Micropolis is the latest game from veteran designer Bruno Cathala, working in collaboration on this occasion with Charles Chevallier. It is an ant-themed game published by Matagot.
We all love bees but other insects aren’t generally so popular. Along with spiders and flies, most people think of ants as a nuisance: unwelcome guests at a picnic or invading your larder. Nevertheless, there’s something about ants that makes them attractive to designers when they are looking for a theme for a new game. Perhaps it’s the fact that ants have a social order, so an ant-themed game provides an opportunity for a designer to create a society in microcosm.
And Micropolis is by no means the first game to be themed around ant colonies. As I write this and look up at my shelves, I can immediately see one of last year’s Kickstarter arrivals BrilliAnts (published by Sphere Games and more cleverly known in France as Fourmidable) and alongside it stands March of the Ants (Weird City Games). We’re talking here about a whole Formicidae board game sub-genre that I bet you didn’t even know existed! If you include the multitude of bee, hive an butterfly themed games, you could curate an entire board game collection themed entirely around chitinous invertebrates. And I haven’t even mentioned the Beetle Drive games you probably played as a small child.
As you can see from the Micropolis box art, Matagot have taken a similar design decision as the publishers of previous ant-themed games: they have jettisoned realism and plumped instead for more visually appealing cutesy art. These are not the creepy crawlies with which David Attenborough might transfix you in hypnotic horror in one of his TV documentaries. The ants in Micropolis are cute Manga-wide eyed creatures, with nary a compound eye in sight. Although the ants in the drawings do all have six limbs, the tiny plastic minis look more like Marvin the Martian from Chuck Jones’ Bugs Bunny cartoons; to the point where they appear only to have four limbs. There are specialist ants represented on the tiles, including, for example, a nurse who nurtures your next generation of soldier ants and an architect who gives the player a potentially valuable one-off advantage in selecting a subsequent tile. However, the designers have wisely avoided representing some of the actual divisions of labour and aspects of the lifestyle of ants. Nowhere in this game, for example, will you find any reference to trophallaxis, whereby larvae are fed by regurgitating liquefied food.
Yuk factor minimised, Micropolis is a pleasant fast-playing game that is played over 10 turns. Players take tiles to add them to their anthill colony from a central display that refreshes only after it has fallen below the number of players. The tiles that are selected become segments placed around a circular base, and players will want to take tiles that connect best with those they have previously picked. The tiles available for selection are set out in a line. In what has become an increasingly common board game mechanic – as seen, for example, in Plan B’s Century: Spice Road – you can always take the end tile for free but you have to pay by placing out a token (in this case, one of the tiny plastic soldier ant minis) on any tiles you pass over to get the one you want. Anyone taking a tile with ant minis on it reaps the bonus of adding those ants to their own supply.
Keep a compound eye on the scores
Some tiles give an immediate extra benefit but you will mostly be selecting tiles in order to optimise your scoring because of the way the tiles connect up. There are end-game points scored for the number of ants depicted on all the tiles in your completed anthill colony and for the player with the largest gallery (interconnected tunnels). There are set collection bonuses and points can also be scored for having loaded soldier ant minis into barracks. Yes, I realise this is further anthropomorphising arthropods.
As with set collection games like Sushi Go (Gamewright), there are circumstances where players may deliberately choose to forego otherwise desirable tiles because these may interfere with a scoring bonus they are trying to achieve. Galleries only score for length if they have a single queen in them, so you might find yourself taking care to avoid selecting a tile with a queen on it.
Non-combatant soldier ants
The look and feel of Micropolis is very different from Bruno Cathala’s other recent hit game, the award-winning Kingdomino (published by Blue Orange). However, you are bound to notice similarities in the way in which the scoring works. Like Kingdomino, players in Micropolis will be competing for the most desirable tiles, and there are circumstances where a player may take a tile with the main purpose of depriving an opponent of a potentially high scoring placement. That aside, Micropolis is not a game where there is a huge amount of player interaction and there are very few ‘take that’ moves beyond the placement of tiles that allow a player to steal one or two soldier ants from an opponent. In the main, you’ll spend the game focused on your own anthill colony as you look out for tiles that will help you to maximise your end-game score.
A strong feature of Micropolis, and adding to its replay value, is the fact that there is no single killer punch path to victory. The different ways of racking up points are pretty well balanced, so you might decide to eschew collecting fruit (fruit symbols score incrementally for unique sets) in favour of populating barracks; while another player may set their sights primarily on building the longest gallery. You do have to make choices, however. This is a game where you probably won’t win by trying to do a little bit of everything.
Micropolis takes 2–6 players. It works commendably well with all of these player counts. You’ll find, however, that the dynamics of the game change as you play with more players. With two or three players, there’s more scope for planning ahead because tiles are likely to remain available for a couple of turns. With more players, you can expect all or most of the tiles to go before your next turn is reached (unlike other games, the display is not refreshed with replacement tiles immediately after one has been taken). The different dynamics of different player counts demand differing approaches to the tactical choices you make. The designers are obviously very aware of these differences because the rules suggest an ‘advanced’ variant for two and three players to each play with two anthill colonies. If you play with these rules, your brace of anthills support each other but they are treated as independent of each other. If you buy this game, it’s a variant that is definitely worth a try.
Despite the militaristic tone and the prevalence of ‘soldier ants’, the lack of ‘take that’ cutthroat interaction makes Micropolis a relatively easygoing good-natured game. The rules are simple, easy to teach and easy to learn. That makes this a good gateway game. Micropolis is a game you could play with ‘non-gamers’ but, like the best gateway games, there’s still enough meat here to hold the interest of experienced gamers looking for a diverting 30-minute filler. Although there are choices to be made, they are not generally choices that are likely to throw players into a state of analysis paralysis. All of this makes for an entertaining game that justifies its strong 7/10 rating.
Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.