Under The Hood – Hero Quest and Where It All Began

Hero Quest and Where it All Began
By The Warden

One week ago today, they were mysterious packages wrapped in colorful paper nestled under our Christmas trees. Within hours of Santa’s departure, they were torn apart to become welcome additions to our collections and today those wrappings are nothing more than shredded remains piled in garbage bags or recycling bins. What remains are pieces of a never-ending assembly of games, be they role-playing, board, or video.

During this time of year, we always get board games. My fiancée is a huge board game fan and our basement shelves are stocked high with a wide assortment of traditional board games (including three versions of Monopoly and four selections of Scene It!) along with some antique relics. Prized among them all is my Hero Quest board game. For me, this game is what inspired me to start role-playing and get sucked into the vortex of creation that is my career.

Let me clarify. I’m not talking about the HeroQuest game created by Robin Laws and published by Moon Design Publications in 2009. Nope, this board game, produced by Milton Bradley and Games Workshop in 1989, introduced me to RPGs in high school in many profound ways. Much of the current RPG market reflects upon Hero Quest’s influence, it seems. Take a look at the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game and all the plastic goodies that come with it to see how RPGs and board games have merged together. Even the big RPGs blur the line with their own line of miniatures, full-scale maps, cards, and more.

But my passion for Hero Quest is more than just reminiscing about the good old days of marching the Barbarian, Dwarf, Elf, and Wizard through the halls of Zargon’s twisted constructions to battle orcs, goblins, mummies, even the dreaded chaos warrior. It truly opened my eyes to something different from the standard board game by drawing on the basics of a role-playing game and translating it into board form. In tribute to those long nights of Hero Quest, let’s look at those basics many of us take for granted.

The Meat of the Game: Quests
Hero Quest features a standardized foldout board containing 19 rooms and connecting hallways. Rather than a GM, one player would play Zargon, the evil son of a bitch controlling the monsters our heroes would face those dreary evenings. Each go at the game featured a quest with a specific objective (kill these guys, rescue this person, etc.) along with a detailed layout of the quest’s dungeon. Rare was it for the entire board to be used, as Zargon would place down 3D cardboard assemblies of doors, walls, and furniture to decorate the quest on an as-discovered basis. For example, when you turn a corner of the hallway, Zargon would place closed doors as designated on his map to indicate which rooms could be accessed along with a wall halfway down the hall to mark where it ends. As heroes enter individual rooms, furniture would be positioned along with any vicious monsters standing guard inside.

All quests began and ended at the stairs, a flat 4-square tile positioned somewhere in the dungeon. The quest was not over until all living heroes returned to the stairs with the objective completed and once the mini popped back on the stairs, there was no going back. Movement was handled with the staple of board games, rolling 6-sided dice and sliding your hero a number of squares equal to the roll. Monsters, however, had a preset amount of movement and never had to roll. Why? Cause Zargon says so!!

A sample of the Hero Quest white dice.

Combat, AKA the White Dice
Sure, sure, there’s other things to talk about first such as detecting traps, but killing monsters is the whole reason someone plays a game like Hero Quest. Combat is resolved using specialized 6-sided dice created specifically for the game: three sides provide a skull, two feature a white shield, and the final offers a black shield. Whenever you attack a monster (or when monsters attack you – insert Yakov Smirnof jokes here), you roll a certain number of these dice based on your character’s weapon. Only by rolling skulls can you inflict damage.

The same dice are rolled for defense, save that heroes and monsters have varying odds of success. Heroes must roll the white shield with each rolled in defense negating a single attacking skull. Monsters are restricted to the single black shield of the die to ward off a skull, making them less inclined to shrug off a sword chop. This system allows all combat to involve an opposed roll concept rather than a static target number. While the odds are in favor of the attack causing at least one point of damage, there could be a surprising number of white shields as the Dwarf holds his own against the massive 6-dice attack of the chaos warlock. Trust me, Zargon was very disappointed that day.

The number of attacking dice rolled were based on your equipment. In the beginning quest, it’s the Barbarian stacked to the gills with a longsword of 3 attack dice, leaving the no-less formidable Dwarf and Elf with 2 attack dice and the meager Wizard with no more than 1 attack dice. Never make the mistake of discounting the Wizard however, for his quarterstaff allowed him to attack diagonally.

All creatures – heroes and monsters alike – had hit points with heroes determining theirs by their role in the party. The Barbarian hefted his weight with a healthy 8 hit points, the Elf and Dwarf sported 6 a piece, and the Wizard had no more than 4.

As I’ve explained before, these are all fairly standard designs in today’s RPGs, toned down for a simplified board game. Other than tracking hit points, there was little math or need for an eraser in the game. What kept the game dynamic was the opposed attack/defense roll keeping all players involved to one level or another, allowing a defending character to utilize a spell to boost the number of white dice available or purchase better equipment between quests. At the very least, a mediocre defense roll allowed you to reduce the damage inflicted if not negate the impact altogether.

