Rest in Pieces – HeroScape review

It’s got to be said that games can often come across a little difficult to grasp. Personally, I always found miniatures gaming tricky to get a handle on. Perhaps it’s down to the time I first walked into my local Games Workshop when I was about 12 years old…

I was excited. It had taken me weeks to build up the courage to open that glass door. I’d walked past that place every day on my way to and from school, saved up the meagre pocket money my parents gave me, ready to jump into a world where I knew I’d be accepted. A nerdy kid at the end of the 1980s? Where else would I go?

I opened the door to step into my future, eyes wide with excitement at the huge variety of stuff on offer. All around the store, games were set up that I’d never seen before – space battles, orcs, a weird American Football thing… It was amazing, but all too much. I was overwhelmed, turned on my heel and didn’t set foot in the place for another year. Instead I went to the local comic shop and blew all my cash on back-issues of 2000AD. I regret nothing.

I now know the reason I was freaked out. It was a total sensory overload. All over the place were these huge rulebooks that I just knew I wouldn’t be able to handle. Nowadays I’m fine, give me a couple of hundred pages to work through and it’ll be grand, but back then I would have been so much better with something that could hold my hand all the way through – what we’d now call a gateway game. What I really could have done with was HeroScape.

I’ve been working on this review for a little while, but events have taken place this week that has made me want to finish it off. Sadly Wizards of the Coast, the current publishers of HeroScape, announced on November 3rd that they’ll be discontinuing production of the game. After the stocks run out in the warehouses and stores around the world, that’s it – there’ll be no more. Click on that link before reading on and you’ll notice that the news was broken on the HeroScapers site (an incredible resource) by none other than Plaid Hat Games’ Colby Dauch, designer of the splendid Summoner Wars. Colby used to work on HeroScape before launching his own company and has many good things to say about the game – I only hope that I can be as verbose as him.

What is it about HeroScape that makes it so good? There’s lots to praise in that box, but as usual the main thing to talk about is how entertaining a game it can be. I’m not just talking about the actual playing – the whole HeroScape experience is a thing of pleasure. When you first open the box (and there are several different starter sets – this piece focuses on the one I own, Rise of the Valkyrie) you may well be slightly daunted. You’re presented with a mass of pre-painted figures, both factual and fictional, from all kinds of time periods along with an enormous selection of hexagonal tiles with which to build your scenarios. It’s quite a scary prospect, but you’re also provided with a well written rulebook which guides you step-by-step through the game – none of your GW-style being chucked into the deep-end here – from building the board through to playing the actual game. There’s actually a couple of ways to play: a basic game for those who want to start slowly and build up, along with advanced rules for those who prefer something a little meatier. Both rulesets have the same basic premise, however.

Players build armies up to a certain points value – the pre-painted figures mentioned earlier come either as individuals (called heroes) or groups (known as squads) and are worth different amounts. By spending all your points, you build up an army of random characters that you then set upon your opponents. Scenarios may have a certain objective for you to fulfil in order to win – gain control of an area or destroy all your opponent’s fighters, for example. It’s a very simple introduction to the world of miniatures gaming, with easy to use rules that make for quick play.

Each hero or squad comes complete with a card to represent their stats – having all the information to hand is very useful, so you’ll never have to dive through a weighty book trying to figure out if you’re within range of smashing an enemy’s head in. You each have three rounds per game turn (chosen by putting numbered tokens on the cards, with a fourth dummy token to try and throw people off your plans) to move around the board, attack or pull off special abilities. Combat is resolved swiftly through the use of custom dice with attackers looking to throw skulls and defenders aiming for shields. If you run out of hit points, your piece is removed from the board – there are often modifiers to take care of, but the basic principle is very simple.

Now, an apology of sorts. I’ve referred to the playing area as a board, which is something of a disservice. HeroScape is actually played on a 3D modular landscape which, when set up, looks brilliant. Rise of the Valkyrie comes with enough terrain pieces and buildings to play a wide range of scenarios (plus you can always just make your own up too) but veteran HeroScapers will often say that bigger is better. Take a look at the BGG page to see all the expansions that are available: it’s right here.

Back? Overwhelmed? I’m not surprised. Thankfully, you don’t need any of those expansions to experience HeroScape – a starter set like Rise of the Valkyrie is more than enough, but the options are there. And man, there are a LOT of options. In fact, even with the beginning sets you’ve got choice – there’s another basic one called ‘Swarm of the Marro’, the Marvel branded ‘Conflict Begins‘ and the D&D version called ‘Battle for the Underdark‘. All are completely compatible with each other, as are their expansions – however, many players think that the addition of D&D to the line was a bit of a money grab by Wizards of the Coast and that it sullied the game a little. Having not tried anything past the original Master set, I can’t say whether it did or not, but everyone’s entitled to their opinion – do your research by checking out HeroScapers.com and see what’ll fit best for you.

On the subject of the online HeroScape community, it’s not often you come across a group so vocal in their love of a game. As well as being welcoming, they’re also incredibly creative and innovative in their development of scenarios and battle maps for use by… well, anyone who happens to stop by. The game may well have been discontinued but you get the feeling that these guys will never stop supporting it. Such passion is to be respected.

HeroScape is a fantastic introduction to miniatures games and I’m sad to see that WotC have decided to stop making it. Thankfully there’s enough copies of it out there still that it makes it simple to get your hands on it, but if you’re properly interested in playing I’d try and grab a Master set quickly. It’s not an expensive game to play – I actually got my set brand new for under £10, and you can grab as-new sets online for around the same price if you’re lucky. I’d certainly recommend giving it a go, even just once. The sheer pleasure of taking your time setting up a huge battleground is worth the asking price alone. It’s even better that there’s a solid game in there that’s fun, doesn’t take a massive amount of time to play and won’t leave you with a melted brain. Here’s hoping that an astute games company out there tries to acquire the licence and keeps it up and running.

HeroScape was originally released in 2004 by Milton Bradley / Hasbro. It was co-designed by Stephen Baker, Rob Daviau and Craig Van Ness, with additional work through expansions by countless other individuals. The final expansion, Moltenclaw’s Invasion, will be released on November 16th 2010, then that’s it! However, if you’d like to get involved in the campaign to keep HeroScape going, visit the HeroScapers.com site – who knows what could happen?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Rest in Pieces – HeroScape review

  1. Really good article mate! I had the basic set for a little while and for me the set up time was the only down side so it rarely hit the table. Otherwise this was a quality production.

  2. Yup… I just snatched up 2 master sets and two Ebay lots to insure I have this for my son and I to play in 2-3 years when he’s mature enough to play it.

    There’s a theory the license will be sold to someone to revive, but there’s no guarantee it would be backwards compatible… and that’s if it happens.

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