I love and admire games that look simple at first glance but reveal themselves to be deeper than the sum of their parts. Sometimes it’s the graphic design that misdirects. For example, when I first saw Tobago on the table its palm trees and Easter Island heads had me totally fooled. I had to be dragged into a game, and when I did I saw it for the awesome Venn-diagram-constructing push-your-luck gem that it was. (Find a copy if you can and see if I’m wrong.)
This week I look at the recent game Micropolis, brought to you by Bruno Cathala and Charles Chevallier, the team that brought us Kanagawa and Abyss. On the surface, Micropolis is a simple tile-drafting game with a childish theme: anthill construction, with the ants dressed in togas for some reason.
But much like anthills there’s more going on than meets the eye. Players begin with a ten-sided centrepieces and five “soldier ant” minis. Over ten rounds, players select tiles from a common supply using a mechanism reminiscent of games like Small World or Century: Spice Road. The “first” tile is free, but if you want tiles further down the row you have to drop off soldier ants on each tile you pass over. Later on in the game, if you select a tile with ants on them, they join your colony.
Each of the trapezoidal tiles depicts a cross-section of an ant colony, with sections of tunnels (called “galleries” in the rules), worker ants, pieces of fruit, barracks for your soldiers, and specialist ants that grant unique powers. Nurses give you babies (new soldier ants); queens give bonus points if placed correctly; recruiters steal ants from other players; architects let you take a free tile from anywhere in the queue; and sentries let you move soldiers to and from your barracks. You never see all the tiles in any given game, so you can’t count on “that” tile coming out, and there’s a wee bit of luck thrown in.
There are many ways to score points in the game, including having the largest overall population, having the largest army , building galleries with many different kinds of fruit, and filling up barracks tiles with ants. Of course, the tiles you really want are usually too expensive, and the ones you can afford each have good things about them. Much like 7 Wonders, you can win by picking one or two categories and going big.
At first, Micropolis doesn’t look all that interesting. Draft, place, draft, place. And the cartoony graphics don’t exactly inspire confidence. But keep an open mind, and the interesting decisions begin to appear. Soldiers on their own give you no points at the end of the game except if you have the largest army (shades of Catan), but put them on a barracks tile and they are safe from being stolen by recruiters and can be worth plenty of points–except then you can’t spend them. Large galleries with lots of workers can get you a lot of points–but so can smaller galleries with queens. If you can manage to get six different fruits in one gallery, that’s 25 points–but two galleries with three fruits each is worth almost as much and is much easier to build.
Except for the rather complex scoring system, Micropolis is easy to teach and accessible to kids as young as eight years old; there’s no reading required to play, and it’s the kind of game parents can play with the kids casually and quickly, getting in two rounds in half an hour. But gamers can enjoy it, too; it’s a great filler that plays up to six but works almost as well with just two. This is especially the case if you use the Expert mode where each player builds two anthills, which adds another player of complexity: you have to keep track of both, and when you draft a tile, you can decide which anthill it goes to, which means your anthills grow at different rates. At game’s end it’s the sum of the VP for both anthills that counts, so you could try to make one anthill “perfect” and toss the “junk” into the other–or you could try to make both as good as can be.
However you choose to play, do give Micropolis a look, and I hope you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was. And for the perfect snack to accompany it, try ants on a log. Just don’t get any cream cheese or peanut butter on the pieces.