Spell Cards
With the Wizard already established as the weakest attacker, it’s safe to say he makes up for it with spells. Both the Wizard and Elf have access to spells, but it’s the Wizard who dominates in this realm. All spells were divided into four elements: Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. The Wizard chose one element and allowed the Elf (who liked to dabble in) another, leaving the remaining two elements in control of the Wizard. There were two healing spells in the mix, one from Air and the other from Water, making it a fairly standard practice for the Elf to have at least Air or Water spells. Each element brought with it three spells, granting the Wizard an impressive total of 9 spells per quest (take that, 1st-level wizard!).

But bad guys cast spells too. Some of Zargon’s minions had the ability to cast their own spells in the exact fashion of the Wizard, including spells of domination and invisibility. To handle these events, all characters included mind points to work exactly as hit points… but for the mind! Those with the highest number of hit points (I’m looking at you, Barbarian) had no more than 2 mind points, while the weakest heroes (cough, Wizard!) carried a big brain of 6 mind points.

These cards worked exactly as you would imagine: cast a spell, turn the card over and don’t use it again until the next quest.

Traps, Treasure, and Secret Doors
One of these days, I need to find a T-shirt which reads “Search for Secret Doors.” All heroes could perform one of four actions on their turn: attack, search for treasure, search for traps, and search for secret doors. So long as monsters existed in the room, no searching was allowed. Once dispatched, you could stick your grubby hands across every crevasse you could find.

Treasure came in two forms. Either it was based on the individual room description (such as searching in a room with a weapon rack) or a random card draw. Everything from gold to healing potions was available in the deck, but so were wandering monsters and traps to punish you for your greed. You could search for traps all you wanted, it wouldn’t help with these kicks-in-the-nuts.

Particular rooms designated on Zargon’s map might include secret doors and traps that could be disarmed. While all characters could disarm a trap by rolling a black shield on the white dice, the Dwarf was the resident expert and could do so by rolling either of the white shields on the dice.

Experience Through Equipment
The beauty of Hero Quest was that you never played the same quest over and over again. More importantly, heroes who survived the previous quest would retain gold to spend on additional equipment such as armor and weapons. The more often your hero survived the previous quests, the more powerful he became by retaining all that beautiful gold and gear. If he died, he came back as the same chump on the pre-printed cards.

This becomes the quintessential element of the game striking a chord with my younger self who loves the frosting. You could learn from the mistakes of the previous quest and prepare yourself for a similar onslaught. Too many traps last time? By a kit to gain one more white dice to roll. Almost died? Pick up that shield for 250 gold and gain one more white die when defending. Jealous of the Barbarian’s massive attacks? Get your own longsword and stop bitching about it. Or if you never used that Potion of Strength found last night, you can load it up for the next quest.

The game included a pad of quarter-page blank character sheets to keep track of your hero’s progress and bloodshed. All of this lead to an amazingly simplified version of what I would later discover as the role-playing game and still engages me to this day for more than what has been presented thus far. In time, Hero Quest became larger than its original creation as Milton Bradley released additional supplements and inspired a generation of fans to expand the game in new directions.

Full Circle
As reflective as this post may seem, there is considerable reason to think about how this 20+ year old game remains in the current gaming market. Fantasy Flight Games has taken the concept of a role-playing board game to new heights with damn near over 100 different games of greater complexity and expense, including the World of Warcraft board game and Arkham Horror. Many major RPG publishers have released numerous introductory board game versions of their role-playing games or adapted them into similarly complex board games inspired by their RPGs, such as Castle Ravenloft.

The striking impact of Hero Quest and similar games is how they’ve adapted to keep up with their original fans. Suffice it to say, all of us began our gaming lives through board games and developed into more complex endeavors as our minds desired something more and our wallets were stuffed with more than just allowance. As we rolled into our 40s, the need to play something with the complexity of an RPG was trumped by the limited amount of time we had to get together and prepare these games. These hybrids have allowed us to keep pretending to be the heroes we could never be without having to sacrifice time with the kids, spouses, or that work thing we all hate so much. Or maybe that’s just me.

For me, Hero Quest is the D&D Red Box of my gaming life. It didn’t take long for each of us to have our own copies of the game to spare everyone the trouble of packing their own in the car, double-up on goblin minis, and construct our own quests with greater magic, weapons, and monsters. As I look back to the past for inspiration in the future, my memories of those eternal nights surrounding the Hero Quest board give me cause to invoke that same passion for gaming in my own creations… and try to convince my fiancée to give it just one more try.

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  1. thynctank says:

    Just wanted to say I relate to you, brother! HeroQuest and Joe Dever’s *Lone Wolf* adventure books (think Choose Your Own Adventure on crack) were my introduction to fantasy gaming and eventually to RPGs.

    I’m in the process I’d trying to get my fam (back east) to find and mail out my old HQ (plus 2 expansions!) and another MB/GW collaboration, Battle Masters!

    • The Warden says:

      Battle Masters? I think I played that once or there was another game we tried out very similar to HQ. It’s been my hope with the revolution in board games that someone will release a new version of Hero Quest (and by new, I mean just the packaging; don’t change the frickin’ game!).