A Brief History of the World: Dice combat done right

People who know me as a gamer know two things about me:

  1. I dislike simplistic, diced combat systems.
  2. No, really.  I don’t like them.

Given a choice, I like combat systems that use strategy primarily, with perhaps a touch of randomness.  Card-based battle resolution can be effective (as it gives players choices and has an element of secrecy), and straightforward non-random systems are tough but fair, like chess.  But playing a game where a simple die roll determines whether you win or lose puts you at the mercy of chance, and can ruin the fun when the dice “go cold”.

“Why, dice … WHY? What did I ever do to YOU?”

This is not to say a game can’t have good diced battle resolution.  Games that use multiple rounds of dice rolls or different kinds of dice for various unit types (such as Fortress America or Samurai Swords) can be sufficiently nuanced that players feel in control of combat (by choosing the composition of their forces) rather than a victim of it.  But games with simple, one-and-you’re-done combat resolution tend to just suck.

This prejudice comes from playing too much Risk, the world domination game that is notorious for the crappy job it does simulating combat using a set of very simple rules and six-sided dice.  So, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered a world domination game that uses very simple rules and six-sided dice for combat … and it feels right!  That game is called A Brief History of the World.  It’s been out of print since 2009, but you can play it on iOS.

Risk vs. Reward

Both games involve an attacker attempting to seize territory from a defender, and both determine a winner via one or more rounds of dice-rolling.  But where Risk is a grind weighted toward the defender, which makes the game a slog, Brief History of the World adds some subtle differences that make each round of combat mean more and encourage an attacker to continue fighting even when he loses.

Angry! Dice! Men!

Angry! Dice! Men!

In Risk, the rounds are all equivalent: the attacker can take as many swings at the enemy as he wants, until he either wins or gives up.  The attacker chooses to throw between one and three dice; it’s to his advantage to throw as many as possible because that maximizes the odds of rolling high.  The defender can roll up to two.  Each time, the attack compares his highest dice to the defender’s and removes an enemy for each roll that is higher.  The defender wins ties.

This flat, bottlenecked system favors the defender in numerous ways and turns the game into one of building up massive piles and troops and then whittling down the enemy two at a time, often at a cost of several attacking units per defender killed.  And because a defender in Risk always wins ties, there can be situations where a handful of defenders rolling well can fend off, improbably, massive hordes of attackers.  It makes a huge battle hinge on mere chance; when, in a game, chance trumps strategy, a player can end up feeling betrayed and powerless.  Both of those feelings are the opposite of fun.

Quel Difference?

A Brief History of the World fixes this problem with a system of escalating rolls.  Simply put: the longer a battle goes on, the easier it becomes for the attacker to win.

C'mon boxcars ... Ashurbanipal needs a new pair of sandals...

C’mon boxcars … Ashurbanipal needs a new pair of sandals…

In more specific terms, when a player invades an enemy’s territory, he rolls a number of dice based on how powerful his forces are (normally two; one if attacking from sea; three or four if using a leader or advanced weaponry, respectively) and the defender rolls two dice if they have a fortress, otherwise just one.  Only the highest roll of each side counts, so more dice is always better.

To win, the attacker must exceed the defender’s highest roll by two if the territory being invaded contains rough terrain (mountains or forest) or one otherwise.  These points beyond the defender’s roll are called invasion points.

“So what?” I hear you saying.  “You’re still rolling against the defender, who wins ties, over and over until you get a high roll or run out of troops.  The dice can still go cold and leave you stuck.”

Difference #1: If an attack fails, he adds one invasion point on his next roll.

This encourages the attack to continue by making the reward of victory sweeter each round.  But, beyond reducing the rough terrain penalty, why are more invasion points desirable?

Difference #2: After a successful invasion, remaining invasion points can be used to capture adjacent territories held by the same defender without fighting.

In Brief History, this is called overrun, and it’s the real sweetener to the combat system.  It simulates, using very simple rules, the way historical armies have clashed against fortified positions, massed their forces, broken through the chokepoint, and overwhelmed unprepared defenders behind front lines.  This is how generals from Alexander to Hannibal to Napoleon to Patton have achieved their greatest victories, so it’s fitting that a game focusing on the great conquests of history integrates it into its deceptively simple combat system.

Icing on the Global Conquest Cake

If Wu-Ti thinks he's gonna steal the Americas AND Southern Europe from me and win in the last epoch, he's got another thing coming.

If Wu-Ti thinks he’s gonna steal the Americas AND Southern Europe from me and win in the last epoch, he’s got another thing coming.

In the first couple of playthroughs, the combat system in A Brief History of the World doesn’t stand out much, but I think that’s to its credit: the dice mechanic, with invasion points and overrun, are deceptively simple.  But this ability to pull off master strokes of conquest, cutting through swaths of enemy territory, is really at the heart of the game.

This is because the scoring is based on a player’s influence in regions, not individual territories.  In order to score lots of points, you need to both have the most armies in any given region (North America, the Middle East, Southern Europe or China, for example) and spread across a large number of those regions.  Because each player has a new starting point each epoch, conquest by overrun quickly becomes the only way to take over large areas of territory.

On top of a good battle system are enough simple layers of historical simulation (in the form of empires listed in chronological order by epoch, and each with their own special abilities) and tactical nuance (in the form of event cards) to make ABHotW an order of magnitude better, as a strategy game, than Risk has ever been.

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