One of the strengths Heroes of Might and Magic games has been their ability to capture the feel of playing a good board game. The popularity of playing the game in hotseat mode is a testimony to this - playing the game becomes like playing a tabletop game with a vertical, pixellated board. While some criticised Heroes IV, perhaps unfairly, for not living up to the board-game feel of the series, it nevertheless seems that DGA games have in this game source material ripe for creating a good tabletop experience. This tile and card game (TCG) does a great job of capturing the essence and depth of Heroes IV with a faithful port of the game, tweaked where appropriate for the medium. While it's not a game for the faint hearted and the learning/familiarity curve is somewhat steep, for those willing to devote some time to collecting and learning the game and who can find a playing group (of at least one other person), it holds the promise of deep, strategic gameplay.
My review set consisted of one starter box and about half a dozen boosters. Starter kits are designed to be playable out of the box, containing the map sections, tokens and dice needed to set the game up and 6 selected booster packs from two alignments to ensure that two basic decks can be built (decks can range from 40 cards up, but an average deck is 60 cards). To add a bit of variety and to enable me to play a 3-player test game (you can play with 2 to 6 players) I augmented my freebies with a few extra boosters and ended up with three playable alignments without too much trouble. While this is a collectible card game, it's slightly different from others I have experience with (Magic and the now defunct Star Wars CCG) in that booster decks are somewhat pre-constructed. Each booster is of a particular alignment and includes:
- A hero of that alignment
- 6 level 1 creatures (one of each type that is available from the alignment's town)
- 2 level 2 creatures (both of the same type)
- 1 level 3 creature
- 1 level 4 creature
- The resource mine necessary to hire that level 4 creature
- A town which enables you to hire all of the creatures in the booster (you don't get branching creature selection in towns, it's pre-selected)
- 1 primary skill (which is 3 cards) and two secondary skills associated with the hero
- Two random cards (artifacts, map locations) or spells if you had a spellcasting hero in the pack.
Some boosters are a bit different, being filled with non-town creatures, locations and artifacts, but this is the general pattern as far as I can tell. This makes collecting cards much less of a pain. If you get a cool level 4 creature you will be able to hire it. If you get a hero of a certain type you will have the skills to level it up. It's a nice touch, and it means you only need to have three boosters of a particular alignment to have a pretty good deck for it. The nature of the game and these pre-constructed does mean that there isn't so much of a thrill of pulling an ultra rare card from a pack (though some of the better artifacts are fairly hard to get, and boats are very, very rare due to a printing stuff up), but that just means that having decent, playable, decks isn't out of reach for the person who doesn't buy boxes of boosters. Also, I'm not sure how carefully they make sure map tiles work together, but the seven (underground terrain) tiles I got with my starter fitted pefectly in a hexagon to make an ideal map for 3 players, and two could be taken out to make a perfect 2 player map.
The cards themselves are very well made. They are beautifully decorated , with superior artwork to the actual game, and are of a high physical quality, though I did get a small number of cards with manufacturing errors (faded colours, disfiguring lines) and there are some misprints, like "arsenal equipment" and spelling mistakes ("forrest" on a lot of the material, "mele" on the griffin card). The map tiles were somewhat warped but being made out of cardboard were fairly easy to flatten. The tokens, which are used heavily in the game, were a bit small and fiddly but it's not a critical problem by any means. Overall, the physical design of the game is excellent, DGA Games has done a great job on this front and due to good design decisions, the collectible nature of the game shouldn't be too much of a barrier to players - more cards merely gives you more options and stronger decks, it doesn't give you more playable decks.
