The legendary Stephen Baker, HeroQuest designer.
Stephen Baker is a legend in the board game design world. He's the creator of the beloved and iconic game, HeroQuest, a game that heavily contributed to the explosion of the dungeon crawler board game genre. While 1975’s Dungeon! is considered the first dungeon crawler board game, HeroQuest brought the concept to the masses in a spectacular way. HeroQuest was packed full of amazing miniatures (for the time), dungeon furniture, and simplistic rules that allowed for creativity and expansion.
Introduction to Stephen Baker and HeroQuest
Stephen Baker is a board game designer who has been in the industry for over 30 years. He is best known for his creation of HeroQuest, a fantasy dungeon crawl board game that was hugely popular in the late 80s and early 90s. It was the first board game of its kind and set the standard for dungeon crawl board games to come.
In HeroQuest, players take on the role of heroes who must explore dangerous dungeons and defeat monsters and other villains in order to complete their quests. The game was incredibly popular and spawned a series of expansions. It was so beloved that it is still popular today, with the game seeing a reboot through publisher Avalon Hill in 2021. The HeroQuest remake features new artwork and new, larger miniatures, though the rules remain unchanged.
How HeroQuest Changed the Board Game Industry
When HeroQuest came out in 1989, it was a sensational, worldwide success. It was a fantasy board game that combined elements of role-playing games with classic board game mechanics. It was an instant hit and quickly became a staple of board game night for many families.
HeroQuest's success paved the way for a new genre of board games known as dungeon crawlers. As a result of HeroQuest's success, many other dungeon crawler board games have been released since then, such as Descent, DungeonQuest, and Gloomhaven to name a few.
In this blog post, we'll explore Stephen Baker's epic creations, and learn about his thoughts on the future of the dungeon crawler genre. So, let's get started!
HeroQuest is without a doubt the most influential fantasy board game ever published, as it established the dungeon-crawler genre that remains popular to this day. How difficult was it to design a game that captures the role-playing experience without the complexity found in D&D and other roleplaying games?
The game went through a lot of revisions. Early versions of the game used card tiles. However, this led to a number of problems.
- People would make mistakes and only discover the error later in a game.
- Players had no idea how the map would unfold and you could hit a table edge requiring players to recenter the game. Not a big issue but frustrating nonetheless.
- It was hard to consistently scale maps in the quest book as each map occupied a unique envelope.
- The fact that there was no ‘game board’ also added one more layer of explanation to folks about what the game was and how it played.
Adding the game board cleared up all these issues. It gave the players a set area in which the game board was played and was a familiar frame of reference. The iconic layout took some time to get right. The original version of the game board what actually a three-panel game board, similar to the old Game Master games like Axis & Allies. Unfortunately when I had to trim some costs that one thing that had to go.
The UK office did not do a lot of original game design. Most games were designed and developed in the US. One thing I did that was very different at the time was to playtest the game extensively with 9-11-year-olds. That really made me realize how simple the game needed to be.
HeroQuest Armory Sheet featuring amazing painted artwork.
Were there rules you hated to cut, or concepts that didn’t make it to production that you wished had remained?
As mentioned above the larger game board was removed for cost. The original game also had a few more monsters and furniture. Over time I had to trim here and there to get to the right cost.
Given that there was nothing like HeroQuest at the time, what goes through your mind when you finish a pioneering project like this?
I just had a sense of what I was trying to create. I have always loved toy soldiers, miniatures, terrain, fighting tabletop battles, and roleplaying. I just wanted to put that all into a neat package that would look and feel like playing an RPG but in a way that anyone could manage.
Were there any concerns about how the game would be received?
Not really, I did my research and was able to show how popular fantasy was in entertainment as well as gaming. Games Workshop was growing and the Fighting Fantasy adventure game books were hugely popular.
Were there any areas that you felt may not resonate with the target audience you were designing the game for?
I just kept it simple. It was very late 80’s fantasy. I played into the most well know character types and the narratives were easy to understand. I tried to make each quest have a few surprises and wanted to keep the game rolling along.
Have you played any dungeon-crawler board games since HeroQuest, and what are your thoughts about the genre today?
I have played many. I am not a huge fan of the more complex games. The games are well designed and executed, however, over the years I have tended to migrate back towards more simple games. I like games that I can tweak and add to. My focus is on the experience I want to have. Simpler games can be enjoyed by a broader range of players which means I am more likely to find people to play.
What are your thoughts about the future of tabletop/board gaming? What will the industry look like in 10 years?
