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Between Angels and Insects – Myrmes review

Myrmes COVER

Stuart “The Judge” Platt is back once again, this time checking out Myrmes. A Eurogame about the adventures of competing ant colonies, its been divisive to say the least… but which side of the fence will he fall on?

I tend to review games that I feel passionate about – one way or another. I find it easier to convey a strong sense of what makes a game great or dreadful through an overt emotional response. The following review is harder for me to quantify as I have mixed, and somewhat ambiguous feelings. So join me as I explore the good, the bad and the ugly of Myrmes.

There are several good videos and articles on the rules, so I shan’t cover them in detail here. For introductory purposes, however, Myrmes is a worker placement / spatial tile game where players control the fortune of an ant colony as it expands, all the while searching and competing for illusive Victory Points. The theme is novel and relatively unique (though the Fragor Brothers mined similar colonies with Antics) but does feel somewhat pasted over the top of an abstract mixture of mechanisms. Even the very attractive and well-presented board, and presence of small, detailed plastic ants that act as your workers and soldiers aren’t quite enough to make you invest in your troop of insects.

Myrmes PLAY

Players will place their Nurse Ant workers on a personal board to spawn larvae (a resource you’ll need along with dirt, stone and food) and recruit additional worker or soldier ants. The workers then either generate resources themselves from within the colony or venture out on a suicide mission into the big scary world beyond. I say suicide, because the worker is guaranteed to perish at the end of this trip, but has the option to kill ladybugs, spiders and other insects along the way. Upon dying, they drop a ‘pheromone trail’ tile (which I think is a boardgaming first) which will generate MORE resources to be harvested each turn.

Let’s look at the mechanisms in that last paragraph: Worker placement – Resources – Spend Resources – add tiles to board – Resources. This is a simple mechanical description, but a neat distillation of how it feels to play. It doesn’t feel like I’m expanding an ant colony – I’m doing A to B to C to make Victory Points, nothing more. Inherently this isn’t a problem as long as the game is captivating. Bora Bora, to quote a recent example, does this spectacularly well. (Actually, Bora’s more like A or B or C or D or E to make points – see my review for more). So it’s rubbish then? Not entirely.

So what is good? Well, the puzzle is interesting. The fact that (by default) you can only store 4 resources per turn is an interesting bottleneck – particularly when you consider that you are FORCED to harvest resources from each of your tiles every round. Without clever planning to use said goods, you will find yourself discarding the very little wooden cubes you were busting a gut to generate. In addition, a major source of victory points are the ‘missions’ which can be solved over the course of the game. The first person to claim a mission also gains a chunk of points any time another player solves the same mission after you. So earlier is good? Well, yes, but to claim a mission forces you to commit one of your Nurse pawns – a sacrifice that can severely reduce your effectiveness from turn to turn.

So things are pretty tight? Yes, actually. Even more so, when you consider that there are only 9 turns in the whole game – so every action counts.

Now, I can imagine someone reading that and saying “Yes! That sounds great – I love tough decisions” and so do I. Agricola often feels like you are pushing a large boulder uphill, and I like those pressure filled situations; that is one of the better elements of Myrmes.

"And *that* is how you end up with ants."

“And *that* is how you end up with ants.”

Anything else worthy of note? Well, I like the random “Special event” action mechanic. Each year (game round) a die is rolled for each season (turn.) This provides a special bonus on certain tasks – extra larvae when you collect larvae, bonus workers, access to larger pheromone tiles etc. Planning your turns around these variable bonuses requires medium-term planning to get the most efficient use out of your limited actions. Which would be lovely – if only the game were about 40% more fun.

Which is the single reason why I cannot recommend this game – it’s just not enough fun. Throughout the games 2 hour plus length, I couldn’t help but think of several other games of a similar run-time / depth / complexity which I would be rather playing instead.

Well, this has been a fairly wishy-washy review – which seems somewhat appropriate for such a wishy-washy game. It tries. It tries really, really hard and chucks lots of different ideas against the wall. Loads of disconnected mechanisms – all lightly sprinkled with an interesting theme – that ultimately falls well short of the sum of its own parts. I wanted to enjoy Myrmes. I was charmed by the idea of the theme and developing my own little colony – but it doesn’t hold together. In summation, the game is far too abstract, mechanical and uninvolving to capture my imagination, and there’s not enough here otherwise to allow me to overlook these failings.

