Table of Contents
|Name||Discworld: Ankh-Morpork (2011)|
|Review||Meeple Like Us|
|Complexity||Medium Light [2.21]|
|BGG Rank||449 [7.22]|
|Artist(s)||Peter Dennis, Paul Kidby, Ian Mitchell and Bernard Pearson|
My love of Discworld was a big factor in how the Discworld: Ankh Morpork review went – it’s a perfectly fine game set in Discworld, but fails as a Discworld game because it doesn’t capture any of the things that actually matter about the setting. The problem when chaining a game to a particular franchise is that the super fans you’re hoping to reach are likely to be the most discerning critics of what you put out there. Sometimes that’s fair, as I hope is the case with our review. Sometimes it can be smothering and toxic. That’s the risk a creator takes when trying to court the fans of another.
We gave it two and a half stars in our review. It’s a perfectly okay game that manages to not mess up its references to the source material. It just doesn’t actually do much with the spirit of the work.
As usual though if you cared about that you’d be reading our review. You’re here for the accessibility teardown which is almost pointless because the game is out of print. It is though an opportunity to talk about some of the accessibility barriers that the physical nature of this hobby creates. The game may be almost impossible to get, but the issues that it raises aten’t dead.
Discworld: Ankh Morpork suffers from the same issue we see in a lot of games from this period. I tend to go a little bit harder on games from the past couple of years as far as colour blindness goes because there’s a point where you can’t realistically claim indifference to the topic is ‘industry standard’. Back in 2011 I’m not sure anyone really thought about the issue at all. We see here the use of blue, yellow, red and green tokens and this is a problematic combination for all of our standard categories of colour blindness:
There are also some issues when it comes to telling regions of the board apart because they have a strikingly ugly colour scheme that even fully chromatic vision doesn’t make much better.
With reference to the image above it’s hard to tell where Dimwell / the Shades / the Hippo begin and end and likewise for the Scours, Isle of Gods, Longwall and the Unreal Estate. You can get around this to an extent by being careful in positioning pieces near the name but minions move around a lot and it’s easy occasionally to forget where one was supposed to have been. The colour scheme won’t make it obvious where the boundaries exist.
That’s important because the presence or otherwise of minions is a critically important aspect of play, as is knowing who owns what buildings. Much of what you do in the game will depend on what leader you think each player is controlling and as such knowing who has presence and trouble in which regions is going to be part of the deductive process. That’s going to be very hard in games where some players are sharing a colour.
We don’t recommend Discworld: Ankh Morpork in this category.
The board is reasonably well contrasted in that the name, cost and number of each district is effectively letter-boxed against the background. It’s a very busy board though and there’s no consistency to where information symbols are located. The Shades has its cost above the name and its allocated number below. Longwell has its cost on the bottom left of the name and its number to the top right. It’s all clustered around the backplate though, which does at least limit how far someone must investigate to find key information. Much of it too is replicated on the cards.
There’s a degree of tactility in the board in that different kinds of marker can be differentiated by touch – minions versus buildings versus trouble versus trolls versus imps. Ownership of player tokens (buildings and minions) however cannot be determined by touch and inquiring of this will occasionally leak gameplay information. For example if you’re just checking for trouble markers you’re probably Dragon King of Arms. If you don’t care about trouble but are only interested in minions and how many are in an area you might well be Lord Rust or one of his proxies. Similarly if you only care about where your own minions are and don’t care about anyone else you’re likely to be Lord Vetinari. The questions a visually impaired player might ask will, unless they are very careful, reveal more than they might like.
Coins come in two denominations. They’re different sizes and I think with practice a player can determine which is which by touch without too much trouble. Obviously though different tactile profiles would have been much more effective.
This then brings us to the major problem with the game – the number of cards and the importance of holding hidden information. Leader cards are dealt out secretly and a player will need to know their win condition without revealing it to anyone else – everyone working at cross-purposes to accomplish their own goal is what drives the game forward. Each player will also have a hand of cards representing the actions they can undertake.
Each card is reasonably well structured although somewhat inconsistent. The actions a card permits are listed iconographically along the top and this is well contrasted if a little smaller than might be ideal. The majority of the card is taken up with a piece of art to represent the card title, and cards with special text will have less of the card given over to this than others. Cards without special text have a smaller area for the title and text, and this is where the inconsistency comes in. It would have been better for accessibility, and more efficient use of space, to have those icons underneath the name plate and get rid of the top section entirely. It’s not a critical problem but reliability of investigation is an important predictor of accessibility.
