[Wandrell] Handling an ant colony is one of those ideas which gave Maxis their fame for “sim” games. And no, this isn't a simple virtual ant farm, but a game where you actually handle an ant colony.
[Mr Creosote] The mode of control which the game starts out with is quite unexpected, though: Unlike in the earlier “Sim” games,puts the player in direct control of one specific ant.
The “Sim” or micro facet
[Wandrell] Of course, you can change to another ant whenever you wish. First you are a new queen, which must build a nest. Once you have laid the first egg then you can start taking control of worker ants and fighter ants.
[Mr Creosote] So, the task is extending the nest and collecting enough food so that the queen can produce more and more offsprings. While your tribe is growing, it will inevitably face some natural dangers. First of all, there are monsters (spiders, caterpillars). Second, there are the communists.
[Wandrell] Spiders move around the map hunting ants, while the antlion won't move from its hole. Each enemy has its own way of killing your ants, the most devious being the red ants which are constantly plotting for your demise. The main problem here is that you both fight for the same resources, as the map is designed in such a way that the nests are on opposite side, with the food in the middle.
[Mr Creosote] So of course, peaceful coexistence is not an option. The resources (i.e. food) are very limited, so conflict is only a matter of time. Often, it comes much more quickly than I would have liked.
[Wandrell] The violence escalation ends with an assault to the enemy nest to kill their queen. Luckily you can call a group of fighters to your side for any combat attempt. Sadly, I always have found the combat to be too chaotic and unpredictable.
[Mr Creosote] Same here. Basically, there is no way to control this chaos anymore. So the only way to win is to prepare well, i.e. by simply having more ants at your disposal than the enemy.
[Wandrell] The best strategy would be cutting the food supply. Yet, again, we have the problem of not being able to control combat, but there is another tactic. You can move stones around to create walls, cutting the path of your enemy. This is a nice idea, but may be too much of a hassle most of the time.
[Mr Creosote] The idea I actually liked most in this respect was the model of controlling the other ants through stenches. You can mark important spots of the map, or even special routes which they should follow. Nice way of sneaking in some educational aspects.
[Wandrell] This is used mostly in the sandbox mode, where you have a series of tools for your entertainment, and can add pheromones anywhere just to see what happens.
[Mr Creosote] To be honest, I would have preferred this to be the primary means of control. Instead of actually controlling an individual ant, which is quite stressful and hectic, I would have liked a more “godlike” role in the game where I would just steer the tribe's movements through such abstract, indirect means.
[Wandrell] I suspect it's just they wanted a more kid friendly game, so they simplified the game giving you direct control. Looking back, it may be a bit absurd, as any kid that would playalso would play the other Sims, making these changes meaningless.
No doubt this makes the life simulation aspects not as strong as in other games, but you can still control things such as the percentage of each kind of egg to be laid (worker, fighter, breeder), or the labors of the ants. But also, you can just set them into automatic.
[Mr Creosote] The latter being the best strategy. At least I never fiddled with these settings much and I never had any problems.
The campaign or strategic facet
[Wandrell] There is a nice addition to all this we have talked about, a campaign. Adding a new level to the game, you fight for control of a lawn, and then the house, against the red ants.
[Mr Creosote] The term “campaign” might leave the wrong impression for some players, though. This is not a linear series of levels, each with a fixed starting position and changing goals. It's the addition of a strategic layer which can be accessed and played freely while working on the lower, tactical layer we have already talked about as well.
[Wandrell] It brings a few additions, as using breeders to colonize new sectors, or being able to spot the lawnmower before it goes over your colony, thanks to a neat map where you can see the house's owner and his dog moving around the place.
[Mr Creosote] The final goal of this strategic mode is to take over not only the whole garden (while facing the new dangers of the dog, the lawnmower and the human owner), but also the house itself. Don't worry, though: No humans are seriously harmed during this game – the worst thing which can happen is that the guy moves out.
[Wandrell] Well, unless you are a red ant, of course. But most of the sectors are empty, at least at the beginning, because the red ant spreads incredibly fast, and unless you start attacking their colonies they will put an end to yours. But it goes back to what we already commented on the game. And this is a problem, as the game ends feeling monotonous: it's a succession of very similar maps where you are going through the same steps again and again.
[Mr Creosote] I'd say this is what happens in most games which try to combine a strategic and a tactical layer. There is really no reason why the “world” (i.e. the garden) is separated into these square patches. In reality, an ant colony would spread in a more fluid way, slowly advancing in all directions from its home base.
