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A Quick Visit To Ankh Morpork...

Steve Berger
United Kingdom
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Over the weekend on the annual pilgrimage to the UK Games Expo, four of us from my local gaming group had the opportunity to try Ankh Morpork, a Martin Wallace Treefrog production due out later this year. These are my thoughts after that single play.

What Is The General Idea?
In Ankh Morpork, each player has a hidden identity, with a hidden goal. These range from having control of a certain number of districts, having $50 in cash and buildings, having a certain number of trouble markers in play, or running through the draw deck. There may have been one or two others as well.

What Is The Setup?
The setup for four players was that we each had a single minion in three districts, with trouble markers, five cards, some money (can’t remember how much, but I’d guess it was between 5 and 10), and a reserve of minions and buildings. Then you have the main draw deck, a face-up building card for each of the 12 districts, and a deck of chaotic event cards.

How Does It Look?
Well, accepting that this was a mock-up, the board art was good, although a few times mistakes were made about exactly were the boarders were between the districts due to the slightly irregular shapes, and the colours being fairly close. With no pieces on the board, it is obvious, but when it started to get cluttered, it was much harder to tell. I’m fairly sure that this will be much clearer in the finished game.

Each player also had a summary sheet, about A5, printed on both sides. These guides explained the buildings and their usage (each building had a particular ability, such as earning money each go, allowing for trouble marker placement, etc), the symbols on the top of the cards (don’t think Race For The Galaxy here – this was much simpler), and the various player roles. This was invaluable for our first play, but as the game moved on we were all referring to them less. The symbology itself is well thought out, and nobody had any problems playing cards. The card art is excellent, the minion pieces were solid, representing head and shoulders, and were steady on the board. The buildings, again wooden, looked good on the board, and although they are tall, the bases are wide enough to keep them easily upright.

Overall, apart from the problem mentioned above with district borders, it was easy to interpret the board, which is essential as this is the entire point of the game – you have to know how close players may be to reaching their goal, and fairly often this meant having a quick check. You can very easily see who has control, how many trouble markers are in play, and where the dangers are.

What Can You Do?
On your turn you play a card, work through it’s effects, and then redraw up to 5. If you had achieved your goal, this can only be announced at the very start of your turn. The cards, depending on the symbols, allow you to place minions, place a building, play additional cards, remove minions, draw event cards, and generally mess with one another. Keep going until someone wins, or the draw deck is depleted, in which case either the player with the role to do this wins, or it comes down to vp based on cash, buildings and minions.

How Does It Play?
Well, there is little or no downtime – of your hand of cards, you’ll only have two or three that you’ll want to play. Remembering to use the abilities of the buildings can mean some board analysis is required, and it is hard to pre-plan this as it is constantly changing from player to player. Often, you’ll be playing a card this turn to allow you to play another card next turn, hoping that nothing interferes with your play. There is an element of collective policing as all players need to react if another player could win, but this can be quite fun as you can bluff here as well – if you know that another player doesn’t have a particular objective then you can fool other players into reacting to it, knowing you don’t need to yourself. You can also force other players to react by declaring that you would help, but you don’t have the required cards.

Table talk was a major part of this game. Yes, it could be played in silence, but then that would rely on all players watching out for objectives, and would actually take some of the bluffing skill away. Trying to work out which objective each player is going for is part of the fun here.

There is a small amount of card chaining possible as a few cards allow you to play additional cards, and during the game there were five or six examples of well-chained card plays.

Playing time will vary greatly – theoretically a player could claim a victory in the first few turns, but this would probably be as a result of poor play by others. Our game was probably closer to an hour and a half, but it never overstayed it’s welcome.

Yes, but nothing deal breaking. On your turn chances are you add a minion – this symbol appears on a lot of cards. Adding a minion also adds a trouble marker if there are any other minions in the district. Where we got a little confused is we didn’t always remember to add the trouble markers, or didn’t remove them when minions were removed, or weren’t sure what to do when minions were shuffled about. We were surprised to discover later in the game that you add trouble when you add one of your own minions to an area with only your minions in. This would be second nature with more plays, but didn’t seem to be immediately obvious and simple.

