It’s Friday 2nd October 2020. My name is Robey Jenkins.
My name is Bernard.
And here is the news.
The Hasbro Pulse campaign for HeroQuest has passed $1.7m dollars, smashing the $1m dollar campaign target. But the campaign has come under fire for a number of things. Let’s take a look, first, at the facts.
HeroQuest was first published in 1989, designed by Games Workshop but manufactured and published by Milton Bradley Games - a subsidiary of toy company giant, Hasbro.
The game was a massive success, spawning two official expansions, as well as the standalone independent game, Advanced HeroQuest, published by Games Workshop. But, since then, all has largely been silence on that front.
In 2014, Gamezone, a Spanish miniatures company, attempted to launch a Kickstarter campaign to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the game. But the campaign was shut down by Kickstarter after they received notice of a copyright dispute from the copyright holder. Although the identity of the originator of the copyright challenge is private, a quick check of the US Patents & Trademarks Office register shows that the HeroQuest trademark is currently owned by Hasbro. However, this trademark was dead in 2014 and the trademarks for HeroQuest Classic and Heroquest 25th were registered - and later abandoned - by a company registered in Florida called HQ25. I’ll just leave that there, for now.
However, in Summer 2020, Hasbro announced that they were putting a new edition of HeroQuest into their Pulse programme. Now, frankly, it’s not 100% clear what Pulse is to Hasbro. It’s stated logo is “where fans come first”. But as far as I can tell, it’s probably best summarized as Hasbro’s lunatic fringe. Pulse is the medium through which Hasbro sells premium versions of its toys to gullible idiots like me who want their perfect Optimus Prime on the shelf in mint condition. This is where you go for high-end collectables. To put it another way, Pulse is how Hasbro seeks to draw business away from independent licensees like Sideshow Collectibles and back into their own sticky hands.
HeroQuest isn’t the first game from Pulse, but it does stand apart from almost all the other games in Pulse, which are all licensed versions of established Hasbro properties, like Clue and Monopoly. There’s even a Fortnite edition of Jenga. I think that establishes the kind of territory that Pulse games have historically occupied.
To make things even more interesting, Hasbro has run an independent crowdfunding campaign for HeroQuest, holding the game to ransom against a minimum pre-order value of $1m. HeroQuest is the first game in Pulse’s crowdfunding platform, HasLabs, which has focussed on niche character models, such as the immense and truly awesome Unicron Transformer, which is definitely on my Christmas list. Still, although it’s the first game, it’s also only the fourth product of any sort.
And finally, Hasbro has decided to release the game with new miniatures and new tiles, but with exactly the same rules as the 1989 original.
All of this has combined to send the tabletop gaming collective into a froth and, in our discussion today, we’ll try to unpick the froth, understand Hasbro’s decision process, and predict where HeroQuest may go from here.
So let’s start with the question of what’s so special about HeroQuest, anyway.
And I need to admit that I was cautious of taking on this topic at all but, as this week was pretty awful for good themes, I didn’t see a better alternative. And the reason I was reluctant was because, although I very much lived through the HeroQuest era the first time around, I never owned it and barely played it. At the time, my love was very much reserved exclusively for scifi, so I feel no particular nostalgia for HeroQuest or any of its iterations.
But although that means that I feel somewhat devoid of the passion that seems to be driving a great deal of the discussion around this subject, I suppose it also means that, as a disinterested party, I can give it the questionable benefit of my unbiased opinion.
So: HeroQuest. It launched a thousand imaginations upon a sea of flashing blades and crackling mystical power. It was a gateway drug for Dungeons & Dragons, for Warhammer, for collectible miniatures and for map-based adventure games. For many young fans it was the path into a world where board games didn’t have to be the same ones their parents played. It was the quintessential founding father of the Ameritrash revolution.
Its dungeoneering party of barbarian, mage, fighter and ranger weren’t an original mix, but they brought the classic D&D trope to a new audience, in a new way, blending early Warhammer, Conan, Tolkein and Gygax into something unquestionably compelling.
