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Reviewed by Mark Finn, © 2003

Format: Game
Review Date:   June 17, 2003

When Heroclix was first announced, my heart did an anticipatory flutter. The premise was simple: do a super hero tabletop miniatures game based on the wildly successful and why-didn’t-I-think-of-it-first clever MageKnight system using licensed Marvel and DC characters as an added incentive.

MageKnight’s system was billed as an answer to the Games Workshop style of tabletop miniatures gaming. They contended that there was too much time and effort spent monkeying with the plastic figures and that was a deterrent to new players, who also had to juggle a rules system with books. WizKid’s solution? Offer pre-painted miniatures with the rules system hidden in the base of the figure. And it was a genius idea. It was officially the "Next Big Thing" in the gaming world, and it took over. As a system, the game is clever and simple. The wheel in the figure’s base shows move, attack, defense, and damage. Every time the figure is damaged, the wheel is "clicked" equal to the amount of damage done to the figure. As the wheel spins, the numbers go down. Powers and abilities go away due to wounds and fatigue. No more charts, no more books at the table. All you need is the laminated card to decode the powers, two six sided dice, and a ruler.

For Heroclix, the already simple system was made even simpler. Gone was the ruler for measurement, relying now on a familiar grid. Certain powers that were designated by color in MageKnight (flight, for example) were considered gimmes in Heroclix. Also, to help along certain concepts, the various teams (factions in MageKnight) were given their own abilities. Skrulls have an automatic shape-shift roll when attacked. When you knock out a member of the Fantastic Four, the other remaining members get a click of healing back. You can almost hear the Thing shout, "They can’t do that to Johnny! It’s Clobberin’ Time!" There was a lot of stretching and pulling on the developer’s part to get the big world of comics to fit into their small, plucky system. While this system worked very well for tactical-scale fantasy battles, how on Earth would it translate into a super hero genre? Better than you think.

In effect, the combat dial system turned the relatively complex idea of super hero game mechanics into an amazing beer-and-pretzels game. It did so by terrifically simplifying an awful lot of powers and abilities, but hey, we’re talking about fully-painted miniatures that you can slam around on a tabletop like army men for thirty minutes. This is the real appeal and is the strength of Heroclix. Well, that and your ubiquitous Avengers vs. JLA battles.

Across the board, there are a lot of figures to play with. Three Marvel sets and one DC set (a new expansion, Cosmic Justice, will be out in late June and add more DC figures) give you a lot of options. In addition to the staples: Spidey, the Hulk, a goodly amount of X-Men and the Brotherhood, you’ll find lots of second- and third-rate heroes and villains to round out your team. Also included are a nice smattering of "generic" figures, like Hand Ninja, Skrulls, and Thugs, so you can run Kingpin with a lot of his gang, or Madame Masque and a gaggle of Hydra Agents.

Combat, too, is easy: one die roll. A simple comparison of stats, and you’re done. Damage is taken in "clicks" by turning the combat dial clockwise. Each click changes the stats; it’s a clever way of computing hit points and battle fatigue. Some figures, like the Hulk, get stronger with each click. And some figures, like Colossus, require an activation click before they get good and shiny. The concept of timing in Heroclix is the trickiest thing, but it’s not rocket science, not by a long shot.

Heroclix is well-supported, too. The various expansions are well-timed and show no signs of slowing down. Various map packs, adventure kits, and the like are made available to add spice to the game (In August, we’ll see maps of The Batcave, STAR labs, and the Avengers and X-Men mansions to play with). Online, www.heroclix.com has virtually everything you need to play the game, including a complete figure gallery, downloadable quick-start rules, the Powers and Abilities card, FAQs, and even articles to help improve play. The only thing missing is your plastic figures! The unofficial home for Heroclix, www.hcrealms.com, is chock-full of tips, tricks, and fanatics to help newbies and experts alike get more out of the game.

There are a few drawbacks to the game. For starters (no pun intended), there is a collectible component to the packaging. Each booster pack comes with four random figures. Each figure has an experience level: rookie, experienced, and veteran. Vets, of course, are harder to get than rookies. Add to this mix is a 1 in 8 pack chance of getting a unique figure, with different powers, or in some cases, simply very powerful. This, of course, creates a secondary market for figures. Do an Ebay search for "heroclix Nightcrawler" and see how bad it can get.

Also, if you’re the kind of person who has memorized the stats from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and gets mad when Spider-Man doesn’t use his ten-ton strength in the comic books, I’d recommend giving this game a pass. It’s just going to irritate you. Certain powers can’t be represented very well on this tactical-scale format, and some of them can’t be duplicated at all. Various martial arts fighting styles, Spidey’s web-shooters, and Batman’s batarang, all fall under the power Incapacitate. In game terms, they all do basically the same thing: they tie up an opponent and in some cases, hurt them a little bit. With every expansion of Heroclix, there have been freakouts on HCrealms.com from devoted fans who clearly feel that the creators are out to get them.

Personally, I’m okay with that. The game can’t do everything and I don’t think it should. Games last about thirty minutes, and you can do several games in a normal play session. Spider-Man and Batman can team up against the Joker and Dr. Octopus. Run a bunch of Skrulls, led by Super Skrull, against the John Byrne FF and see what happens. This is the stuff of Heroclix, and it’s heady, addictive stuff indeed. Taken as a beer-and-pretzels game, Heroclix is wildly entertaining and well worth your time.

The Human Torch
in Heroclix
© Wizkids

Mark Finn is the author of Gods New and Used and Year of the Hare, available from your local bookstore or from www.bookpeople.com.

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