This is a huge question. There are many, many factors. I think the biggest will be a shift in business models. How games are manufactured and distributed. We have all seen the rise of crowdfunding and the emergence of many more smaller publishers. However, I am not sure the trend toward bigger and bigger games is sustainable. Costs are rising both for manufacturing and shipping. People only have so much space and big monster games demand a lot of time. The real challenge is how do you give people a big game experience without the big game expense and all the fun tax that comes with setup and breakdown.
As mentioned above I have been a lifelong wargamer and there have been many battles that took hours to set up and never reach a true conclusion on the day of battle.
In what areas do you think innovation will happen within game design going forward?
I think a big part of it will be materials and manufacturing methods. I am sure there will continue to be a big push to bring more technology into gaming. I like analogue play and physical components. These all add to the multidimensional experience of play. I generally do not want to be interacting with a screen when I am playing a board game or tabletop battle.
Battle Masters Chaos miniatures arrayed on the play mat.
Battle Masters. (2022, June 21). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_Masters
Battle Masters is another memorable game that you designed that was a favorite of mine as a kid. What was that project like, and how did it compare to HeroQuest as far as the design process, challenges, and so on?
There were three main goals. I wanted to give people the spectacle of a big tabletop battle. For that reason, I wanted 100 miniatures in the game and I had to solve the one thing everyone finds confusing in traditional wargaming, movement. That’s why I put the giant mat in there. It’s basically a massive gameboard. All of a sudden you are just moving spaces and everyone gets it.
Battle Masters featured 100 detailed fantasy miniatures, a large battle mat, cards and even a keep!
Looking back, how do you reflect on the game?
Battle Masters is one of my favorites. There is more strategy to it than you realize. I once had a US designer tell me it was too luck driven. We played fourteen games in a row swapping sides after each game. I won all fourteen. You have to deploy and play to the strengths of your army and you have to watch what cards have been played.
With all the cool board game reboots we are seeing today, what would a revamped Battle Masters game look like today if you were the lead designer?
Now, that would be telling! . . . I think I would look to provide a more modern mix of characters variety and add in generals who could allow players a little customization on how their army operated.
Recently, Hasbro announced that they are doing a revamp of HeroScape. How do you feel about this project, and were you involved as you were in the HeroQuest rerelease?
I was not involved in the HeroScape relaunch. I have mixed feelings. I love the game and am sorry to see that it is not funding as fast as I would have imagined.
What is the story behind the original HeroScape? It’s such an interesting and ambitious game (which seems to be your forte).
Most of the actual game design was done by Craig Van Ness and Rob Daviau who were on my design team. The original concept was mine. At the time plastic was cheaper and I calculated that 1 square inch of plastic with a single deco hit was no more expensive than a like area of quality game board printed in four colors.
I did the original design for the hex tile and had the notion of the underlying narrative. That the North myth of the Valkyrie was true, except they were aliens seeking the greatest warriors of all time. When I pitched it I had one hex tile in my pocket and told the audience that I had the future of gaming in my pocket. We then had a video of the tiles forming all kinds of different battle layouts.
When designing games for a publisher, how much creative freedom do you have over the product?
It really depends. Sometimes a publisher has a loose idea for a game and I get a lot of freedom to design and develop it as I wish. However, more often there is a tight vision for what the game should be or even an initial design that needs further development.
Who are some of your favorite game designers? What do you like about their approach to game design?
I have a lot of designers I like. Two that come to mind are Alex Randolph and Rob Daviau. I worked with Alex many years ago on a game called Inkognito. He had a great sense of humor and there was always a subtle intrigue or nuance to his games. I have known Rob for many years and he was on my team way back in the day. He has an incredible talent for game mechanics but also narrative.
My final question: Do you feel bad at all for the fool’s gold in Castle of Mystery? How about the empty chest with the pit trap that claimed my Dwarf’s life?
Ha ha! I said I like to have the odd twist! I like humor in games. Part of the perks of being a DM or quest writer is to have fun with your player group every now and then.
We are so appreciative of Stephen Baker for taking the time to do our little interview here. Here are a list of games he was involved in, according to BoardGameGeek. Be sure to check them out.
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Note: The views contained within this article represents the author's views alone, and may or may not represent other's views within Toy and Tee. We're all different here, and celebrate diversity of perspectives.
- Jay C. Shepherd
- Content Creator
- Jay is a graphic designer, board game enthusiast, and professional wrestling fan who loves all things 80's, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and of course, video games. He is one of the rare few that believes that one can be a Trekkie and Star Wars fan at the same time.