If I’m lucky, each year offers a game which grasps my skull in a vice to wring ample fragments of consciousness from its hollows. These are the ones I sit in my car meditating over, lingering not to hear the end of a song but to consider artistry and dynamics.
2021 has presented two such titles. First there was Oath. Now there is Ankh.
Ankh: Gods of Egypt is the third release in Eric Lang’s mythic trilogy from CMON games. This familial tree is best described as a thicket. Prior to Lang’s Rising Sun and Blood Rage, there was his own 2009 breakout Chaos in the Old World, which in turn owes much to the illustrious El Grande. This is some bloodline.
Yet the parentage is broadening. Now there is Tigris & Euphrates.
Ankh is a very different game than its elder siblings. Playing as Egyptian gods in search of devotion, it’s a more subtle affair despite the mythic setting. It’s an idiosyncratic take on area control, requiring players position their gods and warriors on specific hexes. The board is segmented into areas of contention, but unlike both Rising Sun and Blood Rage, each area has limited spaces of precise occupancy.
You don’t simply want to flood the desert where Osiris and his cronies are wickedly amassing, no, you want to slither into the crevices and form a bulwark. Occupying spaces surrounding monuments, such as the large pyramids or obelisks, rewards doomed followers. Standing upon sand or fertile ground affects the potency of certain battle cards. Cutting off an opponent and denying them positioning can negate abilities such as Temple Attuned and its associated bonus strength. The dance is thoughtful and layered.
Fighting over each area feels unusually Knizian. You incrementally gain ownership and vested interest in the sub-divisions as the game progresses. This is a result of the player-driven creation of monuments. Points are scored in each area by sub-majority. Whoever controls the most pyramids earns devotion. This is repeated for temples and obelisks.
As you build up across the arc of play investment grows. The conflict areas swell and stakes rise. This combination of precise placement with blossoming prosperity feels hearkens to the doctor. Each war, fought with the vestiges of Lang plastic sacrament, calls to ancestral Internal Conflicts. The fallout of such violence results in the wiping away of the loser’s throng, a contraction similar to the cascading tile removal of Tigris.
There are other Knizia principles at work. The action system in particular is a brilliant thing whose simplicity belies its depth. Players can choose two of moving, recruiting, gaining followers, or unlocking special abilities. But your second selection must appear below your first, working top down on the action board. Simply, it means some actions must be performed prior to others. If you want to move for instance, you have to do that before recruiting as it’s at the top of the hierarchy.
The larger crimp is that every time you perform an action you move a marker down that specific action’s track. Once the end of the track is reached an event is triggered.
You desperately want to be the person activating these events.
That player will be the one who gains a new monument. Or who takes a handful of miniature camels and divides one of the areas in two. Or who breaks a tie during the war phase. Each of these is enormously significant.
This collection of action tracks forms an engaging tool to manipulate tempo. It also provides a high degree of uncertainty, limiting your ability to look too far ahead. This quality of obscurity is prototypal Knizia. It’s reverberated in the events of monument control and area division. The former has you committing to regions whose composition is destined to fluctuate, the latter an activity which can profoundly alter the landscape of future conflict and focus.
The only mar on this system is that with a full player count of five it dips far too much into chaos. The game works at that count, but so little can be planned or accounted for, resulting in the feeling that events mostly fall into players laps. The action tracks buckle a bit in this format and the excellence of the system nearly disappears completely.
In a fit of inspiration, Lang exercises surprising restraint in content. Rising Sun in particular is an experience focused heavily on content discovery. Special powers and units are randomized each play from an enormous pool. Ankh on the other hand features little content focus beyond the asymmetrical abilities of each Egyptian deity, and the recruitable guardians whose impact on play is not overly significant. I can hear some Ankh fans disagreeing with that last statement, but I’ve never felt the guardians’ impact was a deciding factor and some players may never receive one.
The main focus, and source of divergence from Rising Sun, is in the symmetrical set of Ankh powers players acquire. Across plays these are never swapped out, never change. Yet they function as a very compelling source of emergent strategic pressure. The synergies between abilities are a function of the asymmetric god powers and the evolving game state which is a byproduct of player count and the selected scenario. This decision to restrain the scope of Ankh powers is reflective of the Knizian design philosophy, although admittedly, it’s less realized than other characteristics.
The final tenet of Reiner influence is the most absolute. A defining trait of Ankh is its end-game tension. Much like the doctor’s marvelous system of scoring only your weakest point vector, this game’s final run-up of devotion bean counting is nothing short of batshit crazy.