I’ll be looking at Myrmes myself next week, but in the meantime if you’d still like to check out the game for yourself you can grab one from Gameslore for £34.99. The game was designed by Yoann Levet and is published by Ystari and Rio Grande Games. 

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Hot in the City – Guards! Guards! review

Considering how long Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books have been available and the rich story that they weave, there’s a surprising lack of games based on them. There’s the reasonably decent Thud and… that’s about it really. This year, however, sees a couple of additions to this list that take completely different approaches to the Discworld experience. The Little Metal Dog Show has already covered a very early build of Martin Wallace’s Ankh Morpork. First out of the gate, however? Guards! Guards! from Z-Man Games.

Due for release later this year, the tale of Guards! Guards! is one of a labour of love. We actually covered it in detail on a recent episode of the show but the short story is that the guys behind it had a hell of a time. The game began as a project for the friends of designers Leonard and David but they soon realised that they possibly had something special. Many publishers expressed interest but the rug was pulled out far too often, especially after a particularly disappointing visit to Essen. However, the lads thankfully persevered and the game is now tantalisingly close to release.

The game’s backstory is the usual messed up extravaganza that you’d associate with the Discworld. Rather than specifically focusing only on Guards! Guards!, it’s actually based on elements from all of the books – however, the City Watch are involved in the game. As usual, magic is causing trouble. The eight great spells that make up the Octavo have disappeared from the Unseen University, so the Watch are attempting to recruit folks to get them back. Each player takes on the role of a member of the Watch that has been asked to work with one of Ankh Morpork’s many guilds. Each of the guilds have offered to assist in the spells’ return – first to get the five specified on their guild’s board back to the University is declared the winner! Easy, yes?

No.

Not at all. Because that would be far too simple.

Guards! Guards!, at first appearance, is a reasonably straightforward game to play. You move around the board collecting/pressganging various volunteers (taken from the books) all of whom have various attributes. These can either be charmed into joining your ragtag band – screw that up and you can always resort to good old bribery to get them onto your team. Once you’ve moved to a space on the board that shows one of the spells you need to collect, you declare that you’re about to head on a Spell Run – in other words, you’re going to try and get the spell home. The board is split into four quadrants and you declare which ones you’ll be passing through in order to get back to your start space.

A couple of turns in, soon all manner of chaos will kick off...

This is where stuff gets trickier. You need at least one volunteer in your hand , while your opponents have the option of secretly placing saboteurs in your path that will have to be dealt with before you get the spell back to the museum. Get through them and you’ll be faced with increasingly difficult challenges (based on the volunteers’ stats and a dice roll) from the University Wizards before the spell is ‘officially’ returned. Any volunteers who took part in the run are discarded and you get on with fetching the next one – the only difference occurs with the final spell which requires you to get back to the Unseen University yourself.

As the game progresses, you’ll also be building up your own stats, marked on the guild board that you’re given at the start of the game – these make your life easier as the game progresses, especially when it comes to charming volunteers when they’re drawn from one of the three stacks. Each guild also has a special ability that can be used any time apart from on your turn – if someone wanders nearby, you can trigger your ability in a bid to hinder their progress. Guards! Guards! is very much a game of taking your chances to screw your opposition as often as possible – being utterly horrible is actively encouraged! Items and Scrolls can also be bought so your life is a bit easier or to make things harder for everyone else…

It’s not just your fellow players you need to be careful of, however – there’s plenty going on in the game that you have no control over whatsoever that can ruin your day. There’s a rather famous piece of Luggage running around hell for leather that will knock you out, sending you to the nearest hospital space – and as we all know, medical care will cost you. The Luggage moves every time a volunteer is recruited according to the instruction at the top of the card. Some volunteers also have other logos to pay attention to – a large gothic ‘F’ means you must draw a Fate card which could be something nice, but will generally mean that terrible things are about to happen. There’s also a charming little disease called the Pox that knocks your Charm statistic down until you find a cure – I’ve actually had a couple of games where this has caused stand up rows. You see, any time someone touches a card that has ‘Pox’ on it, they immediately catch it – particularly funny when you slide a card near someone else and they pick it up by mistake. I never thought my wife knew such florid language…

Another symbol to watch out for is the Mark of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night. Should a certain card be drawn from the Fate deck (“The Call of the Supreme Grand Master”), all players must declare and show any volunteer cards that display the Mark. If three or more cards are shown, a Dragon is placed in the home quadrant of the player who pulled the Fate card. Dragons can also be summoned by a player who happens to have three Brethen in their hand. But why would you summon these beasts? Well, if one is on the board, no player can recruit volunteers, collect Great Spells, get money or buy items from that quadrant – a whole quarter of the board is pretty much useless until that dragon is defeated. Oh, and if all four dragons appear? Everyone loses. And they’re absolute buggers to try and defeat in combat too.

