Thursday, October 16, 2014

Studded Plate #3: It's an Even Smaller World; Microfigures

[Originally written and posted at in September 2013]

In my last column, I mentioned one of the newest LEGO Games, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and the microfigures it contains, and promised to discuss the LEGO Heroica series of fantasy adventure games. First, though, I'd like to provide some background on LEGO Games in general.

The LEGO Games line offers games built using LEGO bricks and played using special LEGO Dice. These games are targeted towards young children (suggested ages range from 5+ to 8+), so game play is fairly simple. Each game includes some optional rules to spice things up, and encourages children to invent their own new rules once they master the basic game. These games include race games (Race 3000, City Chase), puzzle games (Pirate Code, Magickus), or augmented versions of classic boardgames (Monster 4 is tic-tac-toe with random elements added; Frog Rush is Chinese Checkers with a predatory stork thrown in). The most popular LEGO Game to date is Creationary, which is essentially Pictionary except that you build the subject with bricks instead of drawing it.

As an experienced boardgamer, I find that with most LEGO Games, the appeal of their parts far outlives the appeal of their simplistic rules. I own about a dozen LEGO Games, but have only kept about half of them built for play. The rest have been dismantled and sorted into my parts collection. Creationary is one of the longest survivors, as it avoids the limited playability trap better than the rest, and makes an excellent family game if everyone involved likes LEGO. The Heroica games are another exception, because they have a medieval fantasy theme and were favorites with my kids before they were old enough to be ready for RPGs. (More about those in a bit!)

LEGO dice are plastic cubes with soft rubber edges and 2x2 stud surfaces on each side that allow for customization by attaching different tiles as needed for each game. (In some games, the tiles are fixed; in others, they change during the game.) LEGO Dice can easily be adapted for use in other games and also make unique connectors in LEGO models. I've even used one to build a dreidel!

Most but not all LEGO Games include “microfigure” pawns. These special bricks look like tiny, armless minifigures, but each one is a single piece without moving parts. They fill the space of a 1x1x2 brick (i.e., one stud long and wide, and two bricks tall). A wide variety of microfigures (and micro-scale monsters built with small bricks) are available in various LEGO Games. They have also recently started appearing in regular LEGO models; for example, blank gray microfigures are used as statuary in the LOTR sets Attack on Weathertop and The Council of Elrond.

The LEGO Games that make the heaviest use of microfigures are the Heroica sets. This sub-theme is a series of fantasy adventure boardgames that can be played individually or combined into a larger board. In Heroica, each player chooses an archetype such as wizard, barbarian, druid, or rogue, represented by an appropriate pawn. Game play involves moving around a dungeon or similar complex built of modular rooms and corridors, many of them decorated with small details such as furniture, doors, columns, or walls. This approach allows you to rearrange the map as desired; most sets provides directions for two different configurations. Distance is measured in spaces represented by 2x2 jumper plates (i.e., 2x2 plates with a single central stud); when the pawn's movement end, it snaps onto the final space's stud. As the heroes explore the dungeon, they fight monsters, pick up treasure (gold and magic potions), and try to reach the mission's goal. The victory condition for all Heroica games to to be the first to enter a specific square at the end of the dungeon or to defeat the boss monster in that space. Characters lose health points when the monster wins the fight, but losing all your health merely renders you unconscious for a couple turns until you heal. (There are no player character deaths or TPKs in child-friendly Heroica!) Each adventurer has a unique special ability, such as a ranged attack, or moving after defeating a monster, that comes into play when you roll the shield tile on the LEGO Dice. Players can also use gold collected in the dungeon to buy weapons that grant similar abilities. The six different weapons included in each set are slightly smaller scale than similar minifigure accessories, but still fit those minis' hands. They add some nice variety to your arsenal, and have been included in at least one LEGO Lord of the Rings set (Mines of Moria) for just that reason. Each Heroica game also includes an artifact (helmet, scepter, etc.) that can give your hero even more powerful abilities if you play multiple missions in a row.

The simplest Heroica game is Draida, a two-player game where a barbarian and wizard must enter a cave to defeat the Goblin General. The game comes with those three microfigures and several goblins. (The barbarian appears in all four initial Heroica sets.)

Waldurk is a forest infested with spiders and werewolves, and is ruled by a ghostly Dark Druid. The heroes in this set include a barbarian, a druid, and a ranger. The forest also has two magic doors that can only be shifted if a hero moves onto an appropriate magic square. (These doors are built with translucent blue axe blades, which make nifty magic weapons for minifigures, too.) This set and the next two also include treasure chests, which might contain gold and/or a trap depending on your LEGO Dice result.

In the caverns of Nathuz, a barbarian, wizard, and thief must fight bats, golems, and the Golem Lord. This set introduces torches, which give a bonus to movement until the hero is defeated in a fight, then stop working (presumably because they were dropped and went out).