The theme deck is totally chaotic. In our play, we went through the entire draw deck, but I didn’t use the theme deck once. Too often the result was just far too random. Any player drawing from this deck did so to a chorus of groans from the others. The first player to use it lost a building from doing it, and the second player had demons descend on his districts. The results of these cards tended to rely entirely on the roll of the d12, and with us all fairly evenly spread, they would be as likely to damage each player. This could have been easily mitigated by allowing the player drawing the card to make, say, three rolls and then choose a result. Either that, or the event deck should be part of the more powerful cards, so you gain a benefit, but it has an attached risk. This offset would make the risk worthwhile. The only practical use for this deck would be as a last-ditch effort to stop a player from winning.

Another issue is again related to cards – there are cards that allow you to swap hands around. Now to be fair I only remember one of these actually being played, but it deadens tactical play. There is little point trying to build a strategic hand for use later in the game – this causes you to play the good cards as soon as you can, and took a little bit of thought away. Slightly lazy card design, or there for a reason? To be fair to the game, if there is only one of these in the deck, as soon as it is played then it is most likely out of the game. I’d have liked to see more opportunity to chain card effects, but accept that this would come at the sacrifice of game balance with fewer players.

The Demons were used, but were a static presence in the game. They proved to be much more of a hindrance for players with objectives relating to area control, or trouble markers than those going for money or playing through the deck, but maybe this was seen as a necessary balancing mechanic. If so though, there is a fairly even chance they won’t appear at all during a game.

Time will tell if any particular role is any easier to complete. This obviously relies upon playtesting. We did manage to control one another quite successfully, and the player with the role requiring the deck to be exhausted did a very good job of keeping everyone busy whilst he burnt through cards at a rate of knots, but it will be interesting to see how this fairs when the general gaming public get hold of it.

This is a light, fun, interactive, area control game. It isn’t a heavy gamers game, and isn’t what I have come to associate Martin Wallace with, although I think his more recent games have been moving in this direction. The difficulty for me when playing games like this is that I do want to retain an element of control – if a game descends into chaos, then ultimately no matter how much fun it might be it won’t get played as it isn’t rewarding if it doesn’t satisfy the gaming urge. There is randomness in here, but you do keep some control. Amongst a gaming group, and over numerous plays, I can see the victories being easily dotted around the players. We kept very close check on one another, but one player did manage to reach two different win conditions by the start of the turn – it just turned out that neither were his.

I know this is probably slightly sensationalist, but from my limited understanding of these things, this could be Martin Wallace going for an SdJ nomination – the game is family friendly, is based on a popular series of books, and both visually and when playing, is a treat. In the UK this game will be available in Waterstones, which is a real coup. We have a very poor gaming market with very little High Street presence, and your average member of public has no idea that there is the variety of games available beyond the likes of scrabble and monopoly. I am excited at the possibility of families playing this at Christmas rather than the old faithfuls. I’m not trying to say that Martin Wallace has deliberately tried to create a game for the masses, but you could tell from the smiles on his, and the rest of the team’s faces that they’ve got high hopes for this one, and rightly so.

I have every intention of buying this game. There is are two different luxury editions also due, but if the pieces in the regular edition are the same as those at the demo, I’m happy to take it as is. I’m not a huge fan of the Discworld books, so the tie-in isn’t a big sell for me. I’ve read all of the early books, but lost interest over time. For me, this game is actually the best thing about the franchise. There are a few in-jokes in the Cards, but nothing to prevent a player who doesn’t have a clue about the Discworld series from having a thoroughly enjoyable time. It may even lead people into the books.

It is in the same grouping as games like Rattus in terms of weight. It doesn’t do anything new or striking, and blends a few existing ideas. Once you’ve played it through three or four times, you’ll be as good as you are going to ever be at it, but the replayability lies in the player interaction element. However, there are a few gamers I know that I wouldn’t play this with – it is, by it’s very nature, confrontational. There were as many accusations during this as we normally have in a game of Battlestar Galactica, and as many laughs as we’ve had from any game.
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