Tuesday, December 11, 2012

HeroQuest: Crying Out for a Re-Release

The following is a guest post from a staff member of the New York Film Academy:

My passion for Eurogames came at a very young age. My father used to run a computer game import business which, when you're seven, is akin to having an astronaut as a dad.

As a result, gaming inevitably became a large part of my childhood but being responsible folk, my parents did limit the amount of time I spent playing video games. I quickly figured out that I could get my fix equally well by playing board games during my downtime without any objection from the powers that be. By demanding the same kind of dynamism from my board game experience as I expected from their video counterparts, it didn't take me long to progress from simplistic chance-based games to more rewarding games like Carcassonne, Caylus, and the deservedly acclaimed Puerto Rico.

But before all those was an indirect predecessor that really opened my mind to open-ended gaming. It's a game which ticked all the right boxes, accomplished everything it tried to be, and is sorely in need of a re-release.

Today we're looking at the Milton Bradley/Games Workshop classic, HeroQuest:

HeroQuest (Hero Quest is also acceptable if the lack of space troubles you) was an archetypal fantasy dungeon-crawler released around 1990 depending on which side of the pond you were on.  The game is party-based and ideally played with between three to five people, lasting around two hours unless the players are very unlucky.

It's one of the few Games Workshop titles to feature a board (and easy to digest rules, for that matter) but does also include superbly detailed miniatures for playing pieces, the quality of which you'd expect from GW.

Players progress through a series of 'levels' as directed by the game master – who gets to have fun trying to screw over the players at every opportunity – and fight an atypical assortment of orcs, skeletal warriors, zombies and things of that ilk. Cheesy fun, but also brutally unforgiving and very immersive once the board has been fully populated with the furniture that comes with the game.

It's apparently set in the Warhammer universe, but given HeroQuest's self-contained nature and seemingly independent story-line  knowledge of other GW titles or their backstory is completely unnecessary. In fact, one of the major appeals of HeroQuest is that no prior experience with RPGs is needed; if you don't have the money or energy to invest in tabletop miniature gaming, you'll love HeroQuest. If you like fantasy but are turned off by the hardcore nature of paper-based RPGs like D&D et al, HeroQuest is a terrific board-based solution.

Covering the finer aspect of the game-play mechanics is outside the scope of this post, but here's a great video overview which does it justice.

Instead, what I'd like to do is look at it through the lens of Yehuda's 10 Most Important Aspects of a Game, which should really be industry standard when it comes to reviewing anything:

A Non-Offensive Theme: No concerns on this aspect. Given that it involves combat the suggestion of violence is inherent, but nothing that would raise eyebrows. 9/10

Limited Decisions on Each Turn: The game is remarkably delimited, and even encourages players to explore the board and approach situations from different angles. In terms of the number of actions a player can choose to carry out during his or her turn, this aspect deserves no less than: 10/10

Heaviness: There are a fourteen different 'quests' in the vanilla version of the game, which can take anywhere from ten to twenty minutes each to complete. However, this massively depends on the number of players as well as the disposition of the group. So in theory the game can go on for about five hours since the quests lead on from each other, but in reality I've never seen anyone make it through the whole thing in one sitting – if the dungeon hasn't managed to kill off all the players by the two hour mark, sadly, boredom seems to set it. In that respect the game does have a lot of drag, but at the same time it doesn't feel like a premature end if you decide to stop after quest number X and pick it up at a later date.  7/10

Multiple Strategic Goals: This is an area in which HeroQuest excels. Not only can players differ as to how best to achieve a shared objective – which leads to hilarious scenarios – but the game also offers at least one side-quest per level. These side-quests, if undertaken, can yield items which are hugely helpful later in the game but also finely balanced in the danger/reward ratio. And given that the game master has conflicting goals and is constantly throwing in the proverbial spanner, the game truly is a strategic head-scratcher and a superb exercise in balanced game design. 9/10

Randomness Without Luck: HeroQuest's combat system is dice based and ergo dependent on some gambling. However, given that the system is nicely weighted to give realistic probabilities of your wounded dwarf managing to kill a towering gargoyle, everything has a veneer of fairness to it. And anyway, you generally have the option of applying tactics and avoiding the fight if you don't fancy your odds. 8/10

Interaction: It's certainly a fun social experience and coordination between players is needed, but I wouldn't go as far to say that outcomes are hinged upon negotiation and trading. It's just not that kind of game. 5/10

Depth: HeroQuest has an abundance of depth thanks to its dynamic gameplay mechanics and number of options open to the player at any given time. The only place it lacks depth is in the story department; evil wizards, dwarves, treasure chests… yadda yadda yadda. These clichés were even old hat when HeroQuest was brought out - thankfully the loose storyline can be entirely ignored without ruining the game experience, but they still missed a trick in trying to dumb it down what is essentially a very nuanced game for a younger age demographic. 7/10

Extensibility: This aspect is a bit tricky to judge. The game was limited in a sense to what hardware you had, but it was no less extensible than Magic in that they released droves of add-on packs back in the day. Of course, that's no help to you twenty years after the fact. 7/10 

The Game Experience: Anyone who played this as a kid will attest to the swelling nostalgia it brings to them as an adult. That alone is the hallmark of a superb game. 9/10

Replayability: A slight let down here by HeroQuest's very nature; once you know the details of a quest, that knowledge mars the surprises of the game.  Again though, Milton Bradley/Games Workshop did keep a steady stream of add-on packs going to counter this, and I guess if I'm still playing it two decades later the issue is moot. 8/10

In Conclusion

HeroQuest went on to win the hearts of many, as well as an Origins Award for its incredible game art. Games Workshop also put out a similar game albeit with a sci-fi setting at around the same time, but whereas Space Hulk was deemed fit for a re-release in 2009, HeroQuest remains sadly dead despite its international success.  This is baffling given that Space Hulk was flawed with silly game-play mechanics like time limits on moves and a rushed-feeling playing time.

Until HeroQuest gets the re-release it so rightfully deserves, there's always eBay. It was so successful on release that enough were published for there to be a good number of surviving copies, but high demand brings with it a price tag of around $100…

… And that's for a copy which doesn't look like it's been used to house hamsters.

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