by Lee Valentine
Battle for the Underdark
Published by Wizards of the Coast
Designed by Chris Dupuis, Colby Dauch, Craig Van Ness, Jerry Hawthorne, and Rob Daviau
Contents: 10 painted figures, 46 terrain tiles, 4 rock outcrops with bases, 4 Treasure Glyphs, 23 wound markers, 20-sided die, 8 combat dice, 8 army cards, 8 order markers, 1 sticker sheet, full-color rulebook
Shortly after I reviewed Hasbro's Marvel Heroscape boxed set, there was short-lived speculation among some Heroscape (HS) players that Hasbro had killed the line. In part this was due to the fact that no expansions were ever released for the Marvel Heroscape line, although at least one had apparently been planned based on leaked photos available online. Hasbro eventually passed development responsibilities for HS on to its subsidiary, Wizards of the Coast (WotC). WotC went on to release a couple waves of figure expansion packs for classic HS, though they never did release an expansion for Marvel Heroscape. Since WotC also produces Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), it was only natural for the company to develop a D&D-themed version of HS. Earlier this year WotC did just that when it released Heroscape Master Set 3: Battle for the Underdark, an HS introductory playset for two players.
As I have previously reviewed the Marvel Heroscape boxed set here on OgreCave, please refer to that review for an overview of basic game mechanics. In this review I will focus instead on what makes the D&D Heroscape Master Set noteworthy.
In D&D (the roleplaying game), fantasy adventurers band together to form a "party". This party goes on adventures together, often exploring underground dungeons or caverns. One possible adventure locale is the Underdark - what amounts to a world literally beneath the surface of the realm the adventurers call home. This network of subterranean rivers, tunnels, caves, and chasms is home to all manner of frightful creatures. Chief among them are the Drow, a race of evil, dark-skinned elves. In addition to a small black dragon and a ferocious troll, these make up the villains that appear in Battle for the Underdark (BftU). There is also a party of four adventurers: a warrior, a wizard, a rogue (thief), and a cleric (priest), common heroic archetypes of the D&D world.
In D&D, adventurers often face down monsters which they can beat with little effort, while still other villains require a party's entire resources to beat. More often than not, the heroes arrive at the site of their first stop of an adventure already a unified, cohesive party. Sometimes after sharing a drink at a local tavern and hearing the stories of fantastic loot guarded by an evil dragon, adventurers will band together in hopes of acquiring both fame and fortune. While there are typically ample opportunities for role-play, it is also possible to play D&D out as a simple "dungeon crawl", as a mere series of fights loosely linked by a simple back story or setting.
BftU tries to capture that core dungeon crawl experience, by offering two players the opportunity to play out a series of four separate battles in different cavernous rooms that are held together by a simple storyline. What makes this HS version different than a typical D&D game is that the party does not start together at the beginning of the expedition. Rather, we join the story in media res, where two of the four members of the party have been captured (presumably during a previous expedition to the Underdark) and the other two party members have traveled into that black realm to rescue their comrades. While this adds a little back story, it detracts somewhat from the core D&D experience of having a full party of characters together from the start.
Typical HS battles include rules for drafting armies of figures, but the number of figures included in this Master Set is so small that, at least for your first pass through the campaign, the figures on each side of the skirmish are selected for each player by the scenario designers. Notably, unless a scenario inherently advantages one player over another, it is fairly common for players to bring forces of relatively even army point totals. Here, on paper at least, the heroes have the advantage, but playing this set has revealed that, at least internal to this boxed set, the villains are often stronger than the heroes point-for-point. The heroes will have an uphill battle even in the first of the four rooms if they hope to get out of the room without any of their number dying in the process of defeating the troll (who is drowning the party's wizard in an underwater cage).
According to the campaign rules, the heroes have one "Vial of Resurrection" which they can use to bring back one defeated party member between rooms. Other than that, any hero eliminated in a given room is no longer available to the player controlling the heroes in all later battles in this short campaign.
There are only four army cards for the monstrous opposition to these heroes: a drow arachnomancer, a small squad of three other drow warriors, a feral troll, and a young black dragon. As a result, the scenarios are a little redundant, with a troll in each and every room, and drow appearing in two rooms out of four (with a possibility of them appearing in the last room as well).
Typically in D&D, heroes increase their skills and "gain levels" in the process, all the while amassing magical treasures. While there is no means to "gain levels" in BftU, the campaign does allow players to collect treasures in some rooms and carry them over to the next. These treasures take the form of Treasure Glyphs, plastic tokens with a generic back to hide the identity of the glyph and a decorated face revealing the glyph's purpose and powers. In some HS Master Sets glyphs are not portable, and instead represent landmarks that grant a team a powerful benefit while they hold on to a specific piece of ground. Here, however, as with some scenarios in the Marvel Heroscape boxed set, the glyphs can be acquired and transported by individual figures, granting that figure a specific power which is either a one-shot effect, or a continuous upgrade to some facet of the character (generally his offensive or defensive dice). A new rule offers some percentage chance that Treasure Glyphs will be trapped, possibly applying a scenario-based penalty to characters who try to acquire the treasure.