If you know anything of this game, then you know I’ve delayed discussing the most central aspect of the design. Don’t worry, we’re there.
Ankh’s merge mechanism is more controversial than Jordan Peterson, Miley Cyrus, and Crystal Pepsi. About two-thirds of the way through this apocalyptic divinity war the two gods with the least number of devotees are fused, one disappearing completely and the other growing immensely in strength. Both players must now work together as one. As a transcendent deity.
This is one of the most jarring moments in any game I’ve experienced.
Imagine this. Maybe you’re not even doing that poorly, behind by only a couple of digits. Then the third conflict event triggers and the merge happens. All of your warriors are plucked from the earth. Your god too. Each of the abilities you’ve spent time accruing over play, your entire strategy, obliterated like Barry Bonds teeing off on the dried husk of King Tut.
For some, this is emotional savagery.
Roughly half of the people I’ve played this with loathe the mechanism. It’s a complicated issue. Board games offer complete control. Our pieces and enacted strategies, the sum total of our decisions, we own them. In some sense they’re our identity, at least within the boundary of the shared experience. Furthermore, a large portion of hobbyists dedicate themselves to games featuring minimal player interaction. Conflict is disorienting to this group. The merge is another layer deep into the bowels of that hell.
To single a player out and have their identity ruthlessly gutted is subversive. It’s also magnificent.
Paradoxically, the merge forms the very identity of Ankh. It’s a moment in play that you can prepare for. It affects each tier of strategic decision making. Experienced players will start negotiating and working in tandem before the assimilation occurs.
Much of the suffering can be avoided with proper framing. The merge should be celebrated, particularly by its victims. You now have the power of two gods, and you are able to enforce a stranglehold on the action economy. Strong play from a duo typically results in controlling the majority of events allowing for a massive surge in momentum. The newly formed deity may begin the final act in last place, but they are just as likely to win as the current leader.
More importantly, the radical shift in dynamics is a welcome occurrence. If you’re on the receiving end of the merge, then you’re now thrust into this situation of necessary teamwork and discussion in a sort of makeshift one-vs-all scenario. While your old pieces may be gone, your new ones are stronger and figuring out how to navigate these tenuous waters is delightful. Those on the outside are now faced with a monumental challenge and must adapt to a completely different mindsight. The entire game swings on this moment and it’s incredible to behold.
The merge is also the unifying mechanism of the game’s motif. The whole reason for conflict is the decay of societal polytheistic worship. The transition to monotheism is a peculiar and brief moment in Egyptian history. The decision to embrace the 20-year period of Atenism as the game’s setting is deliberate and interesting. In terms of Egyptian history, it’s a movement as radical as the implementation of the merge mechanism is to board games.
My preferred interpretation of Ankh’s message is that hierarchies and power structures are a function of other’s permission. You are nothing if not for the dispensation of a larger body. In many ways, this is optimistic and empowering from a cultural perspective.
The game also addresses loss and mortality. Grief is overcome by union and both parties come out the other side stronger for it. This is a more personal underlying theme but strongly addressed.
The merge is an integral aspect of expressing the game’s overarching themes. This is emphasized with the idea that two merges actually occur in the game, the earlier pronounced joining, and the final moment where the victor subsumes all others. That last action is not felt mechanically as it’s merely a declaration ingrained in outcome and subject matter, but it’s there and it’s the very point of the game.
By foreshadowing the final state of play themes are wrought into existence and felt by the players at the table. They’re given life and actualized as opposed to merely flavor text. In this sense, Ankh is Lang’s most impressive intellectual craft.
This linkage between the game’s primary novel system and its thematic expression is also the sole metaphysical component of play. All of Lang’s work in this field has been rooted in mortals toiling beneath unseen divinity.
Ankh represents both the divine and mundane explicitly. Horus is there, battling it out with Ra alongside a tribe of feeble warriors. The main thematic abstraction is in the fatalistic worshippers of the pantheon. In essence these people and their devotion to your authority are the most significant aspect of the game as they represent your victory points. Yet you accrue followers like coin, tossing them onto the table in sacrifice for power. As you strive to avoid irrelevance you slaughter those who hold you most dear. And they smile. They love you for it.
This a brutal game all around. Its harrowing depiction of theism, its casual annihilation of souls, and its irreverence of identity can all be viewed as subtle cruelty.
But for all its callousness it is equally beautiful. This is a very coherent and sound design that is enrapturing, unorthodox, and thematically rich. Someday it may be revered as Lang’s best work.