Heroscape is often overlooked by serious gamers, partly because it’s marketed toward kids and partly because it can be found in the toy departments of mass market stores. Despite the lightweight reputation, it’s actually a solid tactical game with plenty of options for fun customization.
The basic rules for Heroscape are extremely simple. Each unit has an attack, defense and movement value, along with a range, all displayed on a large hexagonal card. Figures move around the board, using the logical and easy to remember rules for handling elevation changes and terrain like water, ice or swamps. Line of sight is literal — you get behind the attacking figure and see if you can physically see an attackable spot on the target. Very clear, and quite a bit of fun peering around the mountaintop to clip your enemy’s ice elemental.
You get three actions (move and attack) per turn, with four action markers to distribute among your units. These are hidden from your opponent, so she can see which units you’ve assigned actions to but not the order they’ll go in (and the null action marker lets you be sneaky). You can even assign multiple action markers to one unit, pushing your best troops to spearhead the attack.
In combat, the attacker rolls a number of special D6s equal to the attack value, while the defender rolls a number equal to the target’s defense value. The dice have skulls and shields on them. If the number of skulls rolled by the attacker exceeds the number of shields rolled by the defender, the defender is eliminated. These basic rules are ideal for younger children (and some dogs).
The advanced rules add a few extras. First, units have special abilities on their cards. These can range from magical ranged attacks, leadership bonuses to initiative, special defenses and so on. Units also have life totals. Now, you count the number of skulls the attacker rolls in excess of the defender’s shields, and the defender takes that many wounds. If the wounds on a unit ever equal its life score, it dies. You can also add scenario-specific rules, linked scenarios and findable magic items.
The real genius of Heroscape is the board. The tiles are hexagonal, stackable and modular. Sets come with some large pieces, a bunch of large 7-hex pieces, some three and two-hex pieces, plus a few single-hex tiles. There are different colors so you can create scenarios using different terrain types. Water and shadow hexes can make rivers, lakes, chasms, bottomless pits, etc. (in someone’s D&D campaign world, a wizard needs to open a shop called Bottomless Pits Etc.). By combining a few sets together, you can create large, elaborate layouts. Playing with elevation is a lot of fun, since you can block line of sight with a ridge or create high ground to fight over (units get an extra combat die if they occupy a higher elevation than the opposing figure).
Originally, Heroscape was a multi-genre hodgepodge that combined fantasy warriors with Roman legionnaires fighting against robots and aliens with pulse rifles. Since then, Hasbro has released a D&D themed starter set and several booster packs featuring creatures familiar to any RPG player. There’s also a Marvel comics licensed set with a smashable building and some famous superheroes and villains. Some of the older sets are out of print and quite pricey on the secondary market — I’ve heard that there are some more D&D sets coming out in the near future. You can use any figures in any Heroscape game. Use specific units for a scenario, let everyone build an army based on unit point values, or draft units. The game works fine for multiplayer as well.
Heroscape is probably not a game you’re going to play every week, but it’s a great dose of simple, fantasy flavored combat when you’re in the mood for something quick. It could also act as a perfect gateway game for young gamers or non-gamer friends. Setting up a big layout with cliffs, canyons, rivers and peaks is at least half the fun (more than half for me, since Meg trounces me every time we play).
One other thing in Heroscape’s favor — its simplicity makes it ideal for customization. You could do pretty much anything with these tiles and units. Miniatures of many different scales will fit on the hexes, so you can create your own game or add minis and make up your own unit cards for them. Create your own scenarios, fight a prolonged war broken into a series of smaller battles, or use it to reconstruct key battles in your RPG. You could convert your D&D characters into Heroscape units. You could use the map for Battletech. Invent a solitaire game, or a cooperative game. Hell, Hasbro could probably draw some “serious gamer” attention to Heroscape by marketing it as a game-maker’s toolkit.
Bottom line: the game itself is great for what it is. It delivers fun, fast action. The ability to customize almost any aspect of it might earn it a place on your gaming shelf.