July 2007. Nowhere, Illinois.
“Happy birthday, dude.” Phil drops a garish box onto my lap while we’re seated in his early 2000s blue VW beetle. It’s heavy. It’s stupid. It’s covered with a picture of samurai, dragons, a Legolas look-alike, some agents straight outta the matrix, some Vikings, an angel with a winged helmet, and an orc riding a T Rex. “Really, dude?” All pre-painted miniatures, and not a tape measure in sight. I look at the back of the box and read the story. It sounds like something I’d have written when I was ten years old. ‘All these dudes are on Valhalla. Fighting over wellsprings. THIS IS THE BATTLE FOR ALL TIME.’
I toss it in the back seat and think nothing of it for a couple days, then I crack open the rulebook. The rules are delightfully simple. The most time is spent describing how to stack the proprietary hexagonal terrain and move around it, but it’s all pretty intuitive. Count spaces horizontally when moving or shooting. When climbing, count spaces vertically too. End your movement in water spaces. Roll dice for offense and defense. Skulls in excess of shields count as wounds on the defending figure. Squads have 1 life point, heroes can have more. The dice with 3 skulls and 2 shields and 1 blank are straight out of Heroquest or Battlemasters, both games I had enjoyed in the early 90s. We had also played Warhammer in the late 90s, but having pre-painted minis and simple rules for line of sight and movement seemed like a breath of fresh air. We had played D&D, Magic the Gathering and Pokemon, so card abilities changing up the rules of the game and the inclusion of a 20-sided die didn’t frighten us.
So we tried it with the suggested scenarios. And loved it. We drove over to Toys R Us immediately to buy more. I bought a pack with a mech, two more dragons, a giant, and a hippogriff. Being an engineer, Phil mostly just bought more robots. The game was kinda dumb, but it was also kinda perfect.
After that first night, I had to know more. I went to Google and quickly found an amazing fan site, heroscapers.com. People were planning tournaments, designing customs, discussing any- and everything about the game, and most importantly to me I found the competitive section. Despite its ease of play and childish trappings, it appeared that the game had great depth as well.
I came back the next time I saw Phil and told him all the units that each of us should keep an eye out for. For the next 3 years, this became our go-to game, and every time any of us would drive past a WalMart, Target or TRU, we’d have to stop and see what they happened to have that week. Starting in October of 2007, I started attending tournaments and making friends all around the Midwest, and eventually started writing my own strategy articles, which got an astonishing amount of support and appreciation. My economics education wasn’t paying the bills yet, but it informed my approach to how to play and analyze a kids’ game.
This mixture of competitive play and wonderful community became readily apparent at any event that I would attend. To this day, I’ve never played in a tournament for any game that featured the same level of friendliness, sportsmanship, and good old-fashioned fun. I don’t know if it’s because the game was popular among pastors and religious types, the conscious efforts of some amazingly nice moderators and tournament organizers, or the simple fact that anyone playing this game couldn’t possibly be taking themselves THAT seriously, but these tournaments truly were (and are!) a class of their own. These events have a way of creating indelible memories.
I have a friend from Iowa who I still see 12 years later as a result of this game. I have another friend I met through the game who had me stand up in his wedding a couple years back. I’m on a first name basis with much of Plaid Hat Games because those guys (save Isaac Vega and his brothers) were all massive Heroscape fans.
Colby Dauch got his start designing customs cards for Heroscape, and despite his spelling mistakes and other issues, he was welcomed warmly and set up Heroscapers.com after a previous fan site imploded. Jerry Hawthorne (Mice and Mystics, Stuffed Fables), Mr Bistro (Dungeon Run, writing credits on most PHG games), and David Richards (graphic designer) were all Admins or Mods on that fan site. The D&D Heroscape waves were designed mostly by Colby, Jerry, and Chris Dupuis (co-designer credit on Risk Legacy, Dungeon Command), and were in my opinion some of the best design work Heroscape had ever seen. I helped test those waves a lot, so I’m probably a bit biased though… You should have seen what else they had designed for classic scape and other IPs that I probably can’t even mention. It would have kicked ass, man.
The D&D waves were not met warmly by the fans. They felt, perhaps rightly, that the game was being co-opted by one of Wizards of the Coast’s big brands, and that the scale was completely off for these repurposed D&D minis compared to classic ‘scape. This disconnect between my love of the design of these units and their cool reception caused me great distress and caused me to withdraw from the community and focus on Summoner Wars. The Marvel units released earlier met a similar fate. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if the Marvel stuff kept coming out and was still going when the MCU really dropped in theaters. Maybe we’d still see it in stores today.
But in a way, we kind of do. Remember those customs I talked about? The community is still churning out excellent peer reviewed and tested customs, in some cases perhaps more rigorously than the official units. That community survived the retail death of the brand and some of its staunchest fans and organizers moving on. I can’t help but think that the original massive size of the launch in big box stores meant that that hardcore center of players would remain larger than similar games that were limited to hobby releases.
But sadly, some of the plastic terrain is starting to become brittle and hard, depending on how you stored it. I’ve broken a number of pieces when I’ve tried to bring it out or tear down maps. Some people think that 3-d printing will be a solution to the terrain problem in the future; they’re always looking for a way.
If it weren’t for Heroscape, I wouldn’t be here, and likely neither would Plaid Hat Games.