As mentioned in an earlier post, the HeroQuest board game served as my gateway into the world of pen-and-paper role-playing games. Writing that post made me think about how that introduction compares to what a new gamer would get with the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box.
Where the HeroQuest box art focuses on a big illustration of a combat scene, the Red Box was intentionally designed to look like a product that was released three decades ago. While that design may draw in nostalgic gamers and encourage them to give it as a gift, I can’t help but feel that it is detrimental in attracting new gamers, especially kids, to the hobby.
The contents of the HeroQuest box were also more impressive than the contents of the Red Box. HeroQuest included a dungeon map printed on a game board, plastic miniatures for monsters and heroes, 3d terrain elements, and even a game master’s screen. The Red Box on the other hand has a poster map and cardboard tokens. While this likely allows the Red Box to be less expensive, I think it also makes it less inspiring to a new player.
Unlike the Red Box, HeroQuest was sold as a complete game system and not as a starter set. I think this is an important distinction because the prominent “starter set” branding has the potential to turn away shoppers who wonder what else they will need to buy in order to get full use out of the game.
The mechanics of HeroQuest are much simpler than the Dungeons & Dragons rules presented in the Red Box. Characters are pre-generated and all of their statistics other than items and spells fit onto a large card. Items and spells meanwhile have their own smaller cards that contain all of their information. The game doesn’t include more advanced rules like character advancement, skill checks, multiple defenses, or status effects.
The Red Box on the other hand attempts to present as much of the full Dungeons & Dragons mechanics as possible which I imagine could be overwhelming to someone without any role-playing experience. I think the far more streamlined mechanics of HeroQuest are easier to learn while still providing the basics of pen-and-paper gaming.
HeroQuest includes a booklet of fourteen quests that form a complete campaign story arc. Each adventure includes an introductory bit of read aloud text and has a few unique elements to differentiate it from the others. While character advancement rules aren’t included, characters do keep the items found on previous quests which increase their power level.
The Red Box doesn’t have anywhere near that amount of adventure material instead forcing players to either begin to create their own material or start to purchase other Dungeons & Dragons books. For a young player with limited cash, that point is all too likely to be a dead end.
So what intro products do I like?
As you can probably tell, I’m not a big fan of the Red Box as an introduction to pen-and-paper rpgs. So if I was going to buy a young relative a game, I’d instead be likely to give them Castle Ravenloft (or better yet the more traditional fantasy Wrath of Ashardalon once it is released). The Castle Ravenloft game is much closer to what HeroQuest offered me as a player completely new to role-playing games, and I have high hopes for Wrath of Ashardalon as an intro product since it is supposed to use similar mechanics to Castle Ravenloft. I think Wizards of the Coast would have much more success putting those two games on the shelves in Target than they will have with the Red Box.
A final note: One drawback of Castle Ravenloft is that it doesn’t include a game master role. Instead each player controls a subset of the monsters and the dungeon is randomized with a selection of cards. I’d prefer an intro game with a GM role, but even with that shortcoming the board games feel like they would be more likely to inspire a new gamer than the Red Box.