Monday, August 19, 2013

Heroica: Hack-n-Brick (Part 3)

This post is part of a series about LEGO Heroica. After quite the hiatus, Part 3 looks at the pros and cons of expanding on the hack-n-slash nature of Heroica in the custom rules. At the bottom of this post are links to the other parts.

If you haven't had the opportunity to play an proper hack-n-slash type video game yet, I'll wait while you go play one.  Really, go play one.  Though always violent, and quite frequently gory, these games provide a great deal of stress relief because they are based on one simple idea:  hacking, slashing, beating, pummeling, and generally laying the beat-down on wave after wave of baddies.

There are three key features for all hack-n-slash games:  a variety of easily (and the occasional not so easily) dispatched enemies, a large pool of weapons and spells, and sprawling dungeons to fight in.  All three provide opportunities for our custom Heroica.  I'll go through these points one at a time.

In a board game such as Heroica, we can't necessarily capture the same sense of immediacy and action as a digital hack-n-slash game, but we can look to the key elements of the hack-n-slash genre to help inform the gameplay.

Enemy Diversity

The variety and diversity of the enemies really defines "hack-n-slash" for me.  Without the variety, the game quickly falls flat.  There's only so often that you can enjoy killing a generic goblin underling.  And, sadly, this is an area that Heroica falls flat.

In the default Heroica game, the only enemies are strength 1 monsters, strength 2 monsters, and strength 3 monsters.  Even though there are various skins, there's no difference to the players from a spider to a bat to a goblin warrior.  Every monster attacks and defends in exactly the same way, and has no weaknesses or strengths over any other monster. This makes combat monotonous and boring.

Contrast that with Diablo (the granddaddy of the genre), which has ranged enemies, fast enemies, flying enemies, strong enemies, magic enemies, etc., each with their own damage, health, resistances, and abilities.  Each enemy requires different strategies and equipment, and keeps the player on their toes.  And we can do the same thing for Heroica.  I'll give just a few examples of how this can be done, and then discuss some negatives of this approach.

Spiders:  giant spiders...just think about that image for a while.  Poisonous, eight-legs, giant webs...I could go on, but I'll leave it there.  In the world of Heroica, spiders can have the ability to poison the heroes when they attack.  Or they can leave webs along their path to slow the heroes down.  Because of their climbing ability, spiders may be able to hide in arch ways or on walls.

Zombies: in most fantasy universes, zombies are slow, mindless creatures, but are always attracted to brains.  The zombie condition is often passed from person to person with bites or other forms of close contact.  We can give our zombies these characteristics by making them move slowly, but always towards the closest player.  We could also have zombie attacks pose a risk of contracting the zombie disease, which could cause a reduction in player movement speed.

Dark Druid: as most druids are clearly wielders of magic, the Dark Druid should be as well.  The druid could cast spells, transform into other states, or at least attack from afar.  In hand-to-hand combat, the Druid would likely be unarmored (or lightly armored at best), and would then more readily take damage.

Though it's clear that expanding enemy diversity could bring some much needed variability to the game, variability does not come for free.  In the current system, it's easy (in fact, trivial) to learn all the characteristics of the monsters, and how they interact with the players and the game board.  In a system where each type of monster has unique abilities and characteristics, you increase the complexity of the game significantly.  Each monster would have to be looked up in a supplemental table, and only after numerous play-throughs would experienced players finally have memorized all the stats.

Another point about enemy diversity is the enemy population.  In many games, end-game satisfaction is much higher if you have to make your way through hoards of enemies to get there.   By default, Heroica really has very few enemies compared to the number of players.  By increasing the number of enemies, you can make the combat aspect of the game more compelling, which brings us to...

Weapons and Spells

The means by which you dispatch your enemies had better not be boring or monotonous.  If you want to slice a skeleton to pieces, or incinerate a giant bat with a fire ball, you should be able to do so.  Since that's not the case in Heroica, we need to do something about that.

Nominally, Heroica includes weapons, but those weapons do no more than change your "Special Ability."  And, quite frustratingly, weapons that would logically be used by your character don't help you, because the Special Ability they give you is exactly the same as the one you already have.  If you give a ranger a bow, he should be able to shoot farther, more accurately, etc., not just stare at it and say "meh, I can already do this."

Now, this can tie directly into the RPG aspects of the game by providing increased stats and buffs, or it could just simply be an upgrade.  For example, each class of character has a tier 1 special (their default special), and certain weapons provide various tier 2 specials.  In the case of the ranger, the tier 2 bow special could allow double damage or two different targets.  The tier 2 assassin with a knife could be a stealth attack which doesn't allow retaliation damage from the target.  Lots of different combinations are possible.

The downside to this, similar to above, is the added complexity of the combinations and different tiers.  Though, all this could be resolvable with additional quick-reference material, which could even be extended to a third-party digital application.  On the whole, I really believe this added complexity would be worth the trade off.  But it would be even more worth while if you had...

Sprawling Dungeons

A both scary and exhilerating part of hack-n-slash games is the dungeon crawling aspect.  You slowly work your way through a complex and convoluted dungeon level, killing all the enemies and collecting all the loot.  Then, upon finding the staircase, you descend to the next level, and begin your adventure again, but better and bigger monsters and loot every time.

This features exists, in a certain form, in Heroica by default:  all the different sets can be integrated together, to make one giant game board. And, for me, that's a really cool feature.  But it falls flat when you consider the diversity of the sets.  Yes, there are dungeon sets, and ocean sets, and forest sets, etc., but they all are very similar to one another.  Let's add some variety here.

Certain spaces could require certain minimum stats (like speed) to move through them.  Or they could be fraught with additional danger (like the possibility of spawning additional monsters).  And I think, most importantly, we just need more: lots and lots of spaces.

A trade off is that a such a map would require longer to play.  But since Heroica is too short in my mind, that's a partial trade-off, at worst.  And once again, you get added complexity.  But in this way, proper level design could go a long way to making obvious what each tile does by providing, e.g., healing founts, treasure chests, rickety bridges, or imposing rubble patches directly with the space(s).


These hack-n-slash aspects, on the whole, will probably be incorporated into any custom rules set.  This is largely due to the fact that their downsides don't really apply to me, because, frankly, they are almost all upsides for the game I want to create.  Furthermore, because the majority of these aspects deal with the world the players inhabit, instead of the players themselves, it makes balancing these aspects much easier, and you don't have to worry as much about tippling the scales in favor of a particular player.

Obviously, additions to the complexity of the game will have to be carefully monitored, because a game that is too complex isn't really fun for anyone.  But the ideas of hack-n-slash integrate well with the other aspects of the game I want to create, and will definitely add more fun and replayability, two very highly desirable traits.

Heroica: Build-a-Board Game (Part 1)
Heroica: Dungeons, Dragons, and Microfigs (Part 2)
Heroica: Hack-n-Brick (Part 3)
Heroica: Building at House on the Hill (Part 4)

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