Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why Heroscape Is Cool

So, taking a break from the the “Why Things Suck” series, how about something that I think is cool? I happen to be a gaming geek (among many other kinds of geek), which means that I’m one of those people who thinks that sitting around a table pretending to be a barbarian warrior or berobed wizard is a good time. You may be one of those people who thinks that those sorts of people are nerds, in which case I must once again refer you to the name of the blog and advise you to run very far away. (If it makes you feel any better, there are levels even within the gaming community. For instance, most people at my level of geekitude will look at people who dress up like vampires and walk around in public with their hands crossed over their chests to indicate that they’re invisible and say: “dorks!” And those people, in turn, will look at the people who dress up like cat people and rub up against each other and proclaim them to be weirdos. So it’s all relative, I suppose.)

So, yes, I like to play D&D (or variations thereof). As a young child, I loved reading fantasy—The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, A Wrinkle in Time, and most especially, Alice in Wonderland—or just books on mythology. I remember one of my favorite books to peruse was Monsters Who’s Who. It was a short hop from there to buying a 1st edition D&D box set just for the monsters it contained. Sure, there was a game there, but I was an only child (up until the age of 11), and I had lots of games I never found anyone to play with. But it was fun to read about, and I got into making maps of dungeons just to mess around, and, later, after my little brother came along, I had a guinea pig to practice running monsters against. By the time I got to college and found an organized game to join, I felt like an old hand at D&D, despite never having played in a game run by anyone who knew what they were doing.

I played D&D—and other “pen ‘n’ paper role-playing games,” or PNP RPGs for short—for decades, and I still play today. There’s a lot to be said for a game where nobody loses, everyone gets to do whatever they can imagine (within limits, yes, but they’re pretty damn broad limits), and you end up with stories you can talk about for years afterward. D&D does have its downsides, of course, and the biggest one just gets worse and worse as you get older: time. Preparing an RPG session as the GM (or “game master”—yes, gaming, like any other hobby, is full of its own jargon and abbreviations) takes an immense amount of effort, particularly if you want to create things from scratch as opposed to running a pre-written adventure. But even as a player it can suck a lot of time out of you, as you constantly update your character sheet, pore over it looking for math errors, mine every book and magazine you can find for more character options you can use, and so forth. And, the older you get, the more busy you are with other things in life—family, career, car repairs, house repairs, ad infinitum—but, more crucially, the faster time seems to zoom past, and consequently the less time you perceive that you actually have to do things. Suddenly you start wondering if there’s a better option ... something which gives you at least some of the same pleasures, but with a heck of lot less time investment.

Now, allow me a brief tangent on the topic of gaming. Let’s say you are a game designer. You design yourself a game: say it’s Monopoly. Now, Monopoly is a great game, no doubt. But it’s only going to appeal to a certain subset of people, and once all those people buy it, your sales are pretty much tapped out. (This, by the way, is why you can go into pretty much any Wal-Mart or Target and find 10 different copies of Monopoly on the shelf: because you may own regular Monopoly, but do you own Star Wars Monopoly??? No, of course you don’t, because you’re not a drooling fanboy. And, if you happen to be a drooling fanboy, that’s just a bonus for Parker Brothers.) So what’s a game designer to do?

Well, you have two options, and, if you’re smart, you take both of them. The first is to double your sales by appealing to two different submarkets. And the second is to make your game expandable. So people not only have to buy it initially, but then they have to keep buying it over and over again.

Now, as fan of D&D, I know its history. I know that it emerged out of miniature wargaming, when folks like Dave Arneson decided it would be cool to be a single hero rather than a whole army, and other folks like Gary Gygax figured out how to make rules for that. And there can’t be a single D&D fan in the universe who hasn’t gone into their FLGS (that’s “friendly local gaming store”) and drooled over the beautifully painted miniatures for wargaming. The genre of miniature wargaming appeals to people liked to play with toy soldiers as a kid, and I was certainly one of those. It has all the fantasy chops of a game like D&D: you could recreate the Battle of Helm’s Deep with your platoons of elven archers and Rohirrim cavalry. But there’s a problem: that secondary submarket that I mentioned. In this case, it’s “people who liked to build models when they were kids.” And that was definitely not me. So I never got into miniature wargaming, despite all the drooling.

Then, in 1993, along came a new type of game: Magic the Gathering, the world’s first CCG (that’s “collectible card game”). It was for people who liked to play cards (raises hand), but it incorporated that fantasy D&D feel into it. And it was expandable, which, weirdly, turns out to be more than just a marketing ploy for gaming companies. I had never really experienced it, since I had avoided miniature wargaming because of the assembly and painting requirements, but, even in D&D, you get it to a certain extent, as you’re constantly buying more and more books with rules for increasingly bizarre character concepts. But, in a game like Magic, it’s much more viscerally satisfying: if you get bored playing with your existing decks, you just go out and buy more cards. Got bored again? buy even more cards. Play a game against someone who has cooler cards than you? No problem; just go buy even still more cards, and keep buying until you have the coolest. There’s always more options to explore, and the game never gets old.

