Hello everyone! A brief introduction: My name is Stephen, and I am a member of Weird City Games, a tabletop games company based in Portland, Oregon. I was on the design and development team for March of the Ants. Aside from Tim and Ryan, the lead designers, I’ve played more games of March of the Ants than anyone in the world. This article is a hybrid design-strategy article wherein I share my perspective on the evolution of the role of combat in March of the Ants. Although it includes conversations I shared with my colleagues at Weird City, it represents my perspective solely.
After two years of development and many months since our successful Kickstarter campaign ended, it has been truly exhilarating to see production copies of March of the Ants hit tabletops worldwide. As a member of the design team, I’ve been fascinated to read players’ first impressions, their analyses of different aspects of the game, and notes from some of the sessions being logged.
One of the aspects of the early views and reviews being shared that has caught my attention, and has caught me a bit by surprise, is players’ emphasis on the Soldier Phase. There is a serious amount of combat going on! In the big picture, it has me thinking about whether or not March of the Ants is truly a 4X game, or something a little different.
For those of you unfamiliar with the abbreviation, “4X” is a genre of strategy-based video and board games in which players control an empire and “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.” The term was first coined by Alan Emrich in his September 1993 preview of Master of Orion for Computer Gaming World. Since then, others have adopted the term to describe games of similar scope and design.
The game play of March of the Ants clearly includes the first three X’s: players send their ants to explore the meadow, expanding their colonies’ territory in order to exploit more resources. And you can engage in ant battle. But exterminate opposing colonies? To try to answer this question, I’m going to share a bit about our perspective on the role of conflict – and combat – in March of the Ants through the eyes of the design team.
One of our design goals was integrating the theme and mechanics of MotA as much as possible. We researched the world of ants and brought our budding myrmecological minds to many aspects of the game. The Evolutions, certainly, but in a more macro sense too: the possibility of thriving in the game through peaceful coexistence, even symbiosis, with other ant colonies. This reflects the behavior of different species of ants in the real world. Combined with our central goal of creating a dynamic, highly interactive game, this paved the way for the inclusion of multiple paths to victory, or paths that included a wide variety of elements within them.
Which is all to say that combat was never conceived of as a central or dominant strategy in March of the Ants – just another possibility for player interaction. The game is filled with these opportunities for tension and conflict outside of the Soldier Phase. Indeed, as UndeadViking observed in his excellent review of MotA: it is most definitely a “conflict-driven” game. But when vying for area control, how often is combat the most efficient or effective strategy? Sometimes? Rarely?
Knowing that we wanted combat to be seen simply as one possibility for player interaction, the mechanics of combat went through many iterations. From complex battle charts to dice-based combat, we considered many options. Not wanting players to get bogged down in the mechanics of the Soldier Phase, we endeavored to design an elegant system that balanced chance and strategy – something that was tight enough to make each decision matter, yet without the certainty of outcome that makes the resolution of combat in some games feel like a rote process rather than a genuinely exciting experience. In order to achieve this balance, we found that adding the unknown variable of Ferocity – secret information – to the public information of the number of ants present and bonuses associated with Evolutions really hit the sweet spot for us. The multi-modal nature of the cards also brought an added layer of tension to players’ decision-making: when to save and when to play a card, during the Worker or Soldier Phase?
Only through play testing March of the Ants outside of our design team did we get to see “colony collapse,” the thematic name for what happens when all of a player’s ants are exterminated from the meadow. We had considered it as a possibility, tinkering with rules for what might feel fun and fair if your colony were to get so thoroughly crushed. But, early in the game’s development, we hadn’t played it out. Why not?
As the designers, we knew that combat was meant to be incredibly costly for both sides. Because of that design knowledge, none of us really pushed an aggressive strategy to its limit. Gamers with different dispositions, or coming from other milieus – like war games – saw the very existence of combat in the game as a sort of signpost that militaristic aggression was a viable path to victory. Or, at least an essential ingredient of any winning strategy. Whether they wanted to eliminate a friend altogether or simply lay siege to a resource-rich hex in the meadow, many players jumped at the opportunity to engage in ant battle – often with disastrous results for the initiators of combat.
Although the game has changed and grown dramatically from these early play tests over two years ago, the following seems to still be true: combat is rarely a net positive gain for the aggressor in March of the Ants. This is especially the case on the first turn of the game, before the economic infrastructure to support war has been created. That being said, we have seen players pursue aggressive, combat-based strategies and emerge victorious many times. Combat as an avenue for interaction is there for a reason: it can work to create an advantage. Yet, like so many aspects of the game, it comes down to context, timing, and strategic decision-making with a bit of chance thrown in for good measure.
Which leads to a discussion of the art of the bluff and the feint. The threat of combat in March of the Ants is often much more important (and advantageous) than engaging in combat itself. As anyone who has played MotA can attest, the March action and reaction help create this dance between opposing colonies. One of my personal favorite tensions in the game is that moment when a player floods the outskirts of a previously peacefully shared hex with a gang of ants. The threat of combat looms: do you March your ants out, or do you March more ants in? But that’s a topic for another article altogether.
So, is March of the Ants truly a 4X game? Perhaps, but to me 3.5X seems like a more fitting description. These ants were made for marching, but they are not always marching off to war.