Revisiting a classic dungeon-crawler board game.
Recently a friend decided he really wanted to play Hero Quest (first released in 1989) and embarked on his own quest to track down a complete copy of the game. No less than two weeks later he’d bought a near-mint set from eBay and gathered our party.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t convinced — I had only vague memories of playing it once or twice back in the early 90s, and I couldn’t imagine a 30 year-old game holding up today, especially with us jaded, grizzled game-jockeys using our future-smarts to defeat what were surely primitive rules…
I was wrong! Here are seven reasons why Hero Quest is still amazing.
Detailed and expressive models that still look great
I actually still have some Games Workshop figures from the 80s and 90s. The one that haunts me is the plastic Space Marine from the 40k box of the era, where they’re a boxy block and the guns clip to the front, and they look something like mortuary statues. I was expecting something similar from Hero Quest, and I was wrong (that’s going to happen a lot during this article).
The models look decent in photos, but actually holding them is something else. They are very nicely detailed — not quite up to modern standards of course, but absolutely wonderful for board game miniatures. The plastic has aged excellently (as in, not at all) and even in their raw, unpainted state the sculpting means you can easily identify the different types of enemies as they appear on the board. The hero models suffer slightly from homogenous poses (only the dwarf avoids some accidental confusion in the heat of the moment), but really, all things considered, top marks Games Workshop from the past. Top marks.
Simple but effective equipment, magic, traps and loot cards
Compared to most games these days the cards are very simple. The majority have little more than a couple of sentences explaining what the thing is, then any relevant information like exclusions, cost, or special features. The fronts are black and white and the backs are groovy fantasy art in full colour. They look almost too simple — as though somehow they couldn’t possibly actually work properly. Certainly when you compare them to the cards from something like a modern deck-builder or similar they seem primitive.
But you know what? They work fine. I played as the Wizard, so I had a lot of cards, and the simplicity actually worked in my favour. With something like twelve cards to manage, the simple style, simple descriptions, and line-art image I was easily able to learn what each one did within the first game without any effort at all.
The board is just a bunch of squares. How can that work? Oh wait, I see now! That’s amazing!
I would say my earliest experience of seriously playing a board game with miniatures and dice rolling is Space Hulk sometime in the mid 90s. I mostly remember having to awkwardly shuffle things around when the corridors got too big and you needed to tile a new one in, and as a kid playing on the floor where the carpet wasn’t quite even, it was… awkward. Then the clean up — so many corridor tiles and models!
Hero Quest surprised me again. When you first see that board it seems like it can’t possibly be good to play on — however, the movement rules combined with the innovative door system means that you can make a vast number of permutations on that one board. And it’s all a predefined size, which isn’t going to get larger than that.
For those that don’t know, the board is essentially a cross of single-square corridors and four clusters of room spaces with no doors. The doors are standalone objects that the gamemaster (GM) places according to a map. This means the quest you’re on can allow access to the rooms in different combinations, and the way the doors lead into the rooms themselves actually forms a pretty tactical part of the overall gameplay experience.
Random movement and combat with no diagonals? Madness!
Movement is done via rolling two D6. This randomness means that all your carefully-laid plans can fall apart when you roll poorly and creep along in single digits while the rest of the party are rolling double digits and storming off goblin-slaying. This is accentuated by the GM’s models having fixed movement, which means we often found that there was an inherent uncertainty as to whether we’d get close enough to attack, or roll enough to avoid attack. We found ourselves making contingency plans and having to continually adapt to whatever the movement roll was for each character. Simple movement became a tactical element of the game.
Added to this, you can’t move diagonally across squares, nor move back over squares you’ve crossed in that turn. If you open a door and find yourself confronted by many enemies, you can’t back out of the way (sometimes if space allows you can sidestep, but it’s rarely enough to avoid combat). Nor can you attack diagonally (without specific weapons that we didn’t get until later). Again, this seems strange — but it adds another very tactical element to how your party moves and positions themselves as a group. If you don’t think through your move you might prevent your buddy from helping in the fight at all.
Tactics and teamwork
All in all, these simple, easy-to-remember rules for movement and combat made the game a highly tactical, team-based experience. We needed to coordinate movement every single round in order to make sure the most vulnerable party members weren’t exposed to too much danger and/or blocking off other party members, while at the same time staying close enough to be able to use spells to support the group. The Elf wasn’t so bad, having both spells and some combat abilities; the Dwarf was similar, both characters able to be fairly flexible with placement. The Barbarian was wasted if he wasn’t continually in combat since he lacked any other ability — and he also made a great meatshield — but it wasn’t always possible to get him into position, so even knowing the ‘optimal’ placement for each character, we had to be pretty dynamic each round.
Interestingly, we quickly realised that the Wizard’s spells allowed us to mix things up fairly well, providing we used them at the right moment, and the Dwarf saved us more than once from several nasty traps that would have really caused us problems. The Elf, as a sort of half-fighter, half-wizard, did a lot of floating around and picking off enemies around the Barbarian, but was tough enough to take the lead when necessary.
Considering the combat rules are so simple, it’s surprising that the combat felt satisfying, tactical, and also pretty dangerous. Rounds ended quickly, but with only a few ‘body’ points on our side, things could go badly fast if the rolls didn’t go our way.
Easy-to-learn rules that add meaningful choices to gameplay
One thing that really hit me was how quickly the GM was able to explain the rules to us. It took maybe a couple of minutes and we were off playing. Again, this is really refreshing, as the last few miniatures-based board games I’ve played took at least 30 minutes to even get the gist of the rules, and we spent most of the first game(s) having to painfully check each move to figure out if it was right. These games were always fun when you know the rules, but that learning curve can be punishing, and sometimes a little off-putting. One game my friend bought we never even played; the rules were so dense and complex we just couldn’t face it.
With such simple rules I wasn’t really expecting the game to be much fun. As I’ve covered above, the movement and combat are surprisingly tactical; but, more than that, the way doors, scenery and searching function is quick, easy to remember, and forces choices within the flow of the game.
I could easily imagine being able to explain the rules to young children and have them playing and enjoying the game almost immediately. Or, I guess, drunk adults.
Quick games with continuation, and even some story, all without spending hours setting it up
My friend said he wanted to play two games: the first one a lower-level one to get us used to the rules, then a slightly higher-level one to see what it’s like. I was really surprised when he said he thought it would take about 45 minutes each. He wasn’t far off in reality either, and that includes unpacking the set! It was a refreshing change. It felt just about long enough to feel decently immersed, but not so long that we were looking for mid-game breaks and finding it hard to keep the players focused on the task at hand. We progressed at a casual pace, but the turns went fast enough that we remained engaged while others were moving too.
Partially I imagine it’s down to the fact that, even if you used all the rooms on the board, there’s a statistical limit to how long it would take a group of four players to navigate the maze and achieve the objectives. But also I think it’s down to how easy-to-play the game is as a whole. Each turn every player was rapidly able to determine what they could and couldn’t do and take action, and even when we stopped to discuss it as a group, the limited options meant that it didn’t take more than a minute or two extra.
Since we’re all roleplayers at heart, we were even able to inject a few bits of roleplay into it as we went along. We turned dice rolls into descriptions of amusing mistakes and fumbles, or added simple flavour descriptions to encounters or rooms. I could imagine how you could easily use Hero Quest as a framework for a much more deliberate roleplaying game without going to any more effort than describing things in more detail.
Another surprise is that you can continue your character between games! In fact, that’s how it’s supposed to be played — as a campaign. You gather loot and items as you go and can even purchase items between games to help you out in your next adventure.
So there you go. If you have the opportunity, give Hero Quest a go!