If I said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times, one of the best things about having kids is that you get to reconnect with a lot of the toys, games, tv shows, movies etc. that you enjoyed as a child.
Sure, some of the time your kid won’t become as big of a fanatic as you were about the property as you were as a youngling, but sometimes you are pleasantly surprised. Your kid absolutely loves it and you get to bask in a little joint nerdgasm with them over the fact that it was incredible that “He-man has the power” or “The Care bears are pretty gosh darn cuddly”.
For the record it really shouldn’t be so surprising they liked some of the stuff we do, as good ideas are good ideas no matter what decade it was first created in . I mean tons of people still play Monopoly and that was created in 1935.
Fun fact, did you know that in 1941, the British Secret Service (the James Bond people) had the manufacturer of Monopoly in the United Kingdom, create a special edition of the board game for World War II POWs held prisoner in Nazi war camps. These versions of the games were distributed to the POWs through made up charities and included things like were maps, compasses, and even real money which could be used to help in escaping. Talk about a “Get out of Jail Free” card!
Anyways, this post isn’t about Monopoly, but instead about another great board game from my youth that I had recently a chance to play with my 7 year old son and his friends during a sleep over. That game is the sword swinging, spell casting, orc punching high adventure known as “HeroQuest”.
The game was first created in the UK back in 1989 as a joint production between the one time mammoth of the board game industry, Milton Bradley, and the smaller more lesser known gaming company called Games Workshop.
Yeah, I know what you are saying, that Games Workshop?!? The same Games Workshop that is responsible for the massive tactical miniatures franchise that eats up row after row of card tables in the back of pretty much every comic book shop in America? The fellas that created Warhammer?? Yep, it’s those same guys, although back then Warhammer really wasn’t that big of a thing yet seeing that the first rule book for the game was only created two years earlier in 1987. In fact, some would argue that if HeroQuest hadn’t helped put Games Workshop on the map with their first crossover hit in standard retail shops, then Warhammer as we know it today, doesn’t really happen.
So yeah put that in your pipe and smoke it, Charlies.
Back to HeroQuest though, the base game gave players 4 different player characters to choose from in terms of the beefy powerhouse of a Barbarian, the slightly less powerhouse-y but trap disarming dwarf, the hybrid magic using/duke it out Elf, and the easy to kill but deadly powerful spell caster in the the Wizard. Another player then chooses to play as the evil game master, Zaragon, who is in fact just a fancy version of the classic D&D Dungeon Master controlling all of the monsters the players might encounter, setting the scene for the adventure, and revealing the various locations on the board game map as the players uncover the “fog of war” that shrouds them.
If this sounds a lot like your standard D&D game, that’s because it is. HeroQuest really was just a somewhat simplified version of that world famous table top RPG, with a heavy focus on more of the board game aspects versus the mental imagination based story telling. Unlike D&D which might have used some miniatures for combat related portions of stories and were left mostly at the DMs discretion as to how integral they were to the overall gameplay (often how comfortable the DM felt drawing crude homemade maps), HeroQuest gave you a board in which construct the dungeon map, various pieces of furniture like tables, chairs, fireplaces, torture racks etc to fill in those rooms, and all the figures for both monsters and heroes you would need to visually creature the adventure as it is described in the Quest guide provided.
Indeed, another key difference in HeroQuest vs. D&D was that the gamemaster was often encouraged to “stick to the script” as it were in that the Quest guide would show the entire map, what was in each room, and even the story paragraphs that would be read to players at certain points. Sure, some would argue this is very similar to the notion of using a module to play D&D, but as someone that’s done that often as a DM, I would say that departing from the Quest guide in HeroQuest somewhat fundamentally breaks the game, where as in modules, there are parts that encourage the DM to “make stuff up to fill in the gaps”.
However, whatever the similarities or differences with Dungeons & Dragons, the long and short of it was that HeroQuest was initially a huge hit in Britain, Europe and Australia when it was first released, and then even a bigger hit when it finally came to America in 1990. In fact, in 1992, it won the Origins award (the gaming equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Graphic Representation of a Board Game, which kind of gives it double kudos for not only being commercially successful but also critically acclaimed.
