Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Game for a Younger Man

You guys may remember that, ever so long ago, I talked about my love for a game called Heroscape.  In that blog post, I pointed you to a video review (actually a 5 part series) of the game by a guy named Tom Vasel.  If you followed that link, and if you watched at least the first couple of minutes, you heard Tom say this:

I can play it with children, I can play it with teenagers, I can play it with other adults, and it is an absolute blast.
—Tom Vasel

And that has always been one of my favorite things about the game.  I’ve played it with people as young as 5 or 6, up through people as old as 50 or 60 (into which neighborhood I myself am headed at a pretty good clip).  Playing with folks my own age is a lot of fun.  Playing with the younger folks (say, 15 to 25) is fun too, although I think they tend to be a lot more competitive, and therefore more cutthroat.  But, to me, playing with the really young kids is the best.  They have such a great hunger to try everything, and such a huge imagination, and such a pure joy in doing well.  It’s awesome.  And, if you managed to get all the way to the end of part 5 of Tom’s video review, you heard him say this:

And that’s another great thing about Heroscape: it’s the fact that it gives you great stories to tell.
—Tom Vasel

And that’s definitely true.  Some of my favorite Heroscape moments of all time were with very young people.  For my elder son’s eighth birthday, we played a six-way game among myself and kids ranging from 7 to 10.  Some wanted the biggest dragons they could find.  Some wanted the cheapest squads so they could start with the largest number of troops.  One kid picked the cowboy sniper, planted him in the very center of the map, and just picked off people every round while the other players busied themselves with trying to kill each other.  It was an awesome game, which I didn’t even come close to winning (mine was the second army decimated), but I had so much fun, playing referee and helping them with their strategies and answering their questions about how best to capitalize on the special powers of the units they’d chosen.  And that’s just one of many great moments I’ve had with my son and his friends, or other kids I’ve played with at our local game days.

Of course, I also mentioned back in that first Heroscape post that my son is fairly ambivalent about Heroscape these days.  My elder son, I keep calling him, which of course implies that I have a younger son (which I do).  What about him?

Well, he’s only 5 (although he’ll be 6 in March).  He has actually shown a great interest in playing Heroscape, and many is the time I’ve had to track down missing figures in amongst the piles of his toys.  But, so far, his interest has translated mainly into a desire to help me put the maps together, and to jump the figures around the map.  He just wasn’t ready yet: he lacked the patience to listen to the rules, the discipline to wait his turn, and the composure to deal with losses to his army without freaking out.  So I’ve waited.

Until yesterday.

I don’t know why, but yesterday I just decided that he was ready.  He hadn’t said anything, I just decided to ask him if he felt like playing a game.  Perhaps it was the fact that he had been banned from video games for some particularly bad behavior on Friday and didn’t have much else to do.  Perhaps it was the advances in his vocabulary lately that have demonstrated he is in fact growing up a bit.  Perhaps I just sensed somehow that it was finally time.  Whatever it was, I asked him after his afternoon shower if he wanted to do something special with me, and he said “what?” and I said “play a game of Heroscape” and his face just lit up.

Now, I should get one thing out of the way early.  I’m not the kind of parent who just lets my kids win.  I never throw games intentionally.  First of all, I think getting kids too accustomed to winning makes them unable to handle losing gracefully.  Secondly, I think it’s insulting.  If you’re not bringing your A-game, you’re telling your opponent they’re not worth it, and they usually recognize that.  And if you think you’re going to skate by because your kids are young and you’re such a great actor, you’re not all that bright.  Kids are extremely perceptive, and they know you as a parent better than they know any other human on the face of the earth.  You may get by with it once or twice—or more often, if your kid is particularly oblivious or you really are a better liar than most—but eventually they will cotton on, and then where are you?  No, better to be honest from the get-go: play them like you mean it, or don’t bother.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t do a few things to give them a fighting chance.  After all, you know how to play the game, and they don’t.  To a certain extent, that gives you an unfair advantage right there.  Basic courtesy says you have to help them out a bit.  After all, the point is to help them learn the game, right?  Sure, you could “teach” them by beating the tar out of them, but that’s a bit like “teaching” them to swim by tossing them into the deep end of the pool.  What I do for my kids when I’m teaching them a game is that I spend a lot more time helping them develop their strategy—I don’t tell them what to do, I just give them lots of options and explain the advantages and disadvantages of each—than I do working on my own.  As a result, their strategy tends to be pretty decent (while still staying their own), while mine is fairly scatterbrained, so that gives them a bit of a leg-up.

