In an ancient world transitioning from polytheism to monotheism, the gods of Egypt clash. And there can only be one (possibly conjoined) god left standing. We talk to Eric Lang about his new game Ankh: Gods of Egypt
I spoke to Eric Lang after he had spent the day running a game design course at the university in Lucca. After the exertions of Essen Spiel and Lucca Comic and Games, Eric is still bubbling with enthusiasm and eager to talk about Ankh: Gods of Egypt. As the third game in what has now been dubbed a trilogy, Ankh: Gods of Egypt joins Rising Sun and Blood Rage to form something like Lang’s auteur piece. It was an unintentional move to create this trilogy.
“I didn’t envision this game as a trilogy of games.” Says Lang “This game was the most difficult because I redesigned it the most number of times. It continues a lineage of Blood Rage and Rising Sun in the sense that it’s a fantasy take, or shall I say, my twisted take on the mythology.”
Like his other games, this twisted take is about area control, harnessing the might of monsters and managing your warriors. Here however you play as a literal god – the sources of the mythology, rather than an influencer and manipulator of it as players are in Blood Rage and Rising Sun. I asked Lang about his central metaphor for the game, the mythical engine at its heart.
“So this one’s kind of on the nose,” he says, laughing, “You’re a god. So, I want you to feel like a god. You are this gigantic, enormous figure that towers above all other figures. You can never die in combat. You’re immortal. You get extra powers and you just become bigger and stronger and badder. And you can reshape the map in any way that you want.”
The central premise of the game then is about this expression of power, making the players feel mighty when they take their actions. As always in Lang’s games, it is fitting – it forms a very tight link between the theme and gameplay. But it’s not just a power trip. The game’s other interlocking themes are those partly human aspects of the ancient gods.
“Being part of the Egyptian pantheon – they’re, so… human, right? Even though they’re gods, they have these human foibles.” Lang explains, “They have these sorts of soap opera relationships with each other – these tiffs, these backstabbings, these betrayals. It’s a little like the Greek pantheon except it’s less melodramatic and just a little bit more brutal and sudden. I mean, it’s older of course. I wanted to capture the feeling of you playing these godlike like brothers and sisters that just kinda hate each other.”
The storyline of the game, the reason for such conflict – beyond sibling rivalry – is the transition undertaken in ancient Egypt from polytheism to monotheism.
“The people are losing faith in the gods,” says Lang, “One by one the gods are actually dropping off as they lose the devotion of their followers. And you want to be the last god standing. I should say one or more because in this game, unlike any other mythology, two gods can actually merge together during the course of the game become one god – like Amun-Ra or Bastet.”
This mechanic is one where an event in the game forces the player lagging behind the other gods in devotion to join with another god. This melding of the gods fits with the way that the Egyptians, over time, joined together gods like Amun and Ra to form Amun-Ra as a kind of father-of-all life god amongst the gods. Interestingly this nods towards the mutability of the beings we control in Ankh: Gods of Egypt – while they are all powerful, they are at the whims of man, collectively.
“Gods are rated in devotion, which is the stat that allows you to stay in the game. It’s sort of analogous to victory points except it’s not really a VP track. Your status goes up and down as you gain or lose devotion,” says Lang, “It’s the only ‘track’ in the game. You start in the bottom third, and you are trying to gain the devotion of followers by conquering regions or worshiping at monuments or erecting cool things for them.”
“And you lose monuments by losing battles or by causing plagues and all that bad stuff. So, it has upward and downward mobility. As the game goes on, near the end of the game, players that are stuck in too low devotion will actually be eliminated, although, not for very long.”
Gameplay wise this newly joined god still plays as two separate entities. They take separate turns, take their own actions and command their own warriors on the board. The conjoined god is judged on the devotion of the least worshiped of the two players.
“So even though they get double the actions and double the power, they actually have to take care of the worst performing one of the two,” explains Lang. This acts as a kind of swing moment, rebalancing in the game. The additional actions, and the focus of having two players working together suggests these events aren’t defeats, just marks for getting revenge. “It’s a dynamic that I really liked. I haven’t seen it before in a game like this. I wanted to make a game that earned its own place on the shelf.”
Out of the box players will be able to become the powerful gods of ancient Egypt in the forms of Anubis, Osiris, Isis, Ra and Amun. The game promises to be highly asymmetrical, with each god feeling distinctly different from the others on the board. We asked Lang for a couple of ways which these gods interact with the board and one another.
