Review: A Brief History of the World

By Kelsey Rinella 26 Aug 2013 0
The Santarian Guard could totally be one of the secret factions vying for world chi domination. Santa's view of global conquest.

There's a wonderful mystery hidden in the game mechanics of Brief History of the World. The game involves players controlling empires for a single turn and then retiring them (much as one does in Small World) to go and play an entirely different civilization. Oddly, the new civilization mostly inherits the territory and points of the earlier one, so they're sort of one big empire, but not really, much like the various versions of the game.

If you're like me and crave explanations for such things, you can imagine yourself playing, not as an empire, but as an itinerant secret society or mind-controlling alien species (could be both!) which is ascendant in different empires at different points in history. As an old Shadowfist player, I had at my disposal an explanation of points as chi from crucial leyline intersections which is necessary to control the ultimate nature of reality. The more chi my faction (a secret society of magically uplifted sentient animals in human form) controlled, the greater their influence over the secret war for all of history. I hold a Masters of Science in Overthinking.

Questions of theme aside, the game has offers some of my favorite mechanisms in a fairly tidy package, all presented through a more inviting interface than I'm used to seeing from Codito.

Empires in ABHotW are represented by cards. At the beginning of each of the six epochs (rounds), the lowest-scoring player drafts his or her empire from a number of options equal to the number of players, then passes the remaining options to the second-lowest-scoring player, and so on. Event cards are less powerful, but still important, and are drafted in the reverse order.

Because choosing an empire early can be a big advantage, this uses turn order to build in a moderately powerful catch-up mechanism which doesn't feel heavy-handed. Drafting mechanics, here as elsewhere, offer some interesting decision-making and player interaction, but also reward familiarity with the cards available. Were I hosting a game night, it would trouble me that the least experienced player would often be presented with the most options to choose from, exacerbating any anxiety that person might feel about slowing down the game. Happily, AIs and asynchronous multiplayer eliminate this concern.

At least they never had their ground apocryphally salted. Germany may have been included just to keep the alternate history buffs happy.

After the cards are distributed, empires take turns deploying all their armies and fighting simple dice battles in a fixed order, then score points based on area control. One consequence of this is that player turns aren't evenly distributed--it's often especially powerful to go last in the fifth epoch and first in the sixth, because no one will have had a chance to remove your armies from the fifth epoch before you tally your final score.

The dice battles have one neat rule: you get a bonus to attack a territory for each failed attack there this turn (up to +3 on a six-sided die). This means that prioritizing your expansion can help mitigate bad rolls, virtually ensuring you'll succeed where it's most important.

There's also a hidden bonus system for obscuring your exact score. I initially interpreted this to be an attempt to avoid the dogpile-on-the-leader problem, but the bonuses are close to proportional to your publicly-viewable score, so it doesn't usually do that. Instead, it helps avoid the analysis paralysis which comes from knowing the exact scores of others, and trying to calculate all of the possibilities to find one with some chance of yielding exactly the number of points necessary to win. I initially thought this was an unnecessary system, because it's never seemed like a problem in my games, but I suspect that there are rare circumstances in which it stops the game cold and unleashes a flood of anti-fun so strong that Warhammer Quest, sitting next to it on my home screen, would develop an aftertaste of Vegemite.

There's a lot of good game design at work here, and in a first for Codito -- good UI design, too. Most of the game's information is on the map, and Codito have set aside enough room to present everything else without crowding or slide-out-trays. One example of good design: scores are presented in a small row across the top. The location is adequate to communicate that these are important, allowing the display to be just large enough to be easily readable. Located elsewhere, they'd either have been less effective at communicating the importance of keeping track, or large enough that more interactive elements would have to shrink. It's quite comfortable even at phone size.1

But you can see their great wall from space. The T'ang Dynasty, surprisingly, is not orange.

The bad news is that there's a lot of downtime in ABHotW. In a six-player game, even with the AIs and animations set to maximum speed, my devices would often turn themselves off before it was my turn again. The much worse, though hopefully temporary, news is that it's a pretty buggy release. I've seen multiple AIs playing the same color, an empire card stuck over the interface for three epochs, and various oddities with the "undo" feature. One particularly egregious example involves the special ability of the United States, which to to occupy two unoccupied territories. If you undo one of these, you get to occupy another, but the undone occupation also stays. You can repeat this until you've occupied everything that wasn't already taken.

The multiplayer is excellent, and never seems to drop a notification even across multiple devices. You can have any mix of AI and human players you like, which is great because the game requires at least three players, so you can have only two humans and get your turns back that much faster.

ABHotW is a solid game with my favorite interface yet from prolific developer Codito. The bugs are serious, but once a patch rolls out which addresses them, this interesting but not overly complicated boardgame translation will conquer your world. Wait, that's a terrible line. This is one history lesson you won't sleep through! Criminy, that may actually be worse--the only history in it is that holding Jerusalem is nigh impossible. Many of you will enjoy this game despite the lack of a clever concluding sentence.

1About my only complaint with the UI is that there's no indication of which water tile you've selected when using the Astronomy event card to place a fleet, which is probably to blame for the large number of mistaken bug reports about Astronomy not working, because there are two different cards in different epochs with that name, one of which only allows placement in shallow seas.

Review: A Brief History of the World

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