History of the World is a game that quite literally has a history, and quite a long and convoluted one to boot. Designed by Gary Dicken, Steve Kendall and Phil Kendall – together best know as the Ragnar Brothers – the first version of the game was developed and published in 1990 by Ragnar Brothers. Subsequent editions were published by Avalon Hill and by Gibsons. In 2009, the designers returned to the game, tweaked and shortened it for publication as A Brief History of the World; an edition published by Ragnar Brothers and Spiral Galaxy. Now it’s the turn of Z-Man Games to give the title another makeover and to further tweak the rules.
Between them, they’ve done a very good job. I have something of a soft spot for Ragnar Brothers games. Their games almost always contain a little nugget of novelty that appeals, but I have to admit that some of their titles in the past have disappointed or failed to fully deliver on their initial promise. That’s not the case with History of the World. This is a title that has benefited from much play over the years so that kinks that may have been present in the game’s earlier incarnations have now been largely ironed out.
Epochs, empires and events
History of the World is an area control game that follows in the footsteps of Risk and of Lewis Pulsipher’s Britannia (another game originally published more than three decades ago by Gibsons and Avalon Hill). As in Britannia, players in History of the World aren’t controlling or tracking a single tribe or civilisation but waves of imperial conquest washing over the map over successive centuries. In each player’s turn, an empire will rise and fall, though it will leave its mark affecting other rising empires…
A key change made in this latest edition of the game is a reduction in the number of ‘epochs’ (rounds) over which the game is played. The original version of History of the World was played over seven epochs. For the 2009 ‘Brief’ edition, this was compressed to six. Although the latest edition is no longer styled as ‘Brief’, it has been made briefer still – taking the number of epochs down to just five. The original version of the game could typically run to as long as five hours, so the aim of this change has been to take the playing time down to a much more manageable two hours or so.
Each epoch starts with a spot of card drafting from two sets of cards. The epoch cards determine which empire the player will control this epoch, its starting territory, number of armies and any special capabilities. For these, the drafting in epochs 2 to 5 is organised so that the player in last position on the points track chooses first, passing the remaining cards to the player in second to last place, and so on. The number of cards available is equal to the number of players, so the player in the lead position gets Hobson’s choice. Meanwhile, event cards are drafted in the reverse of this order (lead player picks first). Event cards typically give a one-use game-changing advantage (for example, an ability to reroll combat die) which can be deployed in that epoch or saved for use in a future epoch. For both epoch and event cards, there are more supplied with the game than are used even when playing with six players. That means you won’t always find the same cards or the same empires coming into play – adding to the replayability of History of the World.
Risk-style combat in the History of the World
The epoch cards set out the order in which the empires take their turns, which may be a factor to bear in mind in making your choice. In the player’s turn, they take the number of armies indicated on the card and place one on the empire’s starting territory (usually, but not always, along with a capital city). They then place out armies to occupy adjacent territories. If the territories are unoccupied, they are there for the taking. If an opponent’s army is there, then a battle ensues. These are conducted Risk-like by rolling die. Terrain and other circumstances can affect combat but, in the main, the attacker rolls two dice and the defender rolls one: to win (remove the defending army) the attacker’s highest roll has to beat the defender’s dice roll. Ties remove both armies but will mean that the territory is now unoccupied, allowing another army to be placed there. As in Risk, fortune favours the bold and the odds usually favour the attacker.
There is a bit more to combat than this because the game also allows attackers to besiege the defender (in effect, continuing the attack for further rounds at increasingly beneficial odds but at a cost of either expending armies or spending any siege tokens that were awarded as a bonus for your empire).
Once a player has expended all the armies indicated on their epoch card, they build monuments (plastic tokens placed out for every two territories with resource symbols on them) and they score their empire. Players earn points for the capitals, cities and monuments in their empire and they score for area control of each region in which they have a presence. Some regions start the game with zero value, and the values of regions change as the epochs unfold. Provided it is a region with a scoring token, players only need a single army in the region in order to score for presence; they need at least two, and more than any other player, to score for ‘dominance’ (which scores double the ‘presence’ value); and they need at least three territories with no others occupied by opponents in order to score for ‘supremacy’ (triple the points awarded for mere presence). At the end of a player’s turn, all their armies are ‘resigned’ (laid on their side). They are no longer active (and in future turns, the player cannot use them as a base from which to advance into adjacent territories) but they remain in place and still count towards scoring in future epochs. It will always be ‘resigned’ armies that players will be attacking because, at any point in the game, the only armies that are standing are those of the active player whose turn is in progress.
Lest we forget who is in the middle of taking their turn
That’s pretty much how History of the World plays, representing the ebb and flow of successive civilisations. The game takes 3–6 players. In my view, it’s best with 4. Although players complete all their actions on their turn, turns are over quite quickly so there isn’t too much waiting for your next turn to come around. Be warned, however, the only thing you’ll be doing during other players’ turns is possibly rolling the occasional die to defend against an attack. You won’t have any way of knowing what empire you’ll be building on your next turn or which territory it will be starting from so you can’t make any use of the downtime to plan ahead. This is probably the main negative in an otherwise very entertaining game.
I rather like the design choices made in this edition. The board represents the globe but it’s not a world map you may instantly recognise. It’s as if the designers have taken a globe and flattened it out like an orange peel. It may take a moment to acclimatise to it but it works. It’s also clearly delineated: you won’t have any arguments over the boundaries of each region or over which territories connect to which. The cards are muted but clear, and the odd looking plastic army tokens (pawns topped off with a globe) are all produced in pearlescent colours that help to make them ‘pop’ on the board. And if you really like board game bling, you’ll appreciate the active player marker: an unnecessarily elaborate cardboard siege catapult that also serves as a marker for siege modifiers.
Why you might actually need an active player marker is a bit of a puzzle. Given that players complete all their actions on their turn, how bad would your AP (analysis paralysis) have to be for players to forget whose turn it is? There are some other oddities too. An unusual feature of History of the World is that scoring markers cannot share spaces on the scoring track. That means that if your score takes you to a spot on the track already occupied, you can choose to forego points (remain behind on the track) or to leapfrog ahead to the next vacant space. The leapfrog effect can be especially valuable to players picking a barbarian empire because, uniquely, they score mid-turn when their empire takes over capitals, cities or monuments. Likewise it can be a tactical choice to forego points and progress on the scoring track in order to remain in last place and have first pick of the next round’s epoch cards.
This is a game with mostly straightforward rules, complicated just by the small exceptions and special abilities that occasionally come into play. And you’ll find that by the time you get to the fourth epoch, the board is littered with ‘resigned’ armies which can make scoring more fiddly than in the earlier epochs. These are minor quibbles, however, for what turns out to be a consistently enjoyable game. It’s not a game involving deep strategy but one to think of as perhaps a step up from vanilla Risk. As such, it earns a score of 7/10. Check it out.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.