The special text on (some) of the cards is not complex and there aren’t a massive number of different effects. They will though involve a considerable amount of cross-reference between cards and boards and cards and other cards. For example, playing Mr Slant lets you pick a trouble area and collect $2 for each minion there. Otto Chriek on the other hand gets $1 for each troube marker on the board. Both have a very similar effect but knowing which one you’d want to play will depend on investigating board state and potentially revealing information to other players. The churn of the board too is intense, so the time it takes to go around the board once for each player can result in everything being different. Even buildings will burn down and swap hands. Moving a minion from one area to another will result in trouble tokens if another minion is there and the result of that is that one single minion move may result in the change in state of two regions. Couple this to the cards that permit you to play multiple other cards in a turn and you can imagine how febrile that makes the game state.
So, a visually impaired player would need to be able to read and contextualise the text on each card, and there may be many of these at a time – there’s no fixed hand limit but certain cards permit larger draws from the deck. In those circumstances you just don’t draw at the end of a turn until you’re under the set expectation of cards.
There’s a lot here getting in the way of an accessible game, so we don’t recommend Discworld: Ankh Morpork in this category.
Discworld: Ankh Morpork is constantly stressing numeracy in a range of ways – keeping track of the number of trouble markers and minions, and in what quantities they are present in the board, is one of the key elements of play because it’s how winning is handled. On top of this, there’s an important aspect of deduction where you need to interpret what other players do, which may not necessarily be transparent, in line with what leaders they could potentially be. Deduction there is a fluid intelligence issue, but remembering how previous actions inform that deduction is a considerable memory burden.
Literacy is also a major problem because many of the cards have special effects and the cards in hand should be secret. It’s not necessarily a game-breaker to play with open information as far as cards go since they have relatively similar effects in most situations. It would though have a significant impact when playing with mixed ability groups. It would even be possible to play with open leaders, but again there would be a considerable impact on the experience given how important that secrecy of objective is. It would create a game that was more obviously strategic. My feeling, uncomfirmed by experimentation, is that the cognitive cost would likely go up if leaders were open because scheme and counter-scheme would be more gamifiable when suspicion solidifies into certainty.
The game state never gets beyond a fixed level of complexity, although some random cards introduce elements that may not appear in other game sessions – demons and trolls for example act as neutral minions that complicated many of the game win conditions. Those could feasibly be removed from the random event deck – other than those, the mechanisms of play are reasonably straightforward and the board mostly serves as a repository for minions, trouble and buildings.
However it’s manipulating this simple game state that’s likely to introduce the largest cognitive costs. It sounds simple to have a win condition that requires you to have a minion in ten areas of the game but people will be shunting your minions around all the time. You need to align you cards with your minions with the placement of minions least likely to yield problems. If you place your minions in areas owned by a player that is looking to make trouble you might reach a concord but at the same time you’ll be progressing them towards their victory. As such there’s more scheming involved in minion placement than you might initially expect.
Game flow can be modulated by the fact some cards permit the playing of follow-up cards, and some characters (wizards in particular) trigger random events that will need to be resolved before play moves on to its next player. Each of those random events have their own specifics. For example, if you draw the Dragon you roll the provided d12 and remove any of the pieces at the location. If you draw Fire on the other hand you keep rolling while it spreads. Flood is localised around the river, and riots can end the game instantly. The latter one in particular has a massive impact on play because at that point the otherwise unused victory point calculations come into effect and it’s unlikely people have been playing with that in mind unless they’re Commander Vimes. Random events are relatively rare in play but they will almost certainly come up in the later parts of of the game.
I think a lot of the fun in playing Discworld: Ankh Morpork is also bound up in the context of being aware of the Discworld books. There are a lot of fun references and knowing winks in the decks, but all of that goes completely unappreciated if someone hasn’t read… well pretty much all of the books. The cards are surprisingly comprehensive, accommodating characters and events that span quite far through the books. You can play without having read a single word of Terry Pratchett but I’m not sure why you would. So much of the game lives and dies on its adherence to the franchise lore.
We can’t recommend Discworld: Ankh Morpork in either of our categories of cognitive accessibility. Even when playing with open information the cognitive costs are likely to go up in certain categories.
