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Friday, March 05, 2010

The pen: mightier than the sword?

But whose pen will it be?
Dave and Tony joined the regulars to give us a full table of 6 last Sunday. First choice fell to Andy. After a short swither which included a disparaging nod in the direction of my mention of Battlestar Galactica, he plumped for History of the World. This choice pleased me because I'd been hankering lately to revisit this fine old game.

History of the World and all that
Looking back from the vantage point of the second decade of the 21st century, it is possible to see 1991's History of the World as the last word in a unique moment in British games design; a moment which- though quite self contained, was simultaneously widely influential; far more so surely than anyone could really have imagined at the time.

The time
Across the Atlantic in the early 1970's James F. Dunnigan's SPI was a leading innovator in conceptual and graphic design as it tried to challenge Avalon Hill's domination over the recently emerged board wargames market. Meanwhile back in Britain, the pre-eminent boardgames manufacturers of the time were two stalwarts of the family games market:
I whiled away many a happy childhood hour playing various quality games produced by these companies. Unfortunately, to my memory neither showed any interest in expanding beyond their traditional family games lines.

The place
Younger readers might find it hard to imagine- in these globalised days of worldwide mass commodity shipments; online purchasing with express despatch from vast centralised warehouses; and, naturally enough, the dominant market position of Games Workshop in its sector of the adventure gaming hobby industry; but in the early 70s Britain simply couldn't support a company of the ilk of AH or SPI. Neither the home hobby market- dominated by cottage industries producing historical miniatures, nor the transatlantic distribution chain- limited in quantity and largely one-way, were sufficient to sustain such an enterprise.

The games
This discouraging background notwithstanding, a small group of designers and companies were able to produce some games which broke out of the family games mould; which demonstrated innovative mechanics; and which set new standards in functional and attractive graphic design. Chief among these games were:
  • 1829 (BGG) (1974): the grandfather of the contemporary railway-building genre.
  • Kingmaker (BGG) (1974): set in the Wars of the Roses, Kingmaker was the original game of dynastic conflict, in which players:
  1. Amassed armies of nobles and mercenaries as they vied to control the senior surviving heir from either the Yorkist or Lancastrian houses while eliminating all members of the other royal house.
  2. Captured nobles in battle and ransomed them back to their enemies, or not.
  3. Held Parliaments and voted to divvy up the spoils of war.
  4. Holed up forever in their castles to avoid marauding enemy armies or the plagues in the cities (a turtling tactic which would make games drag on for inactive ages).
  • Seastrike (BGG) (1975): a quick and dirty game of contemporary naval warfare which:
  1. Offered early proof that beer and pretzel needn't mean dumb.
  2. Delievered the first card-driven combat resolution system of which I am aware.
  • Civilisation (BGG) (1980): another game which defined a new sub-genre, Civilisation included:
  1. Expansion and development.
  2. Resource management and trading.
  3. Advancements cards- special abilities.
  4. Calamity cards- events.
I think the fate of these games vindicates my claim that they were "widely influential" (leaving out Seastrike because OK, I admit I snuck a personal favourite into the list of 'influentials': so sue me!):
  • 1829 (Wiki)- of which BGG says, "The board gaming hobby has in its history a few landmark games, which redefine a part of board games in general, or even spawn an entire genre. 1829 is just such a landmark"; lives on the 18xx series still produced by designer Francis Tresham.
  • Kingmaker (Wiki) was produced in an AH editon- to my knowledge the first British boardgame to be taken up in this way by one of the big 2 in the US; which came complete with an expansion.
  • Civilisation (Wiki) too was published by AH- running to 2 editons with 4 expansions; was also published in several European-language editions; and that's even before you mention its disputed role in inspiring the computer game Sid Meier's Civilization.
I started by calling HotW the "last word in [this] unique moment in British games design". I said this because the rise of GW- whose halcyon days as boardgames publishers stood between the 'big 3' and HotW; and because the subsequent rise of Magic: the Gathering and of computer games meant that this moment in the boardgames industry was about to pass. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this statement, we can be sure of the truth of two things: HotW was a worthy successor to its eminent ancestors; and the gaming world as a whole is much richer for all of them.

What went down
Note: the pictures are illustrative of the empire of the player in front in each epoch.