The largest Heroica set is Fortaan, the stronghold of the Goblin King. This game takes up to four players (barbarian, wizard, druid, and knight) and includes a small army of goblins of three different strengths (normal goblins, guardians, and the king). The castle includes doors which require heroes to collect keys to pass through them.

A year or so after these four sets were produced, the LEGO Group released a fifth Heroica set, Ilrion. In this game, the heroes (prince, wizard, and sage) must enter the catacombs to rescue the king, who has been captured by the Vampire Lord. Unlike previous sets, the two layouts provided with this game create a logical two-part adventure. In the first, the heroes fight the Vampire Lord and his bat and zombie minions to reach the imprisoned king. In the second, the heroes must escape the dungeon, but the Vampire Lord is replaced with a Giant Vampire Bat (built from bricks) which has its own health bar and requires multiple hits to defeat.

As mentioned above, the Heroica sets may be connected to play a campaign game, where victory is determined by who wins the most missions. This option allows for players to collect (and spend) more gold, use one set's artifact against another mission's foes, and so on. Combining sets is where this theme really shines, by providing longer play and more variety. Like other LEGO Games, the rules encourage players to invent their own rules, and with Heroica, this extends to creating your own dungeon scenarios with the parts provided. More creative players can expand the Heroica bestiary by importing microfigures and monsters from other LEGO Games (Ninjago's skeletons, the Rameses games' mummies, Minotaurus's Greek warriors and brick-built minotaur) as well as small creatures with a single-stud base from other themes (scorpions, crabs, starfish, frogs, cats, monkeys).

Now that we've covered the basics of LEGO Games, Heroica, and microfigures, it's time to discuss how to use these smaller figures as RPG miniatures. Microfigures can represent smaller humanoid creatures, such as goblins, halflings, gnomes, fey, kobolds (using Legend of Chima's crocodiles), and undead monsters created from those races. (In addition, even smaller humanoids can be represented by the trophy accessory found in some of the collectible Minifigures series.) The microfigures' small size and lack of hands prevents them from holding weapons or other accessories, though minifigure headgear will fit onto the head stud if you don't mind that part being grossly oversized. (See Pirate Plank's pirate captain for an example. There is also one microscale helmet available, in the Fortaan game.) Without a studded surface to snap onto, these microfigures will need a base for stability during play. A 2x2 jumper plate or radar dish works best here, and fits into a 1" square or hex on a battle map far more easily than a minifigure does.

A more radical approach is to exclusively use microfigures for miniatures rather than minifigures. This method has both advantages and drawbacks. The latter include the limited selection of microfigures (and the added difficulty of acquiring them once a given LEGO Game is retired, as most are by now, sadly), the fact that only the front is printed (making figures of the same color plastic difficult to distinguish from other angles), and the greater risk of dropping and losing a figure. On the other hand, many basic adventures can be run with only microfigures and small creature figures, as demonstrated by the Heroica games, and the smaller pawns require less storage space. (The LEGO Group briefly produced a carrying case for Heroica microfigures and other small game pieces.) By using only microfigures, the GM can assemble a dungeon out of Heroica-style modules, with each 2x2 jumper plate representing a 1" map square. This also removes the need for bases for each figure, because each one snaps securely onto its space's stud. (Alternately, the GM could cover a large baseplate with a checkerboard of jumper plates, then place 1x2 or 2x2 bricks on spaces occupied by solid walls.) In many game systems, you will still need to find a way to depict characters who occupy the same space due to grappling or other crowded conditions. The simplest solution is to stack those microfigures on top of each other. Another is to use normal 2x2 plates rather than jumper plates, which will give you more studs per space.

This Heroica-style mapping can be applied to dungeons for normal sized minifigures, too. A 1" square is approximately three studs across, but 3x3 plates have only very recently been produced, and are not easily available in bulk. Assuming you have enough bricks--and gaming space--you can replace 1" squares with 4x4 plates. This is an easy size to acquire and gives each minifigure a little more space for its arms and accessories than a 1" square does--as well as room for more than one minifigure per space if necessary. The fan-designed Brickquest adventure game uses this idea by covering each floor module in a checkerboard of 4x4 plates, which breaks up the space into easily distinguished squares for purposes of movement and combat. Most GMs will not have the bricks and time necessary to employ the full construction methods appearing on that site. However, covering a large baseplate with 4x4 plates is relatively simple and inexpensive, and normal bricks can be used to mark out walls and other features. As with my suggestions for Heroica-scale adventure maps, the studded plates make individual figure bases unnecessary. In some cases, though, a base can provide added stability, make a heavily accessorized minifigure easier to move intact, or show which squares a large creature occupies.

That brings us to the end of this column, but keep watching for more of my Legomaniacal rumblings! If you have any questions about the columns I've written so far, or have suggestions for topics that you would like me to cover in future installments, please let me know in the comments. Until then, leg godt!

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