29 September 2011

Gaming with Kids: Lego Heroica

The Heroica Board Hit up the Lego booth at GenCon and got to actually play around with Heroica a bit.  It seemed like the kind of thing that Cups would enjoy, and since we are always trying to find new ways to let her feel like she’s a part of the roleplaying circle and to encourage her quick and creative mind, we picked up a set a while later at our Local Big Box Store.  No guilt here about going through an intermediary: Lego is too big for me to feel like I owe them anything.

We got all of the sets right off the bat, after having seen the big setup at GenCon with them all linked, and promptly assembled everything into little modular pieces.  Cups put the dice together and helped find the interesting little specialty bits.  For our first game we set up the main Heroica box just as the book suggested to.  After that, we put away the guidebooks, picked out a bunch of rooms, stuck them together, and picked out some microfigs. 


Rules and Setup:  The game sets consist of a bunch of two-by-two or three-by-three square rooms, with flavor decorations, separated by little bridges that snap into place.  It’s set up with tiles of alternating colors, making each game square pretty easy to identify.  Assembling it is just like any other Lego set: you can follow the instructions or not as you choose; following the instructions guarantees a certain outcome but you can create more interesting ones by deviating from them; there are extra pieces that look like you missed a step – and sometimes that is correct – and it all snaps securely together. 

Each of the Heroica sets comes with its own set of microfigs: inch-high Lego people of varying colors.  It’s pretty easy to distinguish enemies from heroes at a glance, and some of the sets included bats and spiders if you are opposed to killing humanoids.  All of the sets also come with color-coded health packs matching to the hero microfigs that hold four little red cones and, depending on the set, may also have a place to store weapons and defeated enemies. The color of your microfig determines its special powers (more about this later).  On the Heroica site all of the microfigs have little backstories and the special powers seem to match well to the stories provided, making them easy to remember. 

The game also comes with a double-purpose (customizable!) Lego die: each of the six faces serves both as a movement die and as an attack die.  Most of the faces are split diagonally: one side indicates how far you move with dots and the other side indicates the outcome of the battle.  The sixth “special” face is a shield which lets your microfig use a special power or move 4 spaces.  On your turn, you roll the die, move accordingly in any direction until you run out of spaces or come to something that stops you – treasure, locked doors, or enemies.  When you meet an enemy you immediately stop and fight them – again by rolling the die.  Depending on your roll, you either defeat them or not, and you may or may not lose health points even if you win.  When you run out of little red cones on your health pack then you are knocked out and you have to roll each turn to replenish your health until you are at full again.

Scattered around the board are various treasures: gold cones to serve as coins, little potion bottles, keys, and some special pieces as well.   Keys unlock locked doors, and you can carry only one at a time.  Picking them up can be strategic if you are playing to win the game, and it is in fact possible in some setups to completely blockade the other players from achieving their goals through holding a key hostage.  Potions are helpful  – replenishing health, moving extra spaces, and allowing a reroll of the Lego die.  Coins can be used to buy weapons from the shop, which sit cutely on your health pack and give your microfig the ability to use an “almost-as-cool” version of a different microfig’s special powers.

Winning: Although Heroica is a roleplaying-style board game it still provides for a way for a particular player to win.  Different suggested setups have different win  conditions such as defeating a boss mob or getting to a particular piece of treasure or square on the board; we used the classic “defeat the goblin king” in our games, but there are particular pieces such as a protective helm, a chalice or a book that could make perfectly good items to retrieve from a dungeon.  You could also play cooperatively, leaving out the single-player goals and bringing a party into the dungeon.


Setting up the game

Gameplay: If you are playing with all the Heroica sets open, you can choose between six different microfigs and special powers for your hero: The barbarian (yellow), who can defeat all adjacent monsters and move a space; the wizard (red), who has a four-square corner-turning ranged attack; the druid (brown), who can heal back to full health; the rogue (black), who gets to defeat an adjacent monster and take a gold from the store; the ranger (blue), who can move one space and then has a five-space ranged attack; and the knight (grey), who can move up to 2 spaces and defeat an adjacent monster.   All of the powers can be extremely useful, but none of them is overwhelmingly better than the others.  All of them can be nearly duplicated by a purchased weapon’s power if you can’t live without two different powers.

