Adventure Game Birthday Weekend: Heroes in the Underworld

It’s my birthday. I want to be anywhere but in reality, where things like flashbacks to horrible times exist. And so I will embark on Adventure Games Birthday Weekend, where I can play solo adventure games and hopefully enjoy myself. And write my thoughts on the various ones.

Like, for instance, Hereos in the Underworld, a German adventure game partly in the Return of the Heroes world (which I’ll get to this weekend). This is a true rogue-like boardgame, where rooms are randomly selected/connected, random monsters appear in them to fight, you level your character, you gather items, and then you fight a boss (or a number of them) at the end.

I only sort-of like it compared to the rest of the series, and partly it’s because the game is so different from the exploratory, Magic Realm type mechanics of the others (although I do have to also give it props for trying something new).

A description in pictures:

The goal of the game is to defeat the big baddie, the Verdammte, or to put it in English terms, the Damned One. As the game progresses, his hit points (the black “shadow” cubes) increase as certain events occur—they can decrease as well, but that’s a little bit harder. If he ever reaches 11 hit points, you lose the game. You can see his avatars, the gray tiles, which will show up during the game to terrorize you; as well as special items, which peeve him when you win them from various encounters in the game.

As you can see, almost everything (except for gold, experience cubes, and hit points) is represented by little tokens, or chits: monsters, NPC encounters, items, spells, traps, tasks. This brings up an annoyance of the game, which is that some of the chits have special powers that require referring to a glossary, rather than being larger cards with the rules straight on them, but oh well. Most of the monsters are described by the icons on their tiles, so it’s not quite as bad as it could be.

One of the interesting mechanics is that players can accumulate shadow cubes, which basically turn them evil and provide various advantages and disadvantages throughout the game, though more disadvantages than not. It’s quite hard to avoid receiving shadow cubes because there are quite a few monsters that mete them out if you lose fights with them (at least you aren’t losing HP for every monster you meet).

Here’s an example game in progress, with only 1/8th of the tiles set up. Starting from the Styx tile, you explore your way around, building the map as you explore. Of the Return of the Heroes series, this is the most compact map even when fully built, making this a rather portable game (once you remove it from its cavernous original box). There are special rooms with powers which again need to be referred to in the rules glossary. The Lethe tile is especially annoying, since it’s got special rules that are embedded in the rules text rather than the glossary.

Positives

  • A medium-simple and fast game (as adventure games go, and definitely the fastest in the series with little set-up), once you work out what the heck’s going on with the rules.

  • Rather portable.

  • Rogue-like, for the times when you want a quickie rogue-like.

Negatives

  • Special rules aren’t always obvious from the components and thus can be forgotten in the heat of trying to gain experience and survive. Results in rather more character deaths.

  • Rulebook isn’t… all that great. Unfortunately a trait shared by this series of games.

  • Out of print and unlikely to be resurrected.

For me, I prefer the charm of the other games in this series. And also the fact that there’s a nice variant that combines all three of the other games, but this one remains apart from the rest, even though there are underworld entrance tiles you can add to the “above world” games. Also, the official solo variant needs a better count-down timer to provide a challenge, or perhaps a scoring system that involves the number of turns; in the regular multi-player game, it’s a race to the finish.

The rest of this series

I’m planning to cover the following this weekend, in no particular order:

  • Rest of the Return of the Heroes series in one big variant
  • Runebound with a non-official count-down that can be used in other solo games
  • Wrath of Ashardalon (appears to not need a timer due to difficulty and certain mechanics)

I don’t think I’ll cover Arkham Horror; it’s just too big and I find its solo play a bit unwieldy, since unless you’re quite good, you need to run more than one character. I’m not sure if I’ll cover the Lord of the Rings LCG, even though it fits into the adventure theme quite nicely; I want some more exploring. Maybe I’ll cover the Middle Earth CCG since it feels much more adventurey; if only I could remember the rules….

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