Posted by Dan Thurot
During yesterday’s entry in our splurge of titles from BoardGameTables, the simplicity and repetition of On Tour caused me to call it “a kid game masquerading as a game for grown-ups.” Today, we’re looking at a game that goes out of its way to look like a kid game, from its cutesy subject matter to some adorable double-layered cardboard tokens that look like food items with nibbles taken out of them. I’m pretty sure I even released an “Aww!” when we punched them out.
Never mind that. The title in question is Bites by Brigitte and Wolfgang Ditt. Childish exclamations of delight aside, it is decidedly a game for grown-ups.
To the uninitiated, Bites looks somewhat like a plus-sized version of Deep Sea Adventure, its long curling line of foodstuffs leading inexorably to the anthill, five multicolored ants waiting at the other end to chow down. Also like that game, dead simple rules belie unanticipated depth. The similarities end there.
The first great departure is that these ants don’t belong to anybody in particular. Which is a good thing, as their movement borders on programmed. On your turn, you choose an ant to move down the line to the next space — the next item of food — that matches its color. Then you claim one of the food tokens next to that space, skipping over neighboring ants if necessary. Little by little, the ants creep toward the anthill. Also little by little, your personal stash of stolen picnic treats grows larger.
From there, nearly everything depends on the selection of cards you drew during setup. There are a few commonalities: droplets of wine are always worth bonus points and chocolate can be spent to activate a special ability. Other departures are more radical. For example, all the food you’re gathering is worth some number of points. How much? That depends on when those ants arrive at the anthill. The most basic card assigns ants on a first-come first-serve basis. The purple ant’s arrival signals that grapes are now worth four points; then the yellow ant shows up and makes cheese worth three. And so on.
But that progression isn’t set in stone. Another card assigns ants according to urinal logic — the silent code by which men are commanded to avoid brushing shoulders while urinating — first arriving at the topmost space, then the middle, then the bottom slot, and only afterward filling in the gaps. Yet another card forces ants to occupy the anthill from the bottom up, initially ruining their color’s scoring potential.
Somewhere along the way, usually after a pair of matches have highlighted how even the smallest alterations can lead to differing approaches, it clicks. Bites isn’t about racing ants to an anthill. It’s about stock speculation.
Stock speculation and manipulation, to be more precise. The ants are more than mere player pieces; they’re semi-predictable tickers that offer various returns. With some finesse, you can use both their surety and their mutability to your advantage.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you have more grapes than an opponent who has more peppers. The problem is that you’re playing with the first-come first-serve card and the green ant is farther along the track, and therefore likely to make peppers worth more points than grapes. Time to assess solutions. You could use other ants to gobble up the intervening grapes, catapulting the purple ant forward on a subsequent movement. Downside: you’ll become more invested in purple, which other rivals could use to their advantage to tank your score. Alternately, you could diversify your portfolio — I mean your picnic — by nabbing a few peppers of your own. Will you be able to overcome your opponent’s lead? Maybe not without another strong investment in cheese and toast. Depending on the wine droplet card, maybe you could pick up some slack there.
Change out a few rule cards in the next session, however, and you’re looking at a fresh dynamic. Maybe the game becomes an anti-race, or an anti-race with a gold rush, or an effort to get winners across the finish line in the proper order while also visiting the farmer’s market to swap out an errant food token, or a contest to control the fate of the zebra ant. The complexity never lifts off the charts, but it does grow sufficiently tricky that most kids will struggle. I played it with my eight-year-old and three-year-old, and while both enjoyed moving the ants and picking up food, neither understood how to leverage their gains into a high final score. Fair enough. They’re kids. And this is a game for grown-ups masquerading as a kid game.
If you can’t tell, I adore Bites. It accomplishes a lot more than its cutesy exterior would seem to indicate. Not that I’m complaining; the cutesiness is cleverly handled in its own right, putting an appealing sheen on a game that might otherwise have proven too austere for its own good. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Big Points, the game it reimplements. Blech. If it’s that or ants, I choose ants.
I’d even go as far as to say that this is the best of the batch that BoardGameTables sent my way. Not that it’s an easy comparison. Because tomorrow’s game is also about speculation and manipulation, and it has a few tricks of its own to play.
A complimentary copy was provided.
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