Introduction

Heroscape is a tabletop hexes-and-miniatures "game system" from MB, part of Hasbro. What they mean by "game system" is that they'll sell you a big box with the rules and enough stuff to play with, and then hope to sell you "expansion sets" later, with more miniatures, more terrain, and so on.

I've bought the big box, which they call the "Master System", so this is a kind of combined review of the system itself and of the stuff you get in the Master System.

In brief

You get a whole load of funky snap-together hex terrain and a load of cool models and stuff, and two-to-four players can use them to fight a fairly straightforward but fun turn-based dice-rolling strategy battle. You get everything you need to play in the original box, but expensive add-on packs are available if you like that kind of thing.

And now, some more detail...

The Stuff

The set cost me £40, which is a fair chunk of change. Happily, though, just unpacking the box made me feel like I had got my money's worth. There is a lot of stuff here. I spent the first few minutes spreading it all out and marvelling at it, saying things like "Boy, this is a whole lot of stuff".

Miniatures

The game is played with miniature figures very similar to those that Games Workshop provide for their games. They are fairly detailed figures, about 4cm tall, on round bases. Heroscape comes with 30 such figures, all different, even the ones that represent functionally identical units (i.e. you get three different samurai models even though they all behave the same in-game.) Not all the figures are 4cm tall, either - there are several larger bad-ass units including an almost absurdly large dragon who towers hugely and impressively over the others, 15cm tall from the base to his wingtips.

In a marked break from the Games Workshop tradition that clearly inspires much of this game, the figures are supplied pre-painted. It's not a half-arsed effort, either; while of course not up to the level of a dedicated hobbyist's hand painted miniatures, they're really quite nicely done.

Terrain

The terrain takes up most of the space in the box. It's made of 1cm thick chunky plastic hex tiles which can both snap together laterally, and, marvellously, stack vertically. You get a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from individual hexes up to large sheets of a dozen or so hexes. The tiles are different colours, some representing grass, some sand, and some rock (although as far as I can tell this is purely aesthetic and serves no gameplay purpose). There are also water tiles, which are half-height and thus create the pleasing impression of sunken water pools. In addition to the hexes there are a couple of "ruins" - small sections of wall which form cover.

It feels like a lot of terrain. They don't give you a wimpy few tiles and expect you to shell out for more. While dedicated players of course will buy additional terrain, you aren't going to feel short-changed by the stuff you get to start with.

Bits and bobs

You also get rules, of course, a generous handful of pleasingly heavy "battle dice" for determining the outcome of attacks, the inevitable D20, and assorted tokens and such.

The setup

The setup gets its own section because it took me something like twenty minutes the first time. It's not like Monopoly where you just have to deal out some money. This is a serious construction enterprise. I mentioned that the hex tiles stack - Heroscape battlegrounds have height. Height is crucial in game, too, as will be explained.

The instructions contain plans for a number of different battlefields. Each battlefield has a page or so of construction instructions. You have to build the thing up one layer at a time. Building each layer requires you to use exactly the right sized bits as in the diagram or you might not have the right bits left to do the next layer, so you find yourself scrabbling around for a 3-hex sandy bit or whatever. Just like being back at infant school trying to find the one crucial bit of Lego that you need.

Obviously if you have any imagination you will want to build your own battlefield, which will no doubt take even longer.

The plot

The thing has some completely laughable plot about magic fountains and time travel which I couldn't even pretend to take seriously. I mean, for comparison, the plot of Space Hulk for example is basically "some guys go to kill some aliens" but they give the guys and the aliens some background and you can kind of get involved. Not so Heroscape.

On the positive side, the time-travel nonsense sets up (or "excuses" perhaps) the game's novel mix of units. On the Heroscape battlefield, the agents from the Matrix do battle with guys riding dinosaurs. Elves with bows shoot at battlerobots and WW2 paratroopers. Samurai fight alongside dragons and battle weird cyborg-mutant... things. And so on. It's all completely silly, which seems to really irritate some people and really amuse others.

