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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Battle of All Time

I would like to take this opportunity to formally thank Wizards of the Coast for purchasing the rights to Hasbro’s light miniatures war game, Heroscape. You have done the world a great service by saving an excellent little board game from the ravages of garage sales and online auction houses.

Well, perhaps I should have put the word “little” in quotes, because Heroscape is anything but little. I daresay it is nothing less than Epic in scale. 29mm scale, to be precise.

To those of you who think only of Monopoly when you think of board games, let me edumacate you a little bit. There is an enormous world of board games out there that have nothing to do with advancing a small pewter tophat around a square board in an allegory of the great depression. Some of these board games transcend the board, and become “tabletop games.” The difference between a board game and a tabletop game is subtle, but I think it has something to do with whether the game can be contained on a single board or must spill out over as much horizontal area as possible. Also, tabletop games tend to be a few orders of magnitude more expensive.

A well known, at least among geeks, example of this is the Warhammer series. Warhammer (and Warhammer 40k, which is like Warhammer except the Orcs ride motorcycles) is a miniatures based war game played out on enormous custom tables in the backs of stores filled with gawky, bespectacled teenagers and large men with neckbeards who smell of cheetohs.

I’m allowed to say that because I was once a gawky, bespectacled teenager and today I am just gawky and bespectacled.

Warhammer is, as they say, hardcore. There are enormous books filled with the lore of the Warhammer universe that players must at least be familiar with (my understanding is that deciding what army to buy based on the politics of the universe is a game unto itself), and the rulebooks appear to be sold by the pound. The miniature soldiers, elves and orcs used in the game come in plastic and white metal and must be sanded, assembled and painted before use. Or, at least, sanded and assembled, but if you walk into a shop named after an obscure Lord of the Rings character with an army of identical unpainted night goblins, you should prepare to be mocked. I recommend either A) being phenomenally good at the game or B) answering any insults or snickers with tremendously obscure or even fabricated references to the Silmarillion, which nearly everyone who’s read the Lord of the Rings trilogy owns but has not actually read.

This kind of thing is how geeks determine who is alpha.

Warhammer is played not on a board, but on a table. Movement is measured with a ruler instead of a grid, and attacks are determined by line of sight (the more enterprising use a laser pointer to determine if their soldier can see their opponents’ soldiers through the miniature terrain).

Heroscape is less hardcore. First off, the miniatures all come pre-painted. The game is played on plastic hex tiles that can be stacked and interlocked in nearly any configuration. Trees and rocks come in the game master set, which can be supplemented with expansion kits that have different types of terrain and structures. (I currently have two of the original master sets, and one of every subsequent one. My terrain tiles and features overflow an 18 gallon tote even when neatly stacked).

These modular tiles and terrain features like plastic trees or rocks are more than just cosmetic. Different types of terrain have different attributes that affords certain advantages or disadvantages. Attacking or defending from an elevated position gives the player an advantage in combat. Water tiles reduce movement, and lava tiles are instant death unless you’re playing as a fire-based creature. Trees, rocks and buildings provide cover and obstacles for units that can’t fly.

The armies of Heroscape are more eclectic than that of the Warhammer universes. (Amusing side note: Heroscape and Warhammer trip Word’s spelling checker, but it has no problem pluralizing universe. The only explanation I can think of for Microsoft’s acceptance of universal parallelism is that project Natal is actually used to co-opt unsuspecting victims in alternate dimensions, and the goofy movements you perform in game cause this victim to send Microsoft all of his money.)

Where was I? Oh yes, the armies. Heroscape features five different flags to march your army under. Each army has a theme, but the warriors in these armies are taken from across dimensional boundaries. The conceit of the game is that some rift in the space-time continuum has pulled together all of these warriors from across various times and universes. This is a thin veneer of plot provided only to explain why colonial minutemen are waging battle against gorillas with cybernetic implants and miniguns.

The gorillas tend to win a lot, which is why it’s a good idea for the minutemen to have an ice dragon and a wizard on their side.

Like terrain, armies can be expanded with add-on kits that come either in packs of basic units (have as many of this unit as you want) or in unique hero units (each game can only field one of these). Basic units are broken down into single, powerful soldiers or three to four weaker soldiers. For example, one unit card for the Lawful Evil army (Utgar) might have a single troll, three orcish archers, or four zombies. Unique heroes tend to be single soldiers with names.

