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"They’re gods you could go have a beer with": Eric Lang talks Ankh: Gods of Egypt

Behind the stories, surprises and down-to-Earth deities in the epic finale to the designer’s mythic trilogy.
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Image: Sean Jacquemain

Populated by powerful gods, fearsome monsters and intense conflicts from Norse, Shinto and Egyptian mythologies respectively, Blood Rage, Rising Sun and the upcoming board game Ankh: Gods of Egypt all stem from the mind of designer Eric Lang, who was inspired to create the smash-hit series by his childhood spent reading legends that stuck with him into adulthood.

Unofficially dubbed the ‘mythic trilogy’, the board games have drummed up legions of fans and millions of dollars on Kickstarter thanks to their cinematic presentation and gameplay, but they retain a deeply personal connection for Lang.

“Rather than trying to be historically accurate, these games are based upon my interpretation of what those mythologies are like - rather than their cultural sensibilities,” he says. “[Ankh] carries on the traditions of gods, warriors, area control, player dashboards and cool special powers.”

Currently live on Kickstarter, next year’s Ankh: Gods of Egypt brings the series of board games to a suitably epic end, closing out Lang’s first tabletop trilogy with a struggle between the gods to remain relevant in a world threatening to forget them. At the very beginning, however, Ankh was far from being considered the grand finale for the series - in fact, it was originally intended to kick off the trilogy.

Rather than trying to be historically accurate, these games are based upon my interpretation of what those mythologies are like.

“I was going to do Ankh first,” Lang tells Dicebreaker, “but then Kemet came out [in 2012] and my ideas for Egypt were very similar so I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to do Egypt until I had an idea that was very different.”

Lang went on to design and release 2015’s Blood Rage instead, itself a “thematic reinterpretation” of his 2007 board game Midgard. The game cast players as leaders of Viking clans looking to earn a place in Valhalla by battling with rival factions and completing quests for the pantheon of Norse gods. Mid-way through development the designer decided he wouldn’t be content with adapting just one of the mythologies he’d adored as a child.

“As I was developing Blood Rage I realised that there were other mythologies I loved, so I decided to make board games based on the mythologies I could recall from the top of my head,” he says.

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2015's Blood Rage was the first game in the mythic trilogy, inspired by the Viking afterlife of Valhalla.

In his youth, Lang would visit his grandmother in Germany over the summer holidays and get lost in her library of folktales. “I fell in love with them,” he recalls. “They became my favourite stories.” Amongst the books on Shinto and Norse mythologies - “I always knew I loved Vikings - I was named after one after all,” Lang says - were legends about ancient Egyptian gods and their various power struggles.

I love Egypt ... because you have these amazingly powerful beings that are totally dysfunctional.

“I love Egypt [...] because you have these amazingly powerful beings that are totally dysfunctional,” explains Lang. “They have all these human foibles and childish interactions that are super relatable. They’re gods that you could just go have a beer with.”

The chaotic and emotional interplay between the Egyptian gods provided exactly the right kind of background for a board game. Lang says that while “gameplay does have to come first” in his designs, it’s not enough to create a setting that’s simply a vehicle for gameplay.

“Themes speak to me because they ask dramatic questions in a very specific way that’s interesting to me,” he says, highlighting powerful moments in Egyptian mythology such as the murder of Osiris by his brother Set: “I was like, ‘Nooooo!’ It was my version of Darth Vader’s betrayal - you know, ‘Luke, I am your father.’”

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Each Egyptian god has a unique gameplay power, such as Anubis' ability to trap enemy troops in the Netherworld.

Despite its inception before Blood Rage or Rising Sun, Ankh: Gods of Egypt went through several different forms before Lang was happy enough to make it the third and final instalment in his ‘mythic trilogy’.

“My first draft of Ankh was Rising Sun with pyramids,” he says. “It was a good game [...] but I’d already done Rising Sun. [...] It didn’t feel like this game could only be in Egypt. So I threw it away.”

After dismissing two initial prototypes for Ankh, Lang decided to focus on the elements of the Egyptian myths he found most interesting: the gods themselves. Recalling that ancient Egypt had transitioned from being a polytheistic culture with several deities to a monotheistic one, Lang decided to create a board game set during the period in which “people forgot about the other gods” in favour of a single deity.

“I think Neil Gaiman came up with the idea in American Gods, but a lot of stories have incorporated it,” he explains. “I thought it was a cool modern sensibility on that mythology.”

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In Ankh, players control the Egyptian gods competing for the devotion of followers.

The concept of forgotten gods is the driving force behind Ankh: Gods of Egypt’s gameplay, with each character in the player-controlled pantheon struggling to remain worshipped in a society threatening to move on without them. It seems rather poignant that the last game in a trilogy about religious folktales and mythologies involves players assuming the roles of soon-to-be-obsolete gods, with the players’ core objective of gaining devotion reflecting Lang’s desire to explore a time of fading religions.

My first draft of Ankh was Rising Sun with pyramids, but I’d already done Rising Sun - so I threw it away.

“Unlike the other two games [in the mythic trilogy], this doesn’t have a victory track that goes around the board, it has its own devotion track,” Lang explains. “You’ll be moving up and sometimes down this track as you win battles, have monuments erected in your favour or get suppressed by your opponents.”

