Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Retrospective: Hero

Looking back on the early history of the hobby of roleplaying, I'm regularly struck by two things. First – I don't think this is controversial – it took quite a while for the categories of "roleplaying games" and "wargames" to become distinct. One could argue that these categories are still, nearly half a century later, insufficiently distinct. Second – and this is, I think, more remarkable – fantasy as a popular mass media genre, by which I mean "Conan and Gandalf team up to fight Dracula," was still in its infancy during the 1970s and even into the '80s. 

I bring both these points up because they're so easily forgotten, especially from the vantage point of the present day, when the fantasy genre is now so well known and widespread that we regularly see multi-million fantasy films and television programs. But, in 1979, when I first entered the hobby, fantasy wasn't so mainstream. I'm not saying there were no fantasy movies or TV shows – obviously, there were – but they were often low budget, cheesy, and unlikely to be financial successes. (1977's Star Wars, I would argue, played a huge role in changing this dynamic, even though it's often considered science fiction rather than fantasy, even though it's not)

It's against this backdrop that Yaquinto Publications released the subject of today's post. Called Hero, with the subtitle "A Game of Adventure in the Catacombs," it was the first of the company's "album games." According to Hero's back cover, an album game

contains a colorful map mounted on the inside of the "record jacket," a sheet of "sturdy" colored, die-cut counters, two plastic "zip-lock" bags designed to assure flat storage of the counters, and easy-to-use rules and play aids. Pieces and rules are stored in the two pockets of the Album and the entire game package is less than half-inch thick. Convenient, durable, and entertaining!
As you can read from the description, the album in "album game" is a reference to record albums, those relics of a bygone era. That alone firmly places Hero within its historical context, since, as others have noted, album covers were often a vector by which fantasy imagery gained a greater foothold in the popular imagination. Come to think of it, the cover art by John Hagen could well have graced a prog rock album from the same time. 

The game bills itself as a "simulation," which it describes in an unusual way.

Simulations are done in many different types of media. A movie or a television program is a 'visual and audio' simulation. A scene described in a book is a 'written simulation'. The parts that make up this game represent a 'gaming' simulation. Absolute realism in any simulation is, of course, impossible but within the organization of the pieces and the rules of this game, the most critical problems faced by the Hero can be duplicated. In other forms of simulation you play a passive role. You watch T.V., listen to Beethoven, read books. In the context of this game, you take an active role. You are, in fact, a HERO.

What a time capsule this paragraph is! As I said at the start of this post, the definition of a roleplaying game and how it differed from a wargame (or "simulation") was still very much in flux. You can see some of that in what the designer of this game, Michael S. Matheny, says here. 

In any case, the game goes on to say that "HERO is a man-to-man (or beast) level simulation of combat in an underground catacomb , where three mighty Heroes try to demonstrate which is the most heroic." The purpose of this demonstration is to win the hand of Alysa, "daughter of the most powerful wizard in the land." Thus, it's not quite a RPG in the way we understand it today but the rules regularly mention that its players "assume the role" of a hero. Likewise, each available hero has unique game stats, with ratings in Strength, Intelligence, Luck, Physical Appearance, weapon proficiencies, etc.

Despite this, gameplay is very boardgame-like. Players move counters across the map, with each square representing 8 feet of distance. There are extensive rules for both movement and  sighting, as well as opening doors and, of course, combat. Play is competitive, with each player's Hero fighting through a separate catacomb (there are four included with the game). Inside the catacombs are monsters and traps to be faced or avoided. The winner is the Hero who both survives his catacomb and achieves the most points (as determined by several distinct factors) to win Alysa's love. 

Hero is a simple game to play and actually quite fun, if limited in its scope. It's definitely closer to a tactical-level board wargame than a roleplaying game, but it nevertheless includes enough nods in the direction of RPGs that, given the date of its publication, I'm not 100% certain of the original intention behind it. Regardless, it's another fascinating window into the first decade of the hobby. 

10 comments:

  1. Krull, Arnold's Conan movies, Disney's Dragonslayer or Excalibur were pretty high-profile in pop culture in the early '80s and urged in a wave of imitators, so I'd argue that "fantasy" as a popular genre wasn't known widely.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There was also Clash of the Titans in '81, and Harryhausen was doing some of his best work throughout the 70s - none of which were quite the commercial successes that (say) Conan was, but they weren't flops and put fantasy as a concept (if not a defined genre) on people's radar. And there were also the Rankin/Bass/Bakshi Tolkein films in the 70s, along with the rampant popularity of his books from 1966 into the next decade.

      Delete
  2. Never registered that this was the first album game despite having owned almost all of them. I never did manage to play a game of Hero, although it looked okay on paper (allowing for Yaquinto's opaque house style). Very odd duck of a design with each player running the opposition to someone else's hero. Don't think I'd seen anything like that before except for an SPI historical about the fall of Germany in WW2, where each player ran part of the German forces against the opponent's Allies - either Western or Soviets - in a race to Berlin.

    I note that "wargame" seems to be a rather narrow subgenre these days, usually limited to historical subjects or modern-ish military simulations in a way it didn't in the 70s and 80s and even 90s. Then again, I can recall considerable harrumphing about SPI, AvHill and Yaquinto offerning fantasy and scifi games and how those weren't "proper" wargames at all back in the days of Nixon and Carter.

    Lot of modern board games are straddling the roleplaying-light line even more so than Hero did. Descent might be the first of them, but things like Gloomhaven go much farther along that road.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thinking about the album games as oddball packaging formats that were real artifacts of their times, they aren't quite alone. There was a brief period when Dream Pod Nine experimented with using plastic VCR cassette cases for their packaging on several games. They were supposedly much cheaper than cardboard even with printed art stuck to them, and more durable as well. Needless to say that didn't last long as DVDs replaced videotape, but they were thing briefly. Might even have been some other companies that gave the same trick a shot - perhaps Steve Jackson Games, after their old "pocket box" line ended? My memory's foggy on that, but Heavy Gear Fighter was definitely a thing and not a Mandella Effect fever dream.

    ReplyDelete
  4. My alternatives to actual role-playing at the time consisted of Sorceror's Cave and Mystic Wood
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sorcerer%27s_Cave

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. While I did own Hero at one time, I absolutely love Sorcerer's Cave and have two copies plus one copy of the expansion set, plus Mystic Wood. I have even played a combined game, using the Mystic Wood tiles as the outdoors with the cave being the entrance to the Sorcerer's Cave. If a stairs up otherwise in the cave is within the confines of the Mystic Wood tiles, you can resume overland travel back to the main entrance (or any other secret entrance you know about).

      Delete
    2. I loved Mystic Wood, although I didn't get it till the Avalon Hill edition. Never even saw Sorcerer's Cave, that one was one of those "heard good things but couldn't get a copy" games for me.

      Delete
    3. I first played Sorcerer's Cave at a Boskone. Liking it so much I then sought it out. Fortunately for fans of overseas games in the Boston area, we had The Games People Play who dealt with European game publishers and distributors.

      Delete
  5. I've never played Hero but, I did play Yaquinto's album game "Swashbuckler" a lot. Yanking carpets from underneath people never gets old :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Only board game I can think of where waving your hat in an opponent's face was a viable combat strategy. :)

      The Adventurer game was pretty much Swashbuckler as a scifi game, with nearly identical game mechanics (albeit sadly sans hat-waving). Had a bunch of different alien species you could play and a lightsabers for that Star Wars cantina scene feel.

      Honestly quite liked a lot of the album game series. If nothing else they didn't have the over-long play times of many of Yaq's big boxed games.

      Delete