four playing heads united in understanding their mechanics are far superior to one. The board-game style makes Betrayal a brilliant three or four way confrontation but frighteningly one-sided against the solo Baron.
Betrayal must be played by at least three players to be fully appreciated. Play it alone and you have to beat three experts immediately. The complexity of the game makes it initially tough but after a few abortive wars and stupid errors, it's possible to start some really messy backstabbing political battles. The more the game is played, the clearer it becomes that no one route leads to victory and that the possibilities for betrayal along the way are endless.