The first player to reach the end of the devotion track instantly wins, with a final battle deciding the victor if the game reaches its last event. Whereas Blood Rage and Rising Sun provided players with a wide array of ways to rack up points, Ankh encourages players to focus on a tighter path to victory. There are multiple ways to obtain devotion, including by gaining followers, building monuments and fighting battles, but Lang insists it’s “impossible” to do all of them in the space of a single game.

“The rules are actually simpler than Blood Rage, but it’s a little more subtle,” the designer compares, describing Ankh as “a little more sandbox-y - pardon the pun”.

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Gaining enough devotion instantly wins the game, but things can also end in a final big battle.

As well as agonising over how to retain the faith of their followers, players will also face the question of which Egyptian god they want to be, each providing an entirely unique gameplay experience.

“It’s a much more asymmetrical game than even Rising Sun,” Lang says, “because the gods are very different in how they approach the game.”

The rules are actually simpler than Blood Rage, but it’s a little more subtle.

Gods range from Osiris - Lang’s favoured character due to his unpredictable play style - able to summon a section of Netherworld for warriors to spawn into whenever he falls in battle, to the protective Isis, who can prevent adjacent warriors from perishing, and mysterious Anubis, whose control over the underworld allows him to trap enemy units until their owners pay to regain them.

“These core abilities don’t just inform how you play your god, but how other people have to play the game against you,” Lang says.

The gods’ unique powers are supplemented by ankh abilities that players unlock throughout the course of each playthrough. Every player has access to the same 12 powers, but can only gain six during a single game. The powers are divided up into three ascending levels, advancing from additional ways to generate followers to bonus advantages from monuments and, lastly, actions that provide additional devotion.

“Choosing how to get your devotion is fairly transparent,” says Lang, “but there’s lots of room for clever play and manoeuvring.”

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The two lowest-scoring players merge into a single deity towards the end of Ankh, giving them a chance to catch up and claim a shared victory.

Each player can perform two of four possible actions during their turn: summon new figures to the board, move any active figures, build a monument or unlock a new ankh power. Monuments operate on an area-control basis, with the god controlling the most of a certain type of monument - pyramids, obelisk or temple - in a region gaining devotion from that area. This enables combat to serve an additional purpose beyond simply gaining the victor instant devotion.

It’s a different kind of interaction from what you’ve seen in other games, and only Egypt can achieve this.

Every time a player performs an action they move their token along a track, triggering an event when they reach the end, from plagues and floods to dividing regions and sparking conflicts. These events can provide moments of confrontation and resolution; with the same type of events occuring in the same order during each playthrough, how the player in control chooses to take advantage of them can turn the tide of a game. Later events include the possibility of players who haven’t reached a certain level of devotion being eliminated from the game; Lang is quick to assure that it “happens very late in the game, as I know people get scared about player elimination”.

“It’s just to make sure that you stay on track and don’t sit there doing nothing in order to just gain devotion at the end,” he adds.

The events also encompass the most unique aspect of Ankh’s gameplay: the merging of gods. Merging is the third event that occurs during a playthrough and sees the two players with the lowest amount of devotion joining together to form a single team. The least-worshipped god has their pawns removed from the board and swaps a piece of their sheet with the other player to form a single deity for the remainder of the game - Osiris and Ra becoming Osiris-Ra, for example. The two players must work cooperatively by moving the same pieces, using the same abilities and sharing the same pool of devotion. Merged players retain access to both gods’ core abilities and ankh powers, effectively making them the most capable deity on the board.

“[One] thing about Egypt I loved was, unlike most polytheistic pantheons, that it makes a big deal about gods who choose to join together to become one,” explains Lang. “It was that which attracted me to make Ankh in the first place”.

As well as serving a thematic purpose, merging was designed by Lang to be a balancing mechanism to ensure that players in the lead never grew too complacent or assured of their victory, as well as inviting interaction between players.

“If you’re leading the game by a mile, you still have to pay very close attention to who the lowest two players are,” he says. “Everyone is just trying to manoeuvre carefully to work through who is going to merge with who - and, if you’re really playing strategically, you might even come to the table with a plan to merge with another player but, of course, any other player can hear that and try to spoil things. It’s a different kind of interaction from what you’ve seen in other games, and only Egypt can achieve this.“

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Lang says Ankh: Gods of Egypt is the last game in his mythic series, but doesn't rule out exploring other mythologies outside of the trilogy.

While other ancient settings beyond Egypt could provide new playgrounds for Lang’s creativity and passion - the designer mentions the potential of a future board game based on the Greek pantheon - he says that the lack of his personal connection would result in significantly different experiences from the mythic trilogy.

These games are absolutely visceral experiences for me.

“These games are absolutely visceral experiences for me. That’s what ties this all together,” he says. “I [would] have to approach [other settings] as a scholar and have to study them - that’s not quite as personal.”

Having been inspired to create Blood Rage, Rising Sun and Ankh: Gods of Egypt based on his treasured childhood memories of folklores, legends and tales, the three games stand apart for Lang as a complete and personal vision - one that he doesn’t feel the need to continue, despite its success.

“For now, I’m done,” he declares. “I feel like this [Ankh] puts a nice bow on it. [...] These are the three mythologies I understand most intuitively, they’re the deepest in my DNA.”

Ankh: Gods of Egypt is live on Kickstarter until May 5th.