One other new mechanism in this set is the introduction of "Uncommon" units. This is not to say that some of the figures in HS are randomized, as the term "Uncommon" may imply in this age of collectible miniatures games. Instead, "Uncommon" bridges the gap between Unique and Common units. Typically when building your army you can only draft one copy of any Unique figure, but you can have as many copies of Common figures as you can afford. Common figures often have only one Life Point each before they are destroyed. Common figures typically can't pick up Treasure Glyphs. Uncommon figures can pick up Treasure Glyphs in some scenarios, and like Common figures, you can add as many of them to your army as you can afford. Like Unique figures, Uncommon figures tend to be tougher and have more than one Life Point.
BftU shares some surface similarities with D&D 4th Edition, in that the heroic party wanders around in tight proximity to each other, with "touch range" or short ranged powers that impact other friendly figures. This departs significantly from most HS figures, which are capable of more independent movement and attack than the heroes in this set. This internal party synergy makes the heroes inherently weaker if they spread out on the map. A party-wide death spiral can start as soon as one hero is destroyed (particularly the cleric), leaving the rest of the party substantially weaker than the mere point-for-point figure loss would typically indicate.
Characters in this set, heroes and villains alike, have powers that thematically represent what similar characters and monsters would be capable of in D&D. Some of them have potentially limited utility in a larger, non-Underdark Heroscape world, though. This is particularly true of the dwarvish rogue, who can hide well on dungeon-related terrain tiles and disarm most traps on Treasure Glyphs, but is substantially less desirable for any battle lacking those features. In contrast, the Feral Troll seems occasionally capable of defeating two or three more expensive adventurers by himself with a little luck or a small bit of help from an allied figure or squad. While there are ways to take down this nasty troll if you own other HS expansions, within this Master Set he outclasses each of the heroes (regardless of what their point costs would lead you to believe), and he appears in every room, all but guaranteeing heroic casualties.
While in D&D there's usually the chance for a party to retreat and heal up completely, there's really no such option here in BftU. If you are losing, you can't retreat off the map in the campaign scenarios provided. You can sometimes heal up wounded heroes during a fight with the help of your cleric, but between rooms you can only completely heal those heroic characters that weren't destroyed. Getting a hero destroyed is much more common in Heroscape than in a balanced Fourth Edition D&D game. If you are expecting a typical D&D fantasy outing where the heroes fight a tough battle but prevail in the end, this set may not deliver that experience. If anything, the campaign is somewhat tilted in the favor of the villainous monsters if the player of these evil figures is reasonably experienced with the HS system.
As a final note on gameplay, for those familiar with the D&D rogue's ability to "hide in shadows", there are new half-height "Shadow Tiles". These glossy black tiles grant a bonus to defense to most figures standing on them, and about half of the figures in this set have some special power that triggers or is enhanced when the figure is standing on a Shadow Tile.
The character and monster figures are actually recycled D&D Miniatures sculpts, re-based and repurposed for Heroscape hexes, which are slightly larger than typical D&D map squares. The sculpts themselves look good, and some, like the troll in my set, are painted quite well. Some of the heroes, however, received a merely adequate paint job. While some of these miniatures aren't up to the visual standards of a game like Claustrophobia, they probably aren't substantially different from typical HeroClix minis in terms of overall quality and appearance. Since the black dragon in this set is deemed to be young, it is a substantially smaller figure than some of the dragon sculpts available in other previously released Heroscape products.
There is a lot less terrain included in this Master Set than was included in Master Set 1: Rise of the Valkyrie. As a result, if you own just a single copy of this Master Set and little else, then there's only a limited amount you can do to generate different scenario maps. For example, it is more difficult to make a map with a lot of greatly varied terrain elevations, but there is an adequate amount for the scenarios included. Given that most of the figures (the dragon and wizard aside) have either no ranged attacks or weak ranged attacks, typically the figures will be breathing down each other's throats for the bulk of each fight anyway. Unlike the other stand-alone HS sets that I own, this set doesn't include any building structures, but instead includes a few rock outcroppings to use as decorations or obstacles.
Setup of a scenario's terrain takes 10-20 minutes, and each scenario takes 20 minutes to an hour to play, depending on each player's familiarity with the HS rules system. As a result, you may want to take turns playing heroes and villains on a given room before tearing it down to assemble a new room. It would take four copies of this Master Set to assemble all the rooms of the campaign at one time.
