The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Heroes, Incorporated

Designer: Sam Clifford
Publisher: Quest Machine
Players: 2-4
Time: 60 minutes
Reviewer: John Marc Green

Theme

Heroes, Incorporated is set in a large metropolitan city, Megalopolis. It is reminiscent of the Watchmen comic series in that it presents the twelve new, original superheroes as teams competing for official endorsement and a government contract to protect the city. In a promotional comic released to industry insiders, the Batman-type detective "Shadowboxer" is as concerned with straining his operating budget on computer upgrades as he is with crime busting. In the short scenario, he sets up a supervillain who is surprised by Shadowboxer and an army of television reporters and camera crews to film the capture of "Thorn" for the 6 O'clock news. Shadowboxer's trap pleases the mayor, who remarks that the event should boast great ratings and provide his administration with a political boost. In the game, you draw two heroes at random to form your "team," which you direct to fight the roving "crimes" around the city, scoring fame and victory points. The winning team gets the next crime-fighting contract for the upcoming fiscal year. It's an amusing concept, especially for a reporter who often deals with similar, real-world beaurocratic situations.

Presentation

The first thing I noticed about Heroes, Incorporated was the box: big, heavy, well designed and colorful. The pictures and explanation on the back sold me on purchasing it. Turns out the whole package was produced from Sam Clifford's original prototypes by a graphic design company called Creative Madhouse, which will be doing all the company's future production work.

The box is made of thin cardboard, but is well constructed and has a snug fit. The first thing you find in the box is a four-page, black and white rule sheet. It's a large, glossy, four page presentation, illustrated with art by famous Magic: The Gathering artist Carl Critchlow, who also helped design the characters. Under that is a durable covered board that looks like a play board, but is actually the victory point counter board. Four sheets of punched, sturdy cardboard tiles, counters and chits follow with a cardboard tray underneath to hold the cards and smaller bags of components. Poly bags are included to help store the bits.

The only assembly required, other than punching out the cardboard tiles, was putting label stickers on the plastic "crime" pieces, which the heroes must fight. The bits are high quality, with painted wooden action markers, painted wooden pawns for keeping track of victory points, hefty colored dice and a special, black eight-sided die unique to the game, to be described later. All the cards and other components are beautifully produced and durable. The color-coded plastic stands for the cardboard hero pieces are designed with rounded inner grips, so with a little care the pieces won't get damaged very much. The stands must be removed after each game, since you must first choose your heroes, then put your color stands on them. You might want to put a piece of clear tape around the bottom to protect the cardboard, but it's not a serious issue since the cardboard is thick and durable.

Setup

After the tiles were punched and the stickers placed on their pieces, setup began. To see how hard it would be to jump-start a game, I gave the rule sheet to another player, who read the rules to the rest of us, and we set up the board in the stages described. There are 25 tiles that are randomly placed in a 5 x 5 grid, which will be different every time, except for a center tile that provides orientation during the game. It is printed with a compass rose marking the eight standard directions, N, S, E, W, NE, NW, SE, SW. The 8-sided die is also printed with these direction letters.

The most unusual feature of the game is the way the "Crime" pieces move around the board. Depending on the number of players, a certain number of crime pieces are placed on and around the center tile in a specific configuration during setup. Then the eight-sided die is rolled for each crime, A-F, and each is moved one space in the direction indicated by the die in relation to its current position. While the description may sound complicated, it quickly becomes second nature as the crimes are moved in alphabetical sequence at the beginning of each turn.

The compass rose provides orientation for all the tiles, regardless which direction they face the players. All tiles are treated as if they are all in the same orientation. You roll for crime A, move it one space in the resulting direction, and then proceed to do the same for the rest of the "crimes", which represent threats the heroes must target. The crime takes on the value of the tile it rests on. If a crime moves off the board, it is returned to the center. More than one crime may rest on any given tile. This way, the heroes can stay in the same general area or follow the crimes as they move.

Mechanics

Dice: The primary method of fighting crimes is rolling a die and comparing the result to a number in the corner of the block where the crime is currently located. Heroes may win or earn bonus markers called "Combat +1" tokens by drawing cards or by being the first to visit certain blocks on the board.

Research cardResearch cards: The term "research" is a catchall category applying to all the various cards: it's basically the encounter deck. You might get a Supervillain, Fate card, Gadget, Fame card, or "Adventure" card, which gives you a bonus effect for defeating a particular foe. You don't actually go through the motions of the adventure; you just draw it and get the benefit. It's a potential role-play story starter but in the game it simply functions as a bonus effect.

"Crime" movement: This is the most unusual and unique feature of the game. It's an interesting and new mechanic, described above, that has the function of moving the crimes around the board so they can function as victory point generators.

