03 August 2022
Words by Marcus Wheeler. Photos by The Author and The Editor
This looked like a fun party game at Salute so Mr Wheeler has brought it here to the readership so we can all have a go! Miniature Wargames Magazine Ed.
Can there be many show game concepts that start with a mechanic? I’ll hazard a guess that the answer is not many.
When bending my thoughts to a show game proposal back in November 2017, I had come up with a few “Oh, I could do that...” type ideas, but nothing that really fired my imagination. One evening after I had put the children to bed, I turned on the television and I had a revelation. I saw something that immediately made me think: “I want to do that!”. Some fantastic sci-fi or spy film inspiration perhaps? Guess again. What I saw in the next twenty seconds was an advert for a popular, children’s classic board game. So classic in fact, that I had never heard of it, although subsequently, people have commented on the relationship to the original game.
THE ORIGINAL MECHANIC
Designed by Max J. Kobbert, Labyrinth has a board that consists of a seven-by-seven grid of squares. While the corners and twelve other even spaced tiles are fixed, alternating even numbered rows and columns shift as a player inserts a tile at the start of their turn. The next player takes the tile that was pushed out by the last player. On the next players turn that tile is inserted in the same way. However, it cannot be reinserted into the position the tile previously vacated.
Really, that is all you need to know about Labyrinth but it was the inspiration behind the participation game that eventually resulted in our show game, however, it was the mechanic that initially struck me. Each player moves a miniature figure around the board seeking to visit tiles dictated by a randomly shuffled hand of encounter cards. There is a fantasy theme loosely pasted on to the game, and it has apparently been re-skinned for The Hobbit, Stars Wars IX (whatever that is…) and Harry Potter to name but a few.
Having searched for it on the iPad, my wife subsequently saw it and said, “That looks like a good game. Let’s get it for the boys for Christmas”. A month or so later my youngest, being barely at school then, managed to beat us all in our first twenty-minute game. That experience said this to me: the game is interesting, easy to grasp and quick. I really need to do it.
My natural first thought was to follow the fantasy theme and do a dungeon bash. I quickly moved on to thinking about Indiana Jones. However, if your childhood reading ever encompassed the slightly wacky Biggles Charter Pilot (giant crabs, troglodytes and lost ‘crusader knights’…) the hunt for Aztec gold in Biggles and the Cruise of the Condor or the outright pulp of Biggles Hits the Trail (Tibetan monks seeking to control the world with vicious, electrically controlled, maggots?) you will realize that Biggles didn’t just defy the Hun, Swastika and latterly the Soviet bloc (to name but a few): he could in fact be seen as something of a proto-Indiana Jones character, albeit more pilot than professor! And British, I tell you sir! British!
Of course, the tile shifting mechanic used in the original game isn’t supposed to represent terrain that is actually moving (although maybe it could in an Egyptian or Aztec tomb… we have all seen some films like that!). Rather it is designed as a system meant to simulate the difficulty of quickly finding a route through an unknown location. That’s what I wanted to interpret for the game.
ON TOP OF THE WORLD, MA!
And so Biggles and the Island at the Top of the world was born. The title took a modicum of inspiration from the 1974 film: The Island at the Top of the World: the sort of film often associated with Doug McClure and Edgar Rice Burroughs, (of whom more anon), except good old Doug isn’t in this one and the book that film was actually based on was by one Ian Cameron.
The game is set in the north of the Svalbard archipelago (although I did consider a Greek myth setting somewhere around the Mediterranean). It has Biggles and Co.; Nazi’s (who else?) some NKVD and a lost tribe of Vikings and the team are searching for a lost professor and/or a mythical artifact. The Vikings are fighting to retain this ancient artifact, which resides in an underground – and suitably labyrinthine – temple complex. They wish to recover this geegaw intact.
For my labyrinth I settled on creating square tiles with side measurements of 170mm. Although the sixteen fixed tiles were cut from MDF, I later switched to laser cut acrylic for the sliding tiles. This was to keep the weight down as well as facilitate the sliding movement of the rows and columns.