[Wandrell] On the other hand, it adds the reproductory cycle to the colony, adding an important piece to the world simulation. But yes, the part about spreading feels too artificial. It ends being just a simple way to make the game longer.
[Mr Creosote] Although, in the real world of ants, it actually does happen that a new nest with a new queen is built once the current one becomes too large and unmanageable. Anyway, I think it's a nice feature, especially since it does give the overall game some scope. A typical tactical-layer game is usually over quite quickly. Too quickly. This “epic” struggle for supremacy in the garden and the house may become samey after a while, but at least you will be playing and get to care about the same tribe the whole time.
[Wandrell] Strategy and “Sim” games, both have a thing in common: artificial intelligence. We have touched this topic a bit already, and it's quite easy to see its importance, ants are everywhere on the game constantly working for a common goal: supremacy of the colony.
[Mr Creosote] The good news is, at least on the tactical level where you can observe the actions of the evil red tribe yourself, there seems to be no major cheating involved. The AI controlled ants move and work the same way you do.
[Wandrell] This is due to the pheromones, which all the ants use to build optimal paths. They mark their territory, the path they used when coming back with food and the dangerous places, and there is a set of these for each of the two colonies, which you can check at any moment.
[Mr Creosote] I was actually referring to the evolution/growth of their colony. Some other games would just have the AI colony grow regardless of actual supplies. This is not the case in.
[Wandrell] Actually I find a problem here. The unlimited growth trick is usually used because the AI makes stupid mistakes, making it great at killing itself. Here your enemy has the same chances as you, and don't get surprised when you find out you won because the enemy queen died of starvation. Of course, your ants also have a tendency of forgetting your queen needs to eat.
[Mr Creosote] So you would have preferred more AI support for your own tribe?
[Wandrell] I would have preferred a better AI support in general. Your own ant gets hungry very fast and this makes you very dependent on the AI to make the colony survive at medium and short term.
[Mr Creosote] Which, again, gets us back to the very crucial (active) role the player herself has: If you don't run back and forth between the food source and your nest constantly, you will not win.
Which, I would agree, is unnecessary busywork.
[Wandrell] The AI is not smart enough for a game like this. Lacks the configuration tools other more pure “system simulation” games from Maxis have, but also lacks the level of abstraction games such as Sim City 2000 get. It's a middle point between the two, not knowing exactly what is expected of it.
In the good side of things, it lacks the problems of these games. This is not an spectator game, and the game is not demanding you to play in a maddeningly optimal way. But this doesn't reduce the problem, they made a life simulation AI for a strategy game.
Its place on the Sim Series
[Mr Creosote] After the original Sim City, this has always been the major problem of the Sim series: Finding the right level of involvement/detail. In Sim Earth, there is too little of it. Cynically, you could say that the best strategy in that game is simply not touching anything, but just letting it run.goes a bit into the opposite direction, it tries to involve the player a bit too much. Or at least involve her in the wrong way.
[Wandrell] Well, other games managed it better.for example, if we ignore things such as the future market and keep to the basis, it's all about an easy to understand self-regulating system, and this is what Maxis people used to love. The self-regulating part, not the easy to understand one.
[Mr Creosote] That's a good point:isn't really about finding a balance, but about exhaustion of resources and supremacy before these resources run out once and for all.
[Wandrell] Also it keeps the educational aspect of their games, giving you a glimpse about the ants' life.
[Mr Creosote] We humans fancy ourselves to be independent beings. Whether this is true from a neurological point of view or not, it seems to be the prevalent opinion. That is why it has always bugged me that in many strategy games, humans are so easily controlled. Here we have a game where this makes sense from an anthropological point of view. That, at least, is refreshing in a perverse way.
[Wandrell] For my part, I like the originality of the game, as any good game of the “Sim” series it takes an idea which most people would consider too weird, and then makes a game out of it.
One that is fun and can be played, even if at long term it may not keep up.
[Mr Creosote] It's certainly not a bad entry to the Sim series. It hardly blows me away, though. Especially the beginning of each level is too hectic, even though the activities are completely obvious and no planning is involved. Other options, like the sliders for breeding, seem to have little effect on the actual progress of the game. So after looking under the hood a bit, there is not much to see.
[Wandrell] I said it already, this is aimed at kids. They did it with other games such as, but these never got the attention of their brothers.