Action points: Rather than having a pool of action points to budget on various actions with different costs each turn, you get four actions per turn (which must be taken in sequence with the other players as described above), plus any bonus actions. You use the colored wooden action tokens to track what you've spent. You can do any one of several actions each time it's your turn in a round, so the action points are more of a way of keeping track of who is doing what rather than resource-management.

Playing the Game

As our group started play, we stumbled through the first round, frequently consulting the rules to answer specific questions as they arose. It was a good sign that we were able to quickly set up and begin play with few mistakes (or so we thought). We never realized that we were playing the turns incorrectly, something I didn't discover until the second play-through with a different group.

At least one of the players was a bit grumbly at first, as other players rolled well and began to collect Victory Points at a steady clip. Each of us quickly developed strategies using the various advantages of our Hero teams. One player quickly learned that blasting various crimes from a city block away allowed him to score points and avoid the penalties for combat in the same tile as the crime. Basically, if you are in the same tile as the crime you're fighting, you must place the die with the winning roll face-up on that tile, and you may not move or fight another crime in that tile unless you or someone else beats that roll. This prevents players from racking up victory points if there are multiple crimes in the same block.

As Research cards came into play, other players discovered the value of impeding rivals' progress with Supervillain cards, which knock heroes out until the end of the entire round (unless they beat a relatively high number on a die roll). The research cards added much uncertainty and exciting turns of fortune for the players; they actually enabled the grumbly player to close the gap, tie the leader and eventually win the game, to his happy surprise.

After a few sputters and stumbles in the first half of the game, play soon quickened as we became familiar with the rules, began developing hero-specific strategies, and started having lots of fun with the game and each other. It invites a dose of roleplay, especially when you play a Supervillain on an unsuspecting fellow player. From opening the box at around 7:15 p.m. to ending the first game at about 9:30 p.m., it was a smooth and ultimately satisfying experience, even for those who didn't win. Everyone who played agreed it was fun, worth playing again and they all left talking about strategies they'd try to employ for "next time."

One question that did come up during play was whether bonus actions might be completed before the player's initial four actions. A player who had two white bonus action tokens eventually began using them first, drawing two research cards before deciding on a first action, which gave her a significant advantage and a full hand of five research cards pretty quickly. As it turns out, we were playing this wrong and this is now addressed in the official FAQ on the Quest Machine website, www.questmachine.com.

On each turn, the first player may do one action, and any bonus action or actions, then play moves to the next person, who does her first action and any bonus action or actions, and so on. Once all players have completed their first action and any bonus actions, the first player does his second action and any remaining bonus action or actions, and so on until all players have in turn run out of actions. Then the next round begins, heroes who have been disabled "reset", crimes are moved, etc. In my interview with Sam Clifford I discovered that in development, playtesters originally used a variant in which they played through their entire turn's actions before moving on to the next player. He says if you want to play it that way, it is a valid variant.

Final Thoughts

With mobile heroes and crimes and a randomly generated board made up of tiles, there's plenty of replay value and a very fluid sense of action, even in a relatively static game board configuration. It fits the theme of a crime-ridden metropolis quite well. The random drawing of hero cards at the beginning ensures a different game experience for each player, with different strategies required and enabled by different combinations of heroes.

The rules confusion was the only real criticism I had with the game. Also, while I understand the "crimes" are basically intended as literal moving targets for the heroes to score points with, I would have liked to see a little more homage to the theme than "Crime A", "Crime B", etc. I imagine that denoting specific crimes could have been a little morbid, since their relative value changes from tile to tile. If they were given the names or icons of specific criminals, the sense of "defeating" them would be lost. I suppose it was the best solution, but there is another: I might look for a set of plastic "criminals", little black figures with a beret, mask and club or gun with a space for a label at the bottom, so the heroes could aim at an actual crime figure rather than an impersonal oval. That's the only improvement I would suggest. The little plastic criminals would also be fun to personalize or roleplay for other players during battles. "Aiiii, I'll get you, Titan! You won't stop meeeeee!" You get the picture. Another solution would be to add a sheet of new stickers in an upcoming expansion pack with the names of criminal organizations, whose minions could effectively move through the city. This way, even if you defeat one group of any particular group of ne'er-do-wells, others could carry on their nefarious activities unhampered.

The variety of the game should keep any group busy for a while, but I imagine expansions adding more tiles, more heroes, more accessories and more research cards will add even more fun and strategic depth to an already well-developed strategy game. Luckily, Quest Machine has already announced its first expansion pack, which will be hero and gadget oriented. It will also contain a new hero and illustrated replacement cards for all the supervillain cards.

I would definitely recommend the purchase of Heroes, Incorporated. Its replay value and future expandability are in keeping with Quest Machine's mission of creating not just a game, but an experience in a world with rich characters and flavor, which players can modify and expand upon through expansions or with their own innovations, rules variants, and adventure scenarios.

- John Marc Green

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