There’s not much to the game, really: you roll the die, you move, you either fight an enemy or not. you head to the defined goal.   It was easy enough for four-year-old Cups to grasp with minimal explanation, and once she had the hang of the rules she really got excited about combat and rolling the die.   If we had wanted to stack the rules in her favor it would have been easy enough to take the provided tiny plastic crowbar and replace some of the die faces, weighting combat in the heroes’ favor.  We didn’t need to, though; she took getting defeated in good stride when it happened. 

It was during the course of our first game that I discovered that my daughter is in fact a budding roleplayer: she deviated completely from the agreed-upon goal of defeating the goblin king and meandered over to a room that had a leg of meat on a table.   She declared happily that she was going to (a) spend her turn eating lunch and (b) put the meat on her head as a helmet.  Not wanting to disappoint her, we tried it.  It fit.  The rest of the game was played with a meat head, and eventually the goblin king was defeated. 

Replayability is high, mainly due to the immense amount of fun we had building different dungeons and arranging the treasures.  The game itself is really only about half as enjoyable as making it, something that again seems to be common to Lego constructions everywhere.  There are a lot of little pieces, though, even accounting for keeping the rooms intact and only breaking apart the bridges: microfigs and coins and potions and weapons and health cones and keys and special pieces.  Our Heroica set now resides in three boxes, one of which is half full of little plastic containers for sorting different small pieces, so this is probably a game that we aren’t going to introduce the Captain to until he is old enough to understand about not putting game pieces in his mouth.

Playing with a meat head.

 The downside of the gameplay is that this is a dungeon which can be potentially quite extensive, and it is very easy to find your microfig on the wrong side of a lot of corridors with nothing in them, having cleared out all the mobs in the process of getting to the treasure/key/coin/leg of meat that you were pursuing.  Moving across a large board at no more than four squares a turn drags a bit; we tended to roll 1 and 2 square movements more than anything else and so catching up to the party was occasionally tedious.  A couple of solutions were under consideration: Randomly spawning patrols to add a little more spice to the trip; being able to move in a straight line until you encountered an item of interest or crossroads; double moves in empty hallways.  We haven’t had a chance to try any of them out. 

The other downside has nothing to do with Heroica itself and everything to do with Cups.  I want her to grow up without feeling like her gender makes her something exotic or unusual in the gaming world, and unfortunately Lego is not being helpful here.  All the Heroica posters at GenCon featured little boys playing at being heroes; four of the six microfigs have beards or stubble; all the stories on the Lego site – heroes and villains alike – reference male characters (except for the grunts, who are only referred to in the collective).  These are clever and interesting little stories that give a history to the microfigs and make the game just that much closer to a roleplaying board game; the website is interesting and has neat animations.  It would have been a very little thing for Lego’s writers, I think, to make some (half?) of the heroes female – or better yet to tell the single-paragraph stories without explicitly gendering the characters.  It would have been a big thing for my daughter and me to be able to identify with them.

Conclusions: Lego Heroica in its several incarnations is fun to put together and easy to play.  There are a lot of small pieces to keep track of, so I recommend investing in small containers or baggies for these to save you grief in the long run.  There’s a high degree of customizability and the dungeons you create can vary from straightforward and simple to bewilderingly complex.  The rules are sufficient to play and yet easily adapted to a particular playstyle.  Overall, a good fun family RPG boardgame with a lot of potential for storytelling practice with the younger crowd.  I just wish there were women in the Heroica world.

11 September 2011


You might have heard this one before.  But it seemed apropos to this blog, so I am reposting.

My child wears black and denim
   or pink and neon green
She likes Mythbusters reruns
   and her tiny iPod screen
She cheats at Chutes and Ladders
   and makes up words to songs
She knows to hide from Daleks
   and fight zombies on the lawn

We bargain over Xbox
   and Clone Wars DVDs
And sing They Might be Giants
   when we practice A-B-C's
She likes to search the backyard
   for flowers, twigs, and rocks
And in her dresser drawer
   are never matching socks

My child wears purple rain boots
   and flowers in her hair
She reads books after lights-out
   and plays with teddy bears
She knows about the Wardrobe  
   and the wicked witch in white
And we sing Twinkle Twinkle
   when she lays down at night,

- nsb.

