18th Jun2018

‘History of the World’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


Some board game designs prove to be just right first time, whilst others apparently fail so hard (either critically, or in terms of pure revenue) that the risk of re-implementing them just isn’t worthwhile. Others, however, are remade and revamped time and time again – either with completely new themes or mechanics by different designers, or with smaller, more subtle changes. The 2018 version of History of the World that I’m reviewing today is closer to the latter kind of implementation, representing several, mildly revamped versions of the same game that have been released by several publishers.

The latest of those publishers is Z-Man games, a company that is well known for designing and producing games to a very high standard, with a back catalogue that includes the likes of Pandemic, Pandemic: Legacy, Pandemic: Rising Tide, Pandemic: Cthulhu and Pandemic: My Little Pony. Actually, that last one is a joke. But seriously, Z-Man do put out some great games that are not Pandemic related, including some much heavier games like Terra Mystica, Feast for Odin or Fields of Arle, to name but a few.

Based on the suggested play time of three hours and the daunting number of pieces that will end up littered across the large and beautifully drawn board that depicts the entire world, potential players would be forgiven for thinking that History of the World falls into the more complex range of products that Z-Man produce. However, that is simply not the case – the box might say three hours and suggest a minimum of three players, but the game is remarkably flexible. It has a more realistic duration of around one and a half hours and a very straightforward two player option that was well established alongside prior releases of the game, but for whatever reason, has been sadly omitted from the manual of this latest re-release.

Not only is History of the World faster than advertised and more open to play at a lower player count than expected, it’s also a much lighter game than I thought it was going to be. Teaching it is an absolute breeze, but what makes me really like it is the fact that despite its light touch, it has a lot of tactical depth and a really nice thematic beat. Empires rise and fall over five epochs and each has its own geographically accurate starting location. The value of each region changes based on the Epoch, so the game tends to begin in the Middle East, before expanding outwards into Europe, East Asia and ultimately America.

This semi-realistic spread of imperial influence ensures that the focus of History of the World is almost always reasonably well centred. From a game play perspective, players will have no choice but to repeatedly compete with each other in what is essentially an area control game played over thousands of years, from the emergence of the very first empires to roughly the mid twentieth century. This works because every Epoch, the players each draft a new empire and a new event card based on who is in first and last place on the overall victory point tracker, but regardless of which empire generates them, all pieces that a player places will be of the same colour and can score point across several epochs if left alone.

Expanding into unclaimed land is straightforward and can be achieved without a battle, but should a player choose to place an empire down in a region that contains their opponents pieces (which will be laid on the side, to denote that the empire that spawned them is in decline) then expansion will require a fight. Combat in History of the World is as simple as a roll of the dice. Usually the attacker rolls two dice and the defender one, with various possible modifiers for terrain, fortifications and other measures. The highest single die roll (and any modifiers) decide the conflict, but should the attacker fail, they can add a plus one modifier to the siege tracker (depicted by a cute model catapult) and try again.

Each empire spawns with only a limited number of armies, however, so committing them to one or more failed attacks on the same region can feel like a costly endeavor, given that points will be scored for three different levels of regional control, ranging from mere presence to outright domination. Each empire must therefore be chosen based on a balanced decision about how many points it might score (or take away from opponents) and where in the turn order you’ll be able to play it. Striking out into uncharted territory can be hugely valuable, especially if you are reasonably sure that your empire will be unopposed, but regions like Europe or the Middle East tend to score higher points for more turns, so it can be worth it to displace opponents and take the fight to them.

Without getting into the nitty gritty, that’s more or less all you need to know to play History of the World, which is why it is so brilliantly, naturally simple. You just pick an empire and an event card, then on your turn you play them (some event cards are played out of sequence.) To do that, it’s just a case of drawing your coloured army pawns and placing one on the empire starting location that the card indicates. You can then place armies in adjacent spaces, or spend them to fortify at your leisure. Some empires can cross desert or sea terrain based on their historic traits and as I’ve already mentioned, when you meet another empire, you can simply fight them. Once you’ve placed or spent all your armies, you lay all your armies down to indicate that the empire is declining.

Once each player has taken their turn to place armies and resolve their events, scoring for that epoch takes place. Ingeniously, each epoch comes with a set of placards that are placed on the board to denote the control values for each region. America, for example, is worth nothing in the first Epoch, but it isn’t long before even early civilizations can either get there (or spawn there, via event cards) and it can be worth having a small presence there for when it does score – or maybe it’s better to concentrate on Europe? That’s the joy of History of the World, it actually feels more like the board game equivalent of Sid Meier’s Civilization than any other game I think I’ve played. That is, at least, in terms of how it handles war and perhaps cultural expansion, because there isn’t any technology development or anything like that to take into consideration.

I mentioned before that the game is perfectly playable at two players. This is possible by simply following the standard rules, but controlling two colours each, or by slightly modifying the rules to merge the scoring phase for both of the colours that you control – effectively making them play as permanent allied colours. Both of these options are just about as simple to teach as the base game and arguably, the game is even quicker this way, weighing in at just over an hour on average when I tested it that way. This mode is so simple and enjoyable, I’m really not sure why it isn’t in the manual, but crucially if the thought that this is a three or more player game only might put you off, then don’t let it. I should say that at five or six players, History of the World is absolutely brilliant fun, but it can be extremely brutal due to the number of empires competing for the same regions.

Despite the many remakes of this exact game, I think I only have one other game that uses the same idea of empires rising and falling (but remaining on the board) and that is the excellent Smallworld. History of the World adds the drafting mechanic to add a tactical nuance, whilst Smallworld used the variable/customisable races and the ability to buy those races earlier at an additional cost if you wanted their specific ability. History of the World uses a much larger board and whilst it accommodates the whole world, it keeps the game play super tight by limiting the empires available in each epoch. Ultimately, I love both of these games, but I especially love History of the World because of the historic element, which delivers one of my personal favourite themes in a way that is so accessible and so enjoyable.

**** 4/5

You can buy History of the World online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.


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