The game

Heroscape actually comes with two rulesets: there's a basic game and a "master" game. The basic game is really very basic. None of the units get their special powers (which are the whole fun of the thing I reckon), and any unit that takes a hit is dead instantly. Other reviews I've read suggest that it's a great way to get e.g. your nine-year-old nephew hooked before moving onto the real rules. I haven't played it myself.

So, the real game.

The various units are all very different and each one has a particular special power. The Matrix agents have a bullet-dodging trick which makes it really hard to kill them unless you get up close. The dinosaur-rider guy can eat nearby units. The dragon can shoot enormous jets of flame. And so on.

Each unit comes with a card describing its special power and its crucial stats - how far it can move, how many attack dice it gets to roll, how many defence dice, etc. Each unit is worth a number of "points", the powerful units being worth more. This system ensures you and your opponent can pick two sides which are balanced, even if one of you has a lot of smaller units and the other has only a few huge units.

Once you have picked your units, you have their cards with their stats right in front of you. This sounds like a small thing but is really a very nice feature; you don't have some big rulebook that you have to keep flipping though and consulting. The stats and even the rules for the special attacks are right there.

The missions that are supplied are mostly of the "destroy all the enemy units" variety, although there are a few with more complex goals.

In each round, each player may use up to three of their units. Each one gets to move, and attack. Movement is straightforward with a few rules about how to move up and down the terrain. Attacks are simply resolved - the attacker rolls some dice, and the defender rolls some dice. The strength or weakness of different units just affects how many dice they get to roll.

The more powerful units can take many hits before they die. Other smaller units consist of a squad of two or three models which can act independently but are killed the first time they are hit.

Height advantage is crucial! Units can't move so far when they are going uphill but it can be important. In any conflict, whether attacking or defending, whichever unit has the high ground gets to roll an extra dice. This can make a big difference, so you can end up fighting over the high ground.

As well as the high-ground, there are also "glyphs" to fight over. These markers are placed on certain tiles at the beginning and confer various advantages if a player has a unit standing on that tile.

You have to evaluate your own units' strengths versus the enemy units' strengths, and take into account how far the enemy units can move on their turn, and so on. You might have a unit with a long range, an archer say, that you want to keep away from the enemy's close-combat samurai. You might use a winged character to fly up and take the high ground early on, or send in a heavily armoured character to guard a powerful glyph. The variety of units that can comprise both your team and the enemy's team means that there will be no straightforward "winning strategy" that works every time.

Time for a two-player game is about an hour or two, depending on the scenario.

Conclusion

This is a fun battle game which can be learned quickly and comes with a pleasing quantity of nice STUFF in the box. It comes across as a streamlined version of Warhammer 40k - a similar kind of gameplay but less fiddly rules and charts and general messing about.

The way that you take it in turns to move individual units rather than taking it in turns to move your entire force is a distinct departure from 40k. I like it; it means you don't have these huge stretches where you are just watching the opponent advance his whole army.

Another nice difference between this and 40k is that there are no restrictions on which units may team up together. The team-picking routine in Heroscape allows any unit to end up on either side. This is at the expense of any kind of plausible storyline, though. You pretty much have to just accept that your mutant cyborgs are fighting alongside your vikings and deal with it.

The dual basic/master rules are a very nice touch, making the game a suitable gift for younger gamers if you're not sure what might be too complex or too boringly simple; between the two rulesets, everything's covered.

The star of the show, perhaps, is the wonderful lego-esque terrain. Such fun. It's fantastic to be able to build up such a fine-looking multi-level battlefield and then disassemble it all back into the box when you're done.

Overall I am well pleased with my purchase. I will update this review after I have played a few more games.


So I arrive at Woolworths and I go to the games counter to pick up the copy of Heroscape that I've reserved over the phone. "Who's the lucky recipient of this?" asks the attractive sales assistant as she fetches it out of the cupboard. She turns around to hand it to me, looks me in the eye for half a beat, and then adds "Or is it for yourself?"

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