One Sentence Synopsis: If Sim Ant got an official board game, it might look pretty close to this.
I’ve always had a fascination with ants and their industriousness, their order and organization, and their construction abilities. I had multiple small, kid-friendly ant farms growing up. You know the ones I mean: a small, thin rectangle of plastic with a bit of sand in-between two plates, and a nice little vial of chilled ants that, once returned to room-temperature, would work away heartily for a few weeks constructing a small network of tunnels before you’d start finding them curled up deceased on top of the nest where their surviving compatriots had lovingly dumped them. I had dreams of having the huge, self-sustaining ant farms some museums have, and I even came close to having a more modest version when I found a fledgling queen and her drones one summer. Alas, it was not meant to be, and I had to turn to Maxis’s Sim Ant to satiate my ant-mania.
I was very excited when I first saw March of the Ants on Kickstarter, and after I saw pictures of Tim Eisner’s wacky head of hair I said to myself, “Yup, that’s a heck of an ant guy, and this is going to be one hill of a good ant game.” The campaign itself was run well, with many great component and content stretch goals reached including a cooperative variant which is a big draw for COG Gaming’s regular group of players. Having received my copy a few weeks ago and gotten multiple chances to table it, I can safely say my hopes were not misplaced: this game provides fun that far exceeds the stature of its diminutive subjects.
March of the Ants is a game of resource management, area control, card play, and action selection for up to 5 players that finishes in roughly an hour with higher counts of players, or even in a sprightly 30-45 minutes with 2-3 players. During the normal game mode players compete for victory points by expanding and controlling the shared meadow, winning battles against other ants or hulking centipedes, completing colony objectives which help players develop individual, unique strategies each game, and evolving their ants which generates both points and special abilities. After four rounds, or five if you’re playing the long-game variant, the colony with the most points is declared the Ant’s Pants of the meadow.
The rulebook is one of the better ones I’ve seen in the industry, with well-organized instructions accompanied by neatly organized diagrams and wonderful ant artwork. Learning the rules and setting up your first game should take no longer than 10-15 minutes. The game begins by placing the Great Tunnel in a central location, and each person receiving their player board and reference cards, both of which include very helpful and clearly defined reminders for action choices and the flow of each round. Each colony starts the game with two food in its Food Stores, as well as one ant in the Great Tunnel and five larvae in its Larvae Chamber. The deck of cards is shuffled and two dealt to each player, and once each colony’s scoring token is placed on the tracker play begins.
Each of the game’s rounds proceeds in the phase order shown on the top of the player sheet. During the worker phase, players take turns choosing one action at a time from those available to them, and paying its cost in either food or ants/larvae depending on the action. Paying a food to explore a new meadow tile, for example, allows the player to draw a new hex and place it adjacent to a hex where they already have ants, and then move one of their ants into that tile. In doing so they may choose to move the ant onto any of the resource-generating squares available on the space, though if they move the ant into the spot with radiating triangles it means they “control” that space and may get to collect points for it at the end of the round if it’s adjacent to the Great Meadow, or if they have certain colony objectives. Other player actions include foraging for two additional cards, moving existing ants or generating new ants from their Larvae Chamber, or playing one of the existing cards in their hand.
Though I wouldn’t say March of the Ants is a card-driven game, the three categories of cards players might draw do play a central role. Events are one-time use cards that allow the player to take certain actions, or potentially even affect opponents. Players may also encounter Colony Goal cards which are placed to the right of their boards and produce benefits should they meet the stated goal. Finally, evolution cards generate three victory points for each completed set, and enable players to customize their ant species with special abilities; a generic bonus is gained for each card of a certain segment played, plus players get to take advantage of the unique ability associated with the top-most card of each segment. Cards drawn are also used to enhance a colony’s effectiveness in battle, so players must determine whether to use them as indicated, or save them for combat.
The game does a great job of keeping everyone engaged even during other players’ turns; each action allows opponents to take an optional reaction, so you’ve got decisions to make even when it hasn’t come back around to you yet. When a player finally does decide to call it a day, however, they may take the “rest” action on their turn. By doing so they gain a free larvae, and for each subsequent turn no one else has rested they receive an extra food. Once a second person “rests” the worker phase ends immediately, and that person becomes the first player for the next round.
Battles are resolved during the soldier phase on hexes with more ants than there are spaces, or on those containing an invading centipede. Players add up their strength, and may choose to play a card face-down to receive its ferocity bonus(top left number on each card). The defeated player loses ants equal to the winning side’s strength, and the winner loses a number equal to half their opponent’s strength. In the case of centipede battles, two cards are flipped from the draw deck to determine its strength. In either scenario, winning the battle generates a victory point.
The final phases of each round find players generating resources and victory points, and paying upkeep costs. During the Queen Phase players collect resources determined by the spaces their ants occupy on the board, and then must discard one food for every four ants they have in play. Yes, that’s right, the resources players use for actions are also used as ant upkeep. Sure, you could sacrifice one larvae to feed each ant, but that’s just less potential ants for next round. Besides, larvae probably don’t taste as good as acorns…or regurgitated mush…or whatever it is your ants eat. To end the Queen phase each player also gets to decide whether to take five new larvae, or to collect two food tokens. The Slumber Phase caps off each round, and players generate a victory point for each meadow tile they control that’s next to the Great Tunnel, plus points indicated by any of their colony cards. If it’s the last round, the player with the most points wins!
