Thursday, October 7, 2004

Heroscape Review

I wrote briefly about Heroscape
earlier, but its worth writing more. Heroscape is fundamentally a
miniatures game. I don't usually like miniatures games. They're
logistically annoying to play, lacking in good ways to keep track of
things like which units have moved already, sometimes requiring
rulers, frustrating rules about base contact and various other things.
Further, they tend to be really really complicated with lots of rules
aimed at enhancing the simulation, rather than enhancing the game.
Finally, a lot of them expect you to paint miniatures. Many people
enjoy that, but I don't have the time, patience or interest.
Heroscape manages to be different. I'll discuss the specific ways it
avoids these problems at the end.

Overall, this is a very good game. It's biggest "flaw" is that it
has a lot of luck. If substantial amount of luck bothers you, this
game is definitely right out. Despite that, it also has a lot of
strategy and tactics. It also has a lot of bits. It also has a lot
of opportunities for variation. It also has a lot of skill. It's got
a lot of themes. It's got a lot of fun. It's got a lot of luck.
It's got a lot of everything. Some might ask how a game can have both
a great deal of skill and a lot of luck. In other places a
theoretical game "ChessDice" has been suggested to explain such an
idea. In "ChessDice", two people play a game of chess. Then, each
rolls a six-sided die. The winner of the chess game adds one to their
roll. The higher roll wins. This is a rather silly game, but it's
got a lot of luck and a lot of skill. Heroscape is much the same way;
it's got a lot of skill, but there's so much luck that it only makes a
moderate impact. Unlike ChessDice, Heroscape is fun.

Another quality Heroscape had that some will enjoy and others won't is
the thematic dissonance. It can be very engaging in a geeky sort of
way to get into the idea of Vikings vs. Robots, for example. On the
other hand, some may find this a barrier to being engaged in the
theme. It doesn't do it for everybody. For that matter, it has a
violent theme; most scenarios have a goal of "defeat all of your
opponents units". At least it isn't collectible. (It is "expandable")

Enough with all the qualifications as to why some will not like it.
It's a really good game. The components are stunningly good. They
are beautiful, integrate well with the gameplay, are great little toys
and are complete. The provided unit cards address are well designed
and clear. The terrain is outstanding. The scenarios are fun and
clearly playtested. The initial army draft provides for a variety of
interesting strategic options. The units abilities are well balanced
and interesting. The complexity is close to what I'd consider
optimal. It's complex enough to be interesting but simple enough to
play quickly and cleanly.

The game is not collectible, but it is expandable. Further, because
they used standard miniature sizes, many have suggested using
miniatures from other games to use with Heroscape. I created the
HeroscapeUnitCreator with this in mind. All the same, I've only so
far played with the standard units and they provide a rich and
complete gaming experience which I don't feel will be exhausted any
time soon. I'm sure sometime I'll enjoy adding figures, but for now
there are enough interesting combinations of the provided units for it
to be very compelling. Further, the scenarios (both included, and
downloadable from the web site)
provide some interesting and well tested variations such as fog, acid
mist and mud.

The game succeeds by keeping the core of the game simple. The special
powers of each unit add a richness that prevents it from getting
tedious. The terrain system adds an understandable but deep set of
tactical options. And yet, they've done a very good job of leaving a
lot of things out. There are no "cover" rules, you either have line
of sight or not. There are never any penalties, only bonuses. There
is no facing. There are no squad coherence rules. There is only one
kind of damage. No unit has special powers that have to be looked up
anywhere other than on their card. Terrain and range don't interact.
Being one step higher than an opponent is just as good as being two
steps higher. Any number of rules could be argued for on simulation
grounds, but they've done a good job of picking a set that makes for a
good game. In the end the rules they picked make for interesting and
fun tactics.

The "ergonomics" is also very good. Something as simple as the unit
cards and the turn markers solves many of the bookkeeping problems
associated with miniature games. The "thematic dissonance" I
mentioned makes the units easily distinguishable in general. Yes,
there's three different Viking groups, but imagine if the game were
all Vikings. The hex based terrain allows attractive and interesting
layouts with simple and unambiguous movement and range measurements.
Line-of-sight is the only aspect that could even be vaguely debatable,
and I've found it easiest to just play "when in doubt, yes, you have

As a great many people have pointed out, the components are simply
amazing. The miniatures are beautifully sculpted and painted. The
terrain is attractive and durable. The cards and other miscellaneous
components are nicely produced. Finally, all of this is produced for
an emminently reasonable price.

In the end, this is certainly the best miniatures game I've ever
played. It's not the deepest but it is the most attractive, most well
designed and most fun. If the qualifications above (lots of luck,
thematic dissonance, fighting game) don't turn you off, you're likely
to enjoy Heroscape.

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