PLAYlist 29: History of the World

Jul 24, 2018 By Austin Trunick Bookmark and Share


If something is truly good, chances are you’re going to see it again and again. Albums like Purple Rain, Sgt. Pepper’s, and Thriller seem to appear in new, fancy reissues every couple years. The same goes for movies: walk into any used video shop and you’ll find at least three to four different DVD or Blu-ray editions of movies like Terminator 2, The Breakfast Club, or Die Hard.

As editor of Under the Radar’s DVD section, I’ve mostly dealt with re-releases of old films – many of the best labels (Criterion, Shout! Factory, Arrow, and Kino Lorber, for a few) deal almost exclusively in reissuing classic and cult movies. Shortly after I took over the section, I consulted with the staff and we decided to do away with the numbered rating system used universally across UTR’s other departments. When it comes to DVD and Blu-rays of older movies, we found you just couldn’t judge them on the same scale as new releases. In all but the rarest cases if something was being reissued decades after its initial release, it’s because it has some merit. It’s a classic (at least to somebody.) If not, then why bother reissuing it?

This applies to music and movies, but especially to board games, thanks to their relatively high cost of manufacturing. Where lesser games will spend years gathering dust on clearance shelves, the cream of the crop rises to top of the re-release priority list. In recent years, we’ve seen more and more classics from two decades ago (or longer) appear in fancier, revised editions.

History of the World is just such a classic. The first version of the game was released all the way back in 1991, followed by three more increasingly-tweaked editions from three different publishers over the last 27 years. Since its last revised version all the way back in 2001, the hobby has legitimately exploded. With tabletop gaming’s exponential growth in popularity came a stupefying burst of innovation; all of a sudden, even the most well-designed games of the early 2000’s started to show their age. Z-Man’s brand new crack at History of the World is the case of a designer (Steve Kendall) working with a publisher to modernize a time-proven title. The game was, of course, given a major visual face-lift, and had a number of rules gently-finessed or newly-incorporated to streamline the game and make it quicker for contemporary audiences. Don’t think of this so much as a remake of History of the World but a *remastered* edition.

This new edition of History of the World plays with three to six players over two or three hours. I won’t waste too much time waxing over whether or not it’s a good game. It’s a very, very good game, and this new release is both incredibly handsome and easy-to-learn. Instead, I’ll talk about the things I feel make History of the World so great.

Ancient Empires Yo’ Thang? It’s Got ‘em: Each round (or “epoch”) of History of the World starts with all players secretly picking from a deck of cards representing fallen empires from one of the five periods of history (epochs/rounds) you’re currently playing. Every empire has its own starting area, a varying number of armies available to it, perhaps a capital city and an ability that sets it apart from all others. The empire you choose also determines where in the order you’ll take your turn. Which of these 40 available empires are selected and in what order – along with game-twisting event cards you’ll be drafting simultaneously each round – will make each game of History of the World very different.

But, don’t get too attached to your empire! Like was said so much more poetically in Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” even the greatest empires will inevitably fall. Your beloved civilization will be yours for only a turn before it’s discarded and replaced by another.

Conquer ‘til You Drop: In the majority of board games you’ll circle the table taking tiny actions, one after another, until everyone’s run out of things to do, and then you’ll start the process over again. That’s not the case with History of the World. Here, each player will spend their turn playing every army available to them before the next person goes. (We’ve seen someone drop as many as 15 armies in one turn.) They’ll invade every territory they desire until their armies run out, vomit up monuments based on the number of resource-filled spaces they’ve plundered, and then total the points they’ve scored. When this is all done, they tip all of their new armies over to their sides – where they’re essentially passed out, like a bunch of frat bros four hours into a kegger. (Sleeping armies can’t be used for invading later on; they’ll only wake up to put up a half-hearted defense when invaded by an opponent.)

A round (or “epoch”) ends when all players have taken a single one of these long, action-packed turns. (You’ll only get five total turns in a two-plus hour game.) You’d think this style of play would create long periods of downtime or bring an otherwise wonky rhythm to the game, but as each army placed has such an impact on their opponents’ board state – and because so many moves will require two players to roll dice for a battle – you’ll be invested in what everyone’s doing. Contrary to what you’d think, this isn’t a game where you spend 20 minutes listlessly scrolling Facebook on your phone until your turn has come around again.

