Sunday, October 23, 2011

Heroscape Forever

So I’ve talked about my two favorite games: Heroscape and Pathfinder.  Pathfinder is still a relatively young game at the time I write this, having just recently celebrated its two-year anniversary.  Heroscape, however, was released in 2004, and, at the end of last year (2010), Wizards of the Coast discontinued it.

If you’ve followed my recounting of the saga of Pathfinder’s ascension, you’ll recognize that WotC is the same company that was responsible (in my opinion) for the downfall of Dungeons & Dragons.  Is this coincidence?  Probably not.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the original WotC—the one which invented Magic: the Gathering, the one run by Peter Adkinson—was a decent company.  I didn’t care for all the blind purchase crap that CCGs brought to the table, but there was always a sense that Wizards at least had some respect for its customers.  The fact that the OGL was developed before WotC’s sale to Hasbro (although released after it) is significant, I think.  Hasbro’s leadership made a huge difference in the way Wizards was run.  And, as I mentioned: Peter Adkinson was soon gone from the company he founded.

Heroscape was created by Hasbro as a game to be sold in Wal-Marts and Targets, but it had a collectible aspect to it.  That caused a huge dissonance between manufacturer and retailer.  For instance, some Heroscape units are “unique,” which means you can only have 1 of them in your army.  Some, on the other hand, are “common,” which means you can have as many as you like (and, in some cases, like orcs or zombies, you really need a lot of them to make the best of their abilities).  So here’s Hasbro producing a “wave” of new units, half of which are unique and half of which are common, and here’s Wal-Mart purchasing “wave 4” or whatever, not realizing that half their product is going to sell out at a frightening rate while the other half is going to sit around forever.  And Wal-Mart is never going to purchase “old” waves.  Wal-Mart doesn’t do “old.”  It’s always “new” “new” “new.”  But, if you’re just discovering the game around about wave 4, you really want to get some of wave 1, not to mention waves 2 and 3.  It was a marriage made in hell, and on one of the deeper levels.

So eventually Hasbro decided to shuffle Heroscape off to their subsidiary that actually dealt with weird collectible games, the ones who were more comfortable dealing with local gaming stores than big box retailers.  And, if they could have shuffled it off to the WotC that had existed at the time that D&D 3e came out, that might have even been a good idea.  But that WotC was long dead.  The new WotC was in the position that every successful smaller company bought by a huge corporate giant finds itself in: the definition of “success” had changed out from under them, and they were under constant pressure to perform better, produce more profits, increase their bottom line, reduce their “waste” ... note that I don’t know this personally, but I’ve been in that exact corporate situation time and time again (and I’m in it yet again in my current job), so I know exactly how it goes.  Uncomfortable company meetings where they tell you that you made X tens of millions of dollars this year, which was short of your “goals” by 10 million dollars, so you better buckle down and do a lot better in the coming year.  Or else things will get ... bleak.  Whatever fun there had been in the work (and, in a gaming company, I would imagine there’s even more fun in the work than usual) is mercilessly wrung out and drained away, leaving only the cracking whip of the corporate overseers, and the constant whisper, as in D. H. Lawrence’s excellent short story, “There must be more money!”

And so, Heroscape’s stay at WotC was predictably short.  Eventually they proclaimed that they were focussing on their “core competencies” (how many betrayals and abandonments have been masked with that facile corporate doublespeak!) of D&D and Magic.  And Heroscape, one amongst many other games in the Wizards stable, was no more.

Now, just last week I talked about what happens when a game is discontinued.  If you didn’t read it (and don’t care to), I’ll quote the relevant bit:

But the truth is that a dead game loses ground quickly.  There are no new expansions to attract the old fans, and nothing whatsoever to attract new ones.  In fact, if you’re just getting into a game, why would you start with a game (or a game version) that’s been discontinued?  Doesn’t make sense.  New products will come out for other games, or for the newer versions, that will leave you behind.  Technology will move on, advances in systems will be made, and you ... you will be left, eventually, playing a 20-year-old game with your two other curmudgeon friends while everyone else laughs and calls you “luddite” under their breath.

So, yes, it’s true (as always) that we’ll always have the expansions we’ve collected over the years, and there’s nothing keeping us from playing the game as it stands today, but, nonetheless, it’s a bit depressing knowing that we’ll never see any more new expansions come out, knowing that the number of new Heroscape fans that are created in the coming years will be miniscule at best.

