For those of you who never knew or who might not remember, HeroQuest was a board game, of a sorts, released in 1989, at a notable time in home gaming entertainment. Sandwiched between the Dungeons and Dragons and sword-and-sorcery b-pictures of the mid-80s, and the rise of the PC in the mid-90s, it was a strange crossover/partnership between American board game makers Milton Bradley and British tabletop miniature makers Games Workshop, now most famous as the manufacturers of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 (the spiritual ancestors of Warcraft, and thus World of Warcraft, the multibillion dollar juggernaut).
It is not a terribly complex or even well-balanced game, compared to the finely tuned fantasy board games now on the market, but long before I ever knew the precise combination of the words “Dungeons and Dragons”; back when a “roleplaying game” meant nothing but I still had a good conception and not too much dignity for playing ‘let’s pretend’: in short, when I was five or six years old, Hero Quest was a kind of gateway drug. It is to roleplaying games what billy carts are to Formula One racing, but for a (precocious) five year old being asked to play with the older kids next door, it was (if that five year old was me), a seed planted that would be hugely influential later in life.
In Hero Quest, one takes the role of a Dwarf, Elf, Barbarian or Wizard and completes a series of modular dungeons, designed by placing doors, furniture and blockages on a predefined map grid. One person takes the role of the “Evil Wizard” Morcar (aka Zargon, for our less well-named American cousins) and manages the monsters and the traps. The others try and survive, moving their way to end points on the map. Monsters appear when the players enter rooms or trigger events, and the Evil Wizard moves them around. Basic statistics never change (as such), but there are both equipment to purchase and quest based special items that change the number of dice you roll to move and to fight. It’s that simple.
It’s also one of the most ’80s things imaginable, with its ravening Barbarian and its glam rock Wizard:
As a child, I played it as a child might, relatively simply chopping and slicing with my Barbarian while my next door neighbour ran us through an adventure or two. Somehow, that set passed to me, and as I grew older, I lost bits and pieces. I cannibalised miniatures for dioramas and D&D and more complex Warhammer and the set became an incomplete shadow of its former glory – too lost to play, too precious to be thrown away.
At my first year of university, that changed when I went to grab a DVD at a friend’s house and found that he owned the only other copy of the game I’d ever seen: a likewise broken-down childhood copy, incapable of being played due to missing cards and missing pieces…until we realised that between us we had a complete set. We were both RPG players, and once we knew we had a complete set, we had to play it. We talked about it with a couple of other friends, and it became apparent that they had fond, if fuzzy, memories of this old game too.
So began Hero Quest: The Revival. My friend took the role of Atha the Barbarian, our other friends became Rando the Wizard (yes, a reference to the Amazing Rando, Wizard of Speed and Time), and Uk, the doughty Dwarf. They were joined by a rotating cast of Elves, played by casual gaming friends and corralled room-mates, based on who could make the time to play. I was, perhaps appropriately, the “Evil Wizard”.
The informal nature of the thing led us to relax our rules about drinking at the gaming table, the 80s cheesiness brought out a sense of both nostalgia and self-parody, a kind of whimsy that most of our games didn’t share. There was nothing serious about Hero Quest, no real narrative arc to pick up and go – and for that reason we played it sporadically, reserved for the occasions when we never had more than the right number and the right people, taking a back seat to bigger group activities (particularly as we progressively coupled up and uncoupled and married off and got 9-to-5 jobs and focused on other games and movie nights and everything in between that makes up life). We gained a semi-permanent Elf in the past 18 months. Life got in the way, and it would take a couple of hours to do two-to-three scenarios, so we made progress very slowly.
