Reviewed by Herb Levy

PLANET OF THE APES (IDW, 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 60-90 minutes; $59.99)


In today’s world, science fiction has a tremendous impact in entertainment but science fiction has always been around, from the days of Jules Verne to the latest Star Wars movie. In the vast library of successful films of this genre, one of the most popular of recent times predated the enormous success of Star Wars while also spawning a bunch of sequels. This is the one that starred Charlton Heston as a marooned astronaut who found himself on The Planet of the Apes. It is that 1972 film that serves as the inspiration for this Richard Launius design: The Planet of the Apes.

Unlike your standard cooperative game with several characters banding together to fight a common foe, in The Planet of the Apes, up to four players play different aspects of the SAME character: Taylor. You have “Cynical” , “Clever”, “Commander” and “Defiant” Taylors and you need to mesh their different attributes, working together to achieve victory.

All four aspects of Taylor offer certain advantages. (For example, Commander Taylor gives you an extra action each turn, Defiant Taylor allows you to cash in cards at a discount of one less etc.). All have certain skills that can be triggered by playing a skill token. (Clever’s skill allows you to raise or lower a die number by 1, Cynical allows you to peek at an upcoming Planet of the Apes card or Encounter and discard it etc.)

There are lots of six-sided dice to the game: six gray, six white and four red. There are also several card decks: Action cards, Planet of the Apes cards and a Special card deck. Action cards are divided into six suits (named for the film’s characters using different colors and shapes for easy identification) and have a top and a bottom to indicate its dual use. Two of these are drawn to form a display. Specials give players a bonus ability of some sort that may be used at a player’s discretion. Each player chooses one of the four sides of Taylor (and the matching Character card), gets 2 skill tokens and a “Special” card.

The board’s layout resembles a “ladder”. The seven scenes (and the ultimate Discovery scene) of the game start at the top and you work your way down as your go through the adventures of the film. Reliving those adventures is what this game brings to the table.

As the game mirrors the action of the film, players will go through major and minor scenes. Minor scenes give you a chance to prime yourself (and recoup and/or recover) before facing Major scenes. Four figures are used to chart progress: the crashed spaceship (which tracks your travels through the seven scenes and final showdown), an ape figure, an astronaut and the Statue of Liberty. Major scenes tell on which step the ape figure and astronaut figures begin. (Miss Liberty starts the game at the top of the stairs and will gradually make her way down.) 

Once a Major Scene is entered, the Introductory card describes the set up (where on the steps the ape and astronaut begin), the rewards (and penalties) at stake and encounters that must be faced. 

Each Major Scene has a deck of Encounters and three of these are now revealed. Starting with the Active player, players take turns until the scene is resolved (for better or worse).

Three actions chosen from a fairly large menu (and the same action may be done repeatedly) make a turn. A player may draw an Action card, either from the display or, blindly, from the top of the Action card deck. He may discard the two Action cards on display, replacing them with two newly drawn ones. A player may freely give an Action card to another player. Alternatively, he may play any TWO matching Action cards to Heal 1 damage or FOUR matching cards to Heal 3 damage. Handing in FOUR Nova and/or Cornelius & Zika cards will move the ape 1 space BACK on the track. But most of the player will “Adventure” and try to successfully resolve an Encounter.

In addition to a bit of “flavor” text, Encounters depict a dice combination (four dice valued at 3 or higher, a “full house” etc. ) that needs to be made in order to successfully resolve it. The Encounter will show how many (and what color) dice may be used, how many rolls allowed, which suits of Action cards may be used for this Encounter and, of course, the reward received for successfully meeting the challenge (and the penalty suffered for failure). This is where those Action and Special cards can be very useful. 

Not only do Action cards provide potential benefits for sets of the same suit, they may also be used individually to get an extra die to roll or possibly reroll. Specials can also be useful in giving extra dice as well. Meanwhile, at the end of each turn, the “Day Track” token advances. Planet of the Apes cards get revealed when the “sun” completes a circuit (indicating the end of a day). Like the Action cards, these too have a top and bottom but are events. Sometimes, these are good, sometimes not so good. In any case, both must be resolved. To make matters worse, some of the Encounter cards have “sun” symbols with effects that come into play when that circuit is completed too. For this reason alone, it is good to concentrate on eliminating those Encounters BEFORE the day ends. 

Successfully ending an Encounter generally moves the astronaut down the steps, The Encounter is then discarded and a new one drawn to take its place. (But it is not necessarily smooth sailing. Landing on some steps results in players taking damage!) Failure with an Encounter will often force players to take hits. Up to five hits can be sustained before a player;’s card flips to its “defeated” side. That player is still in the game but his abilities sharply curtailed. In addition, failure advances the ape or the Statue of Liberty. If the astronaut reaches bottom before the ape, the players have won the scene and advance unscathed. Should the ape reach bottom first, that particular scene is lost and penalties inflicted before the players cross over to the next scene and its challenges. 

Encounters continue to get resolved until either the astronaut or the ape reach bottom. In either case, players advanced to the next scene. If, at any time, the Stature of Liberty makes it to the bottom, the game is over and everyone LOSES!

Players advance to the sixth Scene and then the seventh. If they fail at either, the game is OVER and the players lose. But, if successful, the final Discovery Scene awaits. Succeed there and everyone wins!

The excellent box artwork catches the eye helped by its sharp colors. Interior artwork opts for the more “graphic novel” style while still giving you a link to the game’s inspiration. Because of the theme and its ties to the original film, you might be concerned that the game may grow predictable. But this concern misses the point. Repetition of movie scenes is not a problem. While the basic scenes stay in the same order, various scenarios inside the scene will not appear in the same order – and may not even appear at all! What may be a potential problem is the key mechanism used in the game: dice rolling.

To get from one scene to another, specific – and lots of – die roll combinations are required. Of course, many modifications are possible and that is where cooperation is essential. When to use action cards or utilize character skills or Special card capabilities, compels players to work together smoothly to bend the odds to your favor. Still, this is dice rolling and there is really no relationship between making certain combinations and the action of the film. It is, at best, an artificial connection to the theme. In our plays, the abstract nature of die challenges simply symbolized the demands of a particular scene so it didn’t rise to a negative. Rather, the strength of the game lies in the tension generated – and accelerated – as players feel the pressure with each scene as the ape moves downward and, throughout the entire game, the Statue of Liberty descends towards a player defeat!

Planet of the Apes is a game of flow. From scene to scene, the intensity of the challenge, to some extent being a “roll of the dice”, keeps the risk/rewards factors tense and always alive. Fans of the classic film will find a lot to like here as will gamers who enjoy the exciting rush of throwing dice and beating the odds. Add to that the underlying current of fighting against time and you have a cooperative game worth getting to the table. – – – Herb Levy

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