“Amun is the keeper of the underworld,” explains Lang, “Normally, just like in Blood Rage and Rising Sun, if any of your figures die for any reason, they just go back to your pool and you can re-summon them again. In the case of Amun, when he’s in play, if any figures die, he can actually take that figure and take them into the underworld. And he gains strength for every figure that’s in the underworld. If anybody wants to take their figure back from him, they have to give Amun a follower, which is the main ‘currency’ of the game.”
As much of the game is about courting followers and devotion, it’s also about tripping up your fellow gods. It is easy to see how these interactions work against other players. Some powers are a vicious tax like those granted by Amun, whereas others are more insidious – less obviously evil until an action is taken.
“Isis is a protector. Her pieces are able to share spaces with other warriors unlike anybody else. If any of her figures are killed, instead, those sharing the space with their figures are killed. She’s really good at protecting her own people and making other people their shields.”
This kind of cut-throat play style will go down well with those looking for high intensity action on the board. Everything you do in Ankh: Gods of Egypt has a very real feeling heft to it. But the powers of the gods don’t just end with their effects on the warriors and followers around them. The very earth can be changed in huge and sweeping ways. The board itself, originally set out with three regions separated by the Nile (Upper Egypt, Lower Egypt and the Delta) can be altered dramatically. The board state can be quickly reformed by any individual player with a single action – including dividing regions up, so while on your turn a monument was in your region, that can quickly be flipped on its head by another player.
“As you progress down the timeline of events players get to place these camels on the game to form caravans, which split regions into two. This creates a new region on the board and players are incentivized to do that to their advantage,” says Lang. With this we can see something of the central ‘desperate but powerful’ theme coming through. While you as a god are claiming the devotion of others, the areas you can make those claims from are splitting. As the gods meld together, the world fractures. This leads to even more emergent narrative, as well as variety between games.
“So the map is going to look different every time you play the game because it gets divided in different ways based on the needs of a player at any given time,” says Lang “every time you play it’s just going to look like you’ve, you’ve redrawn the map in different ways.”
These huge power plays are part of the core flow of the game. A series of actions are taken by the players until one of the thresholds has been hit. This triggers the timeline to move on another notch, moving event to event. This tells you what happens in the game, whether that’s building pyramids, dividing regions, triggering conflict for monuments, and so on.
“And when an event hits, whichever player triggered the event is going to control how to split that region. So ultimately there’s a lot of timing in the game,” says Lang. Players are always building towards the next event, the next threshold being reached. While there is a conflict for a monument coming up, there may be also a regional shift coming up after, meaning players will want to work the board to their long-term strategic advantage.
“In reality, of course, you cannot possibly win everything,” says Lang, “so you literally have to pick your battles.”
The game strays away from some of the slower-burn aspects of Blood Rage and Rising Sun, and with that comes the big moments of the game.
“It’s unbelievably brutal. It’s a brutal, brutal game. But that’s why it’s the shortest of the three,” says Lang, reporting that a four-player game takes around an hour once everyone around the table is comfortable with the general rules, “this game is a lot more immediate and a lot more in cinematic time.”
This feeling came after a great deal of refinement to the game. Lang has been designing and redesigning versions of this game for years.
“Ankh was actually originally going to be the second game in the series,” says Lang, “I shelved it because I wanted to wait until I had an idea that stood on its own. And then of course then Rising Sun hit me like a freight train. After, I was excited to get back into Egypt. The game had a very different focus at the time. I rebuilt essentially Rising Sun with pyramids and that was a fine game. But it wasn’t special.”
It took a nudge from long term collaborator, artist Adrian Smith, for Lang to find the core piece of the puzzle for Ankh: Gods of Egypt. Smith is the artist across the other games in the trilogy and, knowing the mythology as well as Lang does, they are able to work in parallel. The revelation came during part of this somewhat collaborative process.
“And so, as I was looking at some of his art, I was like, ‘Oh my God, these gods are amazing’. And at some point I was like, ‘wait a minute, of course you are the Gods’. And that changed everything.” says Lang, “And even that was two years ago! I had no idea how I was going to design it. The developers looked at it and said, ‘Oh my God, how did you develop something like this?’”
Lang built a version of the game “but it was unplayable. It was just so wild and esoteric.” Over time the game was refined. “I sort of min-maxed a little bit so there are fewer moving parts,” says Lang about the game now. “You move modular moving parts in this game. There’s fewer monsters, fewer text-based components in this game than the other two. But the impacts they have are greater.” This refinement lead to a deep replayability in the game, as well as different feel from the others in the trilogy.