It became so popular for a while that not only were a multitude of expansions released for it such as Kellar’s Keep, Curse of the Witch Lord, The Frozen Horror and others, but it also had a computer game adaptation made of it which nearly had an NES port as well before it was shelved at the last moment.
Speaking of those expansion packs, boy do those fetch a pretty penny nowadays on the secondary Ebay market. Especially the Frozen Horror/Mage of the Mirror ones that had additional female versions of the barbarian and elf characters as well as other miniatures you can’t get anywhere else. I just saw one the other day sell for close to 300 bucks. That’s a lot of loot treasure, I tell you what!
But I think the most telling thing about HeroQuest’s success was that D&D’s parent company at the time, TSR, saw the game as such a threat to their bottom line that they produced their own competing version of the board game with Dragon Strike. Of course, TSR went a little overboard with their version to tie in more to their core D&D product.
It too includes a wide variety of miniatures but most of them are monsters and classes pulled directly from player/DM guides. It had several different boards to simulate different RPG environments such as fields, castles, and caverns, but no furniture or trappings. Finally, instead of the standard 6 sided dice for movement and some skull/shield dice for battles like in HeroQuest, Dragon Strike gave the kids their first 10 sided, 12 sided, and 20 sided dice, just like your weird Uncle uses. Y’know the one who smells like Mountain Dew, Cheese Burritos, and a lack of sex.
If it sounds like I’m being a bit critical of Dragon Strike, it’s because I am. I did ultimately own both games as a kid, and I’ll be honest in that the most interesting thing about the Dragon Strike game was the cheesy 90s video cassette adventure that came with it. Oh if you don’t think I’m going to post that in this blog for your shits & giggles, then you don’t know Andy Larson.
It was just too complicated compared to the HeroQuest system and in the end if you wanted all the whistles and bells that Dragon Strike gave you, you might as well have just bit the bullet and played the real D&D anyways. It was like drinking skim milk, what’s the point?!?
I can honestly say that wasn’t the case with HeroQuest as it was different enough with again that focus on more tactile approach to dungeon crawling that made it approachable to just about everyone. In fact, one of my fondest memories of the game is getting to play it with my Dad a couple times when I was a young teenager.
My Dad wasn’t the biggest fantasy nut around, but what he did like was board games, and I remember him commenting that although he originally thought it wasn’t going to be for him, after he started rolling dice and moving around the board, everything clicked, and it was a really fun experience. Sure it wasn’t his favorite board game of all time, but he liked it enough that he offered to play a couple more times after that first adventure.
Even my cousin, JA, got in on the HeroQuest buzz, which also says a lot given he wasn’t the biggest fantasy either. Although even close to 30 years later, he still wails like an old washer woman that the moment he bought the game, it seems like everyone, including me, stopped playing, leaving him holding the bag. Like the entire world had conspired to suck him into buying it just to turn around and laugh at him. Maybe I just played coy knowing if he didn’t play his version, one day he’d give me his copy with those nicer, less worn miniatures and furniture pieces to help “freshen” up my sagging beat up copy.
But yeah, in the end, the HeroQuest fad did fade into obscurity by the mid 90s. It was replaced by Magic: the Gathering and a variety of even more accessible fantasy related games. However, it’s legacy does still live on in the not only the success of the Warhammer franchise that it helped fuel but also in the slew of tactical based RPG lite board games out there on the market now. Heck, looking at my games shelf, I already see two that are in some ways the spiritual successors to HeroQuest: The Star Wars Imperial Assault game line and the super neat mouse based fantasy game Mice & Mystics.
Plus there’s was the attempted kickstarter relaunch of HeroQuest, with the 25th Anniversary edition that made gaming news a couple years back. I’m not sure exactly what happened with all that. Some people cried foul that it was scam, others claim the game exists but it’s still in production. Not sure what the truth is on this, but I can honestly say regardless of what happens with all that, I’m still glad that I have my original version to play with my kiddos. It’s still one of my favorites!