Dice-Rollin’ Excitement Without All the Math: Nothing sucks the excitement out of a big, game-changing battle than needing several minutes to count up all the dots on your dice.  History of the World keeps things simple: an invading army rolls two die while the defending player rolls one. Whoever has the highest number on a single face of one of their dice, wins. (Let’s say the invader rolls a two and a five, and the defender rolls a six, it would result in a win for the defender.) There are various circumstances that grant bonuses to players’s rolls, but rarely more than a +1 or +2 being added. This means that battles move quickly, which is a good thing considering you could be knocking out half a dozen of ‘em in a single turn.

Big Maps, Little Room: When you start a game of History of the World, its warped and funky-looking map of the world will appear huuuuuuuuuge. The way the game is smartly designed, however, competition is geared only to limited areas at the beginning, which gradually expand as the game moves along. It does this by concentrating the starting areas for empires into tight regions and making only those areas worth any points. (Sure, you could try to conquer Europe in an early B.C. area, but why bother when all of the points are concentrated in the Middle East and Northern Africa?) You’re essentially forced to play your turns on top of each other, and there’s no getting away from the action. So, if you think you’re going to hide on the far side of the map and rack up score at a leisurely pace, it’s not going to work.

Plus, scoring values for regions will fluctuate as the game goes on. Points are earned largely by having a presence (or better yet, a controlling presence) in any given region. Many early, high-scoring areas are worth less towards the end of the game, while many late-game high-scorers are worth nothing at all when the game begins!

The Millennia Just Fly By: History of the World takes two to three hours to play. That’s a semi-lengthy amount of time for a board game – unless we’re talking something like Twilight Imperium’s six-plus hours of playtime – but it’s pretty quick when you consider that it covers almost the entirety of modern civilization, theme-wise. If you’re the type who’s spent days on single games of Sid Meier’s Civilization on PC or lost entire evenings amassing armies in RISK, History of the World won’t only appeal to you, but will feel relatively brisk in comparison.

Speaking of the perennially popular RISK, History of the World feels like a good next step in tabletop world domination. History does a much better job mitigating the luck of the dice, offers more viable strategies, and best of all comes with a built-in time limit. RISK usually ends with two players in a long war of attrition, which is exciting for the two of them but not for the poor folks who were already eliminated from the game. History, on the other hand, keeps everyone involved until the very end, and closing scores generally remain pretty close. And like RISK, this is a game with relatively simple rules – it may appear long and complicated, but in action it’s the easiest-to-learn games of its type that we’ve covered.

Z-Man Games’ new edition of History of the World has an MSRP of $69.99, but a lot of great components for that price. The army pawns are a heavy plastic, and molded to the shape of globes. (The photos really don’t do them justice – when so many games resort to colored, wooden cubes or cardboard chits, these are an appreciably nice touch.) Overall, the bulk of the components are plastic. The heavy board sports an archaic-looking map in a muted but attractive color scheme. The cards themselves are clear and easy to read. Plus, the starting player token is a 3-D catapult! (We’d like to see it face off against Altiplano’s kaiju-sized alpaca.) All-in-all, this is one fine-lookin’ game.

For this column’s playlist, we’ve pulled together an assortment of songs named after historic figures. As History of the World cuts off at 1912, we’ve done the same – so, here you’ll have numerous songs about Joan of Arc and Napoleon, as well as classic cuts on Henry VIII, Genghis Khan and Rasputin. Cheers!

***

Previous PLAYlist columns: Altiplano, Pioneer Days, Crystal Clans, Jurassic Park: Danger!, PhotosynthesisIce CoolFood Truck ChampionArs Alchimia & LemuriaA Game of Thrones CatanTroyesTwilight Imperium: Fourth EditionFlip ShipsNMBR 9UnearthEscape from 100 Million B.C., Orleans (plus Trade & Intrigue)Whistle StopCaverna: Cave vs CaveTwilight StruggleHonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.



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