It is worth adding, by the way, that this game was huuuuge in continental Europe. For some reason the French, Germans and Spanish especially went mad for this game. But it was also big in the US and was radical in the UK, I remember, because it featured adverts on television. To see a wargaming product on TV in the UK was absolutely unheard of.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Space Crusade at this point. Space Crusade was released the following year and was basically the scifi counterpart to HeroQuest, although it had entirely different play mechanics and, it should be said, was far more firmly embedded in Games Workshop’s intellectual property than HeroQuest. If someone was re-releasing Space Crusade I would be absolutely all over that.
Hint hint, Hasbro.
Anyway, suffice to say that HeroQuest is, therefore a big deal. It is an even bigger deal because of the abortive 25th Anniversary edition. Gamezone did, actually, release HeroQuest 25th Anniversary edition in Europe, in Spanish, French and German, through a Spanish crowdfunding site. The project was a bit of a disaster zone, the rules were different, the miniatures were pretty awesome, it took four years for everyone to get their product but, y’know, it was a thing.
If nothing else, the apocalyptic meltdown of the Kickstarter campaign did, at least, send Hasbro a clear message that there was a passionate hardcore of tabletop and miniatures gamers who wanted to see HeroQuest come back and I guess they might have paid attention to that because, well, here we are, five years later.
So, I hope we’ve established that HeroQuest is a big enough deal to be worth an episode all of its own. In market terms, it’s definitely a bigger deal than Infinity the Game that got all of last episode. And in industry terms it represents Hasbro making an entry into a miniatures board gaming market that has, until now, been dominated by CMON and Asmodee, with occasional forays by Games Workshop. If Hasbro were to think that licensed miniatures board games could be a good income stream for them, well, I imagine that the investors at Steamforged Games might well be rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of a buy-out by someone with the global-scale muscle of Hasbro.
But let’s dial our focus back to the Pulse campaign.
The fact that it’s been dropped into the Pulse market isn’t all that remarkable. It’s where Hasbro tries to segregate the window-lickers and, as someone who found himself joyfully scrolling through the GI Joe and Transformers sections of the Pulse site, it’s hard not to acknowledge that they understand who we are.
More of interest is the crowd-funding pre-order nature of the release.
I’ve complained before about established companies like Mantic Games and CMON using Kickstarter as a marketing tool, pushing out smaller enterprises who would benefit more from the capital investment to actually, y’know, kickstart something. But I understand why they do it. For all that they were strong presences in the market, you only have to make a cursory glance over their accounts to see that they work on some tight, tight margins and that healthy chunk of pre-order cash is absolutely vital to getting a new project over the line without having to go cap in hand to the banks for a hefty loan. Kickstarter’s 10% cut might be a little painful, but it’s better than being in hock to Barclays for the next fifteen years.
Hasbro, though, really have no excuse in this respect. A cynical mind might think that the pre-orders campaign for HeroQuest is purely a marketing gimmick, driving up excitement and sales with an artificial goal and tacked-on stretch goals.
But… although Hasbro is a big company with deep pockets, Hasbro is also a biiiig company. This new edition has actually been developed by Avalon Hill, who are owned by Wizards of the Coast, who are owned by Hasbro. So you can get a sense from that of just how far down the pecking order the developers are. And when you’re trying to get a new project a green light from the powers that be in a company with Hasbro’s presence, you will be asked one big question:
How many units will we ship on day one?
And when you’re dealing with the latest Nerf gun, My Little Pony or Disney Princess, this is an easy question to answer. There are hundreds of thousands of retail operations with contractual agreements with Hasbro regarding these properties. Their project leads know for a fact that they are going to ship five million units on day one - bam! - instant profit.
But a reboot of a 30-year-old piece of geek paraphernalia? There are very few retail operations that are going to happily take a delivery of 200 units of that. The independent wargames and comic shops, of course, would love to take some, but that might be… six? Maybe ten, at most. And they might re-stock but probably won’t because once one geek owns it, odds are good that he or she will just gather a few friends around and no one else needs to drop a penny. Plus, Hasbro doesn’t have retail contracts in place with these indy stores because they just aren’t worth it.
I don’t know whether it was Avalon Hill who suggested it should go into HasLabs’ crowdfunded pre-order model to drum up sufficient pre-sales to get the project green-lit, or if it was some smarty-pants on the sales committee who suggested it. Either way, I suspect it was the only conceivable way that what I expect was a labour of love was going to ever reach the audience that wanted it.
