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Merging on Greatness: Ankh: Gods of Egypt Review

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J Updated December 12, 2021
 
5.0
 
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Merging to greatness: Ankh: Gods of Egypt review

Game Information

Publisher
Designer
Players
2 - 5
There Will Be Games

Deep thought, compelling features, and endless variety embody an excellent end to the "mythic trilogy."

Most designers come into their games with a vision. It's often driven by a story or setting idea, like Talisman, or a mechanical concept, like Samurai. Sometimes it can be both, such as with many other Reiner Knizia games, often derided for having themes "pasted on", but when examined more closely, reveal that the central idea behind things like Tigris and Euphrates is likely informing every mechanical decision that's been made. This is the foundation of the last chapter of Eric Lang's "mythic trilogy", Ankh: Gods of Egypt. While Blood Rage was informed by the concept of Ragnarok and Rising Sun by the often subtle stories behind East Asian gods' relationships, Ankh was centered around one main idea: the transition from polytheism to monotheism and some of its roots in ancient Egypt. I think it's that clarity of vision that has made some of the best games currently in existence and Ankh may soon be numbered among them.

At its root level, Ankh is an area control/Dudes on a Map (DoaM) game like its two brethren. In all three games, there is a level of interactive play that is dependent upon where your dudes are on the map, but also on another central mechanic. In Blood Rage, it's the card auction. In Rising Sun, it's the alliances and mandates. In Ankh, it's the action track. With a defined limitation of which actions can be taken after others and the timing of said actions controlling when the crucial events (Conflicts, Building Monuments, and Camel Caravans) come into play and by whom, this is the part of the game upon which the rest of the Nile world rotates. Just like the rest of the game, none of the actions (move, summon, gain followers, unlock Ankh power) are complex, but the ripples that each creates, not just in the execution of the action but in the alteration of what the next player may choose to do, are enormous. This is often the best sign of a more complicated game that has grounding in abstract design, where simpler rules and pieces create a tableau of often startling depth. Ankh has been cited as being more "chess-like" than Blood Rage or Rising Sun because of that difference and I think the comparison there is valid, as positioning even within said areas being controlled is hugely important.

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The events, in turn, are so crucial because of what they do to the board. Building monuments to your god's glory is both fully in theme with a game based on ancient Egypt and one of the primary ways to execute a strategy on the board. The Camel Caravans reshape that board so that moments of struggle between the gods may happen at times more to one's liking than others' (This is a concept carried over from Rising Sun that is controlled by players, rather than a random draw.) And the Conflicts are central to the whole construction. Served by the caravans and because of the monuments in play, they are what will define your game. The rest of it is careful maneuvering and build-up to those flashpoints of crisis (again, much like both trilogy siblings) that have to be properly navigated and won in order to be the last god standing at the end,

One of the more interesting aspects to Ankh's design is that those Ankh powers don't vary from game to game. Each player will have access to the same suite of abilities every time they play. But the variations in approach, tuned by the respective god that they're playing, their particular playstyle, the Guardians available, and the scenario and player count at hand will bring almost endless variation to each play. What is your particular approach to the game that the powers might reveal? Planning on a Build Monument strategy? Then Inspiring (Monuments cost 0 followers to build) might be your choice. Enjoy the conflict strength of Temple Attuned (+2 strength in battles if you have a figure next to them)? It's always a viable selection except... How many temples will you be able to corner and keep dudes next to? Is there more access to obelisks or pyramids? In the endgame, will your god be able to take advantage of Resplendent (Your god's strength is 3 if you control 3 monuments of the same type), so that winning battles with Glorious (3 Devotion instead of 1) will be the wiser choice? Or will Magnanimous (losing battle with 2+ figures gets you 2 Devotion)- like the famed "Loki strategy" of Blood Rage -be more your speed?

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Again, all of those questions will be answered by which god you're playing, how many opponents you have, what the board state looks like, and which scenario you happen to be playing. That's the depth inherent to the design and there are no obvious paths to take, in my experience (although a few do seem more obvious than others in initial plays.) But those paths are helped along by which legendary name you're attached to. Fond of the "Loki strategy" approach? Then Osiris, who depends on losing battles to expand his power, might be your style. Are you a good poker player who knows your group well? Then Thoth might be up your alley, with his ability to guess cards being played for a bonus. Able to think strategically to know when to execute your masterstroke in a particular region during each Conflict? Amun might end up being your favorite for the moments when you can choose to play two cards instead of one. As always in games with variable abilities, the mix of said gods will have impact on how the game progresses, as well. Combining a slate of battle-oriented gods like Osiris, Amun, Anubis, and Sobek will produce a different result than a more monument- or follower-oriented slate like Hathor, Thoth, Ptah, and Isis.

The Guardian question has been a heavy one among those who've played the game. The only way to acquire them is to gain Ankh powers and there are a limited supply of them, such that those who fall behind on taking that action may end up with fewer than others or without any at all. However, unlike Rising Sun, where going all-in on an Oni strategy is viable because the latter can be so powerful, the Guardians in Ankh are, like the gods, somewhat more subtle in their application. Many of them are about re-positioning enemy figures, like Satet, or gaining access to distant locations that you can't reach with a normal move, like Unut. However, just as many are about battle, like Serket being able to move to later regions in the battle order if you win, or the Pharaoh Mummy retrieving all of your cards if killed and so forth. But none of their advantages are of the "world domination" sort, although they can be key if properly used. However, the downside to rushing to get Ankh powers and Guardians is that the track for that action is actually shorter than the other three, so pushing that forward accelerates the pace of the game, which means that all of those other actions you've skipped (followers with which to build monuments, movement to get to other regions) can easily be used against you by your opponents to gain the Devotion edge needed to win in your shortened game, so this approach has its weaknesses like any other.

