History of the World, Part IV
Way back before the dawn of time — that’s 1991, four years prior to the release of Settlers of Catan — the design team known as the Ragnar Brothers, composed of Steve and Phil Kendall and Gary Dicken, designed a game meant to chart the rise, fall, rise, fall, rise, fall, and many more rises and falls of the kingdoms, empires, dynasties, and nation-states that shaped our history. Some of its central concepts were eventually riffed upon by Vinci in 1999, which was reshaped to became Small World in 2009. Facts! Huh!
Anyway, if you’ve played any of those games, you already know the central conceit behind History of the World. As an empire, your moment in the sun is fleeting. Then it’s decline, barbarian invasions, and eventual obscurity for you. At least your points carry over.
Most of History of the World’s running time is spent lying down. And I mean that in two senses.
The first is derived from the natural state of the pawn, the symbol of your control. At the dawn of each of the game’s five epochs, a round of drafting doles out both empires and powers. At the game’s outset, this provides a small handful of reasonably easy decisions. Nab the Egyptians, Greeks, or Assyrians if you can, while bellowing a solid D.A.R.E. program NO! to the puttering Minoans or Sumerians. The Zhou Dynasty doesn’t come highly recommended, but at least it’ll bestow control over some far-flung territory, and the Hittites and Vedics are at least capable of expanding into less-crowded climes up north.
At the same time that empires are being selected, starting with the lowest-scoring player and working their way up, the deck of power cards is moving the opposite direction. Caravans for crossing barren deserts, minor kingdoms for establishing a bit of extra control, the occasional rerolled battle dice — these are nice, but not quite of the same linchpin quality as empires.
With the draft complete, your chosen empire’s turn order is called. Now it’s time to stand up and shine. Expand outward from your capital, chew into neighboring kingdoms, hopefully gather enough resource territories to build a monument or two… and then immediately tip all your pawns onto their sides and count up your points. The golden age has ended. Repeat the same process over five epochs and there you have it, the history of civilization writ small.
It’s a simple game, though one with just enough depth to justify its grandiosity. While a single empire doesn’t often provide much of a lead, smart decisions over multiple epochs can leave your opponents eating dust. The remnants of your past empires remain on the board, both as fodder for those who will come later and as scoring opportunities whenever your next empire begins its ascent. Leaving behind fortifications or declined remnants tucked away in hard-to-reach mountains, jungles, or across seas can provide additional points long after that empire’s language has been relegated to Rosetta stones and bastard descendants.
Or perhaps the tatters of your once-grand empire will merely provide fuel for someone new, especially once barbarian nations come along and begin gleefully sacking all those cities and monuments. At times, History of the World possesses a sort of inevitable melancholy that peeks from between the cracks of its dry-laid stones. While you’re busy taking advantage of its subtler systems — the turn order between an epoch’s empires being one of the most crucial to master as soon as possible — it’s never far removed from the reminder that all your efforts are as perishable as a bag of week-old bread.
Even the strict nature of each empire’s bonuses seems to reinforce this sense that the course of history has been determined from the get-go. The great triumph of the Romans will always be that they arrive on the scene with fifteen pawns. The Han and Tang and Ming Dynasties share an obsession with very long walls, the Turks will always be backstabbers, and the Mesoamericans will always spring into existence about five seconds before the Portuguese and Spaniards figure out how to cross that ocean to deliver some shipments of guns and germs.
Put another way, it’s a game of assembling history rather than making it. From its decks you’ll pull a selection of armadas and revolutions and victors and losers, and set them to the task of performing their roles, rather than prompting their ascent or decline based on how you helm them. Certain empires will always be puny, while others will be massive because, well, they were massive. The major deviation from the history books is that some groups won’t appear at all, not that an unexpected empire will rise to do what in life it could not.
This determinist tendency is a minor philosophical quibble, especially because History of the World clearly isn’t interested in what if? scenarios. But it’s hard to avoid waxing philosophical when the game is burdened with so much downtime.
Remember when I said that most of History of the World’s running time is spent lying down? I meant it literally. Every single time I’ve played, somebody has departed for the couch until the next draft came around. Not because the game is long — with a full complement of players, it wraps up in around three hours — but rather because there isn’t anything to do when it isn’t your turn. Sure, you’ll occasionally perform a defensive roll, but there are no decisions to make, nor interlocking phases, nor anything significant to negotiate about. None of the tricks that modern designs employ to add interest to their playtimes are anywhere to be found.
At its worst, you may even find yourself acting early in one epoch and late in the next — say, by bouncing from the Scythians to the Franks — which will leave you with functionally two full rounds of downtime. That’s approximately a third of the game’s running time between one move and the next. When your entire involvement for the quarter-hour between turns is comprised of watching your empire get picked at by marauding barbarians, it’s hard to stay lively.
Then again, this issue isn’t exactly a major surprise. History of the World is a remake of a remake of a reissue of an older game, and comes prepackaged with many of its progenitor’s musty sensibilities. You could even argue that you’re experiencing a piece of gaming history in its own right, complete with historical-length waits.
But honestly, despite the appeal of reenacting thousands of years of history, it’s hard to recommend. Everything History of the World does well, it performs with the benefit of years of refinement. The cleverness of drafting both empires and powers at the same time, the interactions between its cards, even the melancholic march of history it so dutifully portrays — all are a pleasure to behold. But nearly every turn is trailed by a Dark Age of its own, resulting in far too few moments of glory for every spent hour of decline. Ultimately, perhaps it would be better for this old kingdom to enter a decline of its own.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. You’ll be making history rather than assembling it.)