Cracking open the box of figurines and sliding out the tray, I suddenly felt my legs turn to complete jelly. In the spirit of trying new things, I had brazenly volunteered myself to take part in a HeroClix tournament at my friendly local game store mere days after learning to play the game for the first time- and learning was really an overstatement. I was familiar with it. I could pick it out of a crowd, maybe nod to any present company and say “Oh, yeah, that thing? We’ve met. I think they like comic books or something.” But I wouldn’t be invited to its wedding or anything. So here I was, sitting across from someone who was clearly a veteran of several years, and I was literally shaking.
What the hell were you thinking?! my brain screamed at me. Oh God, it thought, looking down at the plastic sheath encasing the figurines from which I was to build a team with, how…how do I even get these out of the packaging? I CAN’T EVEN GET THE DAMN THINGS OUT OF THE PACKAGING!!!
Thankfully, I did manage to pop the clix figures out of the packaging, and I cobbled together a team of the deadliest looking figurines. Then I was promptly spanked into oblivion, walking away from the tournament with the single lowest score of the lot. I wouldn’t have even made it onto the board, except for a Dick Grayson who foolishly underestimated my Sinestro Corp Recruit. My entire team was summarily executed the very next turn for their bravado, but a small fire stoked in my heart. Spurred on by the very friendly and welcoming players I met that day, I began to pour over the HeroClix ruleset with a dedication previously reserved for my History books.
HeroClix, for the uninitiated, is a tabletop strategy game which uses miniature figurines that have rotating bases which “click” (a ha, see what they did there?) into different positions, denoting the figurines health and letting the player know which abilities they can use. For example, my copy of Oracle begins with the movement ability “Shrouded in Mystery,” which gives her the Stealth ability. A few hit/clicks later, though, and she gets “Connected by the Internet,” which gives her phasing/teleport. HeroClix figures can come from a variety of sources, not just Comic Books (although those seem to be the most common at my local Game Shops, and were the subject of the aforementioned tournament). During my brief foraging sessions through the Clix dispensers I have seen Bioshock Clix, Assassin’s Creed Clix, and even Pacific Rim Clix. Clix of assorted shapes and sizes. Poseable Clix. Nonposeable Clix. Is Clix even the right word? I don’t know, but if it isn’t then I am sure there is a “whateveritscalled” of a Clix, whatever that might be in that case.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the experience was how much it scratches my unspoken itch for playing 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons. For all the grief that edition received, I personally found myself riveted by the rules and combos that could be devised on the playmat. I liked being able to see my abilities play out on a physical space, and I really enjoyed the bit of “tactical thinking” that came with it, however unevenly. Heroclix brings this to the table in spades while jettisoning the need to offer up a roleplay. Are you playing a team with both Zod and Superman? That’s fine! What about an army of Nightcrawlers? Go right on ahead!
The thing that sets it apart, though, and makes my own experience learning it all the more challenging, is the breadth and fluctuation built into its system. One of the nice things about Dungeons and Dragons or XCom or any of the other strategy games I usually play is that you can ingest the rules at a relatively free pace. If you create a Warrior in DnD, you really only have to concentrate on the rules which apply to you at that direct moment of the game- there is really no need to understand backstab damage, for example, or any of the daily powers a Wizard can use, at least while you aren’t playing those characters. Even games that have you running whole teams with a plethora of skills, like Enemy Within, set those skills in front of you one at a time and give you a chance to commit them to memory. Not so with HeroClix. The moment you think you’ve gathered enough knowledge to begin making statements about the game, the state of the board changes. When I was first learning, I thought I’d figured out how damage was calculated (just check the number on the click tracker in the damage section), yet two hits later I was rolling a d6 to figure out how hard my characters hit. Doing this with one character is challenge enough, but doing it with six? The result was that I often felt like I was spinning plates while juggling chainsaws, my brain constantly bouncing from card to card as I tried to grapple with what my characters were even capable of doing, let alone how I could combine their abilities.
This isn’t to say I was having a terrible time, or that I think it was too hard. If nothing else, it simply calls to mind Leigh Alexander and Quintin Smith’s great article about Leigh’s experience learning Netrunner. “Here’s the thing about games,” she writes, “they write you and rewrite you…Finishing that game is more than just finishing a game: It’s proving to ourselves we have what it takes to whittle down, claw away, gnaw to the marrow of futility and surpass it.” Leigh presents learning how to play a game as an active process, full of challenges to overcome and avenues for growth that must be walked down. I have to admit that I have been fortunate enough to rarely struggle when learning new things.* Finding myself struggling to come to grips with the rules of a game isn’t something I’ve ever really had to experience before- and I kind of like it. A lot. Every rule that I get my mind around, every time I manage to take my turn without first looking worriedly at my opponent or doublecheck the rules guide, is a tiny victory that fills my brain with euphoria- however brief that might be before the !#$#ing Weaponer of Qward shows up to ruin everybody’s fun.
*Except Calculus. Screw Calculus. Thank God I took it with Seth, and that he was such a generously patient person to sit next to.