The first time I saw Lego boardgames I couldn’t help but feel some strange level of disdain. I mean, there was some weird thing with sheep, an egyptian themed thing and some kind of point scoring mechanism for building things out of the fantastic little bricks. It made no sense. 10% of the enjoyment with Lego comes from buying massive, extortionately priced sets. 40% comes from building those sets to plan. The other 50%? From messing about, surely. Building what you want when you want to, plans be damned.
How could a Lego boardgame draw the allure of that together while being a competent tabletop experience?
This, of course, was before I’d seen Heroica. Best described as an updated and Lego based Heroquest clone (and I’ll explain why shortly), Heroica is probably the only dungeon crawling experience on mainstream shelves right now. And, despite its high price and relative simplicity, it’s astoundingly good. So much better than my initial perception of this clash of hobbies had allowed me to believe it could be.
There is an underpinning principle as to why. Out of the box, the rules are phenomenally simple. You roll, you move. If you land next to treasure chests, items or a monster you search, pick up or kill them respectively. This is a gem with no real punitive measures. To attack, you roll a dice and either kill it or take a hit yourself. If you take a hit, you step backwards: the monster lacks any intelligence at all and does not follow. This continues, with up to 4 adventurers (in most packs) moving around each map to get to a “win” spot. Beat the bad guy, claim victory. It’s a semi co-operative experience that’s entirely without a GM.
While the initial map can be built from scratch players could – should they choose to, the rules aren’t explicit – build each room as they go along, placing opponents as they do so. This would almost instantly create a GM role that’s almost as entirely developed as that in Heroquest. After all, their role there is merely to place monsters and scenery and roll dice, little more.
Death never comes here – if you run out of hit points you merely sit where you fell, rolling the dice until you have fully recovered. This allows your fellow adventurers/opponents to advance further into the dungeons. An Epic ruleset allows you to carry gold and items between quests, and with each of the 4 boxsets featuring 3 different variations there are 12 of those (13 if you do the big map) out of the box.
As a game for us seasoned dungeon crawling veterans it feels as though the ruleset is undercooked. From the perspective of my 4 year old son, it’s pitched absolutely perfectly. He loves the game, and I love playing it with him. He understands what he needs to do, what he needs to role and the difficulty and lack of failstate means that he doesn’t feel unnecessarily punished. In fact, he’s beaten me on every game we’ve had so far, what with me being obsessive about killing everything and him just going for the big bad.
With all 4 sets now in our house we’ve also taken a look at the big map options and, yes, there’s a whole host of customisation both allowed and achievable. Part of the wonder of this game isn’t just laying it out and playing the game, it’s building your board as well. It looks fantastic and, being Lego, is an amazingly tactile experience. There’s clear scope for building your own maps with your own Lego and matching this against custom rulesets. I suspect with some hard work, dedicated gamers could easily map any fantasy based system on to this.
I mean, just look at this map and ruleset.
What’s also nice is that it appears as though the range is set to continue to expand with both larger boxsets and smaller scenery pieces. The latter are particularly interesting, potentially offering a cheap and ready way to customise and extend the map further and further – Lego just need to keep the releases coming out. As for the bigger boxsets, there are another 5 places marked out on the Heroica website. It’d be great to understand when they’ll be coming out.
Right now, though, we have the four and a limited edition carry case. Don’t buy the latter – it isn’t big enough for all the pieces and is a pretty pointless addition. At £70 srp all in for the set it isn’t cheap, but they seem to be getting regularly discounted (at the time of writing Draida Bay is £6 at John Lewis) so give it a bit of time and a bargain could be had.
Me? I’m going to keep playing this with my son and figuring out how we could build custom maps with his own Lego collection. I’ll hold off on creating rule variants for now, but a big part of the joy here will be building maps and playing with it. I think it’s absolutely fantastic and can’s wait to see where the range goes from here.