I’m always on the look-out for new board games. If a game has a link to a book, even better. At the moment I’m coveting ‘War of the ring’, a battle for Middle Earth based on Lord of the Rings, but this costs the better part of £200 when buying new. So in the meantime, I’ve been playing the more reasonably priced ‘Discworld: Ankh-Morpork’, inspired by Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.
The board is a map of Ankh-Morpork, the biggest city in Discworld. I always think of Ankh-Morpork as Victorian London, but really it is an archetype of any crowded, sprawling, corrupt city. The aim of the game is to take control of the city following the disappearance of its dictator patrician Lord Vetinari. How you do this is determined by which ‘personality’ card you are dealt from pack. These are similar to the mission cards in Risk, and in fact it’s a similar kind of game. If your ‘personality’ is that of vampire Dragon King of Arms, for example, you win by spreading trouble, whereas if you are the troll gangster Chrysoprase, you win by making money, or if you are one of the aristocratic Lords you must take control of a number of regions on the map. You work towards your goal by playing action cards which allow you to carry out various actions such as placing your own counters (‘minions’) in a region you are trying to control, buying real estate, and assassinating your opponents’ minions. Meanwhile, your opponents are trying to achieve their own mission – and, of course, thwart you in yours.
Discworld: Ankh-Morpork is a fun, open game. It’s chaotic, like Ankh-Morpork itself. One player can seem to be clearly leading, then have their lead wiped back as a Random Event occurs (such as a flood, fire, or a rioting mob), or another player suddenly announces they’ve completed their mission. Another good thing about it is that unlike Risk it’s a finite game – once all the cards have been used that’s the end. (I’ve had games of Risk that have literally lasted days and ended up fierce/weary wars of attrition. Maybe that’s just my family and friends though. Or me). You don’t need to have read the Discworld books to play, but the experience is infinitely enhanced if you have. The drawings of the characters are brilliant, and it’s a joy to see figures such as Foul Ole Ron, Rincewind or DEATH in the flesh.
I enjoyed the game so much I decided to re-read Guards! Guards! a classic Terry Pratchett novel set in Ankh-Morpork, in which the City Watch is introduced. Ankh-Morpork is threatened by a dragon who demands treasure and sacrificial virgins and incinerates anyone who gets in its way. Only the Watch can save the city. The thing is, the Watch is an ineffective remnant of a police force. The non-functioning alcoholic Captain Vimes leads a ragtaggle team of misfits who haven’t arrested a criminal in years: crime in Ankh-Morpork is organised by a succession of guilds (Thieves’, Assassins’, etc.), whilst the Watch is supposed to look the other way. But their dormant heroism is awoken and they save the day with the help of various characters including the formidable Lady Sybil Ramkin, the Librarian of the Unseen University (who is, incidentally, an orang-utan) and a tiny malfunctioning swamp dragon named Errol.
Like all the Discworld novels, it’s comic fantasy. Pratchett is one of only a few writers – Bill Bryson is the only other one I can think of off the top of my head – who makes me laugh out loud. (That’s actual laughing, not faux ironically-raised-eyebrow internet lolz). The humour can take the form of throw-away one-liners, cheesy puns or situational farce. My favourite passage occurs when Vimes and his team build up the courage to arrest the person who summoned the dragon:
“Put the sword down,” said Vimes, while behind him Carrot picked bits of door out of his fist.
“Yeah,” said Nobby, peering around the captain. “Up against the wall and spread ’em, motherbreath!”
“Eh? What’s he supposed to spread?” whispered Sergeant Colon anxiously.
Nobby shrugged. “Dunno,” he said. “Everything, I reckon. Safest way.”
It’s also stuffed full of philosophical, scientific and literary references, and it’s not afraid to be profound or moving. For instance, Vimes is shocked that the citizens of Ankh-Morpork are prepared to adapt to being ruled by a dragon, and even to make the most of it by employing the dragon as a weapon against their neighbours. The Patrician, Lord Vetinari, is not so surprised:
“Down there are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.”