Something that's often said about good strategy games is that they take a minute to learn but a lifetime to master. This, I think, is true of the Heroes computer games but unfortunately only the second part is true of the TCG. Making a game with as much going on as Heroes into a simple tabletop game is probably not possible, though, and effort has been made to minimise the complexity - for example the game doesn't require a pen and paper (unless an optional mana-tracking rule is used). Still, some of the most basic game mechanics are difficult to grasp and teach to others. For instance, a players' "hand" is divided into two sections, the "adventure stack" and the "hand". Each section is the same as the other except that only the "hand" part of the hand can be used for income and certain cards reference the adventure stack specifically. Once you get your head around the difference between your hand, your "hand" and your "adventure stack" the beauty of this game mechanism becomes apparent - it allows you to use cards you don't want at this phase of the game as income and it obviates the need for a separate income system - but it does take a bit of figuring out for new players. Another complicated area of the game is obviously battles. Having to keep in mind unit stats, bonuses from hero skills and artifacts, special abilities and spells gave me a bit of a headache in the bigger battles. I'm sure it would become second nature, but it's a (probably unavoidable) barrier to a casual player.
If you are in a position where you are able and willing to master the mechanics, there's a rich strategy game awaiting you. The essence of strategy is choice, and this game has choices coming out of its ears. Deck building presents some important pre-game choices, especially how much of the deck should be devoted to creatures and how much to things which will let you hire, support and augment those creatures (mines, heroes, skills, artifacts). If you have enough cards to play with (I don't), there seem to be many interesting combos and deck themes which can and no doubt will be figured out by enterprising players. The nature of in-game choices will be familiar to those who have played the computer game (explore or attack, upgrade the town or hire creatures etc.), but there are some TCG-specific twists, most of which relate to the fact that you can only use what is in your hand (and your hand is determined by the size of your income and how much you 'spend' out of it). For instance, heroes can only level up after a battle if you have an appropriate skill card in hand. If you don't, you have a choice of waiting to claim that gold mine later when you have the skill, or grabbing it now to get needed income.
Unlike the computer game there is player interaction right from the very early game. There are no neutral guard stacks, instead players "flip for guards" from their decks and then duke it out with creatures which are near the top of the deck (there is also an option to reinforce these stacks with cards from your hand, for free, presenting another interesting strategic choice). As in the game these battles aren't game-determining, but with a combination of luck and smart play you can give your opponent a few bruises. One problem I had with this mechanism is that units which are flipped this way must be used to guard the revealed location. Unfortunately I didn't have all that many high level creatures, so this meant that an opposing player could effectively place half my level 4 creatures out of play by not attacking the guard stack (with little opportunity cost if it was a creature dwelling). I played with a house rule that level 4 creatures didn't have to go to guard stacks, but I think the problem could have been avoided by making reinforcement optional and not allowing a player to flip for their own guards (which currently happens if the other players don't have any creatures on top of their deck).
Also worth noting is the length of the game. Tournament games have a time limit of 2.5 hours, but there is no particular expectation that they will finish in that time. If you're trying to play a full game with more than two people or, especially, new people then games are more likely to go for 3-5 hours. Players do have some incentive to attack due to the bonuses given to an attacker, but as heroes are just as powerful in the TCG as they are in the computer game, most people will probably spend some time building up skills and armies before attacking, all of which takes quite a bit of time.
Why should I play this when I can play the computer game, I hear you ask? I think there's a few reasons. For one, the game mechanics are a bit different and the whole atmosphere of sitting around a table with friends playing a tabletop game is much different than huddling around a monitor to play hotseat. Also, collecting is fun and building up sweet decks is an integral and fun part of any collectible card game, such as this. If you are interested in the format at all then this game is not at all redundant simply becuase you have it on computer.
Overall, this is not really a game for a casual player, even a casual player who is familiar with the Heroes IV computer game. However, if you have the inclination to become familiar with the game and can find someone else who will do the same (the singleplayer AI is even worse than in the computer game!) then it promises deep, strategic gameplay which has the potential to provide many hours of entertainment. Like the computer game, this is multiple games in one package - exploration and RPG, tactical battles and strategic maneuvering - and if you can get over the initial complexity it does a good job of capturing the look and feel of the computer game.