Saturday, 2 February 2013

The Swashbuckling Approach to the History of the World

History of the World is a fun game, with little pretentions. In its original version (which I once owned) it had cardboard counters and a cloth map, but the later Avalon Hill version has got a mass of plastic dudes and a proper reinforced mapboard. 

Opening stages of our game before Christmas
The game is driven by the repeated appearance of new peoples on the map. In each of the 7 ages (from the Bronze age to the Industrial), as many new peoples enter the map as there are players. As there are ample peoples per age, not every civilization will show up, so you can have a game without the Romans making their mark.

Every time your civilization appears, you place an army in its starting area (eg Nile Delta for the Egyptians) and then try to conquer neighbouring areas in a combat system reminiscent of Risk. You go on until you run out of armies and collect points for that civilization, but also for your earlier civilizations still on the board.

As the eras change, so does the value of areas. While the Middle East areas score high early on, China is worth a lot in the middle of the game, and Europe by the end.

Halfway through the game. My high point, with the Romans (purple) hanging on for some time.

The Sung dynasty doesn’t come with as many armies as the Persians, and the Dutch come with a pathetic few. So which civilization you get determines your combat power. 

The mechanism that balances this out is the fact that the player with the fewest points draws first from the deck of civilizations for the next era, and decides to keep it or to give it away. If you get a good one you keep it, if you draw a bad one you hand it to a front runner.

On the other hand, the French come before the Germans in the turn and thus get to score points before them as well. If you’ve just made a big splash at the end of last turn, even a weak civilization can help you to score big again if it occurs before others can destroy the old civilization.

So the allocation of civilizations is the central issue of the game, and because you can’t know which civilizations will be picked, you sometimes get it wrong. You pass on the Greeks because the Romans are still in the deck and someone else might hand them to you, but instead you end up with the Celts.

Late in the game. The map has filled up, even towards Australia.
Red has done well despite being almost taken out at the end

There’s some influence you have over results through event cards, and in this game a +1 on the dice roll can significantly improve your success. A few extra armies as well. So use them for the best possible effect. There’s also a few minor civilizations that allow you a few extra points, or even a lot when you can set them up in the right position.

The game is mostly about combat, although some culture has been injected by the monuments you can build for every two resource areas your people control.

With all the dice rolling, direct conflict, asymmetric capabilities of the different peoples and possibility of kingmaking and runaway leaders it is an Ameritrash classic. However, it has remained in the shadow of its contemporary rival Civilization, although I imagine that in terms of sales and games actually played it might have done better. In many a sense World Conquerors, which I played in Essen, is similar in concept and complexity.

The benefit of the game is that it can be played in an evening, but the drawback is that it hasn’t got much strategic choices. The situation on the board changes rapidly, which means you have to think before each new civilization and this causes some analysis paralysis and downtime. A game you can draw out once in a while, but won’t play to death.


  1. I think the first version was by the Ragland Brothers? It's rather sought after these days I think. have played it in the past but so many German board Games have stolen the show


    1. Hi Ian

      Close! It was Ragnar Brothers, but even I had to look that one up ;-)

      Just for you, a link to an image of the original cloth mapboard

    2. Yes, that's what comes from back of the mind typing



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