SimAnt. (computer game) (Evaluation)
by Clayton Walnum
Maxis's first software "toy," SimCity, let simulation lovers become the mayors of their own towns. SimEarth, the second program in the line, imbued players with the power to forge a world. Now, Maxis gives us SimAnt, which takes us not farther out into the universe, but down into the ground, where we control the destiny of a nest of ants.
This switch from the grand scale of SimEarth to the backyard microcosm of SimAnt marks Maxis's return to a more easily manageable scenario. Players who found the immensity of SimEarth overwhelming will be pleased with SimAnt's relative simplicity. With the excellent onscreen and inmanual tutorials, a novice ant lord needs only an hour or two to master basic gameplay.
Still, in spite of its restraint, SimAnt provides both an engrossing game and an interesting introduction to the lives and times of these pesky, ubiquitous six-legged critters. Over the course of the simulation, you'll control where the ants build their homes, how they find their food, and when they invade rival nests. You'll even lead them to ultimate victory as they overrun the yard's house and drive its occupants screaming into the night. Along with the fun, you'll learn much about these amazing insects.
The program's easily manageable, Windows-like interface makes controlling your colony a snap. Using the Edit window, you can zoom in on the underground nest. There you'll see ants hatching, storing food, nurturing their young, and performing other activities. By switching to the surface view, you can see your ants scurrying across the ground as they hunt for food, battle enemies, and avoid such deadly dangers as spiders, ant lions, and lawn mowers. Finally, in the Map window, you get a bird's-eye view of an entire patch or an expanded view that includes all 192 patches, with graph lines showing the relative strengths of the black and red armies.
Like SimEarth, SimAnt can be played on several levels. If you're a beginner, you'll probably start with the quick game, in which you must increase the size of your colony until you can kill all the red ants in your patch. When you've graduated to the full game, you must not only increase the size of your colony but also migrate to other patches in a quest to annihilate the red ants and drive the humans from their house. Finally, in the experimental mode, you manipulate the ants' universe in several ways, studying the effects your actions have on your tiny guinea pigs.
A full game of SimAnt involves leading your horde through several stages of play. At first, you have only a newly hatched queen, who must dig a hole and start laying eggs. The first egg hatches into the yellow ant, which is the ant you control. Your initial task is to guide it to food.
You find food by switching to the overhead view in the Map window, which shows the entire patch. After you've located the green area that marks a food cache, send your yellow ant scurrying after it. Watch out for spiders and ant lions, which love to munch on unwary insects. By the time you bring a few food balls back to the nest, other ants will have hatched. You can then recruit them to help gather food.
Before long, you'll have built up a strong and thriving nest. When you've outpopulated the red ants (and have plenty of food for energy), you can recruit an army of soldier ants to attack the red nest and destroy the red queen. Then you can breed new queens to send to new patches. You continue in this way until you've destroyed all the red ants and taken over the humans' house.
During a game, you have many tools at your disposal which allow you to control the ants and their universe (a backyard). You can, for example, display the various chemical scents (nest, trail, and alarm) your ants leave behind as they move about a patch. In addition, the Caste control allows you to choose the percentage of breeders, workers, and soldiers born into your nest. The Behavior control lets you decide how many ants forage for food, dig new tunnels, or nurture the young. The History window provides access to graphs depicting ant populations, food storage, colony health, and even the number of ants eaten or killed.
For ease of play, the most commonly used functions are represented by buttons on the windows. Also, a menu bar provides access to many additional functions, including game saving and loading, game speed, music and sound toggles, and window selection. One menu function, aptly named Silly, turns your ants into wisecracking smart alecks who frequently stop what they're doing to blurt out such nonsense as "Eat poison, spider face!" and "Better dead than red!"
In the experimental mode, the simulation operates much differently than in either of the game modes. To start, you're given a patch containing small black-ant and red-ant nests. You're also given a menu of tools that you can apply to the nests and their occupants. The Barriers tool, for example, lets you build walls anywhere you like on the current patch. Other tools include the Dig/Fill tool for digging or filling in holes, the Add Food tool for feeding hungry ants, the Drop Trails tool for creating chemical trails, and the Insecticide tool for quickly killing off excess population.
One of SimAnt's most impressive features is its Information window, which is a HyperCard-like database containing mounds of information about ants. Clicking on a card's subject buttons takes you to other cards, while clicking on a high-lighted word displays a little pop-up window containing the word's definition. All the cards are linked into a complex tree that lets you follow any subject line you like. Most of the cards in the stack contain pictures as well as text.
SimAnt's well-written manual is a joy to read. Every page contains not only detailed program instructions but also plenty of humorous sidelines that will keep you grinning as you learn.
As with any good manual, you first get a quick overview of the game's objective. Then you're guided through a hands-on tutorial that will have you controlling your ants in a surprisingly short time. Peppered throughout the manual are dozens of ant puns. You'll groan at such atrocities as "An ant with a split personality is a sibilANT."
The second section of the manual offers a wealth of information about ants in the real world to readers who want to improve their gameplay or just increase their knowledge about these tiny insects. From general facts about ants to the specifics of how they eat, communicate, reproduce, and fight--everything you've ever wanted to know about these insects is here.
The manual's third section offers ANTcillary (blame Maxis) information about ants, including many sources for further study, both fictional and nonfictional. Section 4 of the manual is a complete glossary, bibliography, and index.
All said and done, SimAnt is a war game, albeit one that blends education with bloodletting. What sets it apart from other war games is its unique scenario. Your soldiers don't have two legs; they have six. The battlefield isn't the countryside of Europe; it's a house and its backyard. Your soldiers use no fancy weaponry; they fight hand to hand. Nevertheless, as in any other war game, the object is to defeat the enemy and take over its territory.
Of course, to be successful in SimAnt, you must learn all you can about ants and their behavior. What a sneaky way to get an education.