Discworld: Ankh Morpork is a surprisingly mean game. There are random event cards that will wipe away turns worth of progress. Players will have cards that let them kill your minions, burn down your buildings, steal money directly from your pockets and more. A lot of the game activity too is focused around frustrating the hidden motives of other people. Someone may move your minion elsewhere because they suspect you’re up to something and if they’re right they will have just set you back at least a turn of play – more if you can’t actually undo what was done. Multiple players can easily gang up on one another and if everyone has a fair idea of what you’re trying to do it might even be in their interests to do so.
Score disparities usually don’t exist in the usual sense, but losses can come out of nowhere and can make you feel very foolish if you misread a player’s actions as supporting one win condition when they actually had another. You may in fact find that the reason a player wins is because you set them up for it and as such the game also suffers somewhat from the ‘poor player downstream’ issue. That’s where a player’s competence is determined at least in part by who plays before and after they do. That can be frustratingly uneven and adds an asymmetry in opportunity that can be a problem
It’s a chaotic game, with lots of take that elements and a design that actively forces everyone into everyone else’s face. We don’t recommend it in this category.
Players will be dealing with (potentially) large hands of cards. Most of the actionable information is unlikely to be obscured if using a card holder but the full width of the card will need to be visible for its effect to be understood. Cards that permit the drawing of larger hands are ‘opt-in’ but they’re so useful that all players would likely want to do so from a tactical perspective. There are enough cards in the deck that you could consider removing them if this was likely to be an issue.
Other than this, players will need to manipulate minions, trouble markers and buildings on the main board but the proportions here are generous. There’s no need for especially fine grained positioning. The board does get very busy though, especially in three or four player games, and a single region may contain dozens of pieces. Extracting any specific one from its context might be tricky and the last thing you want to do is nudge pieces into their adjacent regions.
If that’s too much of an expectation the game fully supports verbalisation. Every card is uniquely named, every region of the board distinctly described, and all actions unambigiously verbalizable to the extent needed. There’s no specific identity of given minions for example so ‘move my minion from Dolly Sisters to the Unreal Estate and move one of yours to the Isle of Gods’ would be fine because it doesn’t matter specifically which minion provided it belongs to the right player.
We’ll recommend Discworld: Ankh Morpork in this category.
Discworld as a setting has a region of the world that would reflect any ethnicity or nationality you’d like. Sometimes with, uh, unfortunate consequences. That’s not reflected in the game though – there is an extremely heavy bias towards white faces since Ankh-Morpork is a parody of a number of western cities in the pre-industrial ages. Pratchett has this to say of racism:
“Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because—what with trolls and dwarfs and so on—speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.”
That’s perhaps not a convincing defence though. Similarly most of the characters in Discworld: Ankh Morpork are men although there are also a number of prominent women characters included. To some extent the source material is a convincing defence because Discworld as a whole has a number of very significant and admirable women characters. Those though tend to be most convincingly expressed in the Witches series of books and those are set a long way off from Ankh-Morpork. The city isn’t absent of powerful and interesting women (Angua, Lady Sybil Ramkin, Cheery Littlebottom and so on) but Ankh-Morpork isn’t the setting that really doubles down there. There is a game based on the Witches books that I might investigate if I get a hold of it, so for the moment consider this ‘There’s a representational problem but when taken as a series of games it might not be quite such an issue’. You might be able to handwave that away as the fact that cards are assets rather than characters you inhabit but none of the leaders are women either. Even Lady Sybil is just a character card despite being one of the richest and most powerful women in the city. It’s a bit of an own goal even if it wouldn’t have done much to redress the balance.
Price though is what I really wanted to talk about in this teardown, because there are a lot of out-of-print games I will never talk about on the blog and this might be the only chance I get to do it. Consider this then the ‘economic accessibility’ associated with every out of print game.
There’s a concept in board game collecting known as the ‘grail game’ – a game that is out of print but in some way dear to someone in a way that makes it something they will pay over the odds to possess. Discworld: Ankh Morpork was a grail game for me because, as you may have picked up from the review and this teardown – I’m something of a fan. I wasn’t much into board gaming in 2011 and as such my only chance to get it was on the secondary market. A lovely friend of mine sold it to me for a much more reasonable price than I would have gotten from eBay or Amazon but few people can count on ‘a fellow fan willing to do you a favour’ to get a game at something approximately the RRP of a new game.
