Disc-overy – Discworld: Ankh-Morpork review

Let’s go back into the days of pre-history, also known as the late 1980s. While the lads would play football on the school field and the girls wandered about in terrifying gangs, I spent the vast majority of my lunch breaks in the school library. Me and my best mate would help out the librarian by covering books in sticky backed plastic, polishing our prefect badges proudly, talking about what we’d been listening to, watching on telly and – of course – reading.

One day he brought in something for me to check out. The cover was ridiculous, huge orcs gazing down on some sort of chest with… are those legs? I read The Colour of Magic in less than a day and moved on The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites and more. A long time adoration of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series was born that still lives on. The books may well have gone years ago, but they’ve been replaced by a stack of files on my Kindle.

Now I have another love: games. When I heard earlier in the year that a couple of games based on the Discworld were due for release, I had to get them on my table. The first to be released was the rather splendid Guards! Guards! from Z-Man Games – but now I also have a copy of Discworld: Ankh-Morpork. And goodness me: it’s really quite excellent.

The... ahem... 'fragrant' city of Ankh-Morpork, in which we make our play.

Designed by the legendary Martin Wallace, the game isn’t actually based on any of the books in the series – a new backstory has been created specifically for the game. Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, has gone missing. Rather than wait for him to return (which he does, as he’s actually just hiding), some powerful characters throw themselves into a struggle to take control of the proud yet pestilent city.

The seven potential roles you'll begin the game with. Different objectives mean you'll need to get thinking quickly as you try and work out what everyone else is up to.

The game begins with every player taking on a role, each of which has a secret objective. Manage to attain that in your turn, be it having a certain amount of money, control over regions of the city or just running the card deck out and victory is yours. As always, it sounds simple – but this is the Discworld! Nothing is easy in such a chaotic environment…

The game is driven by a deck in which each card has one or symbols at the top. These icons signify what each card will allow you do, the trick being to combine as many as possible to gain an advantage over your opponents. Be warned though – you’ll only be allowed to play more than one card if you have a symbol that allows you to do so!

Other symbols allow you to place new minions (needed to take control of the areas on the board) or assassinate them. You can put up buildings (which allow you to pull a bonus ability card for the area you’ve built in), gain extra money, clean up trouble – more on that in a minute – or perform the text action that’s on the card. These are all optional though; you work your way across the top of the card from left to right, performing or skipping the actions in order.

Check out the symbols at the top of the cards - they make up the engine that drives the game.

There’s one symbol you can’t ignore: the Star. It represents a Random Event and if you play a card with a star showing, you immediately draw from the small stack of cards marked with the same design. These cards are Officially Not Good – every single one has an effect on the game, some minor, some ridiculously brilliantly awful. There could be a dragon which swoops down and wipes out everything in a single area. Perhaps trolls or demons will invade the board (though these can be treated like minions and moved by players). Perhaps worst of all is the Riot card which automatically ends the game if there’s too much trouble in the city…

Trouble is a very important thing in Ankh-Morpork. If you move a minion into an area where another one already resides, you automatically add a Trouble marker to that space. This is both a good and bad thing; an area in trouble means that a player may assassinate an enemy minion if a played card allows it. However, while trouble’s afoot, no buildings can be constructed. Timing and planning are key – you need to wipe out the opposition and build in an area before anyone else can because those advantages are really very useful.

A selection of Random Events, many of which are bloody horrible. Riots are especially bad - too much trouble on the board and they can kill the game immediately!

Gameplay rattles along at a decent pace, especially once you know what the various symbols represent – thankfully crib-sheets are included in the package to assist. As with many games of this style, getting a lock on which cards will help you achieve your objective is pretty useful, but those of us who are more than a little forgetful aren’t at a huge disadvantage – just check out what you’ve got in your hand and manipulate the cards however you can to try and get that edge.

As you’d expect from a Martin Wallace game, it’s solid as anything to play. Folks who aren’t fans of Terry Pratchett’s stories will find a well put together strategy game, but if you have even the slightest interest in the Discworld you’ll appreciate it so much more due to the incredible effort that has been put in to the artwork and use of characters. Every single card in the draw deck has a different person (or group or place or… thing) taken from the universe realised in beautiful style by a truly talented team of artists.

The best thing though? That board. The moment I first saw it a few months ago at the UK Games Expo, I wanted one for myself. Not a board to play on but one to put in a big frame and put on my wall. Now, however, when I pull it out of the box I realise that not only is it beautiful, it’s actually part of a great game that brings me back to those days in the library. It reminds me of my first forays into Terry’s books, those characters he has created that entertained me so much (and still do today).

Without that link, Ankh-Morpork is an entertaining game that many people will certainly enjoy. With even the smallest connection though? It’s elevated to something superb, helping you recall stories enjoyed by countless millions as you try to wrestle control of the city where so many of those tales take place. One of my favourite games of the year so far.

Ankh-Morpork was designed by Martin Wallace with artwork from Bernard Pearson, Peter Dennis, Ian Mitchell and Paul Kidby. Released in 2011 by Wallace’s Treefrog Games in conjunction with Esdevium Games, it’s available now at around £30 / $40 for the standard edition – though Gameslore have it for £25! Two other versions of the game (Collectors and Deluxe) are also available for pre-order from the Treefrog site, but this Standard edition is perfect if you just want to get on and play now. So go get it!

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