Ants in the Pants
Sometimes, usually while showering, I think about how the eusociality of the insect order Hymenoptera — ants, wasps, bees, and so forth — is very possibly the pinnacle of feminism.
But enough about that. Let’s talk about March of the Ants. Who doesn’t love ants?
I’ve always been interested in games that position their players on the ragged edge of survival, then give them a slight nudge towards the abyss. I’m not necessarily talking about cooperative games where the players face collective destruction, but rather titles like Greenland or Dominant Species or Evolution, games about keeping up in the face of mass extinction. And perhaps the greatest success of March of the Ants lies in how it captures that feeling of running along that edge in spite of its incredible lightness.
Here’s an example. In March of the Ants, it’s your job to shepherd a colony of ants as you spread across a sprawling meadow. There are opportunities to be had, spots perfect for spawning larvae, seeds to collect, little ant-crowns that represent something antly, I’m sure, and all of them placed alongside dangers. Centipedes, for one. Nobody likes centipedes. The only upside to centipedes is that killing them gives you a little bit of food to nibble on. Meanwhile, the greatest threat comes in the form of rival colonies. And when you discover something valuable, a particular spot where the grass sags heavily with seeds, you can bet one of them will try to scratch in on your territory.
So you’re sitting pretty on all those seeds, when in scuttles a few opposing ants. On their own they might not seem too threatening, not if there’s enough for everybody. But this time there isn’t, and when you glance over at their player’s hive board, you see that he recently evolved his creatures’ heads. No longer are they mere meadow-ant heads, but army-ant heads, perfect for jolting an entire swarm of larvae into sudden maturity to zerg in and take what’s yours.
What do you do? Therein lies the game’s greatest advantage. Maybe you’ll evolve some fighting words of your own, maybe a blasting head that can spray your enemies with acid when one of your little guys pops, or a golden fire head to increase how much damage you can deal when you spend cards in a fight. Or maybe you’ll finally put your sparrow attack to good use, that card you’ve been holding for the past few rounds to dissuade anyone from pressing into your territory. Or, well, maybe it’s time to retreat and hatch a new plan. Even a victorious battle can be costly, and ants, against all odds, don’t come cheap.
It’s moments like these that make March of the Ants add up to more than the sum of its parts. And to its credit, there are plenty of little ideas that elevate the whole package, even if they struggle under the dead weight of the game’s lesser elements like a worker ant putting comical effort into hauling a spilled french fry.
For one thing, there’s the ant evolution, which is tied up in the card system. Making better ants not only gives you new abilities, but also improves your colony in other significant ways. Dragging around swollen abdomens means you can feed more ants at the end of each round, for instance, while better legs means you’ll be moving your little guys farther. In many ways the focus always returns to the cards, and diving deep into that deck can yield powerful one-offs, long-term goals that will earn you those little crowns, and new evolution cards. The first and second time through the game, these are mysterious pools, all sorts of oddities and abilities spilling forth from its pile. Then you play again, and while the deck is too thick to go diving for any one particular thing, now you know what to look out for. An oversized swarm of ants can be picked apart by a sparrow attack, while colonies boasting certain evolutions — a pharaoh abdomen, a harvester thorax — won’t ever be wanting for extra larvae.
Perhaps even cooler than evolving the world’s most efficient ant is the fact that every action packs different consequences. And I’m not just talking about the fact that swarming into somebody else’s territory is liable to make them evolve a stinger on their butt. Instead, each action comes attached to a specific counter-action. March a bunch of ants, and everybody else can move one, possibly sidling into the spaces you just left open. Play a card and you’ll sigh as everyone else gets the choice of discarding one of their own for something fresh from the deck. Explore a new region and watch as a couple rival larvae mature into adulthood. It’s a neat trick, lending unexpected weight to every one of your decisions. Should you march now, or spend some time foraging? Which will give your opponents more of an advantage? Sometimes the simplest option is to just pass, at which point you’ll begin accumulating food and larvae while your opponents go about their business.
Unfortunately, while the tunnels of this particular anthill might appear sturdy, they’re also a bit soggy and suffer from occasional cave-ins. Battles are so costly that even its single victor’s crown can’t quite shake the feeling that this is yet another one of those games where the queen who fights least will be the queen to eventually reign supreme. The passing system feels particularly clever, until you realize that only two players need to pass to end the entire round, sending everyone into a scramble to quickly join the bandwagon so as to pick up any benefit at all before somebody else does, often cutting the action short just as it’s getting interesting. And while the deck spits out enough good cards that its more unbalanced aspects never buzz too loudly, there are few disappointments quite as numbing as exploring one bland territory after another without ever stumbling across one of the rarer special tiles.
That said, March of the Ants is still a perfectly delightful little game, and its minor problems are often forgivable in light of its cleverer aspects. In many ways it feels like a featherweight version of Eclipse, one where you design a species of ants rather than spaceships, with travel conducted through worm-holes rather than wormholes, and centipedes and exploding acid heads in place of ancient vessels and laser beams — and all wrapped up in around an hour.
Best of all, when it presents those situations where you need to adapt or die, it excels at providing just enough tools to be flexible without ever drowning you in them. The most successful colonies are usually the ones who can shift between goals, fight at the right times and back down at the wrong ones, and hold onto just the right cards to upend somebody else’s plans. Then again, two players might pass right on the verge of your planned coup, the one where you were going to launch a bunch of invasions and steal everyone’s larvae and then earn a huge pile of crowns thanks to your choice of long-term goal cards. That’s practically the definition of unfun.
In short, if only March of the Ants had been given some more critical attention before release, all of its best aspects could have been brought together into quite the colony. As it stands, it’s going to appeal more on the basis of its setting than its gameplay.