And, of course, once the idea’s on the table, it’s hard not to see a problem like that as an opportunity. You had a big countdown timer, then a big media release, and lots of excitement to build up against the stretch goals… It’s marketing heaven in a world where FOMO is a thing.
So let’s take a look at the decision to keep the rules unchanged.
Again, at first glance this looks like a lazy corporate move. Games like this have come a long way in the last three decades and learned a lot that could make it a more compelling, interesting game. But this is the company that publishes Monopoly and Risk. They don’t change rules.
But, on the other hand, this is also Avalon Hill. They are a serious game development studio with serious chops in products like Axis & Allies, Diplomacy and Betrayal at House on the Hill. It seems improbable that they would have put in the time and effort to upgrade the art assets for HeroQuest and not have considered reviewing the rules.
And yet, inarguably, the rules haven’t changed. They’ve even retained the roll-and-move mechanic that, these days, looks about as sophisticated as Snakes & Ladders. So what’s going on?
Well, first of all I think there’s a degree to which we’re seeing an application of the KISS principle - Keep It Simple, Stupid. The old rules are well tested and they work, even if they are a little unsophisticated in places. Changing the rules would require extensive playtesting and the production plan may not have room for that. Plus, in addition to the main game, Pulse is re-releasing the first two supplements for the game: Kellar’s Keep and Return of the Witch Lord. If they started messing with the core rules, they’d also have to ensure that these supplements were still compatible, adding yet more time to the development schedule.
Second… Well, look, I’m 100% totally reaching, here. But Hasbro filed a 1(a) trademark claim on “HeroQuest” in August 2018 and a 1(b) claim in July 2019. The distinction is subtle, but the change basically means that they declared an “intent to use” that is, it is a “hold” on other claims to use that trademark while the registrant gets their act together, giving others the chance to “oppose” the claim.
In essence, it was a quiet way for Hasbro to say “look, we’re doing something with this trademark shortly; you’ve got a very small window in which to tell us you don’t think we can”.
But then, in July 2020 - one month before the HasLabs pre-order campaign was announced - Florida-based Restoration Games filed a 1(b) filing for “HeroQuest Legacies”. Restoration Games is a small company that makes a point of re-designing and re-releasing old games. They surely can’t have not noticed Hasbro’s 1(b) filing when they filed for the HeroQuest Legacies trademark. After all, if they hadn’t, they would’ve tried to file for “HeroQuest” on its own and then they would certainly have noticed!
So my deep conspiracy theory for this episode is that Restoration Games has an understanding with Hasbro to release a modern version of “Advanced HeroQuest” with updated rules for the Hasbro components, and a set of new campaigns, all of which will be released as “HeroQuest Legacies” in the spirit of Avalon Hill’s own Risk Legacy, and Z-Man Games’s Pandemic Legacy. Maybe there’ll be a new box, but my guess is you’ll need the Hasbro game to play with whatever Restoration Games releases. These will represent an on-going story for the heroes that will permanently alter the tiles and tell a multi-stranded story in which the heroes will confront, in later adventures, the consequences of their earlier decisions.
Because that would be awesome.
However, before we move on, let’s take a look at some other points that have been, in my reading around the subject, under-remarked-upon.
The art is ethnically diverse. The elf and mage are white. The barbarian is dark-skinned and the dwarf is unquestionably of black African heritage apart from the whole, y’know, being a dwarf thing. I respect that they didn’t take the easy route of making the barbarian the black guy, which would’ve been all sorts of problematic. Definitely dodged a bullet, there, Hasbro.
They also made a nod to gender diversity by making the elf female, compared to the original sausage-fest. And those backing the HasLabs campaign have a chance to also get alternate gender versions of each of the main characters. This is cool. It feels a little “tacked on”, if I’m honest, but it’s cool.
Better, though, is the fact that the bad guys are also gender diverse. We have both male and female orcs and goblins. Not so the zombies and mummies. As for the skeletons… eh. You’d need to be an anthropologist to tell.