Epoch I

  • Gav: Indus Valley- 12VP
  • Dave: Egypt- 8VP
  • Andy: Babylonia- 7VP
  • Donald: Sumeria- 7VP
  • Me: Shang Dynasty- 5VP
  • Tony: Minoans- 4VP
Gav got the Hittites Minor Empire event. Little else of note can have happened in Epoch I, because I noted nothing else.

Epoch II
  • Gav: Vedic City States- 27VP
  • Tony: Persia- 27VP
  • Me: Assyria- 24VP
  • Donald: Carthaginia- 22VP
  • Andy: Greek City States- 19VP
  • Dave: Scythians- 19VP
We came across a rules question this epoch which was to plague us for the rest of the game: when placing armies as part of an event- Barbarians in this case; how do these armies fit into the rules for selecting army counters? We were to resolve this to our satisfaction before the game was over. Away from matters theological, in the world temporal the mighty Carthaginian chariots swept all before them- winning at least 5 conflicts with 6s on the dice!

Epoch III
  • Tony: Maurya- 56VP
  • Donald: Romans- 48VP
  • Andy: Macedonia- 47VP
  • Me: Sassanids- 44VP
  • Gav: Celts- 43VP
  • Dave: Han Dynasty- 39VP
Donald drew the Jewish Revolt event which crushed my last Assyrian outpost in the Middle East.

Epoch IV
  • Gav: Arabs- 84VP
  • Tony: Goths- 77VP
  • Donald: T'Ang Dynasty- 75VP
  • Andy: Byzantines- 70VP
  • Dave: Huns- 64VP
  • Me: Khmers- 60VP
Tony got the Anglo-Saxons Minor Empire event. In another apt moment, Rome fell to his Goth hordes (contemporary stereotypes confounded completely!).

Epoch V
  • Gav: Holy Roman Empire- 132VP
  • Andy: Mongols- 110VP
  • Donald: Chola- 98VP
  • Tony: Franks- 95VP
  • Me: Vikings- 86VP
  • Dave: Seljuk Turks- 80VP
Gav got the Fujiwara Minor Empire event. Andy's Mongols got the Crossbows event and launched a continent-spanning rampage exceeding even that of the Carthaginians back in epoch II.

Epoch VI
  • Gav: Mughals- 165VP
  • Andy: Timurid Emirates- 155VP
  • Donald: Portugal- 130VP
  • Me: Spain- 115VP
  • Tony: Incas/Aztecs- 110VP
  • Dave: Ottoman Turks- 108VP
Donald got the Safavids Minor Empire event. Not much of note happened this epoch, expect that a tragic pattern can be seen to be well established at the top of the leader list.

Epoch VII
  • Gav: Germany- 205VP
  • Andy: France- 182VP
  • Donald: Manchu Dynasty- 164VP
  • Dave: Britain- 158VP
  • Me: Netherlands- 156VP
  • Tony: Russia- 143VP
If Gav ruled the world? Well now we know.

Score
Usurper tyrant 1
Grumbling under the yoke 0

Afterthoughts
Another great play of a game I like more and more each time I play it. This being only HotW's third appearance on the table we were still getting to grips with the game's strategic intricacies, exactly as with War on Terror the last time we played that. In particular we (for 'we' read Gav) realised that there is more to passing off Empire cards at the start of each epoch than just giving rubbish wee empires to the leader; there is also the matter of ensuring that a powerful empire can be cut down to size before it has a chance to score everything twice (I'm afraid readers will have to wait for a future play before I explain all these rules references).

Our game last Sunday took some 6 hours to play, a time which will limit how often we play HotW, naturally enough. One consequence of the inevitable long gaps between plays was- and will no doubt continue to be, that some of the key rules and fiddly case exceptions had just slipped our mind; so that they took some getting used to. These rules aren't complicated per se but- as I noted after our first play last Easter: the rules of HotW leave a little to be desired when it comes to clarity; a problem residing mostly in the realm of the lack of concise summaries of oft-used mechanics. I aim to address this with a summary sheet ASAP.

Also we routinely violated one essential rule of the game: "No 'diplomacy' must take place during the [Empire card] distribution phase." We'll have to do better next time.

In short: we'll be back if I've got anything to do with it! ;)
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