The Case Study: Following Up on Feedback

Changing a game’s theme is risky. Parts of the design were shaped around the previous theme; they might not fit the new one. Through the Jungle has proven to suffer from this issue, and I’ve been putting thought into how to fix it.

At its inception Through the Jungle was a game about traversing a no-man’s-land between World War I trenches, trying to sneak across in the darkness while avoiding searchlights. In that context it was perfectly sensible for the searchlights to move quickly, steadily, and in more-or-less predictable patterns.

When I refitted the game with the current evade-hunting-animals theme, I retained the movement system designed for searchlights. That seemed reasonable from a gameplay perspective—it was tried and tested. Board gamers often hear that games are re-themed by their publishers after the rules are set in stone; I figured that since I was going to be wearing the publisher hat, I could do as they did.

Unfortunately, the results weren’t quite what I was hoping for. Jay has accurately pointed out that the current way movement is handled doesn’t feel right for animals. They’re sweeping about at a constant pace (don’t the animals ever slow down to investigate something more carefully, or speed up to give chase?), over all forms of terrain (picking a path through overgrown jungle doesn’t slow them down? Climbing a steep cliff doesn’t either?). I’d fallen into the dreaded trap that makes board gamers sigh when they hear about publishers altering a game’s theme at the end of the process: the new theme was merely pasted on.

There was another problem as well. It was perfectly logical for searchlights to be able to catch multiple people; if one illuminates them all, they’re all busted. Jay noted that it makes a lot less sense for an animal to be able to do that. Presumably it only has one set of jaws with which to drag prey back to its lair.

In response to this feedback I’ve tried two modifications to the game:

1. Animals only “see”—i.e., can capture—in front of them, and “pounce on”—move into the space of—the first adventurer they spot. This was immediately unsatisfactory; most of the time the animals were still moving like searchlights.

2. As above, but with everything taking place at a smaller scale: the board is 10 x 10 rather than 20 x 20, animals move three spaces (with the chance at an extra “pounce” move), adventurers move two spaces. This sort of worked; having the animals move more slowly gave more of a feel of stalking prey, and sharply limiting the adventurers’ movement demonstrated that getting through the jungle was not easy.

However, this approach still had the animals moving in a very mechanical, arbitrary fashion. Furthermore, it’s not yet clear how rescuing should work: ought hearing ranges be reduced, just as the animals’ line of sight has been? It’s exceptionally difficult to arrange a safe rescue when adventurers only move two spaces; is that a valuable source of challenge, or is the game now just unwinnable?

Neither of those is likely to end up being the way Through the Jungle ultimately goes. Having things up in the air isn’t a bad thing, however. The game needed fresh eyes on it to progress, and now it’s getting them! Breaking Through the Jungle down is a vital step in building it back up better than it was.

Try the game out if you haven’t, and let me know what you think. For my part, I’ll be at the library. I need to do some reading on the hunting behavior of great cats . . . .

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