It’s 1989. There’s a Civil War in Lebanon and the USSR has begun to pull out of Afghanistan. But I’m sitting on my bike – a Morrison Sidewinder – outside DEKA on Ruataniwha Street in Waipukurau, Central Hawkes Bay. I don’t know where Lebanon is, and the Cold War is just some boring thing that’s always on the evening news. It’s probably a weekday afternoon, and I’ve either just finished my paper run or I’m halfway through it. My friend is inside the store, waiting at the checkout. He holds up a box and I give him the thumbs up. We’ve got it. I’ve just spent a small for- tune ($20) to secure the most amazing thing I’ve seen. We cycle back to my house as fast as we can and open the box. This is Hero Quest. My gateway game.
The name Hero Quest probably sparks something deep in the mind of a lot of people. It was heavily promoted on television, promising – somewhat presciently – that after playing it you would “never be the same”. How could an eleven year old boy possibly resist something like that?
The box was huge and stuffed to the groaning point with an array of goodies. I’d never seen anything like it. Sure, my parents bought me board games when I growing up, but they were all relatively unexciting. Snakes and Ladders has only limited replay value. Besides, Hero Quest had doors. And people. And monsters. And magic.
But how does Hero Quest work? I think the simplest way to think of Hero Quest is like D&D for kids. One person is designated as the Evil Wizard (the DM) who controls and lays out the board. Up to four other players explore a dungeon, fight monsters, search for treasure and complete some kind of objective. Each player character has a specific set of stats and abilities that can be modified with purchased equipment, and a well equipped character can be truly formidable. All the standard RPG archetypes are covered; the Barbarian, the Wizard, the Dwarf and the Elf. Movement works on a system of dice rolls and squares, while combat works on a system of hits and hit cancellations. While Hero Quest (and its subsequent expansion sets) came bundled with a set of pre-made adventures, I think one of its additional strengths was in adventure creation.
Tucked at the back of the Hero Quest adventure book was a blank overview of the board. By cordoning off sections of the board with special tiles you could create your own custom adventures. I’ve always loved making maps, and I think this feature was the hook that really made Hero Quest shine for me. I used to visit my father at work and get him to photocopy reams of blank maps which I would use to create the kind of ham-fisted and utterly broken adventures that only an eleven year old can create.
But then I grew up. Hero Quest was put in a cupboard. Buried away – like so many childhood things – to avoid the trap of shame and jeering from peers. Somewhere, deep inside, the fire that Hero Quest started continued to smoulder. I wasn’t immediately aware of it, but as I moved into my mid-twenties and was able to buy whatever games I damn well pleased, I found myself returning again and again to the RPG genre. It started simply enough, mainly with me playing through all the installments of the Final Fantasy series (my parents expressly forbade console ownership while I lived “under their roof”). By this point, my preference for RPGs (and Japanese turn-based ones in particular) was firmly entrenched and anything was fair game; Star Ocean, Lost Odyssey, Breath of Fire. If it was turn-based, I wanted a piece of it. But I missed playing games with actual people, and I really missed making my own maps. Dabbling with D&D helped tide me over but, as is often the nature of D&D, I didn’t find a group I meshed with. I procured a couple of the fourth edition D&D board games and while I loved them, their complexity has confounded a number of other people I’ve tried to play them with. I went back to (and continue to return to) turn-based RPG video games as an outlet. Games that, while enjoyable, missed one crucial element: other people. I found myself becoming slightly bitter — if only there was an accessible, easy to master board game, whose difficulty could be scaled for the uninitiated and allowed map creation! Why hadn’t someone created a game like this!?
I don’t really remember what reignited my memories of Hero Quest. It’s entirely possible I saw something online that sparked a memory. But when that particular fire burst back into life it was ferocious, and the first thing I did was call my parents. Was it still there? In the top of the cupboard. Next to the Matchbox cars and the Lego Technics. No? What about down the bottom. Under the other games? It was. And the next time my parents visited they bought it with them, and when I opened that box it was like 1989 all over again. Sure the box smelt a little musty, the board was a warped and a few of the figures were damaged. But it was complete. Dice, cards, the whole shebang. I spent the next week cleaning nasty paint jobs off the figures and doing what I could to flatten the board out. And I loved every second.
Then I did what any excited child would do when they have a new toy. I called my friends and invited them over. I think it’s fair to say that for most of my friends Game of Thrones is about as far into the fantasy genre as they’ve got. Much like high school, RPG fantasy board games still carry a hefty weight of stigma. But I’ve learnt that people will play fantasy board games if they’re accessible and fun. Two things which Hero Quest has in spades. Adding alcohol and foil-covered chocolate coins (as edible treasure) to the mix doesn’t hurt either. So I dusted off my long forgotten Evil Wizard hat and ran an introductory adventure for 4 players.
What followed was a kind of winter season of Hero Quest. I would draw experiences from RPG video games and incorporate them into adventures, giving them ridiculous names like Journey Into Skeleton Mountain and Tomb of the Necrotic Deathmancer. We’d drink, and we’d laugh and we’d communicate with each other face-to-face. Heroes lived and died. Stories were told. I learned that one of the best parts of my childhood is compatible with adult life. And that sometimes discovering something wonderful is as simple as opening a door. Or a cupboard. Who cares if there might be a trap.