Reviewed by Mark Green
The Ragnar Brothers, of Angola and Whipping Bobby Lee fame, have come up with an altogether more populist game in their new History of the World. Indeed I would go as far as to say it was easily the most popular game at the GLC club in December and that this is the best game of its type since Britannia.
HOTW covers the broad sweep of history from the Babylonians to the Twentieth Century. The brush strokes are wide so do not expect great detail or a simulation. Rather, this is primarily a game, with simple mechanics, plenty of player interaction and enough colour to make you feel as if you have played a Grand Game. Superficially HOTW sounds a little like Britannia, because each player runs a group of peoples (the 'faction' of Britannia) and tries to score the highest points total over the whole game, but there are also strong elements of Risk.
The game is played over seven Epochs, so there are essentially seven game turns. For three to six players, it can easily be completed inside three hours. At the beginning of each Epoch, the relevant Empire cards are drawn one at a time. The first player may give that Empire card to any other player or to himself, while subsequent players must allocate their drawn card to a player without an empire yet for that turn. Players do not know which card they have been given unless they have allocated their own card and only when the sequence is completed do you get to look.
This is the first in a number of excellent mechanics in the game; one tries to pass weak empires to the leading players while hoping to draw a good card for oneself, all the while assessing if even a theoretically weak card will aid a player's existing position. Accordingly, there are few easy decisions as there are seven cards for each epoch and even with six players at least one empire will not 'occur' in each game. This can lead to ancient history without the Romans and the non-appearance of the Mongols (no loss, on balance) but this is just one of many aspects of an often pretty strange version of history generated by HOTW.
Each card has a range of information on it; name of the Empire, start position, capital, build points and the name of a leader if appropriate. The first thing to note is card order - within each epoch cards are numbered 1 through 7, so Empire 1 goes first and so on. Of course, if a card has not been drawn there will be gaps, so your turn order is never certain unless you have pulled number 7. Player order can be quite important as a player moving at the end of one turn and the beginning of the next can amass a big score. This is because points are scored at the end of each Empire's turn for control of capitals, cities and monuments and for conquest of the mapboard.
The world is divided up into regions - the Middle East, India, Southern Europe and so on, and each region has a number of areas within it. The regions are worth different points as the game progresses, emphasising geo-political considerations over time. The Middle East, North Africa, India and China are the only point scoring regions in the first epoch, while Europe and North America become dominant on the last turn. Having a presence (just a single counter) in a region scores points for that region, being the dominant power requires control of at least three areas (and a majority over other players) but scores double victory points. The unusual (but quite possible) total control of a region requires just that, but scores triple points giving rise to desperate last stands in remote corners of the globe.
Certain areas are designated as resource centres and controlling two enables your empire to build a monument. The counters show a fair range so you can build the Eiffel Tower in Mesopotamia. Given all this, there are a number of strategies worth considering, between having a foothold in many regions through to a concentration in one area of the world. The defendability and resources of your empire will also be considerations. Strategy is also determined by the empires drawn; the Romans, Persians, Mongols and British will tend to have universal interests while the Khmers will not get far out of South East Asia!
The mechanics of the game are simple but fun. Event chips, ships, armies and forts are the main counters and each turn will see a lot of dice rolling as an Empire tries to expand against its neighbours. You spend your resource points on units, requiring forethought and planning, but are thereafter subject to fate through the dice rolls of combat. This is quick and simple and if you've played Risk you can handle the complexities. The game systems force a fast game because the combat mechanics are biased in favour of the attacker and, like Risk, last man stands with loads of rolled sixes are the order of the day. Whatever, you only have one turn to make your mark before that empire goes into decline and you are running another. That said, some of the empires can make quite an impression and the map changes colour quite nicely.
Perhaps the nicest feature of HOTW is the fast pace of play. You run an empire for a turn and then leave it, completely untouched and unexpanded, to decline as events dictate. Old Empires are sources for flavourful comments such as 'Oh look, the Assyrians are still in North Africa' but also have some use as they contribute points towards your faction on future turns. The 'one shot' move is therefore vital for both attack and defence - a solid empire with only one or two defence points can be worth a lot in the long term if it hangs on. Each player has several different symbols on his coloured counters so a new Empire should never be confused with an existing one. These small remnants scattered across the globe are a useful asset and will influence other players' calculations.
No review would be complete without mention of the hardware. HOTW is unusual in that the board is a linen cloth with the map printed on it (this means you can dry up the coffee cups with it after your players go home). The pieces are printed paper on card and require cutting out before play which will take a couple of hours. Epoch cards and the box are good with adequate artwork. Despite the 'amateur' production values most people thought the materials interesting and at least acceptable, especially in the overall impact of the various coloured empires. I don't care about such things and merely seek a good game - which History of the World emphatically is.
On to the review of Extra Blatt or back to the review of Elfengold.
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