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But one of the key features of the game is the one that Lang insisted upon from the initial pitch to the end of development: the merge. Those board gamers who like DoaMs tend to be the competitive type. Many of them would never even consider the idea of not just allying with another player but actually combining with them and having to coordinate actions for the rest of the game. But those are people who haven't sat down and thought about it. Put simply: This is the game. The theme is about the transition to monotheism and a joint god is part of that path, just as the gods Amun and Ra became Amun-Ra in Egypt's own history. This is the way the game plays, full stop. If you assume that you automatically won't like it, you're a lot like all of those people who assumed they didn't like DoaMs/area control games before they played Root because it had cute animals and then discovered that they loved them. With an open mind, you can also love Ankh, including the merge, as smart players will recognize their position in the game and begin planning for that merge well before it happens. Once combined, the ability for the merged god to control the action track and, thus, the timing of events is significant. In our plays, the merged god has had just as great a chance at victory as any other player, which likely would not have been the case in most games had they remained separated. This is a feature of the game and it has been designed and developed around that feature. It exists, in part, to separate the game from what has come before and it's an aspect that players should embrace as both the challenge and opportunity that it is.

So that's the fitting end to the "mythic trilogy." Despite being within the same genre, Ankh is a quite different game from either of its siblings and will have even more to explore than the other two, with Blood Rage varying only in the exact list of cards that make it into the draft and Rising Sun with the different season decks and monsters that are used. Meanwhile, I haven't even talked about the scenarios that change the starting arrangement of the board in Ankh and which add different scoring goals in some cases. It's also the only one of the trilogy that truly functions well (or at all) with just two players and this is, again, where that comparison to chess comes back in, as the action limit before an event occurs scales for player count, keeping the economy very tight and maintaining a high level of tension with every move taken. Want to play a DoaM that isn't a straight wargame with your partner some evening? This is your go-to and it will usually play in around an hour, just as most of our four- and five-player sessions have only taken around two hours. Ankh is very much a thinker's game and I plan to be thinking about its vision for a long time to come.


Editor reviews

1 reviews

Rating 
 
5.0
Ankh: Gods of Egypt
J
Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.

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Articles by Marc

Marc Reichardt
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Marc

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Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #328590 08 Dec 2021 11:00
Great review!
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #328592 08 Dec 2021 11:30
Thanks! I was wondering if it went on a bit too long, as I ended up including a lot more technical detail than Charlie's, which was more about the feel of the game, instead of specific aspects. I'm never quite sure these days about whether to hit specific points that can often be discovered just by reading the rules, but those are often points that I think people might miss just from the info overload of reading a rulebook, so I still feel like there's utility in including them. It's treading a fine line between a "How to play" description and "What it feels like to play".
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #328593 08 Dec 2021 11:43
fwiw, I think the audience here is interested in how this differs mechanically from your run of the mill troops on a map game so the technical stuff was important.

I feel like the merge mechanic is an enormous troll of every "THESE ARE MY PIECES" uber control gamer type and I love it.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #328594 08 Dec 2021 11:48
Great review!

I think this is a very difficult game to write about. Excellent job.

I'm also glad you dig it, as our tastes are pretty close generally and I wasn't sure how yours would shake out here.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #328595 08 Dec 2021 12:33
Thanks! I was pretty sure I would like it, as I'm just generally a fan of Eric's work and, as you say, our tastes are pretty close. But it surprised me in that there's so much more to explore here than seems to be the case with Blood Rage and Rising Sun. I still feel like I might like the latter a bit more, but it's hard to say, given just how much more there is to be found with the variety of scenarios, etc. Plus, the little nuances that arrive with each Guardian are really fascinating. In a lot of ways, the demands to keep playing to experience those little nuances seem like Ankh would've been better a decade ago when the market and the demands on playing time (i.e. so many games to play in so little time) would've been much less. I'm trying to get one group I have that meets every Monday to agree to just do Ankh for a few weeks in a row and see what comes out of it.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #328617 09 Dec 2021 00:03
Nice review! I slept on this one after being not hugely enamored of Blood Rage and being scared off by the number of expansions and add-ons during the KS. However I played vanilla retail 'Rising Sun' for the first time last night and really enjoyed it (and mannn is it a looker). It was much more engaging than I had anticipated and after reading such glowing reviews of Ankh by yourself and Charlie I'm wondering if I should just pull the trigger on a core box. Bells and whistles be damned.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #328624 09 Dec 2021 10:02
Thanks! I think it's worth it (obvsly.) And it's definitely something you can build in stages, if you really enjoy the base set. The expansions mostly just build on what's already there (more gods, more guardians) but there's already so much game in the core box with the different scenarios available and the guardians already present that there's enough to keep you occupied for a while.

All three games in the trilogy were designed with visual appeal in mind. Lang stated at some point that one of his first design principles is producing something that's visually appealing. I think Rising Sun carried that principle much further than Blood Rage did, but Ankh keeps pace with Rising Sun in that respect.