Unless you could do something about that.

Making up homemade stuff for games (particularly expandable games) has a long and storied history.  Tweaks to the rules, generally called “house rules,” probably started with card games (particularly poker), and then expanded to venerable board games, like Monopoly and Risk.  When D&D came out, it was “expandable” in the sense that it was a set of rules that tried to model reality (and not even the real reality—a fantasy version of reality), and thus was always incomplete.  D&D “expansions” were essentially new rule books, covering new environments, new fantasy archetypes, new combat styles and weapons, and so forth.  Thus, house rules were customized expansions.

Magic: the Gathering made it a bit more complex.  Sure, you could have house rules.  But that didn’t replace the continuous expansions.  If you wanted customized expansions (generally shortened to just “customs”), that meant making up your own cards.  Now, on the one hand, you could see that, right?  You’re sitting around playing a card game in which almost every card is different, and you have dozens of combinations to choose from, but every once in a while you find that you need that one extra card to make the perfect combo.  Except that the company that makes that game hasn’t invented that card yet.  So you invent it.  What the hey: you’ve been playing this game so long that you know all the cards’ text by heart; you can easily make up some card text of your own.  Of course, it’s more complicated than that: Magic cards don’t just have text: they have pictures.  Often very beautiful pictures.  So you’ve got to have a picture too, and maybe you’re not an artist, but maybe you can find someone to draw it for you.  And still, at the end, you’ve got to print out your custom card and make it look all nice and official.

When M:tG first came out, that wasn’t very easy to do.  Nowadays we have cheap color printers, and places like Kinko’s and Staples that will professionally print things for you for little or nothing.  Printing your own Magic cards is a snap, if you can create them first.  And even that isn’t as hard as it used to be: PhotoShop, and its open source cousin the Gimp, is everywhere, and more and more people are learning how to manipulate images while said manipulation becomes easier and easier.

But what about a game like Heroscape, that has prepainted plastic figures, and premodled plastic terrain pieces?  How could you possibly come out with customs for that?

Surprisingly, people have always done it, ever since the game was first announced.  It turns out that the scale that Heroscape uses (which is more or less 28mm) is not that uncommon.  Many other games are roughly the right scale: HeroClix (and all its fellow ‘Clix games, like HorrorClix and Mage Knight), D&D Miniatures (and its brother Star Wars Minis), Dreamblade, Sabretooth’s short-lived Lord of the Rings game, and, more recently, Reaper’s Legendary Encounters line, and two from Rackham: Confrontation and AT-43.  And those are just the ones that come in prepainted plastic.  If you’re willing to use metal or resin, and/or willing to do a little painting yourself, the possibilities really open up.

So, all you need is a figure (preferably prepainted plastic), which you might have to do a little surgery on to “rebase” it (the figure bases for some games fit well with Heroscape, while the bases for others are completely unworkable), and then a copy of PhotoShop or Gimp to create a new card for it.  A little bit of photography to get a picture of the figure to composite into your card art, a little bit of playtesting to make sure your new figure works well with the existing units—not too powerful, not too wimpy, priced appropriately—and Bob’s yer uncle.  You’re all set.

Now, of course, hundreds (or thousands) of different fans all doing that at once creates a chaotic scene.  Everybody’s coming up with similar ideas going in radically different directions, using the same figures for radically different concepts, with radically varying levels of quality in the art, the text, and the playtesting.  There’s no way you could keep a dying game alive that way.

But what if you could get a smaller batch of fans together, perhaps divide them up into groups: the people talented with coming up with new units that don’t break the game would design the new units, the people talented with PhotoShop and Gimp would make the new cards, the people who were nitpicky about the wording being just right would edit the text, the people who could be the most critical while actually playing would be the playtesters ... maybe a few people to oversee the whole thing and make sure nothing got too out of hand and everything proceeded according to a grand plan.  If you could do that, then maybe ... just maybe ... you could keep a dying game alive.  It would never have the life it once had, and your efforts could never reach more than the most hardcore fans, of course, but it would be something.

Hasbro released 10 “waves” of figure expansions for Heroscape before handing over to WotC.  Wizards released 3 more.  I’m very proud to be part of the group that has recently “released” Wave 14.

That’s the figures taken care of.  Now if only we can think of a way to do some new terrain ...

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