Walls were constructed of pink insulation foam inscribed with a pencil to show and ancient stone block construction, or occasionally cut to resemble bare rock tunnels. The floors were similarly inscribed on Depron plastic foam pizza bases. Sadly, Depron no longer seems to accompany these (sometimes) tasty treats, but I had saved up a significant supply (the sacrifices we gamers make for our hobby... Ed.). Depron can still be purchased from modelling material and craft suppliers (or eBay. Ed.).
There are three basic tile types: “L” shaped corridors and straight corridors both have two entrances. The “T” junctions naturally have three entrances. While in the board game these tiles appear only as passages or corridors, in our game I made some of them rooms with the entrances positioned as they would have been for the three corridor tile types. A special “secret chamber” tile was made with just the one entrance. This gave more room and scope for action and scenery as required.
I used a lot of filler and pumice texture (Vallejo 26.213 – which I also use extensively for basing figures) to fill in gaps. I then painted it all with household emulsion, washed with acrylics (large pots from an art supplier not expensive modelling paints) and finished up with aerosols.
The non-moving, surrounding scenery was made from expanding household foam (the sort used to seal pipes into walls etc). I used this to create access or volcanic tunnels into the corner tile starting positions. I sprayed the foam around cardboard toilet-roll tubes which I removed after the foam had set. All the outer scenery was glued on to carve-able, 3mm thick plastic foam-board (not foamex), a material which is not unlike a thick credit card. It sounded like ‘not much work’ when I started, but it did end up taking a while. The painting process could probably be achieved a lot more quickly outside, in the summer.
A note on the glue I used: I employed Gorilla Glue, which I have not used before, but it was excellent for this project, bonding the polystyrene and Depron to both MDF and acrylic. Glue one surface, wet the other surface and press together for 15 minutes of so. I usually put the pieces under a brick to maintain the pressure until set.
For the lava effects I used bits of the gel blood handprints often seen at Halloween for sticking to windows.
These came from various sources. The Soviets are Artizan Soviet Scouts (SWW414-7) plus their leader from the Bolshevik Heroines (BC17). The Vikings came from Crusader Miniatures, but I am not sure which packs. Biggles party included a variety of manufacturers: Artizan again Capt. Biggleswade (PLP015), Copplestone American Adventurers (BC05) and Pulp Miniatures (PHP04 & 11). All the Nazi’s came from Lucid Eye’s Savage Core range. Yetis are also from Copplestone (BC09). Deep One’s from Crucible Crush Masters of Devil Reef (CC-33001). The Prof. came from Crusader Miniatures Partisan Commanders (WWP054).
All the figures were bought through North Star Military Figures in the UK except for the Lucid Eye range which I purchased direct although they can also be purchased from North Star. The treasure piles scattered around came from Bad Squiddo as Cursed fantasy Treasure Piles and Scotia Grendel with their Treasure Piles (10038).
Naturally, for a wargames show participation game, I needed to add some fisticuffs and hazards for the four participants to over-come. The following rules should only be treated as rough guide which evolved as we progressed in running games. Feel free to extemporize based on any other factors you might wish to introduce or leave out of such a game. I have created a downloadable set of cards which – by printing them out twice – will give you enough for the game.
Biggles & Company:
- Primary: Rescue the Prof.
- Secondary: Prevent anyone escaping with the mythical “Ragnarök” stone.
- Prevent anyone escaping with the stone.
Von Stalhein’s Nazi’s:
- Escape with the stone. It is a Catastrophic Defeat if NKVD escape with it.
- Escape with the stone. It is a Catastrophic Defeat if Nazi’s escape with it.
The Ragnarök stone, the Professor and Von Stalhein are initially located in a secret room: the Ragnarök chamber. The players need to collect clues to enable them to access this hidden chamber. They have three actions which can be combined in any order.