A few prospective volunteers - Brethren and Fate symbols on show!

So that’s about the size of Guards! Guards! – get volunteers, get the Spells and get them home, covering your own back while scuppering the efforts of everyone else. The game starts quite slowly at first, but as players collect more volunteers and useful items the speed really seems to ramp up. There barely feels like a turn passes where someone isn’t going “Not so fast…” and declaring that your plans are about to change. Fans of games where you have a glorious plan stretching out over your next twenty turns will detest Guards! Guards! to its cruel core – it even says in the rulebook that the winning isn’t important… making people lose is fun as well!

The game captures the chaos of the Discworld well – you’d hope so, of course, as anything that comes out bearing Terry Pratchett’s name needs to be cleared as worthy by the man himself. The artwork throughout the whole game is provided by regular Pratchett contributor Steven Player, and his gloriously grotesque style really gives the game a distinctive flourish. Each volunteer card also has a quote lifted directly from one of the books – as mentioned above, this is definitely a labour of love. It’s a game where you need to be watching what everyone else is doing and taking your chances at the optimal time – or just figure that you’ll have as much of a laugh by kicking opponents when they’re down. Where many licensed games fall down on the actual content, the guys from Backspindle have created an entertaining (if challenging) title that well deserves a look. Fans of the series will appreciate the detail that has gone into its creation, while those not into the Discworld will find a solid game that could well spark a new interest.

Guards! Guards! will be published later in 2011 by Z-Man Games. Designed by Backspindle Games (better known as Leonard Boyd and David Brashaw) between two and six players will take around two hours attempting to capture and return the Eight Great Spells to the Unseen University. Please note, this review is based upon the prototype version – I’ll do an update as soon as I manage to get my hands on the finished product!

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Episode 13 now up (complete with prize giveaway)!

Show number thirteen! And there’s a competition!! So many exclamation marks!!!

The final show of 2010 (right click that link for a direct download, also available on iTunes) has a trio of interviews and, as it’s the time of year that I most remember playing games with my family when I was young, I thought it would be good to look into the more mainstream side of the hobby. First up I got to speak to Leigh Anderson, the author of a new book called The Games Bible. We talk about social gaming (which is pretty much perfect for this time of year) and how the idea for it came about.  I got to speak to Holly Gramazio from Hide and Seek about her company’s newly released Boardgame Remix Kit as well: from new rulesets to mashups of classics, the BGR is entertaining as well as packed with brilliant ideas – check out their site here (as well as their App on your iPhone or iPad). There’s also discussion with Kevin Tostado, the writer and director of the brilliant new documentary Under The Boardwalk. The film tells the story of Monopoly as well as looking at the road to the 2009 World Championships, culminating in a very tense final… Even if you’re not a big fan of the game (and we all know how it divides the boardgaming community) the film is incredibly entertaining and beautifully put together. Here’s a trailer that explains a little more:

Now, how about a little extra? Fancy a copy of the film for yourself? Maybe one that’s been signed by Kevin himself? Well… it just so happens that Kevin sent a copy over to give away to a Little Metal Dog Show listener! If you’d like to get your hands on it, there’s a very simple question to answer (if you do a bit of digging). I just want to know the year that Monopoly first came out in the USA. Do some investigating and email your answer to littlemetaldog@gmail.com- the winner will then be chosen randomly from all correct answers on the morning of December 26, 2010 and announced here on the site (as well as on twitter). They’ll also be contacted directly so they don’t miss anything. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, either – the DVD is region free – so get your entry in! You can also earn an extra entry by leaving a review of the show on iTunes and letting me know your ID there.

Thanks (as always) for listening. If you want to get in touch with the show, the email address is littlemetaldog@gmail.com (which isn’t just for competition entries – questions, feedback and anything else is gratefully appreciated). Chris and I are also on Twitter: I’m @idlemichael and he’s @RallyIV. Have a great festive season and a wonderful new year, wherever you are!

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