March of the Ants is the second game I’ve played in the last month I would classify as a light game, but which offers a level of strategy beyond what you’d expect from a game of its weight. Tying action selection cost to ant/larvae counts and food supply really makes players think about which actions are most beneficial, and whether taking a certain action might make them vulnerable during the rest of the round or negatively impact their ability to pay upkeep for their colony. The game isn’t about loading up on larvae and spamming the board. It takes careful planning and resource management to ensure a balanced expansion of the meadow and your colony, and some tough decisions on when and how to upgrade your species.
The card element is less straightforward than one might initially suspect, and I like that players have to decide between actually using their cards as evolutions, goals, or events, or using the cards to strengthen their chances during battle. I will admit, however, that the randomness of the draw is a little irksome for the evolution and colony goal elements, and I’ve seen multiple situations where some players get inexpensive cards that complement their play-style for that game, and others are hung out to dry with card abilities that are either useless to them or are far more expensive to get into play. There is a Primitive Species variant included in each copy that utilizes the backs of the player boards and gives each player asymmetric starting abilities, but I do still wish there was some additional control over acquiring evolutions.
March of the Ants encourages direct confrontation, and although there’s randomness in terms of what cards you’re going to end up with the “luck” factor is scaled back substantially as-far-as battles are concerned. Strength values are easily calculated before attacks, making planning ant numbers and positioning around the meadow a very important aspect of the game. The use of one card per battle to augment strength values is a nice feature that adds a small degree of uncertainty, but does not have the capability of completely disrupting and reversing overwhelming odds like players might find in other games with similar card-combat mechanisms. For example, Cosmic Encounters.
The game flows very well, and is helped by the excellent charts included on the player references cards, and nestled into the artwork on each individual player sheet. The reaction mechanic works beautifully in keeping players engaged the entire game, rather than zoning out during other players’ turns. There are always decisions to make, and it’s possible that one player’s action may actually enable someone else to take an action they otherwise might not have been in a position to take. Action selection itself has a worker placement-type urgency to it since food is generally limited, making reactions all the more important to accomplishing what you’d like on each turn. I’m also quite enamored with the resting mechanic which is similar to some worker placement games that reward players for ending their turns early. It adds a nuanced push-your-luck element where players must calculate whether it’s worth staying in the round long enough to make the most efficient use of their available actions, or if the benefits of ending early and getting extra resources or the first player marker outweigh those actions.
Multiple variants are included for additional play options, including a longer game for players who feel like they just need one extra turn to see their colony boom. My outlook on the cooperative variant for the game was less hopeful than for the game in general, but I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s actually very well done and doesn’t feel tacked on in the slightest. In the coop mode 4 players team up to defend the meadow against hordes of centipedes, and must win the game by each ending with more victory points than the centipedes. The overall gameplay is more-or-less the same, but cards with the centipede symbol are removed from the main deck of cards and shuffled together to form the centipede’s deck. A card is drawn from this deck after each player’s turn, and depending on the card type either allows a centipede to spawn in the highest numbered meadow tile without a centipede, moves the centipede on the lowest hex in play by a certain number, or initiates a battle in each location containing a centipede; the back of the 5th player sheet acts as the player board for the centipedes, making it easy to keep track of what each of their actions are, and what the special player reactions are to each. Centipedes score points by winning battles, reaching the Great Tunnel, and for simply existing on the board at the end of an entire round. The game mode is challenging, and I actually like that ants (to the best of my knowledge) can still battle with each other if there are too many of them on a hex; it adds an interesting, additional quandary players must consider when coordinating defenses, and combined with each individual still needing victory points it keeps the coop variant from becoming an ant spam-fest.
Components-wise I can report that March of the Ants is another solidly produced kickstarter. There are a few cards which had me raise my eyebrow at the quality of art, but for the most part the images all have a wonderful earthy style and palette that fits extremely well with the theme, and the evolution cards’ connection points all match up so the hodge-podge of ant parts actually end up looking relatively good as you mix-and-match different species. The box is of excellent thickness and finish, as are the board tiles and tokens. The wooden components are all vividly colored, and the centimeeples are pretty cool spectacles given their height and design; I’m very tempted to buy some little plastic ants off of Amazon to paint to replace the cubes, but they still work very well here. The cards feel a little thinner than I’d normally prefer, but they do get the job done and are finished nicely. The only negative I really have about the entire thing is the box insert, which consists of two smaller valleys inside the box that make it hard fit everything unless you organize the hexes flat on top.
COG Takeaway: March of the Ants is a light game that provides a surprisingly strategic experience for a title that plays in under an hour and doesn’t take long to learn. The area control, action selection, resource management, and card mechanics are all integrated extremely well with the ant theme, and the artwork really caps off the experience to make you feel like you’re controlling a budding ant colony. The evolution mechanic requires a little suspension of disbelief as your ants morph from turn-to-turn, but it’s a great way to add customization to suit or form individual strategies during play. To satiate players who want more variety, March of the Ants also comes with a number of fun variants to provide different experiences, including a cooperative variant, and it scales very well anywhere in its 1-5 player range. Chalk up another win for a Kickstarted game: families and game groups alike who are looking for a lighter strategy game with direct conflict should definitely consider getting in touch with their inner ant.