Each party has 10 x d6 dice. Typically, these include a number of red dice for main characters. All the other dice were green. The red dice require two simultaneous hits to be removed and normally the ordinary dice are removed first. I suggest including just two red dice for each party unless you want to try asymmetric party sizes. If this appeals, then (to balance) the smaller a party is, then the more red dice they should have. You could also consider giving Vikings no red dice, but just constantly re-cycling them and/or “spawning” them in groups from random locations in the complex. Once the number of dice falls below the number in the group you must begin to remove figures.
Initially, in each turn, deal one of four regular playing cards numbered 1-4 to each of the players. This determines turn order (although any other quick method of determining turn order will work equally well). Each player takes actions in this initiative order:
Firstly, the active player must take the 50th tile on the table, which was pushed out of the map last turn, and then inserts it into one of the moveable rows or columns. To prevent unavailable moves, our scenery blocked off any ineligible placements with cliff faces. This action pushes one tile out. Players must not insert a tile back where it came from in the previous turn, so we marked this with a counter (when we remembered!).
There are no clues in the outer row/columns, so a successful search there can only discover a secret passage. A discovered passage will always lead through a wall to an adjacent tile (not on a diagonal) but does not remain in place after use. A group can only search twice per turn.
You cannot search and initiate fisticuffs
- Move one group one tile. You can use two actions per turn on moving.
- Only once per turn. Roll all (currently remaining) dice. Hit on a 6.
- One side exceeds the hits of the other: the defeated lose dice equal to the difference between their total and the winner’s total. The loser is also pushed back one tile. If they cannot retreat they lose an additional dice.
- Equal: lose one dice each.
- All combat is close combat in that it takes place in the same tile unless a card specifies an exception.
- Search for a clue or secret passage. Roll 2d6. You cannot search if another party is on the same tile. You can use two actions per turn on searching.
- Search Results on 2d6 and add them together:
If Yetis or Fishmen exceed the number of hits against a group, they abduct one random member of the party (or two members if they exceed their opponents by two hits). The party lose a dice, although this can be regained if a character is recovered. Non-characters are not recoverable, and the dice is permanently lost unless a card dictates otherwise. Abductees may be found in found in the treasure chamber or elsewhere on entering a tile if resulting from card play.
To access the Ragnarök chamber a player needs to roll greater than 6 on a d6, plus one for each clue discovered. Once found however it is accessible to everyone in the subsequent round. Players can only roll in the turn after they have discovered two or more clues. If successful, the chamber is located adjacent to the search attempt on an unoccupied tile (random selection, but preferably one without figures on. If necessary move the figures to an adjacent tile). Swap in the treasure chamber or alternatively just insert the appropriate characters and scenery on to an existing tile. I created a special tile with just the one entrance.
ON THE WAY OUT…
If another party has acquired the stone a player can still take it away before they leave the complex. If they lose a combat (including to the Denizens of the caves), they will lose either the stone or a prisoner, such as the Prof. or Von Stalhein, if they have one. Roll a d6 to determine this:
1: Nothing happens.
2-3: Prisoner’s escape.
4-6: Group winning combat acquires the stone and prisoners belonging to their party.
If the Denizens would have acquired the stone, it can be found by searching the tile where the group lost it with a simple 50% chance of success (4,5,6 on a d6). Any prisoners escape in the confusion.
I would suggest keeping the search tokens and adding them to search rolls on the way out to facilitate exiting the labyrinth. You could even consider possibly keeping the complex static after the stone has been stolen: this reflects the situation where the explorers have at least become more familiar with the layout. Indiana Jones took time to get into the complex at the start of “Raiders…” but made his way out rather quickly!
The downloadable cards give various bonuses or allowed players to temporarily do something nasty to an opponent.
BIGGLES ASKS WHY?
Now you may be thinking that’s all very interesting “…but why would he do this?” And – more importantly perhaps – why would you do it? It is indeed an awful lot of effort to play this game. If all you could do was confined to the limits of the above then I would agree with you dear reader. Let me however direct you to the first few paragraphs of this article: dungeon bash; Indiana Jones; Star Wars; and Harry Potter: they all get a mention. And that is the tip of the Svalbardian iceberg so to speak!
