Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Developing Valley of the Ape

Here I go again, charging off into the wilderness to pursue a spontaneous game-design fancy while leaving behind several far more substantive projects that really deserve my attention. My latest impulse emerged from an experience the Little Guy and I had at Historicon and my urge to transition his free-form play activities into something slightly more structured yet still entertaining (and maybe get a convention event out of it). I’m tentatively calling it Valley of the Ape.

Kim Allman’s “Jungle Gods” game at Historicon 2014
It all started the first day I took the Little Guy to Historicon this past July. We were just going to pick up pre-reg badges and programs, look around the dealers hall, and see what games were playing. After marveling at Tim Broome’s massive “Sword Beach” set-up the Little Guy immediately gravitated toward a lush table strewn with clumps of jungle foliage, ruins, and a muddy river...Kim Allman’s “Jungle Gods” game in which a host of explorers and mercenaries (including Teddy Roosevelt in a small river steamer) seek lost treasure in Africa around 1900. Having been fully indoctrinated into the giant monster movie genre by Mommy – including such Japanese fare as King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes – he was immediately drawn to the giant gorilla rampaging among the 25mm figures. While the Little Guy surveyed the table (and looked with glee at the as-yet-unrevealed wild animal miniatures the referee brought out for him) I glanced over the table and at the various gamey bits strewn along its margins. The game used the Valor & Steel & Flesh rules and seemed adequately complicated for Historicon, but a bit of a stretch for “children under 12 allowed with an accompanying adult player” as the event description noted in the program. The entire drive home I listened to the Little Guy talk about how he wanted to play a King Kong game in which he played the giant ape and moved around the table attacking all the smaller figures strewn across the jungle. Thus an idea was born.

I immediately began compiling a short list of essential components: figures, terrain, and, of course, some rules framework and associated accessories to facilitate gameplay with a younger audience (a subject of a recent Hobby Games Recce missive).

Kim Allman’s “Jungle Gods” game at Historicon 2014
I always try to use “toys” I already own for such projects. A ready stock of useful bits await near my basement wargaming table from which I can easily draw pieces and terrain. I have a host of 54mm plastic figures from Armies in Plastic – Zulus, British infantry, Dervishes – from which I could draw various forces; the fact that they are single-tone plastic and larger than more traditional 25mm, hand-painted metal wargaming minis means they’re easier for little hands to manipulate and can sustain some rough play. I have some miniature “set pieces,” as I call them, wargaming terrain bits I can swap to different games, plus a vast piece of deep green felt dappled with browns and lighter greens for a basic play surface.

But I do not own many elements essential for such a showcase game. I need several bases covered in lush foliage made from aquarium plants and other fake greenery. A few marshy terrain sections would help, too. I’m not sure my Egyptian-style temple would work well in its non-ruined state as the centerpiece and repository for the key treasure. Luckily the local pet store carries a relatively inexpensive line of plastic aquarium plants and, if I want to spring for it, some adequate jungle-ruin pieces.

But, of course, the biggest challenge remains crafting a rules framework for defining the various groups exploring the Valley of the Ape and its numerous hazards, including the eponymous ape; much of this I intend to summarize on cards for each faction or foe.

Kim Allman’s “Jungle Gods” game at Historicon 2014
My ultimate goal is twofold: to create a game engine and wargaming terrain environment so the Little Guy and I (and maybe some friends, or Mommy) can enjoy some structured play with Daddy’s toys; and to create a game, brief rulebook, handouts, and an engaging visual tabletop wargaming display to run this as a kid-friendly convention event.

Without going into the details of game mechanics, I’m focusing on a few elements central to the experience of playing a danger-filled treasure hunt in deepest, darkest Africa:

Explorers: Each group of explorers has some pretty basic wargaming traits – movement rates, ranges and chances to hit targets – with some variations in those and a few special advantages, all with a decent degree of balance. Some can move through otherwise impassible jungle terrain and can take cover from other groups in that terrain, potentially negating successful hits. Others have increased ranges and chances to hit. I’ve done my best to balance these advantages, though I expect I’ll note some disparities during actual play. Although they can attack each other at long range or in close combat, they can only attack the giant ape at long range.

Giant Ape: I found a large plastic ape figure which, while not to really monstrous scale, will suffice as “Mungo” (a slight change lest my use of “King Kong” in any capacity rouse the ire of the copyright infringement trolls). The referee – or I expect my Little Guy – will end up controlling his actions, with a basic, programmed urge to move to and attack the nearest party, or the one which last attacked at a distance. He can only attack a group after moving into contact with it, not a huge difficulty given a 12-inch move allowance, twice as much as the explorers. He inflicts 1d6 hits (not sure if I’ll allow the better of two die rolls to give him a slightly more lethal advantage), eliminating one explorer figure for each hit (with the exception of the big game hunter, who can take three hits) before sending the survivors fleeing six inches toward the nearest table edge (giving them some help in retreating further from Mungo if they want). I’ve decided he can take up to 30 hits before he’s defeated, meaning I can use a recently acquired, large d30 to track hits.

Hazards and Treasures: I initially decided that the explorers who delivered the fatal attack defeating Mungo win the game. This might make games extremely focused and thus quite short, discouraging players from maneuvering around the terrain. I’ve devised a mechanic to encourage players to send their explorers across the board seeking treasure and inadvertently uncovering additional hazards. I’m using a “blind” system of cards, each with an “X marks the spot” graphic on the back, but containing either treasure or a hazard on the other side. Treasures give players victory points while hazards cause their forces to take damage or lose a turn; in some cases hazards might introduce smaller monsters (like a T-rex or giant octopus, depending on any extra toys I acquire) to roam the table like Mungo. Defeating the giant ape, of course, would bring in the most points, with all other treasures and defeated monsters granting smaller rewards that might add up and enable someone to win the game without vanquishing Mungo.

We’ll see how this develops; perhaps some previews or in-progress work might find its way to Hobby Games Recce. If it all comes together, I’ll compile the rules and player handouts into a small booklet for general distribution; but first I need rules on paper, more terrain, those hazard cards, and a few games with the Little Guy to see how things work out.


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