The color rulebook is high gloss (unlike some past HS rulebooks which had no press coat). The rules are attractive and well written, with lots of examples and photos. My primary complaint here is that some of the terrain colors used in the scenario terrain assembly diagrams were so similar that it occasionally slows me down when I'm constructing the maps for the campaign scenarios.
The box itself is quite attractive, featuring art that has a solid D&D vibe. It also includes some shots of the terrain and figures as well. Unlike my Rise of the Valkyrie Master Set, the contents actually repack tightly back into the box they came in. It takes a while to repack the game, but it doesn't require a degree in structural engineering to put away. The game really should have contained a number of small gripseal bags to store all the dice, tokens, and accessories away neatly, but sadly these were absent.
While Marvel Heroscape was a comparably sized set, both in terms of the amount of terrain and the number of figures, the scenarios in that set were more diverse in nature. The Marvel characters had more interesting powers and tended to be a little tougher in combat, making for a more interesting play experience.
I found the scenarios in BftU a bit redundant, but that has more
to do with the size and scope of the set contents itself (which is
probably a decision made by the publisher) than as a result of any
obvious omission or error on the part of the set's designers. The
designers did a pretty good job of capturing the vibe of D&D in
this HS Master Set, but the set desperately needed about two more
heroes, about eight more monsters, and a few more scenarios to allow for
some reasonable drafting opportunities and a greater variety of combat
scenarios. It would have been worth paying a bit more to add a lot more
replay value. That "bit more" would have ideally needed to be
appropriately themed to match a scenario in a way that picking up a
generic expansion pack couldn't accomplish. I particularly would have
liked to have seen some giant spiders (commonly associated with the
drow) or a mind flayer (a mind-devouring monster that appears in the
Underdark). Simply going out and buying a couple of miscellaneous
expansion packs won't give you the same cohesive feel that a larger
well-themed set could have provided, and will, together with this
Master Set, cost the consumer more than the two previous
Heroscape Master Sets which had more terrain and more figures,
I would have liked to have seen rules for "buying" upgrades to heroic characters to simulate leveling up, a mechanic that's so central to the D&D experience. I also would have liked to have seen rules for buying Treasure Glyphs as part of your army, so that heroes could start with the magic items I typically associate with mid- to high-level D&D characters.
For the $29.99 price tag you'll get a fair amount of stuff for your
gaming dollar in BftU, but you don't get the same sense of value
that you got with the other two classic HS Master Sets. While
it's a substantially greater financial outlay, I liked Asmodee Edition's
dungeon crawl game Claustrophobia (which I reviewed here) better
than this product: it's a bit more exciting, has high production values,
and better replay value than Battle for the Underdark, but
unfortunately at double the cost.
I'm not certain that BftU is an ideal starter set for someone coming in fresh onto the Heroscape scene. There are not as many figures as in the earlier Master Sets, and this would make drafting an army less interesting playing with just this product alone. It is, however, appealing as an expansion for players who already have other Heroscape Master Sets. Its appeal will only grow with time as WotC releases additional support materials for this product line. For now, I'm happy that Heroscape has a strong pulse again, and has new products getting released for it on a regular basis. For the price, this is a good, but not great, addition to the Heroscape family of products.
Wal-Mart and Target no longer offer this product in their online stores,
and many branches have stopped carrying Heroscape altogether. In
the past, short discounts from Hasbro combined with big box store
competition sometimes made Heroscape challenging to carry unless
you did regular demos of the product or supported some kind of organized
Now, your competition is primarily limited to online discount game stores. This is a product that you'll have to feel out. In all likelihood, Heroscape - even D&D Heroscape - is not going to sell as well for a hobby store as the core D&D roleplaying books. However, being a Master Set with unique terrain elements, if you have serious HS players in your area they may pick up multiple copies of this set just for the terrain.
Players who have invested heavily into D&D Miniatures may be perturbed that Heroscape is recycling and rebasing those minis. Unwitting DMs may be surprised that the HS bases are incompatible with some of their standard square grid-based dungeon maps. For the record, I had no such problems on either account.
The long and short of this is, this is a product line worth carrying if you have Heroscape players in your local gaming community, because then it will move itself. Otherwise, consider stocking a box or two of this Master Set and see how well it sells. This is a more attractive addition to your product line if you also plan on carrying the other D&D Heroscape figure expansion packs that WotC has on the market right now, as that will give your customers something additional to purchase when they outgrow this set.
Overall: B (fun for what it is, but limited replay value compared to other HS Master Sets)
Rules Clarity: A-
Retailer Salability: B (potentially higher if you have local Heroscape aficionados who may then buy this in multiples)