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Discworld: Ankh-Morpork

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Treefrog/Mayfair Games, 2-4 players, ages 11 and up, about 60 minutes; $49)

 

Judging from its title, you might think this game has something to do with an Egyptian pig farm but you would be wrong. It is the fantasy world found in the novels of Terry Pratchett that serve as the background and inspiration here. It seems that Ankh-Morpork, a major city on Discworld, is facing a crisis. Its patrician, Lord Vetinari, is missing and the city finds itself in the throes of a struggle as forces vie to fill the power vacuum created by Vetinari’s disappearance. Or maybe Vetinari’s absence is merely temporary and he will emerge again. Into this flux, players, acting as one of seven possible personalities, compete for control.

discworldboxDiscworld: Ankh-Morpork is another design from the prolific Martin Wallace. Its large box holds four sets of wooden pieces (each set consisting of 12 minion pieces and six buildings), money (in coins), 12 “trouble” markers, demon and troll pieces, 12 Random Event cards, 7 Personality Cards, 12 City Area cards, player aid cards, a 12 sided die and an “action” deck consisting of 48 green bordered and 53 brown bordered cards with 8 pages of instructions. There is also a large mounted board depicting the city. The city is divided into 12 areas, each area displaying its name, a number and a cost for building there.

The game begins with each player given 10 Ankh-Morpork dollars and taking a set of wooden pieces, placing 3 of his minions in 3 specific areas of the city (The Shades, The Scours and Dolly Sisters). A trouble marker is also placed in each of these areas. The 7 Personality cards are shuffled and each player randomly dealt one. (Personality cards give each player a secret goal to meet. Meet it and you win the game immediately!)

The two “action” card decks are shuffled separately and then the green bordered cards are stacked on top of the brown bordered cards to create one large stack. Five cards are dealt to each player as their starting hand.

On a turn, a player must play a card. Each card displays an icon (or a series of icons) on top. Icons allow a particular action. A player may (or may not) play an action but he MUST activate the icons IN THE ORDER THEY APPEAR ON THE CARD! (No reversing or skipping back and forth.) So what are these actions? They are:

Place a minion – You may place a minion on the board in an area where you already have a minion OR in an area adjacent to an area where you already have a minion. (Whenever a second minion appears in an area, a trouble marker must be placed there as well. Should a minion be removed from the area, the trouble marker is removed as well.)

Place a building – If you have a minion in an area, you may now place a building there provided there is no trouble marker nor another building present. Although placing minions is free, buildings cost money, the amount being the cost listed on the board for that area. Once you have built in that area, you gain that area’s card. These City Area cards grant you a bonus (ranging from getting extra money to placing/removing trouble markers and more) that you may use once per turn.

Assassination – This allows you to remove a minion (or demon or troll) in an area with a trouble marker from the board. (It also removes the trouble marker.)

Remove One Trouble Marker – As it says (but without removing a minion).

Take Money – An easy way to replenish your funds.

Scroll – Cards with these icons also display text. Activating this icon allows a player to perform the action described.

Random Event – This is a compulsory action and may not be skipped. When an action card with this icon is played, the top card from the Random Event deck is drawn and immediately goes into effect. This is how demons and trolls appear in the game causing havoc in the City Areas they occupy (such as making it harder or impossible to control an area and/or neutralizing the value of buildings there).

Play Another Card – Rather than just playing one card per turn, skillful use of cards with these icons can create a run of actions for a player.

Interrupt – This icon allows you to play this card at any time, even when not your turn. (You could, for example, stop an “Assassination” if you hold the right card at the right time.)

After playing your card(s), players draw back up to five cards and the turn passes to the left. The game continues until ONE of three game ending conditions is met.

discworldpcsAs mentioned, should a player meet the requirements of his secret Personality card at the start of his turn, that player wins. The goals of these Personality cards vary (from controlling a certain number of City Areas – control meaning having more minions in an area that any other single player – to just having a presence throughout the city to ensuring that a sufficient number of trouble markers are in the city to making sure that no other player has reached their goal and the action cards have run out). Players should attempt to hide their secret agenda as much as possible but, despite best efforts, as the game unfolds, a player’s secret can often be surmised. This can lead to the other players “ganging up” on someone perceived to be edging closer to fulfilling his goal. For this reason, having the Commander Vines Personality Card (where you win if no one else has met their secret goal) can be a big plus. Of course, with a maximum of 4 players in the game and 7 Personality cards to be distributed, that card may not appear.

Another end game condition is the appearance of the “Riot” Random Event card. This immediately ends the game if drawn (and its conditions met). Finally, should the action card deck run out (and Commander Vines not in the game), points are totaled. Each minion on the board is worth 5 Victory Points, each building on the board is worth its building cost in VPs and each $1 held is worth 1 VP. The player with the highest total wins!

Surprisingly, the game design is actually fairly simple and straightforward. Despite that (or maybe because of that), it captures the ambiance and essence of Pratchett’s world. But you need not be fluent in science-fiction; the game plays easily with no knowledge of Discworld required or necessary. The Treefrog (Collector’s Edition) of the game has different box cover art, a slightly larger board and wooden coins (instead of the typical cardboard variety). In acknowledgement of the magical properties of Discworld, it also refrains from using the “number between seven and nine”. 7A is used in its place, on the board, on cards and on the 12-sided die accompanying the Treefrog edition. The Mayfair edition, perhaps in a concession to a wider market, forgoes the 7A for the traditional numbering system (with, it should be mentioned, no effect on actual game play).

The game belongs on the “easy side” of the Martin Wallace street of design. The technique of reading icons and “stringing” cards together to maximize what you can do each turn is both easy to teach and easy to execute. But we’re not talking pure planning. There is a significant amount of randomness here. On my first playing, I came up with cards that allowed for a single play each turn while my opponents were fortunate enough to have cards loaded with “Play Another Card” icons. It seemed as if I took one turn to their three or four! Random Event cards can kill you and unleashing demons and trolls at the most inopportune moments (and frankly, is there a good time for unleashing demons and trolls?) can shatter grandiose plans. But, ironically, this uncertainness keeps you thoroughly engaged throughout. Because circumstances can change so quickly, you never feel like you’re out of it. There is always opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And that’s a good part of the enjoyment.

Discworld: Ankh-Morpork is true to its source material yet accessible to those gamers who have never heard of Discworld. The artwork is very well done and the cards, while introducing you to the bizarre denizens of the city, capture the ambiance of the population as well as the dangerous areas of this teeming center that makes Ankh-Morpork so compelling and interesting and, yes, fun. And that is a good description of the game itself: compelling, interesting and fun.

 


 

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