In this particular game, I decided to give my son a few other simple advantages, and here I’m going to give a few Heroscape-specific details, so if you don’t play the game, this might not mean much, but just bear with me and try to ignore that.

First, the map.  Now, I don’t always play on perfectly symmetrical maps (which are considered more fair, since they’re the same no matter which side you end up getting); in fact, sometimes I like to play on a non-symmetrical map and give the side with the advantage to the less experienced player.  In this case, though, I just wanted to slap a map together super-quick, and I happened to still have the pieces of a map from National Heroscape Day separated out, so we built Fire Isles.  Since this is a map that has some lava in the center, my son decided to bring a primarily fire-based army, which would shine under those conditions.  Since I wanted him to have a bit of an edge, I decided to field an ice-based army, which would suffer pretty badly from not having any snow on the board.  But I should be able to overcome that moderately easily.

He chose the following army:

for a total of 625 points.  I chose:

for a total of 605 points, which put me 20 points in the hole.  Now, I could have taken Marcu or something to fill out the other 20 points, but I figured that was easy enough to overcome as well.

So my son has an army that can dominate the center of the map: few of his figures have to worry about taking any lava field damage, and his Obsidians (a.k.a. “lava dudes”) can actually stand in the molten lava and throw it at people.  Plus his fire elementals, which are normally a pain in the ass because they can burn their allies, have a lot more freedom of movement here, since the vast majority of his team is fireproof.  The only ones that aren’t are the elementalist, who is necessary to get the most out of the elementals, and the water elementals, who are not as useless as they might seem: there’s a thin strip of water on either side of the map, and they can use their “water tunnel” ability to hop around from one water space to another, and they can shoot water blasts from the sidelines.

Whereas I, on the other hand, do have to worry about taking lava field damage, the molten lava is strictly off-limits for me, my ice elemental will never get to heal, and my poor yetis effectively have no powers at all.  Plus I’m shy 20 points.  But, still, I’m thinking that my greater experience and longer attention span is likely to mean I’ll crush him, and I don’t want to do that.  I don’t mind if he loses, but I at least want it to be close.

So I decide that I will use order markers, and he won’t.  Now, if you don’t know Heroscape, order markers are a pretty crucial part of the game.  You have to choose which units you’re going to move and attack with ahead of time: you choose a 1, a 2, and a 3, and your opponent does the same, and that’s a round.  Next round, you get to choose 3 new ones (or the same ones, if you like).  It means you have to think ahead, and anticipate your opponent.  I’m thinking my 5-year-old is not quite ready to do that yet.  So I’m not going to cripple him that way, but I could just not use the order markers at all (which is what I did with my elder son).  Instead, I decide that I will force myself to observe the strictures, while he’s free to do whatever he likes.

And this turns out to be the right decision, as it was a fairly close game.  I led off with the big white dragon, as I’ve had many folks do to me: jump right into the middle of the map and start turning people into popsicles.  It’s an aggressive play and I didn’t show him any mercy.  He countered by sending the lava dudes into the center of the map and started flinging lava right and left.  I left poor Nilf in the same spot just one turn too long, and he went down at the beginning of the second round, having taken out only two lava dudes for the trouble.  Sure, there was some luck involved—one of the lava dudes rolled an impressive 4 out of 4 skulls at one point while I countered with a dismal 0 out of 5 shields, which knocked out the bulk of Nilf’s life points—but both of us were playing hard and playing smart.  Understand that I didn’t advise him to put his lava-slinging dudes into the center of the lava pit.  All I did was explain what they could do, and he chose how to deploy them.

