When I call Sandy Petersen’s Planet Apocalypse “trash,” please don’t take it as an insult. I mean it in the same way as when I call Petersen’s previous game Cthulhu Wars “trash,” or the 2001 action-adventure film The Musketeer “trash.” These things, these artifacts of culture, they were never going to escape the dumpster. So instead, they leaned into it. They wrapped their feet in banana peels and armored themselves with spent diapers. They forced Tim Roth to swagger around in leathers and feathers, wearing that eye patch, speaking those lines. That’s their whole appeal. To be so bad that they circle around on themselves, like the fathomless plains of hell, venturing not quite into the territory of good, but perhaps into worth a laugh.
I may have tipped my hand there. Oh well. At least I have some serviceable pictures of the game’s miniatures.
If you’re looking for a motif to this review’s sequence of images, here it is: each picture gets bigger, madder, chunkier, with more spines, appendages, and gooey parts than the one before. This is Planet Apocalypse’s aesthetic, from skin to marrow, setup to breakdown. Its smallest creatures are multi-faced insectoid aberrations and what appears to be an impaled head riding a dong that’s sprung to life and decided to have an animated conversation about why you aren’t a true fan of your favorite band. The larger monsters tower over your heroes like college kids picking on kindergartners. Its rulebook explains why the demons have faces on their bums.
And really, it’s hard not to be drawn into its total commitment to such goofiness. The world has been overrun by demons, you see. No, not only that; the world knew about the possibility of demonic invasion, so they preempted Old Sticks himself by training occult warriors. Except the occult warriors went oopsie and imploded and turned into hell-portals. Now you’re the last defenders, occult warriors even more occult than the last guys. The occulter warriors. The occultest.
Yeah. This knob went past eleven.
I appreciate a game that doesn’t know where the line is drawn. In this case, the line was somewhere between dice game that takes multiple hours to play and dice game that doesn’t offer many meaningful decisions. Planet Apocalypse hurtled over the line, grabbed the ribbon, slugged the referee in the chops, and now it’s somewhere mid-country.
The whole thing can be summed up by what I said to my friends when we initially sat down to learn how to play: “First, everyone needs to roll a d4 to see how much currency you have.” It was shorthand; the roll wasn’t really for currency. Influence, more like. In addition to being a game about heroes punching demons and vice versa, it’s also a game that approximates the tower defense genre. Monsters appear at one end of the map — it’s more of a track — and march to the other side. If they exit into the city at the far end, they sow doom and discord. To rain on their parade, it’s possible to seed their path with ambushes by citizen militia, soldiers, special ops, anyone dumb enough to think a firearm has an appreciable chance of injuring a demon with a facebum. To hire these helpers, you need influence. Influence is randomly determined by a roll. Hence the instruction.
This isn’t a particular complaint. In Planet Apocalypse, everything is determined via roll. When demons march into a new space, they’re fired upon by its defenders with a roll. When you attack demons, you roll to hit, sometimes up-scaling your attacks from d4 to d6 to d8 and onward with a little help from your friends. When demons attack you, they draw a card. Gotcha! They roll for it. The most interesting roll is the one that spawns demons in the first place, the dice doubling up to make little portals. Whoever came up with that during the design process deserves a hearty slap on the back. You could, in theory, take the results and count how many doubles you rolled. Instead, every single time I’ve rolled for a new cohort of demons, I’ve matched up the dice to better show the resultant portals. Why? For the same reason I place the demons so that they face toward their goal, rather than scattering them haphazardly in their space. The spectacle is the point.
At any rate, it’s a lot of rolling. If every action undertaken by the game’s players were aggregated and compiled on a pie chart, the portion for rolling would resemble Pac-Man. Which is why it’s a good thing that Sandy Petersen understands the pleasure of throwing around handfuls of dice — and how to manipulate them.
Anyone who’s played Cthulhu Wars or its overly fastidious descendant Glorantha: The Gods War will recognize the character mats. Petersen is up to familiar tricks here. In addition to hiring goons to fire upon any demonic intruders and occasionally soak up damage, characters also earn “gifts,” traded for courage tokens earned from the slaying of monsters. These cover slots on the character mat, themselves upgrades in their own right. Between upgrades both personalized and generic, characters take on shapes of their own, albeit predetermined shapes. Over time, characters may gain new attack dice or upgrade existing ones. A healer with a puny d4, an attack so flimsy it won’t even touch anything meatier than the game’s smallest pair of critters, might finish with a pair of d10s. Abilities are unlocked. Health pools are deepened. Free goons are pressed into service because your hero learned how to plaster on the charm.
Courage tokens are the game’s principal economy. They can make up for a poor influence roll, let players upscale each other’s dice in a fight, purchase gifts, or trigger other bonuses. This shouldn’t be oversold; Planet Apocalypse revels in its chanciness, and never lets players go too far in spending their way out of a tight spot. But that’s part of what makes the game work. Missed a crucial roll? Perhaps your hero is dead and you’ll be bringing in somebody new. Perhaps a massive horde of untouchable fiends appeared too early. Perhaps the face-off with the final boss wiped your whole team. The game allows you to improve your odds without ever fully mitigating them. And why should it? This isn’t fine dining. It’s fast food.
Which is why it’s hard to escape the deep-fried greasiness of the thing. The spectacle is intense, all those towering plastic figures trampling across the landscape, but it isn’t long before the zoo’s exhibits begin to repeat. There are four basic minions, two of them fodder, two requiring stiffer rolls to send home. Every so often a tougher monster issues forth, followed by a boss. In true Kickstarter fashion, the base box contains only two of the former and one of the latter.
That gives way to my wider complaint. When I was in grade school, someone brought a Games Workshop catalog filled with Warhammer 40,000 figurines. We goggled at its full-color pages through two recesses. The spectacle almost scrambled our young minds. How many permutations of space marine could there be? How many tanks? How many skulls on how many epaulets? The prices were far beyond our reach. We were forced to imagine what kind of game could produce such variety. Surely it was the most insane thing ever. Trashy. Over the top. Spectacle for its own sake.
The rulebook for Planet Apocalypse is only one-third a rulebook. The remainder is a catalog. Every monster offered by the expansions, every hero, every map. And it isn’t impossible that some of those things are transformative. Maybe they’re more interesting. Maybe they demand subtler strategic approaches. Maybe they’re less easily undone by ambushes, careful sorties, an early strike against the boss to amass courage tokens, and lots of dice. Maybe they make the game feel less like a short video on repeat and more like the grand dumpster dive a kid flipping through its full-color pages would imagine.
Maybe. I wouldn’t know, since I haven’t played beyond the initial offering. But I doubt it.
Earlier this week, I wrote that “some games lean on mounds of plastic to lend volume to their whimpering.” I wouldn’t call Planet Apocalypse a whimper. It’s too aware of its excesses for that. It never commits the sin of sobriety. It’s a full-throated romp, rolling around in the muck and loving it.
But it isn’t what I’m looking for when I play games. It isn’t even what I’m looking for when I want to play something trashy. It’s big and goofy, but played a little too straight for its own good, too straitjacketed to a formula it doesn’t quite utilize, too starry-eyed about selling expansions and not with making me want to play enough to actually care about what they might offer. I showed up for the spectacle. I left because the spectacle never figured out that size only goes so far.
A complimentary copy was provided.