But, once again, I was defeated by the secondary submarket. In the case of CCG’s, it’s that first “C”: collectible. Which means it appeals to people who liked to collect baseball cards when they were kids. Which means that when you buy more cards (which, as I say, you tend to do often), you have no idea what you’re going to get. You just buy and pray. Well, I didn’t much care for baseball cards, and I didn’t care for this, either. It was difficult to see all the “fun” I was supposed to be having collecting and trading with my friends, because of the blatant strategy to separate my cash from my wallet which kept getting in the way. So I enjoyed Magic (and its D&D counterpart, Spellfire) for a while, but eventually I got tired of not knowing what I was getting.

So now it’s 2004. My first kid is six. I’m still playing D&D, but constantly moaning about the time it takes up. Still drooling over the wargaming miniatures but never bought a single one. Still have a deck or two of Magic cards around the house, but couldn’t even tell you where they are. And a game called “Heroscape” is released. The mother sees a commercial for it and suggests I could use it as a gateway drug for getting the little one into D&D. Which is brilliant, I think. So we pick up a copy.

It’s basically a miniature wargame, except no painting. Score one. It’s expandable, but no blind purchase. Score two. And it has many of the fantasy elements of D&D, except the game requires very little preparation (relatively speaking). Score three, and I’m just about hooked at this point. It’s a genre blender, meaning that it’s not just fantasy: I can, in fact, put together a Heroscape army composed of elves, aliens, werewolves, samurai, Indiana Jones, and Spiderman, if I wanted to. That sort of thing doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it does to me. The rules are simple, which is a bonus, because the other problem that I’ve always had with miniature wargames besides the painting is that they generally require a ruler and a protractor to play. And the all-important secondary submarket? Well, it’s not my favorite, but I can live with it: people who used to play with Legos when they were kids.

See, most games come with a flat board. Most miniature wargames don’t actually come with a board at all; you sort of have to build your own landscape to use as a battlefield, similar to putting together the background for your model train set (which, again, appeals to some people, but not really to me). You can slap something together, or you can spend a lot of time on it, but obviously once you’re done, you have that particular battlefield forever. If you get tired of it, you start over and build a new one from scratch. But Heroscape comes with “terrain pieces,” which are basically like Legos, and you can build whatever you want: lakes, hills, rivers with bridges over them, forests, mountains with cliffs, deserts, swamps ... you name it, you can build it, if you buy enough expansions. And, when you get tired of that battlefield, you just take it apart and snap together a new one.

Now, I was never much for Legos as a kid, but not because I didn’t like the idea; I just suck at building things. No spatial judgement, basically. But the concept of having an infinite number of boards to play on is massively cool, no doubt. And, honestly, the terrain isn’t the biggest draw for me anyway. Did I mention I was the kid who liked to play with toy soldiers?

Except not even toy soldiers so much as Micronauts, and those D&D figures that were out for like 2 weeks, and those original Star Wars figures, and later on I would steal my brother’s GI Joe figures ... if it was roughly the right scale, I would throw it into the mix (and sometimes even if it wasn’t). So I was already used to having battles between marines and robots and dragons: Heroscape was like some joyous retransport back to my childhood, only this time with rules to figure out who lives or dies, and a simple point system to keep everything balanced. I don’t personally need to sell you on Heroscape—others such as Tom Vasel can do that much better than I—but there’s a reason that the game which was supposed to catch my 6-year-old’s attention long enough to get him interested in fantasy roleplaying is now mostly ignored by him, while, for me, it’s easily equalled my love for PNP RPGs.

That reason is that it did nearly everything right, and very little wrong. It seems to have all the upside of the RPGs, the CCGs, and the wargames, with none of the downsides. It’s not a perfect game by any means—there are still debates over niggling little rules interactions, and sometimes powers don’t fit together in a perfectly consistent way and it breaks your verisimilitude—but it’s a great game that it’s hard to get bored with, and it captures the sheer childlike joy of just playing with your toys. And, in a world filled with depressing and frightening and stressful things, that’s pretty special indeed.

1 comment:

  1. I really love the gaming side of you. I love how you take our kids off on these great magical journeys. I especially enjoy listening to all the loud and joyful noise while you guys play. I am really hoping that Random will rediscover his love of Heroscape again. If not, it looks like Perrin is going to join in and be able to play a real game very shortly!

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