Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, a few months in.

What do you want from a board game? Do you want a perfectly balanced system, where every player is on a perfectly equal footing; where nothing more than cunning, guile and politicking will see you through to success; a system of refinement and elegance? Well you won’t find any of that here.

What you will find is a light game of area control and hand management, where a bit of planning can go a long way, just so long as the fates are kind. You’ll also find yourself owning a beautiful map of Ankh-Morpork and some fantastically-drawn cards, featuring illustrations of 100 different Discworld characters; this game is a real pleasure to look at and handle.

I’m tempted to end the review here – recommending this game to fans of the Discworld universe as a gorgeous addition to any collection – but I’ve heard that there are some people who expect more from their board games than just prettiness. Fortunate, then, that I’ve owned the game for a good few months now and think I can give it a fair assessment.

A small selection of those lovely cards: every single one is up to this standard, with the whole set keeping to the same style.

As already stated, this is not a heavy game – while there are a few rules to digest, the mechanics of playing cards, putting figures and buildings on the board and rolling the occasional die is unlikely to fluster even the greenest of gamers. What it is, is a game of equal parts strategy and chance, guesswork and planning, with a healthy dose of snowballing dangers and secret victory conditions. Oh, and the occasional dose of random, disruptive violence. Curiously, it’s also a game whose greatest asset also turns out to be its biggest missed opportunity.

But I’ll touch on that later. First, a very brief overview of what the game is about. You take on the role of a randomly selected figure from Ankh-Morpork’s political class: and this is one of those rare occasions where the random selection is integral to the game. You see, you don’t actually reveal your character to anyone else, and each character has different victory conditions. Vastly different victory conditions. All are vying for control of the city, with the Patrician Lord Vetinari having gone missing. Some seek to control the city through, well, direct control: having the most minions and/or buildings in a set number of areas. Others seek to amass money. Some want to sow chaos. Some quite simply want to keep the peace, and prevent any one player from gaining supremacy. By far the most engaging part of the game comes in discerning what your opponents are trying to do – misjudge an opponent and you may find them sneaking to an easy victory.

As you might have guessed, this is an element which is, er, in its element with a large number of players. The more people there are, the harder to keep track of every player’s actions and behaviour, and the harder to work out what they’re trying to achieve. Though playable with 2 players, it really comes into its own with more, allowing the game to become the hectic game of second-guessing that it should be. With only 2 players game becomes a lot more mundane – still not bad by any means, but it loses a lot of its energy as it becomes a lot easier to work out who your opponent is playing as, and so becomes a lot more straightforward; reliant on planning and luck.

The box-art for the Collector's edition, which also contains a larger board, a slight retheming (all instances of the number 8 have been removed) and a poster.

And luck is always a big factor in the game. Every action you take is reliant on you having the right card in hand: each represents an asset you can use – a character or group from the Discworld universe – and each offers you very different options. Some allow you to place minions on the board – crucial to controlling areas. Some earn you money – required to purchase buildings, which themselves need a relevant card to allow construction. Some allow you to assassinate enemy minions. Some offer you a combination of the above, or nothing at all. And some have unique effects, not always helpful.

Generally you have some control over the proceedings – once a building is placed in a territory you gain access to its unique ability – perhaps allowing you to earn money, spawn minions, or spread chaos. But this is irrelevant if you never get any cards allowing you place a building in the first place, or earn the money to do so. Just like any card-based game, if The Lady doesn’t favour you then you might find yourself stuck in a frustrating, unwinnable game. Still, this goes with the territory, and is far from a game-breaker.

More, the blow is softened by the nature of those cards – as already mentioned, they feature wonderfully-drawn pictures of major (and not-so-major) Discworld characters, and their abilities reflect their nature well; of course the arrival of Rincewind will herald unpredictable disasters! It’s hard to begrudge the game its adherence to theme: certainly it could have created a set of characters who were all equal in potential usefulness, created a deck in which multiple copies of each card were available – but where would the fun in that be? There should only ever be one Captain Carrot, one Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, and of course The Peeled Nuts should be an utterly useless group, actively hindering whichever character’s goons accidentally hired them.

That lovely map.

So we have a game which makes good use of theme, and good use of a secret victory condition. What about that missed opportunity I was talking about?

Well, here’s the thing. It’s a game which makes great use of established characters: in the cards you make use of, and the characters you play. Of course as Commander Vimes you’re striving to keep the peace. Of course as Chrysoprase all you care about is money. But then it makes you hide that character – nobody else knows who you are (though they might try to guess). It misses out on one of the pleasures which games like Chaos in the Old World glory in; the ability to really act out your character. Not necessarily going so far as silly voices and funny costumes (though, if that’s what floats your boat…): simply being able to openly play as your character and have the other players respond in kind.

And yet, the secret victory condition adds so much to the game – the game would, quite frankly, be far less interesting, far less entertaining without it. It’s a case of having a game with a fun mechanic, combined with a strong theme, but with the two not quite gelling together perfectly. It manages to combine the two a lot better than many *cough*anythingbyReinerKnizia*cough*, but it isn’t quite perfect.

But then, what is? Ankh-Morpork is a lot of fun to play in groups – requiring insight, guesswork, forethought and flexibility, yet managing to stay light and easy to understand. It’s also a game rich in theme, with some beautiful components. Worth the consideration of any board gamer, and highly recommended for fans of the Discworld.

Author: Yann Best

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  1. I’ve got to disagree about the secret victory conditions, I think they help make the game better. If you were to play out the part of, lets say Vimes, everyone would know how your going to play the game and stop you i whatever way possible.
    Its this element I liked the best in the game.
    Apart from that I totally agree with everything you said.
    I absolutely loved playing this and look forward to giving it another go when I’ve finished with all my shiny shiny new stuff.
    I’ve even written my own review over here > http://gamerdork.net/blog/discworldankh-morpork

  2. Much like his evil Memoir 44 feature, I think the point is more that it’s a great game mechanic but it doesn’t work thematically. It sounds like it completely makes the game …but then maybe it should be a different theme better suited and make another game skinned with Discworld where you can actually take the part of the character fully?

  3. Aye, as Mr Bell says (and as I said in the review), I think it’s a great mechanic, and one which really helps make the game (and the reason that 2-player is its weakest setup, as it makes your opponent’s victory condition easy to detect) – I just think it jars slightly with the theme. Not to a terrible extent – it’s still a game with far richer a theme than many others – but to the point where I wonder if it would have been better suited to a slightly different setting.

  4. Thats where I disagree I think mechanically and thematically it works.
    Its that underlying current that’s always present in the books, you know somethings going on, you think you know what it is, but your just not certain if your right.
    I do agree that its easier to figure it out in a 2 player game, but if you get your strategy right, and the gods are with you, you can send your opponent in the wrong direction.
    I know cause this happened to me, was totally taken in by my mate and got my ass well and truly whipped.


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