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Myrmes: One tough little cookie of a game about ants

The Ants Marching
The Ants Marching
Publisher (Ystari Games)



Sometime in the latter part of the 19th century or early part of the 20th, entomologist William Morton Wheeler, curator of invertebrate zoology at New York's American Museum of Natural History from 1903 to 1908, coined the term myrmecology to define the scientific study of ants. In 2012, Yoann Levet designed a game called Myrmes, which posits an ant kingdom of that name, in which "ant colonies have been fighting for centuries to dominate their neighbors." As I sit here, poised over my keyboard, to talk about Myrmes, I'm wondering whether acquisition of a PhD in myrmecology might be easier.

This, my friends, is one tough little cookie of a game. It's a classic, 'never-enough-time-or-resources-to-do-everything-you-want-to-do' Euro game, which comes with a rather confusing set of rules. Thanks, in part, to Richard Ham, known as 'rahdo' on BoardGameGeek, and a session with gaming friends in the Wilmington (NC) Board Game Group (WBGG), I've been able to sort out some of the rule book confusion, and realize that in terms of process, it's easier than you might expect. In terms of execution of a strategy to win the thing, it's harder.

'Rahdo's contribution to my understanding came by way of a 40-minute video, available (and recommended) on BoardGameGeek (found on the site's Myrmes page). It doesn't provide you with a lot of strategic or tactical insight, but in its straightforward run-through of the game, it is invaluable, and an almost mandatory introduction to the rulebook. The WBGG part of my learning curve was the result of a session with Sam, who'd played before, and not surprisingly, smoked us (Tom and I) in our first attempt at this. I suspect I'll be getting smoked at this for some time to come.

You've got a main board, representing this garden environment, onto which ants from your individual colony (and board) will venture forth to tackle bugs (ladybugs, termites and spiders) and lay pheremone trails that conquer visited territories in the garden. Along the way, you'll be earning the ubiquitous victory points which will, in the end, determine which of the participant ant colonies wins the game.

The real work, which you might thematically expect, goes on underground, in your personal ant colony, where renewable supplies of worker and soldier ants are produced, and to which those worker ants return resources, like food, dirt and stone, all very important in maintaining and growing your colony, which, in turn, will realize success, above ground, in the garden. Though a lot of your victory points will be earned above ground, in the garden, your ability to be successful up there is going to depend on how well you manage your underground colony.

The game takes place over three years, each of which consists of the typical four seasons, beginning with spring, advancing to summer, and in terms of activity, finishing up in the fall. Winter, in this game, is basically a test to determine whether you've successfully prepared your colony for the cold season (with food), and if you haven't, you will suffer victory-point consequences.

At the end of each of the game's years, when autumn turns to winter, you are going to have to provide a minimum of four food to your colony; five, in year two, and six, in year three. It forces you to become hyper-alert to the necessity of feeding your ants, because each food resource that you're short will cost you three victory points. Making this a little more difficult than you might wish, is a storage capacity of only four food until you've upgraded your colony to accommodate two more resources. You'll be able to spend some of those resources in a variety of ways before a season ends, but even with that, you're going to find yourself throwing a lot of food away, and somewhat counter-intuitively, ants, soldiers and workers, never return from their voyages in the garden. You are dependent on replenishing your supply of both at the start of every turn.

So, a lot to think about, and I've barely scratched the surface of the complex process of accomplishing any of the short term or long term plans you might consider making as you learn this game. In the group of three of us that played this, I, not surprisingly, came in dead last. It had something to do with my tendency to focus on short term objectives, thereby losing sight of the bigger picture. Sam, our teacher, on the other hand, was merrily rolling along and it looked to me as though his victory had a lot to do with the number of pheromone trails he was able to lay down, conquering increasing amounts of territory, which earned him victory points, and an almost inexhaustible supply of resources, which he was able to use to improve his colony.

There's no point in discussing this in terms of its turn-by-turn activities. There are elements of this process that take time to absorb, like the particular conditions that prevail, uniquely, in each of the three seasons, throughout the three-year time span of the game. Basically, at the start of each 'year,' you will roll three dice, each one detailing a prevailing condition, a sort of activity bonus, in the given season. There are only six numbers on a die, but there are eight possible bonus conditions, because you are able with the expenditure of a particular type of resource (larvae) to choose an alternate bonus; in another words, you can change the dice result for your personal use, by spending one larvae per number you want to change. Spend three larvae, as an example, and change a "3" condition to a "6" or "0" condition. Thus, if you roll a "1" for the spring season, you can opt for a "0" roll, or if you roll a "6," you can choose a 7th possible bonus. These eight bonus conditions range from a one-time colony upgrade, to bonus workers, to increased movement (in the garden) possibilities. As you're learning the game, however, their relative value, on either a turn-by-turn basis, or in terms of overall tactics, is not likely to be apparent right away. This game's page on BoardGameGeek, by the way, has a file you can download, which offers four, very handy 'cheat sheets,' detailing the bonus conditions, which, on the board, are represented by symbols only.

The basic activities are a worker placement exercise. Your colonist workers, known as 'nurses,' and not to be confused with your garden workers, who exit your colony, are used, every turn to determine what you're going to do within your colony. Will you create more workers, sign up a few soldiers, create more larvae, or send your 'nurses' on special assignments, earning significant numbers of victory points for completion. There's a section of the main board (called the "atelier," which means, in French, "a room where an artist works") devoted to these special, and randomly-chosen-at-the-start assignments (called "objectives"). They are one of only four possibilities available in this atelier. You can also add a "nurse" to your collection, improving your ability to accomplish work within the colony. You can add an additional tunnel, increasing your access points to the garden, and improving your movement capabilities. You can also upgrade your colony, which is one of two possible ways to do so.

All in all, this is a pretty good game, albeit one that you might be forced to endure in your first couple of outings, until you figure out how to overcome its design obstacles, which can lead to some frustration before any fun settles in. It's gotten a good deal of respect on BoardGameGeek, where it maintains a 7.45 average on the 1 to 10 scale, from just over 2,000 respondents. With that number of people rating and commenting, you'll always find the naysayers at the bottom of the list ('long about the 16th page of comments), who, in this case, file their justifiable complaints that the game's 'tight' quality leeches the fun out of it. Closer to the top of these ratings, you'll find the folk who've managed to get beyond this issue and discover a really good game, one which, by the way, was the Grand Prix winner of the 2013 French Jeu de l'Annee award, and in the General Strategy category won an International Gamer's award. Loss aside, I'd count myself among the game's fans.

Myrmes is one of the six games I'll be teaching at the World Boardgaming Championships in about a week. Go to for more information, or ask me any questions you might have here.

Myrmes, designed by Yoann Levet, with artwork by Arnaud Demaegd, is published by Rio Grande Games, Asmodee, Asterion Press and Ystari Games. It can be played by 2 to 4 players with a suggested age range, beginning at 13. Box indicates that it can be played in an hour or two, which is probably true with people familiar with it. You'll likely take a bit longer when starting out. Suggested retail starts around $55, but it can easily be found at price ranges down as far as $35. The BoardGameGeek marketplace had some "Like New" copies available for $25.

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