After the loss of Big White, it was pretty much downhill.  I got my frost giant into the thick of things, while trying to move the yetis up as flankers, but the water elementals flanked my flankers and blasted everyone who came near them.  Brunak moved up to engage Frosty, big sword against big axe, and his defense of 7 proved impossible to crack.  Once the giant went down, I brought the GIE up while my son mowed down the last of the yetis, but it was too little too late.  The fire elementals swarmed him (side note: a fire elemental attacking an ice elemental is a crazy dice-rolling frenzy—the GIE gets to roll for ice spikes as the FE moves adjacent, then the FE rolls for burn damage, then the FE attacks and the GIE defends) and brought him to half-dead before he took them out, then Brunak hopped over and blew him away with another all-skulls-vs-whiff roll.  Final score, unwounded Kurrok and unwounded Brunak, along with one obsidian guard and one water elemental, vs a lot of dead bodies.

Understand that I actually offered very little advice throughout this.  I expected to need to help with strategy and all that, but I really didn’t.  A couple of times I showed him where he could move up and get a height advantage that he hadn’t noticed, but he caught on to that trick pretty fast.  And at the very end, I started helping him choose the best way to take me down, because it was obvious at that point that I was going to lose and I just didn’t see any point in dragging it out.  But, other than that—and the other handicaps I’ve already described—he beat me fair and square, and he deserved his victory.  And then he got to run screaming through the house about beating Daddy.  Priceless.

One last note for any of you that may be inspired to do some Heroscaping with your own kids:  Tom Vasel tells us exactly what to do with the “basic game” in part 2 of his review at about 0:35.  I concur with this fervently.  The basic game is worthless.  I just played with a five-year-old and he had absolutely no problem understanding the “master” game.  The only place we “cheated” was in letting him skip the order markers; everything else was strictly by the books.  When he pleaded to let his slow-moving lava dudes have just one more space so he could engage my dragon, I said, nope, sorry, you’ll just have to wait until next time.  He was disappointed, but he got over it.  Other than the order markers, the only place we fell down was that I kept forgetting to let my frost giant roll for his battle frenzy power, but I didn’t do that on purpose to help my son out ... I honestly just forgot.  I never play with that stupid guy anyway.  And that sort of thing happens all the time in Heroscape: there are lots of powers flying around, and sometimes one just slips through the cracks.  It was my job to remember, and I didn’t.  My loss.  Anyway, it might have made the game a bit closer had I remembered, but he still would have won.  I was just outclassed, that’s all.

Point being, he had no problem with the advanced rules at all.  I had to read him the cards, of course, ’cause he can’t actually read yet.  And I might have to remind him about a power the first time or two he used it (“now, don’t forget to add 1 to your attack with that water elemental because it’s on a water space”), but he quickly figured that out and didn’t need it after the first few times.  Kids have no problem with the different characters having different powers.  That’s the way it is in cartoons, and video games, and card games like Pokémon ... why should Heroscape be any different?

So that’s why I did with my weekend.  Fun and, I’d say, productive.  This one’s going to be my strategy gamer, I can tell.  I can hardly wait.

* Yes, I know they’re technically called “Dzu-Teh.”  They’ll always be “yetis” to me.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog! I love playing with my kids. My daughter was 7 when we first got Scape. My boys each started at 5. Something seems to tick and they have enough patience to enjoy the game. (And are able to handle losses when they happen--we have a saying in our house, "Everyone dies in Heroscape"--and they repeat it (often with deep soberness) when one of their guys goes down.)

    Sounds like you had a great time. Well played. :)