Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Review: Heroscape Master Set: Rise of the Valkyrie

I must admit that the new Heroscape Master Set: Rise of the Valkyrie took me completely by surprise. Here we have a game by Hasbro (a company that's not exactly known for the deepest of games) that is targeted squarely at 8-12 year-old boys. The packaging reminds me of so many bad Saturday morning He-Man commercials. It just begs to be sitting on the shelves at Wall-Mart or Toys R Us. Surely there couldn't actually be a good game in this box? Right? WRONG!

Before I go any further I must say that if you are looking for a gift for an 8-12 year old boy, you really couldn't go wrong with Heroscape. From the eyes of the pre-pubescent male, this game has it all: ninjas, warriors, dragons, secret agents, dinosaurs, cyborgs and orcs all happily coexist in the silliest mishmash of genres and themes that I've ever seen. What young boy wouldn't love that? All it's missing is pirates!

"But I thought you said that this was a good game?" I hear you say. Yep. Hard to believe isn't it! Listen up.

In order to fully appreciate Heroscape, you first need to know what's in this huge box. Crack open the seal and slide out the cardboard box insert. Inside you'll find a true engineering marvel. Somehow they've managed to cram 351 plastic 1 1/2 inch hexagons arranged into 85 tiles in assorted sizes, 30 exquisite (and large) hand-painted plastic figures, 20 dice, and an assortment of other small counters, cards and such into this box. There's so much in here that it's a wonder they got it to fit. In fact, once you've removed it all from its plastic tray and set it up, you might as well just throw out the plastic tray because otherwise there's practically no hope that you'll ever fit it back into the box. Even then it's a bit of a puzzle to get it all to fit again.

The hex tiles are the heart of the game. Each tile is made up of a number of hexagons (some more than others). Each hex measures about 1 1/2 inch across and about 1/4 inch high. The real beauty here though is that all of the hexes interlock to form a solid three dimensional game board that's different for every scenario. Imagine building a game board out of giant hexagonal Legos and you pretty much have the idea. From these tiles, you can construct mountains, caves, rivers, swamps, etc. Pretty much anything that your mind can dream up. You can even combine multiple sets to create monstrous battle fields.

The figures are every bit as impressive as the board. They range from two inch high humanoid figures to a six inch tall dragon. Each one is a hand painted work of art. Never mind the silly fact that they've got dragons and modern soldiers in the same box. They're really pretty dragons and soldiers.

The game itself goes something like this. First you choose a scenario. You can choose from among the ten that come in the rules, or you can go on-line and download any number of user-created scenarios, or you can just invent your own. Scenarios can range from simple elimination brawls to capture the flag like games to more elaborate goal driven scenarios. Typically a scenario takes about thirty minutes to play but since the system is so open ended you could invent scenarios that go on far longer if that's what you want.

After you've chosen a scenario, the board is constructed and each player drafts an army of creatures based on the constraints of the scenario. Each figure (or squad of figures) has a card that lists its vital statistics as well as its point cost for drafting purposes. Players will want to become familiar with all the heroes and squads because each one has its own special abilities, and that's one of the really fun things about this game. Each character has strengths and weaknesses and the way the characters' abilities interact makes the game that much more interesting.

Armies are then placed on the board in their starting zones and the game is ready to begin. Each player has four sequence markers numbered 1, 2, 3, and X. The sequence markers are placed on each player's cards so that only he can see the numbers. They can be placed on different cards or the same cards at the player's discretion. On each turn, players are going to take turns moving and attacking three times. The figures that get to be moved are the ones that have the appropriate sequence marker; first the 1, then the 2, then the 3. The X is a decoy you can use to fool your opponents.

Movement is a simple matter of counting off hexes until a unit's movement limit has been reached. Moving up hill is slower than moving across level ground or down hill, and moving through water can bring your unit to a halt.

After you've moved, you get to attack. Attacking is equally simple. Check your unit's range. Pick a target that's within range and isn't obstructed from your unit's view. Then roll your unit's attack dice against your target's defense dice. Attack dice are red and show a skull on some of the faces. Defense dice are blue and show a shield on some of the faces. Roll more skulls than your enemy rolls shields and you score a hit and do one point of damage for every unblocked skull. When a unit receives too many hits, it's removed from the battlefield.

This game has several things going for it. First of all, the modular playing surface means that there are an infinite number of scenarios waiting to be created. Each figure has special abilities that make recruiting an army an interesting challenge comparable to building a deck in a collectible card game. Recruitment costs printed on the cards ensure that the armies are generally relatively balanced. The free-form nature of the game play allows for some very interesting tactics and strategies to be employed. And the fact that each player is always going to get to move three units (or one unit three times) on each turn ensures that as a player's armies shrink, they've still got a chance, because they're still getting to move just as many times as their opponents.

This game is very easy to learn, very easy to play, takes only a short amount of time, and offers a wealth of possibilities. And it's just a darn fun game! I highly recommend it.


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