Confessions of a Wannabe Gamer: The Genius that was HeroScape

Everybody probably has that game – that shining, sigh-inducing examplar – that they loved above all others.

Of all the games I’ve loved, played, and lost, despite dalliances and affairs with other games and gaming platforms over the years, the one I keep coming back to, my one true love, was HeroScape. Milton Bradley/Hasbro/Wizard of the Coast’s late-lamented cult-hit “build-and-battle” minis game still holds a spot in my heart – and, it turns out, the heart of a lot of gamers. On my blog the most popular post of all time was a bit I wrote last year on rumors circulating around the possibility of a HeroScape reboot. To this day it still gets hits. Lots of them.

The funny thing was, it wasn’t love at first site between HeroScape and me. I passed it up the first time I saw it at a mall board game store in 2005, only to be re-introduced to it about a year later. From there, it was a lock.

Let me explain the game, for the uninitiated: HeroScape proceeds from the concept that generals of an inter-dimensional race called the Kyrie are, like Norse myth tells us, gathering the greatest heroes from time, space, and dimensions to battle in order to gain control of powerful magical sites called Wellsprings. When the game first started there were five of these generals, each roughly analogous to one of the five colours of Mana in Magic: The Gathering – There was Jandar, the good guy is associated with cold and the sky and valiant forces; Utgar, the villain is associated with flames and darkness; Ullar, associated with the forest and nature; Vydar, a shadowy fella associated with dark secrets and technology; and Einar, associated with battle and military might. Two other generals were added very late in the game’s run, of whom only one, Aquilla, had any really forces made – she was similar to Ullar.

Each of the generals had certain forces they specialized in, but overall, the game was a grand mish-mash of minis-gaming styles: you had robots, Revolutionary War soldiers, World War II soldiers, zombies, vampires, Men in Black, ninjas, samurai, Greeks, Romans, cowboys, indians, giant bugs, Elves, knights, dragons, orcs, and on and on and on… It was great.

The kicker, though, was the terrain. Instead of a traditional board, HeroScape counted on the players constructing their own battlefield from terrain pieces – sturdy, interlocking, stackable plastic hexes representing (in configurations of 1, 2, 3, and 7 hexes, plus big half-sheet sized portions) grass, sand, rock, snow, lava, swamp, water, roads, and so forth. There were also sets that had trees and bushes, glaciers, a bridge, and even a full-on customizable castle, complete with locking, detachable front gate.

The kinds of battlefields you could make up in this game were endless – with enough pieces you could create entire continents. Half the fun was just creating the board to play on. Different large expansion sets came with their own suggestions for boards, but those were middling at best.

Gameplay was simple: you had squads (made up of 3-4 pieces) or single heroes, each with their own Army Card listing Basic Game (i.e. for the kids) stats, and Advanced Game stats with their range, movement, and how many defense and attack dice you rolled. In turn order you moved and attacked with pieces, rolling the 6-sided dice which had 3 skulls (representing hits) and 2 shields (representing blocks). If you, as an attacker, rolled more skulls than your defending opponent rolled shields on any attack, you scored hits, meaning you either wounded a hero figure (who usually had multiple hit points) or killed a squad figure (who usually had just one hit point). And yes, the odds were skewed in favor of the attacker.

The game’s pluses were many. I’d always been interested in the Games Workshop Warhammer games, but never had the money, time or patience to buy the expensive, unpainted, unassembled metal figures, glue them and paint them, and then build my own terrain from scratch. My brothers and I did attempt this early on with a Star Wars minis game (before Wizards of the Coast – this was a metal minis fame from West End) but soon lost interest.

But with HeroScape you had already-painted, relatively inexpensive plastic pieces that were sturdy and ready to go. Unlike some other minis games, the packs weren’t randomized – sold in bubble packs, each expansion unit showed you exactly what you got, and were never supposed to go “out of print” during the life of the game.

I liked that the game wasn’t just a fantasy game. You had elements from all eras. You could conceivably play a battle game that was all Ancient History, or all Fantasy, or all Sci-Fi, or (as we always did) mix the genres. There was even a Marvel HeroScape which, while short-lived, rendered a number of very powerful hero characters that were fully compatible with the regular game. Indeed, those heroes were so tough that I set up a house rule allowing only one Marvel character per army. Thanos and the Hulk alone were essentially their own army.

The different characters were so constructed that each creature type had its own flavor.

For example: SoulBorgs (giant robots) often had immense power, but obvious weaknesses; Samurai units  had the ominous double strike, which used shields like skulls against opponents when rolled; Elvish heroes almost always had magical powers based on a d20 roll; and vampires could use abilities to heal their own wounds by injuring other creatures.

HeroScape also had a devoted fan community – Heroscapers.net, for instance, still thrives, and the online store HouseMouseGames specialized in HeroScape sets. There was even a podcast devoted to the game and there was a short-lived trade in fan-created figures for use in the game, though Hasbro reportedly put an end to that.

That isn’t to say that HeroScape wasn’t without its problems. While easy to learn, play, and set up, the game did take a long time to put away – the interlocking terrain often locked tight, and you had to work to pull the  sheets of plastic terrain you’d created apart. Set-up could be accomplished in a matter of 10 minutes, but take-down could take three times as long or longer.

It wasn’t easy to store the game – those who, like me, bought multiple Master Sets and terrain expansions (I ended up buying, I think, four of the Ticalla Jungle expansions alone – the one with the palm trees, bushes, and giant spiders) ended up with a lot of terrain and no place to put it: once taken out, the pieces never seemed to fit comfortably in their original boxes again. I ended up having to invest in a number of plastic storage bins to accommodate my collection. To this day, there is no space for it in my closet, and my HeroScape collection has had a nomadic existence in my house for years.

Additionally, support for HeroScape  wasn’t great. While customer service responded quickly to inquiries (indeed, they were kind enough to send me a copy of a convention-exclusive battle scenario I’d missed out on, for free!) the HeroScape official website was plagued by highly infrequent updates after the game was out for a couple of years. Attempts by Hasbro to put strategy and behind-the-scenes articles on the site stalled  after the second or third posting, and updates – in the form, eventually, of missives from Hasbor about which subsidiary would be taking the game over – were sparse.

Additionally, at least in my area, the game wasn’t easy to find. While I was able to locate a couple hard-to-find pieces at the nearest Toys ‘R’ Us (50 kilometres away), the local big-box stores rarely carried the game, and when they did it was usually the Marvel Master Set. The only reliable place I could find new HeroScape items was at a gaming store in Bloomington, Indiana  which I visited frequently while my brother went to college there. After that, online was my best bet.

Eventually, however, fatigue seemed to set in with the game. About two years prior to its ultimate demise, Wizards of the Coast was given the reins of the franchise, and they decided to turn it into a Dungeons and Dragons vehicle. Don’t get me wrong – I love and cherish D&D – but this move was not a great fit with the existing game. WotC created a new Master Set with new rules for creating a HeroScape-style D&D campaign (an intriguing notion, to be sure) but re-used figures from the D&D Miniature Game and just put them on HeroScape bases, obviously a cost-saving measure that any longtime gamer can sniff out a mile away as a mark of a dying franchise. A rumored second wave of Marvel HeroScape figures – glimpsed at a toy show – were also never released.

After a few expansions, WotC decided to fold the game in favor of concentrating on its core products, Magic and D&D – understandable, but regrettable. With that, HeroScape died its official death.

I still play it with my brothers, and we have plans to use the terrain pieces to use in other ways for other games as well. HeroScape will live on.

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