Thursday, April 8, 2010

129. Heroclix, part one

September 2003: Oh, boy, do I ever remember this prog. Unfairly, it serves as a completely terrific example of the comic's long-standing problem with cashing in on publicity. I say "unfairly" for a reason I'll come back to next week, and why this specific issue was a mess for that purpose. This week, I'm going to look back at Heroclix, and 2000 AD's all-too-brief moment in the sun with the game.

Heroclix is a tabletop miniatures combat game created by WizKids, at one time a subsidiary of Topps and now owned by NECA. Basically it's chess with dice and a thousand pieces, sold in "expansions" every quarter or so. It has a community of fun-loving fans who get together for company-sponsored tournaments with special limited edition pieces offered as prizes. I was introduced to the game by my buddy Randy, who correctly sussed that I'd enjoy it, and gave me a DC starter set for Christmas 2002. We had a great time playing, and I was looking forward to the inclusion of some Legion of Super-Heroes pieces, and some 2000 AD characters, the license for which had been announced a couple of months previously.

In March of '03, I became a single dad and Heroclix seemed like a perfectly sensible distraction to follow, what with boozing up not being a very good idea for a fellow with two younguns to raise by himself. Several of the area comic shops were carrying the game and sponsoring tournaments, so I enjoyed making new friends and acquaintances and having occasional breaks from my crazy kids. At that time, there were two Marvel sets out, and one DC. The third Marvel set, X-Plosion, was released just as I moved to my current digs in Marietta, with the second DC set, Cosmic Justice, coming in the summer. The stage was set for the release of Indyclix in the early fall.

Indy was the sixth Heroclix set. To give you some idea how madly and wildly this game has spun out of control in the six and a half years since, there have been a stunning thirty-six sets released after Indy. Now, some of those were small collectors' sets of four or seven characters, but that's still an astonishing number of things to keep up with, especially when the company decided that it didn't have enough rules and started adding idiotic cards of various types to the mix, which is why I finally abandoned it, gasping for air and space, in early 2008.

Indy was the first set to institute some overdue rule changes to the game. Players who started with the first Marvel set, Infinity Challenge, found an exceptionally "cheesy" loophole to the rules, using the tactic of having an 18-point Wasp carry around a very expensive Firelord for an obnoxious first-strike strategy. Indy leveled the field somewhat, first by ruling that flying characters could not carry other flying characters, and that characters could not act immediately after landing. That's one reason that many people, used to those tactics and who'd been playing the game for the last eighteen months, didn't like the new set.

That the set wasn't made up of superheroes also caused some grief. Indy was a mix of characters from seven properties: 2000 AD (Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and Nemesis), CrossGen (characters like Arwyn, Boon and Samandahl Rey), Crusade (Shi), Danger Girl, Dark Horse (Hellboy and the BPRD), Kabuki and Top Cow (Aphrodite IX, Witchblade, etc). This was a solution that didn't satisfy anybody. If you were a Witchblade fan, you might get that piece and possibly a supporting character in a box, but also plenty you didn't care about.

It seemed that, across the board, retailers ordered Indy in the same quantities as the previous Marvel and DC sets, despite the obvious fact that none of these comic books, no matter what their popularity was, sold what the X-Men did. Retailers were stuck with extra Indy boosters for years, especially after players turned on the set and stopped buying boosters like they would for the Marvel and DC sets.

Fans didn't like the set for a whole pile of extra reasons: it was the first obvious example in Heroclix of "power creep," a problem that impacts any collectible game like this, with a host of characters that did a bafflingly high base 3 damage. There were only two fliers. There were an unusual number of female characters with the blades-claws-fangs power. Really, whoever decided to put Witchblade, Shi, at least four Kabuki girls and Sister Magdalena in the same expansion and give 'em all identical power sets was out to lunch. The sculptors and the dial designers seemed to be in different worlds; one of the Kabuki characters was seen holding two submachine guns, but she couldn't make ranged attacks and had the same boring BCF power as the others on her team.

