The Tim Burton movie “remake” of Planet of the Apes was irredeemably dreadful: pointless from its start right up to its WTF finish. The good news is that, for its source, this new Planet of the Apes game from IDW goes back to the original 1968 movie from underrated Hollywood director Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Charlton Heston in what was to be his first of several forays into the science fiction genre.
All my life I’ve awaited your coming and dreaded it
As it is now a full half century since the original movie’s release, I think we can probably dispense with spoiler alerts. If you haven’t actually seen the film, you’ll know the plot and the ending if only from the innumerable times it’s been copied and spoofed, not least in The Simpsons.
A group of four astronauts are on a deep space mission. Three awake from cryogenesis (the fourth has died in cryosleep because her freezing chamber has malfunctioned). The ship crashes on a planet. The three remaining astronauts clamber free. Their clothes are stolen by the primitive humans who observe them swimming. The astronauts are separated and we follow Taylor (Charlton Heston) as he discovers this is a world where apes are the dominant species and where scientific and archaeological research are strictly regulated by an orang-utan theocrat elite. In the dénouement, we see through a gradual reveal that Taylor was on Earth all along.
I mention plot and some of the key plot scenes of the original movie because these form the core of the board game. The makers have assumed we’re all familiar with the movie and that we all know the ending because the components incorporate the iconic Statue of Liberty reveal as one of the standees on the game’s ‘fate track’.
IDW’s Planet of the Apes game is a fully co-operative game where 1–4 players progress through ‘minor’ and ‘major’ scenes. They are attempting to get through all the scenes before either the Ape or Statue of Liberty markers reach zero on a ‘fate track’.
You know the saying, “Human see, human do”
Each scene will involve players in meeting requirements of various encounter cards. These incorporate some good flavour text but they pretty much all come down to achieving different Yahtzee type dice combinations. Each card specifies what dice can be used, how many rerolls are allowed and what cards can be played to modify a roll. Beating an encounter gives the player a reward (typically, a skill token that can be utilised to activate a special ability) and failing is likely to mean a ‘character’ takes damage. All encounters have to be faced before moving on to the next scene. If you don’t like games with a lot of dice rolling, then regardless of how much you love the franchise, Planet of the Apes is probably not going to be the game for you.
Sitting down to play the game, you will hit your first minor hitch. The designer (Richard Launius) has given us four player ‘characters’ but has taken the curious decision to make each of these ‘characters’ an aspect of the same one character from the movie (the George Taylor character played by Charlton Heston). This makes some sense in gaming terms, given that players are all progressing the same single icon along the game board, but you may find, as I did, that it confounds the expectation of players who are more used to controlling a specific individual rather than a mere personality trait. I encountered loud complaints from players who grumbled that it would have been better to have had each player represent one of the four different astronauts who start off in the movie. Though these complaints mostly subsided once play got underway, they emerged again when the rules persisted in referring to each of the four personality aspects as separate ‘characters’.
Other characters from the movie make their appearances in the game but mainly just as set collection icons on action cards. This too has proved a disappointment for some players who were looking for more interaction with the chimpanzee scientists Zira and Cornelius and the scheming science minister Dr Zaius. The action card sets can be used largely interchangeably, so that, for example, you can discard any two matching cards to heal one damage or exchange any four matching cards to gain a ‘special’ card (booster ability). Players may be dissatisfied to find that this means that action cards showing hostile characters from the movie mostly function identically to those displaying the icons of friendly characters. It also seems a little lazy to have included Taylor as one of the action card icons to collect, especially given that there are four aspects of Taylor already in play.
The four aspects of Taylor taken on by players are ‘Commander Taylor’ (take an extra action every turn), ‘Cynical Taylor’ (ignore special icons on the fate track), ‘Defiant Taylor’ (spend one fewer card) and ‘Clever Taylor’ (reroll a die). These feel quite familiar because they generally play just like the special abilities found in other co-operative games.
A friendly word of warning – as you dig for artifacts, be sure you don’t bury your reputation
Therein lies the next problem with Planet of the Apes. There’s not so much here that feels radically new. This is especially disappointing given the track record of the designer (Richard Launius is most famous for designing Arkham Horror). The set collection, card passing and special abilities will remind you strongly of Pandemic. The Yahtzee dice matching will be familiar from lots of games.
In fact, it’s the tight focus on the original movie that gives this game much of its appeal. This feels like a story game as you move from one scene to the next. The corresponding downside of this is that you could find it limits the game’s replayability. Even though gameplay is in reality no more linear than it is in the vast majority of board games, the fact that Planet of the Apes is very obviously organised as a storyboard could make it feel stale after a handful of plays. The endgame scene will always be one of three encounters drawn at random. You may well find the demands of these cards seem arbitrary, leading you to collectively lose the game when you are unable to meet the particular condition revealed at the end. This is a case where, arguably, familiarity with the game might improve play, allowing players to better prepare for the three possible options that they know may be looming ahead of them.
Is this a game to get your stinking paws on?
The components are good quality. The scene and encounter cards are large format and the iconography is straightforward and clear. There are attractive standees representing Taylor, the Apes, the sinking ship and the Statue of Liberty, and you may well find your copy also includes plastic miniatures that can be substituted for each of these. The plastic minis look good but they seem superfluous, and they aren’t referred to in the rules. The publishers have stated that they are only being included in the first edition of the game.
You might have expected that the board for any Planet of the Apes game would incorporate a map but here again the designer has confounded expectations. There is no map, just the ‘fate track’ for recording the relative positions of Taylor, the Apes and the Statue of Liberty, and spaces to lay out the eight scene cards. In a real sense, the board in Planet of the Apes functions more like playing mat.
Because of the design choices made in this game, Planet of the Apes feels more like a solitaire game with the option for co-operative play rather than the other way around. Playing solo, you will probably want to take the option of controlling all four of the Taylor persona, so mechanically it will be the same as a four-player game. The main difference is that it feels more natural for one player to control four aspects of the same character rather than have these split across four players. If you do play Planet of the Apes as a co-operative, be warned that there is nothing built in to the design to guard against an ‘alpha player’ from assuming control. There is a risk that this becomes a solo game by default, with one player taking all the decisions and others merely rolling dice and taking actions on command.
As co-operative games go, Planet of the Apes falls at the lighter end of the scale, with quite a high luck factor. On the plus side, that does mean it is easy to teach and learn. With the grumbles and gripes it attracted in play, however, I can’t rate it higher than 5/10. Nevertheless, if you’re not put off by the Yahtzee dice mechanic and you’re a fan of the franchise or have a love or nostalgic fondness for the original movie, then this could just be the game for you.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.