Divide and Tally
At first glance, Tony Chen and Romain Caterdjian’s World Splitters, the latest of two titles from Taiwanese publisher EmperorS4 about the antics of the future uber-rich, looks like a riff on Dots & Boxes. Some have even asked if it might be kin to Android: Mainframe. Now there’s a game that feels much older than six years.
To some degree, yes, World Splitters is Dots & Boxes. That is, if Dots & Boxes featured clever auctions and a horrific tiebreaker system.
Let’s start at the foundation: the box.
This isn’t as frivolous a statement as it might seem. World Splitters is meant to be placed atop a platform. It comes with four maps printed on two boards. These maps are gridded with punched-out hollows for holding the fences that will soon divide the world into zones of control for the wealthy. You can think of this process as analogous to eminent domain, except instead of a freeway replacing the family farm, it’s some jackass’s car elevator.
Here’s the problem. With World Splitters, not the car elevator. The boards are shallow enough that they can’t be placed on the table; when they are, the bottom nub of the fences doesn’t insert all the way into their intended receptacles, instead tilting at skewampus angles and reducing the board to a confusing mess. You could stack the two map boards on top of each other. This adds enough depth for the fences to stand upright. Except now the boards are liable to slide apart at the slightest jostle, perhaps even toppling sections of fencing. As considerably deserved as this miniature revolution may be, it doesn’t exactly make for crisp gameplay. Of course, you could just place the maps inside the box as recommended. But this raises the map closer to eye level, obscuring vital details from view. The result is a case of damned-either-way fiddlement. No matter where you put this thing, World Splitters is always in some state of decay and obfuscation.
As issues go this would prove frustrating but manageable. Somewhere along the way, however, it becomes a metaphor for a game that’s always crumbling around its own ears.
At its core, World Splitters is about auctions. On your turn, you place a fence. If either of the two spaces adjacent to that fence are unoccupied, everybody else reveals a closed-fist bid. By winning, they pay their coins to the fence-raiser and earn the right to place one of their explorers in an adjacent empty space. There are caveats. In the event of two open spaces, both the first- and second-place bids win the opportunity to place an explorer. Explorers have multiple uses, triggering any tokens on that space and, once the area is enclosed, scoring points. Far cleverer, rather than letting the winner place an explorer, the auction-holder may instead opt to pay the victor their bid. This buys their win out from under them.
Put these details together and you have a genuinely smart mix of area control, speculation, and auctioneering. There’s great breadth for clever plays. Need cash? Place your fence on a hotly contested corridor or in between two desirable tokens. Want to seed the board with explorers for later? Dump your fence in the middle of nowhere and buy off the competition when they bid pennies. Hope to seal off an area for some points? There’s no need to host an auction every time. By putting your fence in the middle of territory that’s already been claimed, you forego the option to earn some money, but might instead complete an area at exactly the right time to score big.
The aforementioned tokens are a big part of that. Whenever somebody lands an explorer on one, they get some immediate perk, then tuck them away for a potential set bonus later on. There are three flavors: yellow tokens that place an extra fence, flexible green tokens with effects that vary by map and might kill explorers or place special obelisks for new scoring opportunities, and red tokens. Sigh. Those red tokens. They serve to adjust the tiebreaker.
The order of the tiebreaker is determined during setup. It’s a sensible proposal, with the first player sitting last in tiebreaker order, then the second player getting the next spot up, and so forth, until the final player is sitting pretty. But ties come fast and hard in World Splitters, with high-scoring areas often being dominated by two or three explorers per player. And your position on the tiebreaker never adjusts unless somebody claims one of those red tokens. When they do, they move forward one slot. Which, if you’re in last place, means you’re now in the second-to-last place. In a four- or five-player game, there’s a very real possibility that somebody at the bottom of the track will remain thereabouts for the entire duration.
In theory, because early players have a jump on fence placements, they can spring on tiebreaker tokens right away. By purchasing the auction winner’s bid, they can steal a better position for themselves. But this is an unreliable trick. Not only will they only move up that one space on the tiebreaker track, but there’s also the very real possibility that a shrewd player will force them to pay for the privilege. Now you’re in a marginally better position tie-wise, but significantly poorer.
This would matter less if ties were less common. Instead, it forces certain players to swim upstream while one or two others can play extortionist with both score and money. When you get right down to it, there’s no condition under which one wouldn’t rather begin high on the tiebreaker chart.
More’s the pity, because World Splitters contains no shortage of smart ideas. Its mashup of auctions and area control are both clever, but are unfortunately saddled with an underlying regime that lets the rich get richer and grinds the poor into the dirt. Perhaps this provides an appropriate thematic touch for a game about oligarchs parceling out the world’s arable terrain, but in terms of satisfaction, it offers little.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at its sister title, World Exchangers. Spoiler: It’s the stronger of the two.
A complimentary copy was provided.