March of the Ants: 4X Strategic Simulation or Party Game?

Friday , 26, February 2016 Leave a comment

Really pretty game components, as shown in this image from March of the Ants successful Kickstarter.

Short Reviews will return next week with more Planet Stories!

Tim Eisner’s March of the Ants is a Euro resource collection/point scorer cleverly disguised as a war game.  Two to five players take on the role of ant armies determined to explore, plunder and conquer the meadow, battling for resources, fighting off centipedes and evolving into the ideal creature of war.

Like many games of the new wave, March of the Ants is full of brightly colored pieces, gorgeous artwork on both the meadow tiles and the cards and has the added bonus of being easy to learn through the help of extremely well-designed player aids.  With game-time clocking in between an hour and a half to two hours (the game offers variable length of 3 to 5 turns), it’s a bit longer than your typical party games, but it is reasonable enough in length that it won’t take up your entire night.  As such, I’ve had ample opportunities to play it since I was introduced to it early last year.

Something just doesn't feel right!

Why do I say March of the Ants is disguised as a war game?  Because I, as a war-gamer, have yet to figure out any particular winning strategy in a game that is nominally about conquest and land-grabbing.  I was happy to find out that I was not the only person in my group who regularly plays this and has been unable to figure out how to do consistently well at it.  But when you come in last place behind someone who has never played before and still does not have a decent understanding of the game and its mechanics, you can’t help but feel like something is dreadfully wrong!

The temptation to explore and empire-build is great in this game, but that could actually be a mistake in the way we tend to play March of the Ants.  What seems like a solid strategy–maximize territory and collect resources–often fails to pay off by.  Other players may find “point” resources, centipedes to hunt or just better cards.  It’s heartbreaking when you find that the robust ant economy you’ve built up isn’t good for any points.

“Centipedes? In my meadow?”  The threat centipedes pose is insignificant, and the rewards they give are high.  Around our table, centipedes are seen as sweet-sweet candy.  You get both points and food for push-over fights.  1 or 2 ants for 1 VP and 1 Food may be the most profitable exchange in the game.

War is hell for your little ants, but I’ve never played a game that so favored an attacker.  A simple majority wins any battle, and the winner only suffers casualties equal to half the loser’s strength rounded down.

The jury is out on whether fighting is a good strategy.  Losing a big fight, especially early game, can be so crushing that it may shut you out completely, but winning fights is probably the easiest way to get points.  I’ve played games in which players who went with pacifist strategies ended up in both first and last place (holding the same amount of territory) with the squabbling players making up the middle.

March of the Ants is a fun game, or at least my friends and I always have fun when we play it, but after a year of playing, none of us have figured out the strategy to this strategy game.  At first I worried it was me, but the other night, it was someone else who said ‘I wish there was some way I could fiddle with the knobs of this to fix it or at least make it more balanced’ for a change.

If anyone out there has been playing this, I’d love to hear from you!  What are my friends and I doing wrong, and what can we do better?  What strategy should I use to become the ultimate ant-master?

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