March of the Ants ★★★★

Eclipse or Twilight Imperium? Neither. The best 4X board game is March of the Ants, a little known title by Tim Seisner and Ryan Swisher. Clocking in at less than an hour, it takes away the filler that pervades the genre to provide a focused, stronger experience than its peers without missing any of the features we like from it.

TUNNELS

In March of the Ants we take control of a colony of the namesake insects. We bring our workers to the board, collect resources and put cards into play to evolve our species. By controlling the inner hexes and fighting with other players, we obtain victory points and whoever has the most by the end of the year, wins.

On our turn we can choose from four actions. First we can march to bring more ants onto the board or move those we already have in play. We can also explore, adding a new hex to the meadow, or forage to draw two cards. Lastly, we may sacrifice ants and larvae to play events and evolve our insects. All but one of these actions consume food, which is in short supply.

Whenever a player takes any of these actions, all others are able to perform a reaction, Puerto Rico-style. If you have played Eclipse and Twilight Imperium, all this will seem similar. And it is. The appeal of March of the Ants does not lie in its novelty. Rather, it’s an excellent game because it takes the genre back to its roots, using simple euro mechanics to deliver a larger experience.

There’s no hour-long expansion phase in which you play on your own until you meet your neighbours. Instead of starting in the corners of the map and expanding towards the center, you start from it in the first place. It’s a small detail, but it’s these intelligent tidbits of design that make March of the Ants better.

Combat is fast, but deterministic. Players discard a card and add its “ferocity” value to the numbers of ants they have. Whoever has the highest number wins, but both sides suffer heavy losses. You can get a hard advantage by giving your ants an evolved head, but it only works as long as your rivals don’t have as many as you do. There’s a bit of Tresham’s Civilization in the combat that I find very compelling.

The whole game is like this. There are no extraneous negotiation elements and no major way to score points other than “colony goal” cards and controlling hexes. It does not have a long list of add-ons, miniatures or other features. What it has is good mechanics, tightly wound together.

In fact, there are only three resources in March of the Ants. The trick is that they all have two uses. Food is required to take actions but also to feed our ants. Cards can be played or used in combat. Lastly, cubes in our pool, representing larvae, can be used as a currency or transformed into actual ants on the board.

EVOLUTION

Still, March of the Ants is not purely about arena control. It’s a fully fledged game of conquest and development with all we expect from the genre. We fight, collect resources and change our faction by playing cards. The clever idea here is to put the evolutions, scoring goals and events into the same 66 card deck, giving us more flexibility in play and prevents the table-hogging filler of Twilight Imperium.

All ant evolutions are unique. You can develop wings to fly to any part of the board, turn your ants into suicide bombers or score points by occupying hexes with other players in them. They are not the typical +1/-1 fare we see in other games, but tools we can leverage our skills on.

Events range from additional movement, gaining resources or even a full board-reset in a card called Summerstorm. We might play goals that reward us for evolving, for shying away from our enemies or accumulating larvae. And they pay out every turn, giving an incentive to try and stop your opponents from fulfilling them with every single action.

Of course, with so many different effects, there’s the possibility of not drawing what you need. March of the Ants solved this through the Puerto Rico reactions I mentioned above: Playing a card allows all other players to draw and then discard, giving you the ability to shift through the deck with some restrictions. In all my games, the deck has been shuffled once, which means players could have played any card, if they so desired.

There are also some interesting effects on the hexes we explore. Some hexes bring centipedes to the board, which will kill our ants unless we overwhelm it and transform them into food. There are tunnels that connect far-away spaces of the board and some special tiles that award victory points or other unusual resources instead of just food, cards and larvae.

COMPONENTS

March of the Ants was the first release of its publisher and hence lacks the production values of other releases. The components are just cardboard and cubes and the illustrations were partly done by the designers themselves. But I do find the game visually appealing. It has a nice art direction and extremely clear player aids. There’s a clarity to the game that is missing from larger releases.

March of the Ants is unusual in that it’s best with an odd number of players. Turns are over when two players pass, which works great for three but is awkward with four. Personally, I would only play the game with either 3 or 5 players. There are very few games that are at their best with 3, much less in this genre, so it actually works for its advantage.

Being a Kickstarter title, the game included a handful of variants. There’s a solo mode, a 2-player variant, a cooperative adventure where you fight against centipedes and variable player powers. None are particularly great and, given the quality of the standard game, I haven’t found much use for them. Still, it’s a nice touch.

The exception is the long game variant, which fixes one of the flaws of March of the Ants: For all the benefits that come from its small size, it can be over too quick. Playing an extra round makes for a more satisfying experience and creates a game I would play over the largest, most impressive games in the genre.

March of the Ants is a bit too quaint to go head to head with the classics. It’s missing its own sharp edge, like the calamities of Civilization, the satire of Food Chain Magnate or the groundbreaking powers of Dune. It’s more of a refinement of previous ideas than a new approach. But it’s a great and I hope to play it more.

MARCH OF THE ANTS (2015)
DESIGN Tim Eisner
Ryan Swisher
ART Tim Eisner
Ryan Swisher
Peter Wocken
PUBLISHER Weird City Games LENGTH 60 Minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS 3-5 (Best with 5) SCORE ★★★★

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