Judge Dredd, the same guy who took out Batman with a single blow, in a comic co-published with DC and had their seal of approval, was grossly underpowered and probably couldn't win a game against two Paramedics and a Skrull. Stix had neither Toughness nor Super Strength. The 2000 AD team ability, which gave those pieces a higher attack against a specific target, was overcosted so badly that it made most pieces useless in mixed games against the superheroes. One of maybe two exceptions to that was Johnny Alpha, who did have the handy Telekinesis power, even if the character somehow didn't have either Energy Explosion ("Number four cartridge!") or Willpower. And so on, and so on.

But what drove everybody mad locally was this: there were twenty-four pieces you couldn't get in the US, all of 'em 2000 AD pieces. To understand how this happened, I need to explain how the figures were distributed. They were sold in booster packs of four for $6.99. These days, I think you get five for $13 or something equally criminal. Anyway, in a booster, you'd get:

two of 36 "common" pieces numbered 1-36
one of 24 "uncommon" pieces numbered 37-60
and either:
one of 24 "rare" pieces numbered 61-94, or:
one of 12 "Unique" pieces numbered 95-106.

Uniques replaced rares in one of six boosters and were more valuable on the secondary market.

In the North American boosters, there were two 2000 AD common characters (Johnny Alpha and Judge Hershey), one rare (Dredd) and two Uniques (Judge Death and Judge Anderson). But in the rest of the world, players had a totally different set of 24 uncommons, each of which was a 2000 AD character (Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis, a Brit-Cit Judge, Wulf Sternhammer, Stix, Nemesis and Torquemada). So in Britain, an Indy booster (visibly different from ours with its grey background instead of red) was guaranteed to have at least one 2000 AD piece. (I suppose I should clarify that each character appeared on three pieces, representing "rookie," "experienced" and "veteran" versions, with slightly different power sets; that's how eight characters become 24 pieces.)

There were a few other 2000 AD pieces for fans to try and collect; Hershey and Alpha also appeared on fourth dial versions, as Limited Edition tournament prizes, and there were Promotional pieces issued for Alpha and Dredd, but it was those 24 pieces ("UK only," they were called, erroneously) that most players with collecting interest wanted, particularly Nemesis, with his very powerful dial. Nem was certainly the most useful of the 2000 AD pieces, but few American players ever saw him.

The whole business of different boosters for different territories left a bad taste in many players' mouths. It also gave rise to some absurd urban legends. One tale, debunked instantly but lingering for years, was that Rebellion had ordered the split. (It was, of course, WizKids' idea, hoping to attract British gamers by assuring one home-grown character in every box.) Then again, Heroclix and stupid urban legends went hand-in-hand. The story going around at the time insisted, with no proof whatsoever, that Todd MacFarlane would not license Spawn for the game without WizKids agreeing to provide chains and a cloth cape for every piece.

I don't know whether it's fair to label Indy a flop - it did win Game of the Year at the 2003 Origins con - but it certainly underperformed, and really aggravated retailers, especially once they'd placed their orders and afterward learned from some players that they'd be sitting out this release and catching up with all the rarities from the previous superhero expansions that they'd missed. Now, this may be just as much of an urban legend as the stories in the previous paragraph, but apparently WizKids moved up the release of the fourth Marvel set, Critical Mass, from January 2004 to November '03 to assuage retailer anger that they wouldn't have the Christmas season sales that they were expecting. What's certain is that Critical Mass was released early, and the quality of the sculpts and the paint was notably lower than any previous release. Frankly, they looked like a completely horrible rush job, but, in the proud Heroclix tradition, we just complained and bought 'em anyway.

At the time, I couldn't have cared less. There used to be a game store in Doraville called Batty's Best, and I periodically stopped in on my way back from Athens to dig through their Clix singles. One Saturday, a full week and a half before they were supposed to be released, the store sprung a surprise on customers and broke open a case of Indy. I grabbed a starter and two boosters and was thrilled to pull, among others, a Unique Judge Death. That certainly bode well. A buddy of mine named Steve Thrasher probably only bought ten boosters and got a Unique in at least eight. I played well in the marquees and scored both of the rarest prizes, and I got to talk about thrillpower to a crowd otherwise concerned with how to make a comic-accurate version of Ultimate Universe Iceman, with four arrows and an Incap attack of 15 or something.

But how to turn this into sales for 2000 AD? Well, that's where prog 1356 comes in, and I'll tell you all about that next week!

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