29th Aug2018

‘Nanty Narking’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

nanty-nark-box

Whether you loved or hated the Discworld series of books by Sir Terry Pratchett, there can be no doubt about the influence his work had on the literary world. Whilst my own relationship with Rincewind and the rest of Pratchett’s wacky characters blew hot and cold over the years, I have no hesitation in saying that the Discworld and its inhabitants are among the most unique and comprehensively realised out there; easily a match for more serious works from the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, for example. Of course, Pratchett’s world was recreated in video games, board games and on television several times whilst he was still alive, but since his passing new licensing deals have been put in place and some older deals have ended…

And that’s where Martin Wallace, Phalanx Games and the subject of today’s review, Nanty Narking, come into the picture. Back in 2011, Martin Wallace designed and published a fast paced and highly competitive game called Discworld: Ankh Morpork via his own publishing house, Treefrog Games. Whilst always popular, the Ankh-Morpork game was relatively hard to come by from the outset, thanks largely to huge demand and small print runs. When Pratchett passed away the opportunity to produce further copies of the game effectively ended, which led to designer Wallace’s collaboration with Phalanx Games (the partnership also produced Lincoln, which we recently reviewed here) on Nanty Narking, which is a reimplementation of Ankh-Morpork, albeit with a completely different theme.

Full disclosure; I never played the original Ankh-Morpork game (because I couldn’t get it) but I have been testing Nanty Narking with a reasonable mix of people that both have and haven’t experienced the original game. As a result, I have been able to poll some opinions about what has changed from a gameplay perspective as Ankh-Morpork morphed into Nanty Narking. The answer is (as I hinted at earlier) very nearly nothing (except the reskin of course, which I’ll talk about in a bit.) The one gameplay element that has changed is the introduction of a variant game that includes a number of additional secret personality cards, in addiiton to the reskinned set from the original game. Again, I’ll talk about them in detail once we get into how the game works.

First, I’ll cover the theme. Ankh-Morpork was well known as a game that perfectly captured the chaotic, often cut-throat and ever unpredictable Discworld universe. With the work of Sir Terry unavailable to them, Nanty Narking uses an assortment of works set in Victorian London as its theme. Characters like Sherlock Holmes and Fagin (from Oliver Twist) are included among the secret personalities that players will adopt when playing, whilst among the huge pile of action cards, there are many familiar names, faces and locations that span numerous authors, as well as a fair number that simply exist from popular fiction or current events at the time – relating to Jack the Ripper, for example.

I think it’s probably fair to say that Ankh-Morpork‘s Discworld theme was a perfect fit for the game and in particular where fans of Pratchett’s work are concerned, it would have been a big draw. However, if I cover Nanty Narking as though Ankh-Morpork had never existed, I’d be inclined to suggest that the theme applied still feels fairly relevant. There are some oddities, of course, like having Sherlock Holmes assassinate a rival agent by playing a card that represents a well know and violent gang. The Discworld universe is madcap enough that such things were not that much of a leap to imagine, whilst of course we can be reasonably sure that Holmes was written neither as a murderer nor as someone who was particularly interested in controlling the streets. For what it’s worth, his counterpart in Ankh-Morpork was Sam “Commander” Vimes, who, I think, was similarly level headed and also (probably) above such petty executions.

With regards to what you actually do in Nanty Narking, I apologise because I realise that I’ve now written five paragraphs without really saying much about what the game is all about. Effectively, every player is dealt one of the hidden personality cards that I’ve mentioned already (either from the standard or variant decks) which they will then keep secret for the whole game. The players must assess what their card says and then work to achieve it, whilst simultaneously considering what their opponents might be up to – which should be prevented. The first player to declare that their objective is complete at the beginning of their turn is the winner. This means that should you find yourself in a winning position at the end of your turn, you’ll need to wait for your opponents to take a round of turns before celebrating – assuming that they don’t put a stop to whatever it is you were doing in the meantime, either intentionally or otherwise.

At the beginning of the game, players each place one of their agents (which are all represented by very different and incredibly detailed sculpts, even though they are all mechanically identical in gameplay terms) onto the three starting locations of Chelsea, The City and The East End. The rest of the map depicts various other London Boroughs, or which there are twelve in total. In these three starting locations, you’ll also place a trouble marker, which indicates the malcontent generated by the rival factions vying for control. From there, the game begins with the first player and probably could not be more straightforward. Each turn, the active player simply plays as many cards as they can from their hand, which is usually five cards. Every card has one or more symbols and many have text, the describes a special condition.

On the cards you’ll see skulls, top hats, buildings, coins, scripts and more, which in turn lead to actions like assassination of rivals, placement of agents, adding buildings to the board (which also comes with a cost), taking some cash or, in the case of the script, following the action on the card. Actions are usually fairly simple to follow and often provide unique and interesting benefits. Some, for example, allow a player to take one or more cards from an opponent, whilst another swaps hands with an opponent. There are also random event icons which cause the player to draw a card from another deck and enact the (usually bad) consequences that the card describes.

