History of the World Preview

Avalon Hill brings one of their classic boardgames to life in a battle that wages throughout time

For Donald Greenwood, producing the PC version of History of the World is a double-edged sword: he's an avid boardgamer who regrets the rapid demise of that gaming genre brought about by PCs, but recognizes the PC can introduce the genre to more players.

"I prefer playing with people instead of machines," Greenwood says. There's nothing like sitting down with a bunch of friends for a few hours and re-writing history. Which may be why he wants to make the PC version of this very popular board game as true to the original as possible. Plus he's thrown in a few clever resource management and game accounting twists in the bargain, along with some historical education.

History of the World is one of Avalon Hill's most popular board games, with sales of 50,000 copies in the U.S. alone. Created in England six years ago by the Ragnar Brothers, it is a large-scale, turn-based, global conquest game with enough strategy to satisfy most boardgamers but is still accessible enough for novices. Unlike micro-management-heavy, hexagonal-layout-style games, History of the World divides the world into large regions and countries and limits moves to entire armies rather than squadrons or tank battalions.

Up to seven players manage empires - starting with Sumeria and running through the World War I era - by capturing other countries while building fortresses and monuments. The game is divided into seven "epochs" corresponding to each group of seven chronologically selected empires. It's sort of like "a glorified Risk variant," says Greenwood.

Depending on the historical strength of their empires - the Roman empire in the game's third epoch being the strongest - players position up to 25 armies and navies and can play up to two "god events" per epoch. Those events include famines, earthquakes, piracy, and strong leaders. Each player gets one move per epoch, taken in turn according to his empire's place in historic chronology. The computer then determines outcomes as other players react to previous moves. As each player's turn comes up, the game can replay all the previous moves, or simply display the current status. The PC version also has an "advisor box" which can offer suggestions.

The board game's popularity is due in part to the depth of its strategic elements. "It's not just a matter of how well you play your pieces," says Greenwood, "but how well you play the minds of your opponents." Using diplomacy, you can "poison" opponents against each other or encourage them to act in concert against stronger players. "You can even lie," says Greenwood. "That's what diplomacy is all about."

You will be able to go head-to-head with the game's AI or play via e-mail with up to six other gamers. When using e-mail, the computer AI can fill the role of one or more opponents, or you can reduce the number of empires per epoch to make it purely humans versus humans.

That on-line component is the PC version's principal advantage: no need to fit all your friends in the same room. But the game can take much longer to play on-line. Assuming a move a day, one seven-epoch game would take seven weeks. If players agree to a set time to play on-line, they can finish several epochs in one evening.

The PC version will have the same look and feel as the board game. The small amount of added chrome will be limited to player pieces and some animated "god events." Pulldown menus will offer educational tidbits about the civilizations and events within each epoch. "Schoolteachers like the simple and entertaining way it portrays the unfolding of history," Greenwood says.

"It reflects history in terms of the occurrence, time frame, and geographical location of the civilizations," says Greg Carter, co-owner of Colorado Computer Creations, the game's development company. "But, how you play your empires can be historical or non-historical." Carter's three-man team has been working for a year on History of the World, with one programmer working exclusively on the AI. One of the AI's features, variable levels of aggression, adds to its complexity and makes it a "formidable opponent," says Carter.

But Greenwood, forever the boardgamer, concedes only that the AI is "pretty good for a machine."

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