I am not a believer in most cases that it’s worth spending large sums of money to get a particular game that is out of print. ‘It’s £200 and a great game’ is a poor argument when there is already no shortage of great games and you could probably get four for that price. In circumstances like this what you really need to do is consider not just ‘Everyone says this is great’ but ‘What does this particular game mean to me?’. Do you really need to buy an out-of-print Battlestar Galactica or is there a similar style game that is in print and is also great? The chances are high that the answer is yes.
Even I wouldn’t have paid the current quoted prices on Ebay and Amazon for Discworld: Ankh Morpork. I love that I have it – it’s a game that’s special to me even if I will hardy ever play it. It’s a game I enjoy simply having. It makes me feel nice when I see it on my shelves because it’s a bit of Discworld and board gaming history. It absolutely though is not worth £225 as a game. Without the emotional attachment to the series £225 will buy a half dozen games of equal or greater quality that will be brand new.
I think for grail games you need to be convinced of three things.
- That a reprint is never going to happen. Anyone that paid hundreds for a copy of Dune is likely feeling a little sheepish now a reprint has been announced and you can pick it up for £35.
- That there aren’t equally good games in a particular category that you could get for much lower expenditure. This is a fairly straightforward game of area control. Games like it are a dime a dozen.
- That you are confident there is a specific and lasting reason that you want this particular marriage of theme and mechanisms. If you just want a Discworld game, you can get Clacks pretty cheaply. Nanty Narking is a retheming of Discworld: Ankh Morpork that will be out this year and if all you wanted was this game and didn’t care about Terry Pratchett you’d be much better off grabbing that.
Grail games are essentially the province of the privileged – of people that can afford to pay vastly inflated prices to get this specific game rather than equally good games that are more cheaply available. It’s an incredibly inaccessible prospect.
We don’t recommend Discworld: Ankh Morpork, or any grail game, at all in this category. But if you know you really want it, nothing I say will dissuade you and that’s reason enough to ignore me.
There’s no formal need for communication during the game but there is a lot of literacy required for play and there are so many cards (albeit with many similar effects) that it won’t be feasible to commit them to memory. Icons are used for standard effects but the special text on a large number of the cards is particular to them.
We can only tentatively recommend Discworld: Ankh Morpork in this category.
Well – this will be brief! We only recommend Discworld: Ankh Morpork in the communication and physical categories so any intersection at all will completely invalidate even that.
To be fair though, this is somewhat harsher than is reasonable because if I were reviewing this when it were still available for general release it would probably have a B- in the socioeconomic category (representation is a problem but there are some mitigating factors). It isn’t though – we work on the game as it is rather than how it was at the time.
This is considerably more brutal than I was expecting. I wanted to review Discworld: Ankh Morpork for several reasons. One, it’s Discworld and oh my god I love Discworld. I’ll be reviewing Clacks at some point too for that very same reason. GO READ DISCWORLD. Two, it’s an interesting opportunity to talk about the risks that come with adapting source material for which people are passionate. Three, it’s out of print and as such it gives me a chance to address the inaccessibility of collecting grail games. I wasn’t intending to give it such a kicking but that’s how things go on occasion.
The socioeconomic grade is particularly unfair. It’s like giving Notre-Dame a one star rating on Trip Advisor because it burned down before I had time to visit. It’s not the game’s fault that it’s no longer available. I sometimes make a point when people say ‘This is is intended to be annoying for comic effect’. That point is, ‘Yes, but intentionally annoying is still annoying’. Similarly with games that have bad representation on account of ‘realism’. ‘Yes, but the representation is still poor’. Intentionality or external factors don’t change the truth of those observations. So it is with the price here.
I couldn’t justify for a moment someone going out and picking up Discworld: Ankh Morpork. It’s not good enough as a game, nor original enough as a set of game mechanisms, to warrant that. If you’re a genuine, hard-core Discworld fan and just want a Discworld game without particularly caring which it is – there are others. Even other out of print games that are cheaper to get, at least for now. Sometimes though we want things not because of what they are but what they represent.
Really my advice here would be ‘Don’t buy Discworld: Ankh Morpork. For this price you could buy all of the books and that’s an investment a million times wiser’. I spent a day writing 7000 words of analysis of a game that simply doesn’t matter any more. That’s how much Discworld is worth to me and if I convince even one of you to give the books a try I’ll consider than a day well spent.
What the hell are you waiting for? GO!
A Disclaimer About Teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.