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.

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