Each unit has some basic abilities spelled out on the corresponding card: One for defense, one for attack, one for range, and one for movement. Range and movement are measured in hex tiles—a given character can attack from X number of hexes away, and can walk up to Y number of squares per turn. The attack and defense attributes call out the number of battle dice your character throws when attacking or defending. Attack dice are six sided dice with skulls to represent attacks, shields to represent defenses, and blank faces to represent how unlucky you are at dice games. When one player attacks, he or she rolls the number of dice called out on his card for attacks, and the opponent rolls the number of dice allotted for defense. Attacker counts the number of skulls rolled, while the defender counts the number of shields. Whoever has the bigger number wins.

Each unit also has a special attack or ability that lends some depth to the strategy. These will be spelled out on the card associated with that unit. Abilities range from the ability to fly for characters with wings or jetpacks, to the ability to influence units within a radius of the main unit, to a different kind of attack with its own range and attack ratings.

Samurai warriors, for example, have a special ability called Counterstrike, which means that if a unit standing adjacent to the samurai attacks, the samurai will bitch about lag issues and question the heterosexuality of whatever weapon you’re using.

Well, no. Actually, the samurai will roll defense as normal but counts every extraneous shield he rolls as an unblockable attack on his opponent. So if a troll with three hit points attacks and rolls two skulls, but the samurai rolls five shields, then the troll is dead.

A note for casual players: Fielding an army of all samurai warriors is a real dick move, and it will annoy your wife. Not that I have personal experience with this or anything.

The master set comes with instructions for building a few different battlefields and some scenarios to play out on them, but you can build anything you want. And if you have enough expansion sets, you really can build almost anything, and half the fun is coming up with a map and thinking of a scenario for it. The brilliance of Heroscape is not in the rote last-man-standing deathmatches, but in the more creative house-rule scenarios. For example, using the castle expansion set and a set of lava tiles in addition to the main master set, the Missus and I created a scenario based on the siege of the black gates in Return of the King. A wall stretched across one side of the battlefield, while the good-guy units were scattered across the battlefield as my wife saw fit. I had one unit card of three fast but weak marrow warriors, and the stipulation that I could not attack with them. My goal was to get one of my soldiers across the battlefield to the gate of the castle. If I could do that, the gate would open and a flood of powerful evil units positioned behind the wall would be alerted to the presence of the good-guy units and attack them. My wife’s goal was either to A) stop the scouts from getting to the gate or B) defeat the horde that would flood out of the gates if the scouts made it through.

I designed that scenario worried that the game would be too heavily skewed toward the good-guys, and that the game would be over in a nunce. Little did I suspect that I would actually get one scout through and that the ensuing battle would be so epic.

But don’t be daunted. The developers of the game have designed it to be accessible. There are two sets of rules included with the game: A basic set and a master set. The master rules use hit points, special abilities and has a round system for determining how long a game goes (there’s also a marker system for selecting which units will move in which order during a given turn, and a system of “glyphs” that can be put on spaces to confer special powers to whoever steps on them, but I’ve never used either in my games). The Basic set drops everything but the basic movement and attack rules, so a successful attack automatically kills the defender rather than wounding. This not only allows for less experienced players to dampen their pedal extremities, but it also makes for some frenetic games.

If you’re looking for a new board game, but are bored (see what I did there?) with typical Parker Brothers fare, Heroscape might be a game for you. Especially if you’re the type of person who’s cast covetous glances at games like Space Hulk at your local board game and geek shop, but didn’t want to pony up the $90-plus dollars to give it a try or herniate yourself carrying it to the checkout line.

This is not to say that Heroscape can’t cost $90. I have spent $150 on master sets alone, not to mention the tile expansion sets (Forest, glacier, lava and jungle) at $15+ each, or unit expansions starting at $10. But Heroscape uses the crack dealer method of pricing: your first master set will only cost you $30.

I recommend trying to find the original Rise of the Valkyrie master set, if you can find it. If not, the current D&D themed set is perfectly fine, even if the included scenarios are a little thin (though to be fair you can download new scenarios at