No one is sure why, one day, rapper Paul Alborough decided it would be a good idea to put on a pith helmet and start producing songs about the oddities of being British. But he did and so the character of Professor Elemental was born.
A huge star within the world of SteamPunk, the Professor has since released albums, his own movie, and even popped up in Disney cartoons. Now he is releasing his first board game. Inspired by the 2015 album ApeQuest and created by game designer Mark Powell, ApeQuest: The Search For Geoffrey was fully backed on Kickstarter and hit all of its stretch goals. Having recently been shipped, it’s time to dive into the world of the Professor and go in search of your missing ape butler, Geoffrey.
The game looks and feels gorgeous. Everything about the components, from the art to the materials used, is top quality. In fact, it looks so good it’s a bit of a shame the artist’s name isn’t highlighted. Board games are a collaborative effort, and the ones that are great are only that way because of every creative person involved. That being said, it’s hard to find the name of the creator anywhere, either. If this game does receive a second printing, it would be great to see those names on the cover. (It would also be nice to see the game’s title on the sides of the box, too. It’s much easier to find them on the shelf that way.)
As this is such a pretty game, it does create a slight issue. Many avid board gamers like to sleeve their cards, the little plastic pockets protecting them from the wear and tear which happens during normal play. Sadly, the size of many of the cards are not one of many ‘standard’ sizes you can get sleeves for. This isn’t a feature that will bother casual players, but it is a bit of an annoyance to those who like to protect and preserve their game components.
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So, it’s beautifully produced, but a game is only as good as its mechanics. How does ApeQuest stack up? It’s a simple card based system, and will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Escape the Dark Castle. You choose your character – one of six alternative universe Professors – deal out a random end boss and 15 cards to encounter, and encounter each card one at a time. Before going any further, a very quick note on the choice of Professors. It’s lovely to see that the designers have avoided a Rik and Morty style alternative universe design i.e. the same professor with a different haircut, eyepatch, or funny hat. Instead the characters are different genders and ethnicities. This was surprising and refreshing, and maybe even shows a lack ego on the part of Alborough.
There are a few niceties as well. The dual layer character boards are great, allowing players to track their different weapons as well as their Hit Points and Battery Level using simple dials. There is also a Malfunction Cog. Powell has substituted the usual dice with ‘malfunction cards’, each asking a player to move a cog either clockwise or anti-clockwise a random number of times. It’s cute, but the novelty can wear off fairly quickly. It’s a great way to keep the price of the game down, but there is a lot to be said for a couple of eight sided dice, especially when you have to turn over two or more cards at a time. Still, it does allow for a bit of a customisation of a few of the powers of the Professors, which is nice. These cogs do present another slight reservation: the colours chosen. There was a little confusion amongst some players about which sections were red. This is only a very minor issue; it just feels like a slightly more aesthetic rather than practical choice was made during the design process.
There is one hefty problem with the rules. The game has a very neat way of dealing with more and more players as each Professor brings with themselves a replacement butler. In the game you get six different butlers to play with, each printed on transparent film that lets you stack them on enemies, increasing the bad guys’ statistics. Obviously, if these butlers were any good we wouldn’t be looking for Geoffrey in the first place, and so they generally get in the way, meaning that the more butlers you have, the more difficult it is to deal with many of the challenges. An elegant way of creating scalable challenges. However, the way butlers can be stacked can be easily exploited by larger parties. Without going into too much detail, the addition of the simple house rule ‘There may never be more than one more butler stacked on HP than on Attack, or visa-versa’ seems to deal with it. Without this rule, after about three players the game potentially poses no real challenge.
Final verdict: is it any good? Firstly, this is a game that knows its target audience. Every card or weapon is a reference to one of Professor Elemental’s lyrics. Which is what you expect, and even those in our group of players who didn’t know the Professor’s music were amused by weapons such as ‘Angry Ferrets with Hammers’ or ‘Aunt Fanny’s Horn’. So though this is a game aimed at people already familiar with Elemental’s back catalogue, it’s surprisingly accessible. However, there isn’t a huge amount of depth in this game. The combat is pretty good once you add in the above house rule, but the random events, which in essence boil down to turning over a malfunction card and seeing what damage you take, can feel pretty arbitrary. Though it’s a fun distraction, ApeQuest is perhaps lacking the capacity to make players want to keep coming back.
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Which is a shame. Over the last decade Alborough has created a wonderful universe full of whimsy and charm. It’s one that we should all want to spend time in. This game feels like it’s just waiting for some expansions adding diversity and a bit more complexity. Items that allowed Professors to interact with each other, divergent timelines, perhaps the ability to peek ahead… who knows? Professor Elemental has a loyal and – more importantly – creative fan base. Perhaps ApeQuest could be a canvas for those fans to really get messy. Despite being one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time, the true key to Gloomhaven’s success was the fans’ input. There may well be the opportunity for something like that here as well.
ApeQuest is a well crafted, beautifully made game. It’s accessible and easily learned. While in its current incarnation it might not have the endurance of some of your favourites, it certainly does have the potential to be something very special. And, if you’re a fan of Professor Elemental, it’s an absolute ‘must have’.
ApeQuest: The Search for Geoffrey is out now.