The core of this article isn’t really in showcasing the Biggles game, although it would be churlish not to do so (after all, we did win “Best Fantasy/Sci Fi participation Game” at Salute don’t you know, old chap!). It is really about the labyrinth mechanic which inspired it.
But ... the effort to build all those 170 mm square tiles, really? And they wouldn’t fit on the kitchen table anyway. Yes, I did make the effort and you will be astonished to learn my kitchen table isn’t big enough either! I had to lay the game out on a ground sheet in the garden to make sure it all went together and blend the outer terrain together with a touch of spray paint. Consequently, I have also been working on a smaller version, because I want to be able to play it at home and not just at Maidstone Wargames Society club meetings.
So why would I want to do that? Because it is so flexible! And I don’t mean bendy. The system provides a “bolt on” mechanic that – once you have suitable scenery – you could use in a wide variety of games.
After all, what is this game but a series of tunnels, corridors and chambers? Isn’t that like many of our favourite forms of fantasy and sci-fi? It fits the cheap ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s period BBC sets seen in Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 just as well as all the more lavish productions of Star Trek, from the Original Series onward. We have already discussed the pulp genre, but I include the original Flash Gordon too. And while secret agents might not readily spring to mind, since I do like my Spy-Fi (anyone who has read my article Snowfall in Miniature Wargames 392 will know that) how about Enter the Dragon or the maze sequences in The Man With the Golden Gun?
A couple of years ago I went looking for, and found, some cheap coasters at one of the ubiquitous home furnishing stores near me. They were £2 for a pack of six coasters in the sale. I bought 10 packs. You will immediately note that I had bought enough to make the 50 tiles required for a smaller scale game with some left over to experiment and make extra tile features. If you are playing a smaller game with just a couple of characters a side or likely to be on a tile at any time, then the 110mm square standard coaster size will make a tile suitable for 28mm figures, as long as you make the walls too thick. They don’t have to be constructed to look like thick granite blocks. In 15-20mm you get a comparable space to the 28mm game on the 170mm tiles, if not bigger.
If you are replicating a spy theme, In the aforementioned, Bond driven Scaramanga’s Fun House had lots of surreal features, and mirrors features significantly at the end of Enter the Dragon. Such features could be incorporated into such a construction, especially if you just do a few odd extra feature tiles. “The Avengers” and “New Avengers” featured similar environments in some episodes (I was going to suggest The House that Jack Build from The Avengers TV series too. Ed.)
They could also be used in a cyberpunk setting. Why not construct a set based on the same configuration but featuring circuit-board symbology? This could be used for cyber-space avatars, or a game along the lines of the John Pertwee Dr. Who episode Carnival of Monsters; or even something like the film Tron.
After taking this game to Cavalier (2020) Salute (2020/1) and Broadside (2021), I intend to play some Pulp Alley games on this terrain. It will bolt on perfectly given the right scenario. Any similar game could benefit in the right circumstances.
Finally, the design will allow me to do something I have been wanting to do for a long time. Back in 1983 I found a book in the local library and couldn’t put it down. I read the whole series. That book was The Mastermind of Mars, the sixth book in Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian Chronicles. I have long wanted to do a game based on this series but couldn’t quite work out how I wanted to do it. Now I have. In fact, if I had thought about it sooner, Biggles might never have made it to Salute, although I am glad he did. Nevertheless, when Biggles has run its course, and Pulp Alley has also been played on the tiles, the Labyrinth will be repainted and re-purposed as Barsoom. Who knows, you may even see The Labyrinths of Mars at a show one day or check out the Maidstone Wargames Society Blog where I am sure some labyrinthine Pulp Alley action and Barsoom will appear in due course.
Maidstone Wargames Society Blog: brigademodels.co.uk/mws/blog
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