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That’s right, my weekly board games column is moving here so don’t go looking for it in its old spot. Details are limited right now, but watch the skies. But yeah, Barnes Best, editorials, reviews, trolling, everything is going to be right here from now on and I’ll keep to my Thursday schedule- because I haven’t missed a non-holiday, non-E3 Thursday since 2007.
Without further adieu, read on for my take on Gorilla Games’ World Conquerors.
Jeff Siadek is probably best known for Battlestations, a complicated science fiction RPG-board game hybrid that I never could get to work with any of many groups. He’s done a couple of other smaller designs, like the rather nasty card game Lifeboat but his newest issue is World Conquerors, a highly abstracted dudes on a map game that was recently Kickstartered into being via Gorilla Games. The elevator pitch is that players drive a territorial control board game with multi-function cards depicting the big names in world conquering ranging from AAA-class superstars like Adolf Hitler, Napoleon, and Alexander to lesser known megalomaniacs like Harald Fairhair, Pachacuti, and Cao Cao. Factual context and chronology be damned- this is a battle royale, not a history lesson.
The high level concept isn’t particularly novel. There’s obviously a generous dollop of Risk involved in the proceedings. Take over a map of the world with wooden cubes. There’s plenty of dice-rolling combat and take-that action cards. You’ve done all of these things before. Even the conceit of shifting goals, here embodied by selecting a different leader card each turn and attempting to meet their objective, is specifically descended from Britannia and History of the World.
But Risk, Britannia, and History of the World are not games that play in an hour and change. The pace is relentless, and there the impetus in each of the four turns for players to outperform their last turn gives it a very aggressive, competitive tone. It’s short enough, casual enough, and compact enough that along with a couple of systematic checks and balances, no player is ever actually eliminated or rendered non-competitive- functionally or materially.
On a turn, players receive a number of army cubes based on an automatically escalating scale to add to any left over from the previous turn. The player picks a leader card out of their hand, and that historical personage sets up camp in their home territory. The owner of the home territory gets some bonus armies-here’s one of those checks and balances- and from this region the player begins an epic campaign to take over as much of the word as possible.
A defending region gets a default die and then one for each allied region adjacent to it. Likewise, the attacker rolls one and then one for each adjacent region as well. Whoever has the highest single die wins, ties go to the defender, and if you roll straight fours your leader dies. Any player- not just involved parties- can play leader cards as “agents”, meaning they impart a one-time special effect, or as reroll-providing “generals” in battles occurring in their home region.
Win and you put an army cube in the territory. Lose, and you have to pay the current supply cost for your turn meaning that you have to discard an army from your supply. Worse, your supply cost goes up so the next fight you lose you pay two and so on, making momentum (and a little luck) extremely important. Naval attacks have a default supply cost attached to them, so fighting larger campaigns over the course of turn can get expensive. If you can’t afford the supply cost, you’re done. Once your run is over, you tally up the territories you took over and adjust your Empire Mark and if you met your leader’s goal you get bonus armies. Next turn, do the same thing but with a new leader.
With only four turns, every one counts. It is actually feasible to take over every territory on the map for the win, but games seem to end more often with the player with the highest Empire Mark- meaning the largest empire at any point in the game- taking the victory. The game is definitely at its best with three or four, the two player option lends itself to landslide victories and the single player game lacks friction. With three or four, the gameplay and board state are much more dynamic and wild swings of die-rolling luck are much less catastrophic. There’s also a rules peculiarity wherein all players draw leader cards on every player’s turn, so there are less cards in circulation and in hand with less players.
Other than not really hitting its mark with less than three, this is a very smartly designed, compressed game. The subject matter is terrific although the actual narrative and setting is vellum-thin. It’s less abstract than Risk, but nowhere near as specific as Nexus Ops. It’s not necessarily an innovative or ground-breaking design, but its implementation of supply costs and multi-use cards makes it feel fresher and more compelling than you might expect. And it’s so tightly wound and aggressive that it makes other dudes on a map games seem pudgy and sluggish.
I would have liked to have seen a little more careful copyediting in some of the cards because there is some confusing, sometimes conflicting wording of some effects. The rulebook is one of those that you read through and think you know how to play the game, but in practice you’re eyeballs deep in it every turn during the game. But the text issues are minor nuisances in what is otherwise a surprisingly excellent- and very modern- example of its genre.