Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Star Wars, in miniature

Any time a product is wildly successful it is bound to spawn imitators, and WizKids Games' Heroclix was certainly no exception. Collectible miniatures didn't quite sweep the gaming industry the way collectible card games had in the wake of Magic: the Gathering, no doubt owing to the relatively high cost of producing pre-painted plastic miniatures. Most of the collectible miniatures games that did hit the market tried to approximate the Wizkids click dial (no mean feat since they were smart enough to file a patent for it), which makes me think that they may have missed the point.

Mage Knight and Heroclix creator Jordan Weisman had said that he got the idea for the game after seeing how difficult it was to get started playing tabletop combat games like Warhammer, and how complex the rules to those games were. He wanted a miniatures game that was easy to play but still offered strategic depth and the tactile experience of moving great-looking figures around an environment filled with obstacles. For him, the click dial was the way to help simplify tabletop miniatures, but it certainly wasn't the only way.

Enter Wizards of the Coast, the largest player in the hobby gaming market, owners of Magic: the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, and (in 2004, at least) holders of a license to produce Star Wars games.

Star Wars Miniatures was inevitable, but Wizards of the Coast were smart about how they went about it. They adopted Wizkids' distribution model of randomized blind "booster packs," But their packs contained more figures for the price. More importantly, they appeared to understand what the appeal of Heroclix really was: a tabletop combat game with relatively simple rules, using pre-painted figures and printed map boards rather than expensive 3-D terrain.

The designers of Star Wars Miniatures didn't try to come up with an alternative for the click dial, instead opting for a plain black base and a simple reference card that accompanied each figure, detailing its game statistics. This had the added bonus that the figures could easily be used with the Star Wars role playing game in addition to the combat game, and it made them a little nicer for Star Wars collectors who may not have been interested in playing either game, but have an insatiable appetite for figurines of their favorite Star Wars characters.

The game itself features a stripped down version of the combat rules from the d20 role playing game system, used by Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, and a host of other role playing games. The rules were modified somewhat to work as a tabletop game with no referee or game master, but players of the d20 role playing games would definitely find the core concepts familiar.

This basis in role playing is the main advantage Star Wars Miniatures has over Heroclix. Star Wars tends to be a much more story-driven game, with rules for things like firing around corners, hiding in trenches, or jumping through windows that Heroclix just doesn't address. Star Wars has more "wiggle room," allowing players to play out a story rather than just engaging in a mindless battle. Several products for the game even included a host of scenarios allowing players to play out scenes from the films as well as new stories.

The game's other main advantage, of course, is being set in the Star Wars universe. What Star Wars fan wouldn't want to demolish an army of Battle Droids with just a few Jedi Knights, or take command of the Rebel forces defending Hoth from the dreaded Imperial Walkers?

Rating: 5 (out of 5) The simple but versatile rules really put you right into the action, and the games feel more like stories than just mindless battles.

Date played: September 27, 2014

Sadly, Wizards of the Coast gave up their Star Wars license a few years ago, but there is plenty of Star Wars Miniatures product on the secondary market. Meanwhile, Fantasy Flight Games has Imperial Assault coming soon, which is planned to work both as a tactical game and a board game similar to Mansions of Madness.

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