Reviewed by Frank Branham
[Back in 2004, Hasbro released a spectacular new game with a fantasy theme, wonderful graphic design and lots of beautiful miniatures. The game was Heroscape. The game caught on with critics and players alike and became a success spawning lots of expansions for players to add to that gaming universe. But nothing lasts forever so, after a rather long run, Heroscape was discontinued and taken out of the line. Gone but, evidently, not forgotten. With the new release of Magic, the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers, the spirit of Heroscape has been resurrected. With MtG: Arena of the Planewalkers featured this issue, we thought it would be interesting to flashback and see how Gamers Alliance contributor – and game designer in his own right – Frank Branham felt about the game when it first hit the shelves over a decade ago.]
(Hasbro, 2 or more players, ages 8 and up, playing time varies with scenario; $39.99 [now out of print])
I miss plastic.
After a torrid affair with German games and all of their prettily painted wooden bits, I have sensed a curious longing for massively overproduced Marvin Glass games in glistening plastic. Somehow the bright colors and that funky petrochemical smell bring back my childhood.
Heroscape, designed by Craig van Ness, Rob Daviau and Stephen Baker, consists of an extremely massive amount of plastic. In the oversized $40 box, you find 30 hand-painted miniatures, some references cards, a solid brick of custom dice, and 47 tons of interlocking painted 3D plastic hex landscapes. Round this out with some hero stat cards, some order markers, damage markers, and 3 booklets of rules and scenarios.
The game seems to have some elaborate back story about heroes from every time period venturing to some mystic place to do a lot of mystic things, which apparently involves a lot of beating up on other heroes. The mix of characters in the game is extremely odd, as you have an orc riding a dinosaur standing next to a WWII paratrooper, a spare elf, a Valkyrie, a handful of aliens, and the cast of the Matrix.
The components are remarkable. The miniatures are roughly 28mm in scale, and the paint jobs are rather more detailed than the Wizkids or D&D Miniatures pre-painted figures. The landscape pieces (in 3 colors) slot together loosely and quickly, but have enough structure in the locking mechanism so that you can move the entire board around on your table easily. The only downside here is that it is very hard to get the pieces back into the somewhat flimsy box. There is very little extra space to begin with, and the oversized dragon miniature is not designed with removable wings.
The three books contain the basic rules, advanced rules, and 12 included scenarios on 5 battlefield layouts. We have discovered that building a battlefield requires Lego skills or an 8 year old child. It can take 15 minutes to put together a visually impressive 3D landscape, which covers much of a card table. The terrain tiles include sand, grass, and rock colors, as well as slightly translucent water hexes.
The Basic rules outline a very simple wargame that is remarkably kid-friendly. Units consist of squads of up to 4 troops or individual heroes. Each player takes turns moving one Hero or squad. After moving, the moved unit may attack. The attacker must be within its listed range, and rolls red dice with skulls. The target rolls blue dice marked with shields. If more skulls are rolled than shields, the target dies.
Movement is equally simple. Terrain effects are limited to water ending movement, and moving up to higher terrain costing an extra move per level.
Those are pretty much the entire basic rules. The only skills required to play are counting and recognizing written numbers, and I have taught the rules to a 6 year old. The Basic game itself is kind of bland. You move, roll, and see how the dice come out.
The Master Rules don’t add too many complications. There are rules for falling from high places, height advantages, units with multiple hit points, and Line of Sight.
The four big changes are:
1. At the start of each round, you place 3 order tokens (marked 1-3) on three of your cards. During the round, players will alternate moving one of their units in the order chosen. This makes you have to work out a hint of planning in your movement.
2. Players draft their units using point costs at the start of the game.
3. Every unit has a special power or two. Each special power is only owned by one unit, and their effects are wildly variable. The Airborne drop into unoccupied space in the middle of the game and throw grenades. The dragon can fly and breathe lines of fire. The aliens can clone lost troops by giving up their attack. The powers are extremely clever in their design and are very important in estimating the strength of a unit.
4. Scenarios have glyphs scattered around the board which give particular bonuses to a player standing on the glyph.
The end result is often a vastly entertaining game. Players are suddenly concerned with grabbing the high ground, occupying glyphs, avoiding enemies with spectacularly dangerous special powers by hiding behind hills.
The scenarios reinforce the basic structure of the game. The straightforward kill-the-opponent designs are the weakest, as they rely on a handful of glyphs and seem to occasionally come down to one obviously superior side tediously mopping up the remnants of the loser.
Faring much better are more whimsical objectives. One scenario is a race across hostile terrain. One has players clambering up a hill to avoid a slowly rising poisonous fog. Another has three players under a shaky truce trying to occupy a single glyph at the top of a massive hill. The fourth player has a larger force and is trying to defend that glyph. Hasbro has more online scenarios with other clever objectives.
Strategy for the game is strongly driven by the scenario, and the capabilities of the chosen units. Luck is still extremely important in a battle’s outcome. However, I have seen my opponents make tactical and strategic blunders that clearly cost them the game.
The big problem with the game is that for a light, fairly fluffy game, there is actually a fairly steep learning curve. The first decision a player has to make is to draft his team. This is the most crucial set of choices in the game, and a first-time player is suddenly involved in picking a team of troops, each with unique powers. Combine this drafting time with the first battlefield setup, and your first game can stray into a 90 minute length. Also, it is very easy for a new player to choose a team that has almost no chance against his opponent, pretty much ruining his chances at victory right out of the gate. The game desperately wants for a couple of Master scenarios with pre-chosen units.
Once you get used to the unit differences and specialties, the game is very enjoyable. Battles move quickly and are full of flavor, allow scope for creative tactics, and the capriciousness of the dice makes for high drama. The game is perhaps about the weight of Richard’s Borg’s excellent Command and Colors series, but the wackier unit types and more creative scenarios push me to actually prefer Heroscape.
Besides, it is $40. You want one just to smell the plastic. Right? – – – – – Frank Branham
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