Hollowpoint: Wild Wild West

Got folks together the other weekend to play Hollowpoint and see if I enjoyed GMing it as much as I liked playing it.  Threw out the invitation to the winds and got back an OK from two of our Pathfinder regulars, my husband, an old friend recently returned from Places Southwest, and a couple whom we do not get to do RPG's with very often.  It was a big group.  I got to count out a LOT of dice.

Skin: Steampunk Western.  
Mission: (1) Rescue Mister Banks's daughter from the Pinkertons.  (2) Get the deed to the Lucky Star out of the train's lockbox before the Dawson Gang does.

We took a few minutes to get everyone settled - used the toe tag character sheets which amused the hell out of my players - and ran them all through character gen in about twenty minutes, counting chasing kids and asking questions.  There were Complications from almost every player, which definitely made things more interesting.   There were also a lot of questions starting with “can we have…” from my D&D-based group, who were almost obscenely pleased with the idea that they could  in fact have whatever it was they were asking for.

Several of the players took low to nothing in Kill, so they schmoozed their way past the engineer  (Complication: I am the engineer’s daughter) and the Pinkertons before settling into the real meat of the adventure.  There was a lot of throwing people out of train windows.  There was a lot of Terror and Dig and Cool being used, with the occasional gunfire battle.  There were Pinkertons hiding in the restrooms and using earpiece microphones to transmit information down the train.  There were traits being burned in new and interesting ways as the players realized that a scene was headed for a Wash or that they just needed One More Hit in Terror to make things happen.

I was surprised at how much the players had to do with creating the scenes; I almost didn’t need to be there except to roll handfuls of dice and watch them get torn apart.  But the best part for me was setting up a Retribution. 

They had Miss Banks in friendly custody after Terrorizing the Pinkerton agent holding her hostage (Complication: I rescued Miss Banks from a brothel in Juarez once).  They had successfully Conned some of the Dawson Gang into watching her for them (Complication: I left the Dawson Gang under friendly circumstances).   And then the rest of the gang showed up, on flying steel horses, and shot the hell out of Agent Jayne.  “It was like they were gunning for him or something.”  Chalk one up to Complication: I left the Dawson Gang under unfriendly circumstances, and bring in an Operative loaded on Cool to help finish out the show. 

Jeffery Dawson learned an important lesson about being out-Cooled (do not stick a deed down your pants to keep it away from an Operative) and an Agent learned about getting Conned by a fast-talking pretty boy, right up until he got his deed taken away anyway.  Everyone got to play a role: Operative Sylvia may have been the one doing the crotch-grab, but she couldn’t do it without backup – and backup was provided in full.

Everyone left the table feeling satisfied, accomplished, and having thoroughly enjoyed themselves.  My quiet players opened up with very little prompting, and as promised the scenes pretty much ran without my guidance.  I still very much enjoy the dice mechanic for making scenes flow smoothly, and it was clear and easy for the players as well.  “Not so much math” was the main take-home comment.

We did notice that unless I am splitting my dice pool for a Principal or a Catch that I will never have more than 6 actions (one per side), so the massive dice pool of the GM tends to lend itself to longer runs which means I get to go first most of the time.  However, once the players get a turn they are likely to wipe out everything I have left, so it evens out.  I’m not attached to NPCs because I haven’t spent more than twenty seconds statting them up by deciding how many dice they get, so I don’t get as defensive when they get out-cooled because my investment is low.  As a GM, my biggest hurdle is getting over my fear of killing PC’s in mundane ways.  Shooting the hell out of Agent Jayne was, in fact, extremely satisfying for all of us and Operative Sylvia was statted up by the time the scene was completed. 

Still love this system and the next time we are looking for a one-nighter it will probably be the first off the shelf.