I also note that, even though they’ve retained a lot of the original lore, it is firmly detached from GW’s intellectual property. To be fair, HeroQuest was never really embedded. Originally, they had the Fimir - Hasbro have replaced these with Abominations. This is clever, because the Fimir in the original setting are human-demon hybrids drawing upon ancient Irish mythology of the Fir Bolg, while the Abominations are fish people, drawing upon ancient Irish mythology of the Fomóire. The Gargoyle is still the Gargoyle, but now he looks more like a gargoyle and less like a Bloodthirster. And it’s worth noting that, of all the lore in HeroQuest, none of it was ever exploited further by Games Workshop and even Fimir have largely drifted into the deep background of the Old World.
There is, however, one aspect of the characters that troubles me. And it’s something that goes right back to the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons, which Wizards of the Coast has consciously moved away from, and which I’m therefore surprised hasn’t been addressed in this edition of the game:
The party contains four heroes: a barbarian, a wizard, an elf and a dwarf. And that’s specifically how they are described. In other words, the two humans are defined on the basis of the contribution to the party. But the elf and dwarf are defined entirely by their race.
Now elves and dwarves aren’t real. But the problem of people - mostly, let’s be honest, white people - defining others purely by their race without considering what qualities they have that contribute to society is very real. And it wouldn’t have taken the greatest leap of imagination to categorize the Elf as a Ranger, or the Dwarf as a Warrior. Or, if you’d wanted to help newcomers (yeah, like there are going to be newcomers to fantasy gaming in this campaign!), you could’ve called them Elf Ranger or Dwarven Warrior.
Also, although the original Elf in the game was definitely a ranger, in forest green clothes with a bow, the new Elf… isn’t so obviously one of the classic fantasy tropes. I’m of two minds whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But it’s definitely a bit odd.
Finally, we should briefly touch upon the fact that the game isn’t going to be shipped outside the USA. There seems to be a lot of anger about this, but it is insane to believe that Hasbro somehow doesn’t want to sell you - or, indeed, me - this game. Rather, it goes back to the complicated arrangement of trademarks and copyrights around the word “HeroQuest”. One of the down sides with being a big, big company like Hasbro is that other parties know exactly how deep your pockets are and are prepared to plumb their very depths before making concessions. So if the trademark holders outside the US are clinging onto their trademark for dear life, Hasbro isn’t going to want to turn over hundreds of thousands of dollars for what will amount to a marginal increase in sales.
Phew! And with all of that said, it’s time to turn to my weekly learning.
When you’re talking about a company the size of Hasbro, there’s just no way for me to draw parallels. It’s hard enough with Games Workshop. But this is, like, two orders of magnitude larger.
However, it was super-interesting to me, digging into the US Patents and Trademarks Office and learning some stuff about trademark registrations and filings. Probably the big take-away for me was how important the role of the copyright lawyer is in matters of copyright and trademarks, because it’s just nothing like as simple as people on Internet forums will tell you it is. I might tell you more about what I learned with regards to my own trademarks but I think that can stay commercially confidential. However, it was fun discovering HeroQuest Legacies and then discovering that other people had already discovered and reported upon HeroQuest Legacies back in July, but that no one seems to have followed up on the connection between that news in July and the news that followed just a month later.
I cannot emphasize enough how speculative my thoughts about Restoration Games and Hasbro are. I am probably completely wrong. But (a) if I’m not, how cool would that be? And (b) if I am wrong and Restoration Games were being blindly speculative, does that stop the idea of an advanced, Legacy version of HeroQuest being a wild idea? It definitely doesn’t.
But, seeing as we’re talking about Precinct Omega and before Bernard and I say farewell, let me just say that the legacy of Zero Dark continues to grow.
I am on schedule to publish the first Zero Dark operation manual, Operation Nemesis, at the end of this month. This will give players 12 new solo or co-operative missions to play through, plus six new Versus missions. And although I’m personally not ready to say that my Covid lockdown is over, if you are meeting up to roll dice with friends, you could do a lot worse than to take Zero Dark for a spin in the next couple of months.
There’s lots more still to come for Zero Dark, so watch this space.
Thank you for listening. We'll speak to you again next week.