The final symbol on certain cards shows another card being placed – this is perhaps the most important symbol, since it allows players to chain cards one after another. Essentially, as long as the current player can keep placing cards that show one or more symbols as well as the additional card, then they can keep taking actions. I did tend to notice that the luck of the draw can feel a bit lopsided here, if you are the one player who only seems to draw cards cards that can be played individually, but it’s not something that happens often and since everyone draws from a shared deck, it’s completely random.

The trouble tokens that I mentioned earlier are quite important when it comes to determining what players can and can’t do. Whenever an agent is added to the board, a trouble marker will also be added to the same borough (assuming there isn’t already one there.) When an agent is removed, if there is a trouble token there, it will also be removed (even if there are still rival agents present.) Buildings cannot be placed in locations where there is trouble, whilst conversely, assassinations can only take place where there is trouble ongoing. There are a few other things affected by trouble, for example Fagin’s win condition is to have a certain number of them on the board, whilst there is a random chance of a riot event which can end the game if there is enough trouble.

So far, so Ankh-Morpork, then. What Nanty Narking does do, is paint its theme fairly thickly over the top of the mechanical structure setup by the original game. The artwork of Nanty Narking‘s Victorian era London is daubed thickly onto the cards in a heavy, detailed oil-painting style that feels as grimy and sullen as the urchins, prostitutes and so called gentlemen who roam its streets. So, the theme of Nanty Narking fits nearly as well as the Discworld theme did in Ankh-Morpork, but where the original game also benefited from comical and recognisable artwork, Nanty Narking takes a number of fictions that might be recognisable (but not all, especially as the less well known characters and places make up the majority) to some and then blends them together with some admittedly terrific original art. That’s not a bad thing, but for some, it might just not be quite as good. Then again, if you hate Discworld (as some people do) then there’s nothing about the visual theming of Nanty Narking that would remind you that it was ever associated with the world that Sir Pratchett created.

Judged (as it must be) as an individual, standalone product that has nothing to do with Ankh-MorporkNanty Narking is still a fast paced and very enjoyable game. The setup is fast and the board state develops quickly from being fairly sparse to being heavily populated and frequently contested. With four players, tracking the possible secret objectives of each player is tricky, although I will suggest that there are several objectives that are either very similar or essentially identical – for example controlling a set number of boroughs. At lower player counts, it’s harder to get an early view of what your opponent is going to do, but it becomes more transparent over the course of the game. Either way, I played almost exclusively with just the variant cards (as there are more) but I think I would still have liked to see more unique objectives among the hidden personalities, even in the variant game.

The board, card and miniatures quality (even in the preview copy that I have) is exceptionally high, which is in line with what we’ve come to expect from Phalanx Games products. The miniatures in my game were actually hard resin casts, which are incredibly detailed, though I suspect that the finished product will be made from softer, flexible plastic (like Hannibal and Hamilcar, for example.) It’s always difficult to recommend that players do or don’t back a Kickstarter when I’ve only played a prototype, but given that the basis for Nanty Narking is well established and well liked, the only real question is whether or not the new implementation still retains enough interest to be worth investing in. I think for fans of good, solid games that have no problem with lots of interaction (players constantly meddle with each others plans in Nanty Narking) then the original Martin Wallace design remains as fast, fun and simple to teach as it ever was. If you only enjoyed the original because it was Discworld centric, then you might want to stick with what you already have, since there is nothing new here, except those amazing miniatures (which would probably work OK in Ankh-Morpork if I’m honest.)

As someone who never played the original, Nanty Narking occupies a unique spot in my collection. There are relatively few games that feature such interaction, such one-upmanship and such a simple set of rules. I won’t lie, I also love the new artwork. Yes, dark, heavy oil is a big departure from the comical, cartoon style of the art in Ankh-Morpork, but that might be a deliberate juxtaposition and in any case, it fits Nanty Narking‘s theme well. It might not be Discworld, but it is good fun, and as a result, I recommend Nanty Narking fairly heartily with a:

**** 4/5

Nanty Narking comes to Kickstarter on September 3rd, from Phalanx Games.

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4 Responses to “‘Nanty Narking’ Board Game Review”

  • Michael Below

    I don’t know Ankh-Morpork. Therefore any hint and comparison means nothing to me.
    Fortunately you deliver enough information about Nanty Narking your review supports my view that I want to have this game.

    Well done!
    Thank you for that.

    • Matt Smail

      Hi Michael, I’m delighted that you’ve found the piece useful. As someone who also never knew Ankh-Morpork, I’m certainly very happy to have Nanty Narking in my collection.

      Thanks
      Regards
      Matt

  • Mainnalle

    As someone who has enjoyed Pratchett’s works ever since I introduced myself to them at age 9, And has played, taught and enjoyed the Ankh-Morpork game, your review gives me more than enough information that I have added Nanty Narking to my ever-growing list of “board games I will get when I can afford them”. I know i will enjoy it, and I am already charmed by the art you have on display in this review. well done.

    • Matt Smail

      Hi Mainnalle,

      Glad to hear it – I’m also a fan, though as I said I never played the base game. I do love some of the themes here though – ie Fagin is a very cool choice as are some of the others. The miniatures here are especially beautiful, as is the artwork.

      Cheers
      Matt