“I settled on it being relatively sandboxy. What I mean by that is Rising Sun and Blood Rage are very guided experiences. You go through three ages and everybody does a draft and then we’re going to do pillaging together and then going to do our mandates and then we’re going to go to war. You can do whatever you want within that framework, but it’s very guided. In Ankh you have four actions. You take two actions, the next player takes two actions. You do that until the end of the game.”
This simplicity is what opens it out for the creative possibilities in the game “It’ll appeal to players who want a little bit more of an open-ended experience even though the rules are simpler. It’s a little bit more cerebral in that particular sense,” says Lang.
With that comes the way the board is set up for different player numbers. Rather than creating a modular board, there’s a fixed board with multiple scenarios which can be set out on it. Depending on the number of players around the table fighting to be Egypt’s next top god, the scenario asks you to set out the board differently – telling you which monuments might be active, or if a particular region is already divided. This provided a wealth of options for Lang when creating a sense of environmental narrative.
“Rather than being incrementally different, like ‘move this tile to here or this monument instead of this one,’ they’re actually developer sculpted experiences. The difference between one scenario and the other is more impactful than just slight modular changes.”
These scenarios are one of the last pieces of the puzzle of Ankh. Lang mentions even throwing away two scenarios on the day we speak, “I’m spending a lot of time on these scenarios and building them up. It took me the longest to learn how to make them good.” When asked whether players might make their own scenarios the answer is “Maybe.”
“Ideally I want to make it very hard to make scenarios as good as the ones we’ve made.”
The roots of the trilogy of games all come from the same place. Lang explains how a childhood engagement with myth is the source for all three of these games.
“So when I was young as a kid, between six and 10, I used to visit my grandmother in Germany every summer and I was in a little town, a little town that was kind of boring. We just played games and I read through mythology books – sort of German twisted versions of mythologies,” says Lang.
“There is this one book, I don’t want to name it, because then gamers are going to go rushing to see if they can find it.” says Lang, not wanting to give people access to potential spoilers. “I just read this one children’s book over and over again. I memorized it. I was really drawn to the Scandinavian, the Egyptian and the Japanese folklore.”
“Those are the ones that made the games about. These are the three mythological games that I designed entirely from memory. I made my first prototype of Ankh without doing any research because I already had it internalized,” says Lang before adding, “Of course I did research after – but the first version was straight from top of mind.” The idea that such a richly themed world can be so intensely internalised so that it can be initially produced without reference is staggering. But it’s not surprising, considering how well received Lang’s games are by the wider gaming community. It simply has to come from somewhere very close to the heart.
The collaboration, as we tentatively call it during the interview, is one that’s run in parallel with Adrian Smith and Mike McVey. “It feels like a band effort,” says Lang, “we just made the best-looking stuff we could possibly make and just kept inspiring each other”.
The miniatures in the game are truly god-scale. They’re large and intricate, filled with tiny details that tie back to the mythology as well as the powers in the game. There are monsters from the mythology as well, which work in a similar way to Blood Rage and Rising Sun. “It’s the only mechanic I stole outright,” says Lang, “the one thing I changed – that bugged me a little bit about Rising Sun – was I didn’t want there to be a choice between whether to get a monster or to get something else with a power.” Instead, players now race towards powers, which comes with a monster. This can work as an incentive for players build up their god powers in a certain way. Despite all of the difference in the game, similarities poke through “It’s just this nice little piece of connective tissue between those three games,” says Lang.
So then, how does the game fit into people’s game libraries, with it being tied to the previous games in the trilogy, while being so different?
“My goal is that exactly 33% of players who play all three in the trilogy prefer Rising Sun, 33% prefer Blood Rage, and 33% prefer Ankh,” says Lang – aiming for a kind of perfectly proportioned trilogy. But Lang admits that no one knows how it’s going to shape up, refencing again that the depth of Ankh comes from a less guided experience and more open play, whereas the guided experience of Blood Rage and Rising Sun offer players a completely different feel.
What is next for Lang? Typically for a designer of his standing he is tied up with non-disclosure agreements, “I’m working on two projects we’re not allowed to talk about because we’re talking two years in the future,” says Lang “Of course, we did announce the Cyberpunk card game at the last Gen Con – which I insisted I had to do. Originally it was going to be a co-design but then I was like ‘nah, I’ve got to do this.’ It’s one of my darling licenses. I’ve jealously kept it to myself.”
When pressed with the difficult question of who his favourite god is Eric thinks for a moment and I can hear him smiling down the phone.
“I’m not going to tell you, and the only reason is because of how gaming and the internet works. Way too much speculation. And I’ve got to save something for the Kickstarter.”
Words by Christopher John Eggett | Images courtesy of CMON
This feature originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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