As a child I always had a interest in other worldly settings. I looked to Star Wars and Star Trek, despite not really knowing what was going on in the Original Series. I collected books on supernatural phenomena. And I read books such as The Dark Is Rising and The Black Cauldron series. Yet my board gaming was restricted to family favourites, such as Scrabble and Monopoly.
Then a game came along that changed my life …
If like me you are a geek of a certain age, this game will probably be of little surprise to you. It was created by Milton Bradley and Games Workshop and was named HeroQuest.
At first sight, you would believe that this game was quite generic – four adventurers from easily identifiable fantasy tropes banding together to defeat a great evil. Hacking through a dungeon to gather loot and defeat monsters. You can almost hear the cliché. But to a younger me this was fresh. And to a very nostalgic me, the game was actually pretty good fun.
The contents of the box were, for the time, mind blowing. I had never encountered miniatures before and they were nicely detailed. More over, there was a ton of them. I still have some of them knocking about and whilst they do show their age now in the days of CAD and the ridiculously details kits put out by many different suppliers nowadays, I still have a lot of affection for them.
But it was not just that – there was also 3D terrain to go in your dungeon. Doors, book shelves, tables, chests, a tomb – I forget what else. And it was just cardboard held together by plastic pieces. But it was fresh, exciting and invested you much more in the dungeon you were exploring. It even had little rats to go on the top of the book cases. Tiny rats! And skulls – which I’m guessing was a GW design thing. Seriously – GW love their skulls on everything.
But what about the game beneath this exterior? Nice art and minis were one thing, but how did the mechanics stack up? All told, it was a nice package. The combat was elegant – special combat dice were six sided with three skulls, two white shields and a black shield on them. Roll a number of dice equal to your attack or defence. Skulls are hits and shields cancel out hits (white for the heroes and black for the monsters). Easy to understand and meant that combat did not drag on unnecessarily.
Looking back it was also my first experience of a co-operative gaming experience. Of course you had the antagonist Evil Wizard player (with a cool screen to block players from seeing the dungeon as you were laying it out for them – a screen which later was used as my GM screen for several roleplaying games), but the heroes had to work together to conquer the dungeon. We learnt very early on that splitting up meant that you could easily stumble into a bundle of monsters that would cut you down very quickly. So you ensured that you had to co-ordinate to a degree, used your spells at the right time and was incredibly wary about traps along your way.
Your characters could also improve over time by purchasing equipment cards between adventures. The majority allowed you to roll extra dice to attack or defence, but two items stood out. The crossbow – the only ranged attack option for heroes. And the toolkit that allowed you to disarm traps if you were lucky. There were even enchanted items you could find on your travels – the mighty Spirit Sword being the ultimate prize for your heroes. Although the improvements were basic compared with something like Dungeons and Dragons, it meant you became more attached to your characters. You were not the Elf, you were Omaris Goldleaf – expert archer and fire wizard.
Was it flawless? No. It was still a roll and move game, which led to those situations when you were just one or two spaces short of attacking the monster and your team’s best laid plans, fell apart. At least it was rolled on two dice, so you could assume an average roll. But nothing could be more frustrating than the git that rolled a double 6, got into the room ahead of you and found a snazzy magic potion. Although when the same thing happened and they tumbled into a pit, it was more palatable.
There was also limited re-playability, as once you had done several of the dungeons, you knew the layout and could beat it pretty simply. Especially as the first dungeon was a race to the centre and whoever picked the Move through Stone spell was going to win. As I was normally the Evil Wizard player, I knew the dungeons pretty well when it came time for me to be a hero and as I was young and stupid, I could meta-game the quest pretty hard.
Thankfully expansion packs were released with more quests and later, different monsters. The first two Kellar’s Keep and Return of the Witch King, were adventures themed around greenskins and the undead with more dungeons to run through. The latter two that were released in Europe, Against the Ogre Horde and Wizards of Morcar, added multipart Ogres and evil spellcasters to the mix. I have particular affection for the Ogre models and I still have one painted in my collection somewhere. We Europeans even got the Adventure Design Kit, with little stickers to create your own dungeon layouts. I am aware that the USA got other expansions, but regrettably I know little about them.
The game is long since out of print, although someone did try to crowd fund a 25th anniversary edition, which I believe fell foul of intellectual property rights. Which whilst probably not surprising, is a shame. Because with the current gaming renaissance, this is a great introductory game for people looking for something different.
Let’s be honest, dungeon crawler games have moved on since the days of HeroQuest, and there are some fine offerings out there (I will keep you guessing about my particular favourite). Looking back at it, I will openly admit it is most likely with rose-tinted glasses. And I sold my copy a long time ago (I know, I know … fairly stupid). But it opened my eyes to an entirely new experience and type of gaming. This led onto me discovering other board games, roleplaying games, Games Workshop products and later collectable card games. The source of it all is here and forgive me for being nostalgic, but I am forever grateful for it giving me that opportunity.