We had the first two major expansions, and we found a website with the rules for the rest. For the last eight years, chipping away by degrees, we pushed through the game. As these things do, it grew an increasingly complex (and ridiculous) mythology: Elves kept dying, so they became a single family bent on avenging each other: being near-immortal Elves they were going back in the generations not forward – fathers and mothers avenging daughters and sons. Atha the Barbarian (the character with the lowest Mind score) was given the Talisman of Lore, making him a genius of slightly above average intelligence. The Wizard’s propensity to hit monsters with his staff instead of casting spells gave him a garrulous brawler’s personality. My inability to drunkenly read a card saying “You find a box lined with velvet” gave rise to the Dwarven material of Belvet, the most expensive substance in the world, cloth spun from gold-flecked moss found in the deepest of gold mines (and a further slip-up gave rise to the Belvet Fox, a literal enchanted talking fox responsible for carrying the party’s equipment, to whom I gave a voice like Ronald Coleman). Uk’s player began a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying game (now long since dead) during the overall tenure of the Hero Quest run, and as Hero Quest shares DNA with Warhammer’s Old World, our Hero Quest characters became the epic legends of that later game: Princess Uk was the storied ancestor of the Dwarven noble PCs, a huge statue of Rando stood at the University of Altdorf, the Elven departure was caused by the dozens of lives lost in the early days (Elves were very perishable for some statistically unlikely reason, but also capable of Punisher-esque feats of vaguely Edda-like brutality). Since it made no mechanical difference, we determined that Atha’s Talisman of Lore allowed him to live forever (though at a price), and later legend tells that he slew the Chaos Gods at the very end of time. There were no Firmirs (a Cyclopean monster unique to the Hero Quest game) by the time it became Warhammer’s setting, so we declared that the party killed them all between them.
It was a silly place, but it had its epics too: more than most games it let the dice and the coincidences do the loose storycrafting, leading to some amazing pitched battles, like when Rando, bereft of spells, punched his way out of an army of chaos warriors, or when Uk Thunderfist leapfrogged the Barbarian to slay the mighty Witch Lord with a single swipe of the Spirit Blade (I was pissed). Eight years is a long time, not quite but almost the length of our friendship, and a chance to sit down and play it was always something to look forward to. As time went on it became less about finishing it (though we made a kind of steady progress) and more about the ritual of the game: unlike other RPGs where there was a story to tell for as long as people wanted to tell it, this had a definite end-point, even if that felt a fair distance away even while it grew closer.
This is not the story of how we reached the end-point, at least, not in that sense.
At 2:30am tonight/today – Easter Sunday – I killed them all.
Evil Wizard triumphant. Atha’s unwillingness to throw a 150gp spear (they had some 5,500gp in hand, if you’re curious), allowed a single goblin to get away and set off a chain reaction, summoning the terrifying Ogre Champions of this high-level expansion, Against the Ogre Horde. This expansion assumed the final defeat of the Witch Lord, the canonical enemy leader of the early game (which, indeed, these players had managed) and scaled accordingly, but I took the mundane plot of Ogres rampaging for food and rewrote them into what I thought was a sufficiently epic threat – a new super-mutation of Orcs, rising in strength and cunning as they consumed, and consumed the power, of their fellows, free from the Witch Lord’s strictures that prevented them from doing so.
In the Carrion Halls, where the Ogres feasted on the flesh of their brethren, our Heroes fought for their lives against impossible odds…
They were so close, though. Outmatched, outnumbered, they killed every ogre on the board. We had always had a rule that one Hero making it out allowed the others to be revived, and the Barbarian had only to cut down one Orc and two more Goblins for a straight run at the exit with his fallen companions. A well timed Sleep spell by the Wizard had created a bottleneck I didn’t, couldn’t expect, blocking up a narrow corridor with one of my own best monsters. The Elf passed through solid walls before being overwhelmed in a corridor. Uk Thunderfist killed Ogre after Ogre thanks to an enchantment of Courage which worked like berserker rage. They almost made it.
But they didn’t. I did what I had set out to do: I “won”. Unlike an RPG proper, Hero Quest doesn’t engender necessarily the same feelings as running a roleplaying game: there is enough of a board game aspect to make it clear how to win and lose.
But after eight years – after the Heroes always fighting and holding on and beating the odds – I had learned not to expect a win, even when I did my damnedest to make each battle count. When the last Hero fell, and Atha’s player walked into the darkness of that outer void known as the living room to sip their last drink, someone muttered “I didn’t expect it to end like this”.
I didn’t expect it to end. It was the background hum of our friendship, a way of marking the time.
I’m seeing the players tomorrow – we all speak basically every day. The game isn’t our friendship, by any means, but it was an artifact of it: an echo of shared childhoods, a memory of both epic adventure and goofy jokes.
Rando’s player said to me, as we packed it up: “Now it goes into storage. And some day, when you have kids, and they’re old enough [if they’re precocious enough, maybe 5 or 6], you’ll take it out and play it with them.” And I will.
It’s 4:00am on Easter Sunday, and I’m up writing this tribute. They were silly things made of plastic and card and 80s excess and whimsy.
They were the stuff dreams were made of.