HeroQuest: the good, the bad, and the gargoyle

The Gargoyle, in a contemplative mood

It’s difficult to describe the sugar-rush appeal of HeroQuest to someone who wasn’t a geek-child in the 1980s. Dungeons and Dragons was too complicated to be accessible. World of Warcraft was still a glint in Blizzard’s eye. Other options were too expensive. The first time I played HeroQuest, I was hooked.

The name does looks odd. Like ‘Christmastime’ or ‘Happybirthday’, you get the feeling someone missed the space bar, in this case, for copyright reasons.

It’s a simplified sword and sorcery game, with players taking on the role of the barbarian, elf, dwarf, or wizard. One player is the evil wizard, the games master, setting out rooms and moving monsters, preferably while cackling evilly. The heroes run around the dungeon collecting as much loot as possible while killing baddies, finding secret doors, and dodging traps. They also attempt to complete the quest; usually killing a big bad, recovering an item, or rescuing someone. The game combines straightforward rules with the tension of not knowing what’s around the next corner.

Components and set up

The components and artwork are good quality. There are a variety of different coloured miniatures, with all the fantasy baddies you’d expect – goblins, orcs, skeletons, zombies, and mummies – as well as some you might not. Muscular cyclops called firmirs, death-knight like chaos warriors, and the dreaded gargoyle complete the line-up. The gargoyle is the biggest and toughest monster in the game, boasting a sword, whip, and a pair of intimidating wings. It’s basically the balrog from Lord of the Rings, made from stone rather than fire, and it will knock your adventurer into next week given half the chance.

The various cards are mostly self-explanatory. There are tiles showing the staircase, pits, and secret doors, which build the feeling that you’re poking about in a creepy death-trap.

Then there’s the tiny furniture. Bookcases, tables, treasure chests, a fireplace – your dastardly decorations will be the envy of many an evil overlord. It doesn’t take as long to set up as you’d think because the dungeon is constructed as you go along, as it is revealed to the heroes.

You give your hero a name, motto, and even a coat of arms on your character sheet. Players often seize the opportunity to call themselves something like Hrun Butt-kick Odinson Bloodgargler, have their motto as ‘Argh!’, and design a coat of arms so over the top it makes Michael Bay weep.

The Character Sheet in all its glory

Gameplay

The rules are pretty simple. You roll dice to move. You explore. If you lose all your body points, through monster misadventure or trap hazard, your character dies.

You attack monsters – or other heroes – by rolling combat dice. Each skull is a hit, and the defender then has to roll shields to block, or lose body points. On the evil wizard player’s turn, they do the same to you with the currently visible monsters. There’s a real fear that your little plastic playing piece might not make it out alive, and you can grow quite protective of them.

Only the evil wizard player knows what’s coming, as they can see the dungeon map hidden behind a screen. This also serves as a theatrical stage to mock and taunt the heroes. Will the next room contain loot or sharp pointy death?

It’s actually pretty difficult to eliminate the heroes, unless they are reckless, exceptionally unlucky, or make a series of silly mistakes. Apart from the puny wizard, there’s little chance of them expiring unless they have a run of poor dice rolls, as between quests the heroes can use their gold to buy new weapons and armour, making them harder kill.

The heroes can choose to work together, split up, or even fight amongst themselves, making the monsters’ job that much easier. The moral of the game is teamwork. If you’re selfish or make the classic horror movie ‘let’s split up gang’ mistake, you’ll quickly run into trouble.

Loads ‘o cards

The verdict

HeroQuest is at its best when it surprises you or builds tension. A monster, supposedly a statue, will obviously spring to life at some point… but what triggers it? There’s a mummy up ahead, but it’s a way off, and slow. Then, falling rocks block your escape route… these are the moments that make the game shine.

It encourages creativity. You might think that including a blank map in a game aimed at young boys is asking for trouble, and you’d be right. If a killer games master uses this, every single square will be filled with traps and monsters, and the heroes will suffer a humiliating defeat. But wiser minds will realise their job is to give the heroes a chance, rather than murder them at the first opportunity. There’s a lot of luck involved, through dice and random cards. You can be left stumbling and bleeding in a corridor, while your more fortunate buddies grab the swag. If you’re looking for high strategy, this isn’t it.

The game doesn’t scale well and is considerably harder for one or two heroes rather than three or four. Fewer heroes means more loot between you but doesn’t compensate for the extra monsters. Player elimination is a possibility, but you can wheel out the old D&D ruse of coming back as your character’s twin brother for the next quest.

The board, featuring outlines of rooms and corridors, sometimes gives the game away as to where things are heading – usually the big room in the centre to confront a boss-monster. The board does avoid some of the problems associated with room tiles, though, like running out of space and having to navigate around drinks and pizza.

All spells are one-shot, once per quest. If you’re unlucky, and you’re the wizard, you’ll spend the rest of the game fleeing, as you only have 4 body points.

A game of HeroQuest in progress

The barbarian, dwarf and elf get tougher in later quests, as they can spend gold on useful weapons and armour, most of which the wizard can’t use. The dwarf’s ability to disarm traps isn’t that useful. Mind points, an assessment of your character’s intelligence, are rarely relevant. Evil magic, which could address the imbalance with the wizard, isn’t used much either.

Once you’ve played through a few quests, the dice rolling can get a bit tedious, and the limitations of the game become more obvious. There aren’t any female characters unless perhaps that’s a lady dwarf sporting a magnificent beard. Ok, it’s a game aimed at boys, but this seems like a glaring omission, a barrier for any girls or women that might want to play.

Copies of HeroQuest can go for £100+. Unless you’re a wealthy nostalgic fan, it’s really not worth that much. But if you can get a set for a more reasonable price, or have the patience to create a DIY version, it’s definitely worth a look. Despite its problems, it’s an enjoyable fantasy game, whetting your appetite for the more complex fare, and offering a framework to build upon.

If you’re thirsty for more HeroQuest action, check out the glorious 1991 TV advert or this superb video, featuring a man with overflowing hair, beard, and enthusiasm.

Now get out there and slay some orcs.

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