A Brief Strategy Article on A Brief History of the World

I often spend time playing a lot of different board games, with much of my repeat-play time used up by monogames of various sorts (that is, things like CCGs, LCGs or miniatures games where you customize your army/deck and tend to play over and over again). However, A Brief History of the World has been an exception, in no small part because it also exists as a very handy iOS App. So with a ton of plays of the game under my belt, I thought I would give a try at writing some strategy tips. In writing these, I am assuming that you have access to the game, if only because actually writing out the text of cards sounds mind-numbing. If you haven’t played A Brief History of the World, the game puts each player in control of a series of empires over six Epochs of human history, with players scoring points at the end of each of their turns based on the territory, cities and monuments controlled by their current empire and what’s left of their older ones.


Libya is a better Mediterranean territory than you might think

Libya should get more love than it does, and the reasons why illustrate two broader tactical notions. I single out Libya because there are a couple of Epoch I and II empires (the Minoans, the Greeks) with a fleet in the Mediterranean who are reasonably likely to be able to just grab whatever random territories they want in Southern Europe or Northern Africa – or, at the very least, will get to choose between Libya and Shatts Plateau (the Nile Delta may have been occupied by Egypt). So it often makes for pretty clean tactical considerations. The default option here seems to be to go for Shatts Plateau, because it is difficult terrain, and I think that option is usually incorrect. First, it is often not a great choice because Shatts Plateau is the starting location for Carthagia, one of the last Epoch II empires. You shouldn’t fixate too much on where all of the empires appear, especially in later Epochs where the larger number of armies means that many territories will fall regardless (in early Epochs the small reach of the empires and relatively large number of open spaces means that an army adjacent to an enemy capitol is more likely to be left alone). But when there isn’t otherwise much of a reason to go with one territory over another, the possibility that your army will get wiped out automatically is a good reason to pick. Second, once the game moves on Libya is actually more defensible because it isn’t on the edge of the continent. Most of the time anyone who wants to take Libya will need to have gone through either Nile Delta or Shatts Plateau first, or face the disadvantage of a naval assault. Why have your army sitting in Shatts Plateau to defend North Africa from invasions from Spain, when you can sit back in Libya and have some other player’s armies fight it out across the Strait of Gibraltar? When picking which territories to drop your last army or two on, keep in mind how likely the army might be to survive into future Epochs. A single army tucked away in an inconvenient spot on a continent can sometimes result in a large point reward as it continues to score presence you otherwise would have lost.

Epochs I and II are not about scoring points …

… they are about positioning. OK, that’s something of an exaggeration, but I think is still accurate in broad terms, especially at low player counts (the swings of Epoch III are more prominent at lower player counts because those empires will not only have lots of armies, but also relatively open spaces to expand into and/or fewer armies to wipe out before achieving mastery). The number of points between a good turn and a poor turn in Epoch I are trivial. The differences between good and bad scores at the end of Epoch II are bigger, but can be misleading. This is because of the big increase in power from the Epoch II to the Epoch III empires, especially the strongest Epoch III empires. Just getting Macedonia or Rome in Epoch III can obliterate any point disparity suffered during Epochs I and II. Even the next level empires like the Maurya and Han Dynasty are far more powerful than the Indian and Chinese empires that came before them, and can easily enable complete wipeouts of whatever came before them. So it can be worth it to sacrifice points now in exchange for positioning later. One aspect of this positioning is that while Epochs I and II see tons of fighting in the Middle East, this really dies down afterwards. Middle Eastern territories from Epoch I will usually not last, but the central Middle Eastern territories can last a long time if held at the end of Epoch II. There’s only one Middle Eastern empire in Epochs III, IV, and V (and none in VI). And the Epoch IV and V empires (the Arabs and Ottomans) are frequently looking west and north for their conquests. Territories in the eastern and western edges of the Middle East may get picked off by European or Indian/Central Asian empires, but it is infrequent to see those empires go very deep. And the naval powers of Epoch V and Epoch VI almost always have something better to do than grab a random Middle Eastern territory unless it has a capital and/or monument (and if you’ve had a city/monument giving presence and sitting there scoring points for three Epochs until the British come and take it in Epoch VI, then I’d say that’s been a pretty good investment).

Overrated and Underrated Empires

Well, that might be something of a misnomer, because it’s not like there are a lot of people out there rating empires. So this is more of an “empires that seem better/worse at first blush than they really are” section.

–          Epoch I (overrated): Anything in the Middle East. It will get wiped out by the Assyrians, Persians, and the plethora of minor empires that start in the Levant.

–          Epoch I (underrated): Aryans – don’t be put off by the lack of a capital. Their strategic location can let them snipe chunks of China, India, and the Middle East. I most commonly expand them further into India, because the Middle East is already occupied and the Chou Dynasty’s starting spot will wipe out a second territory taken in China. Especially good with Allies, which can let you master India and get a monument while avoiding Upper Indus, where the Vedic City States start.

–          Epoch II (overrated): Greek City States. They will get wiped out by the Macedonians or Romans.

–          Epoch V (it depends): Incas and Aztecs. On the one hand, it is easy to underestimate the short-term point boost that this double-empire can give you. North and South America will be unoccupied, or almost unoccupied, and so I&A will generally give you dominance over both of those continents, plus two capitols. And they’re in the first half of the turn order. That’s a lot of points out of four armies. On the other hand, you can very, very quickly lose those American territories. Spain, in particular, will just wipe out these empires (random note: the value of Portugal is also highly dependent on whether Spain is around). In a high player count game, this makes I&A weaker. In a low player count game, they’re stronger because Spain is less likely to be around, and Portugal and the Epoch VI naval powers will still have plenty of unoccupied targets to land in. Unfortunately, though, you probably won’t have much of a choice, since while I&A may not be as bad as it seems, it certainly isn’t good, and you should probably choose pretty much anything that isn’t the Mughals over it.

–          Epoch VI (underrated): Russia – Maybe this is only “underrated” if you’ve only just started playing, but going first is really good, and going first on the last turn of the game is really, really good. The Russians don’t look nearly as impressive as the British or the French, but their early jump makes them much better than they seem. Especially good if you have Astronomy or Naval Power.

Empires I Never Want To Be

–          Epoch I: Minoans – very few armies and Southern Europe isn’t worth much to start. Their only real value is if you get very lucky and manage to enter Epoch IV with Crete still in your hands, but this almost never happens.

Wrong kind of Goth.

–          Epoch II: Scythians – unlike the Aryans, these barbarians won’t have valuable empty land to expand into. And unlike the Huns and Mongols, they don’t have the armies for real conquest.

–          Epoch III: Goths – they are not necessarily terrible like most of the empires on this list, but the Goths are one of the smaller Epoch III empires, and are in the same regions as the two biggest (one of which gets to drop free forts). The possibility of swiping some Southern European cities is about their only bright spot.

–          Epoch IV: Vikings and Seljuk Turks. I’m not too enthused about the Franks either. This can really be a boom or bust Epoch. The Huns and Arabs have massive armies, and neither the Byzantines nor the T’ang Dynasty is to be taken lightly. But the bottom three for this Epoch have lousy positioning and relatively few armies.

–          Epoch V: Mughals – Relatively unimpressive position, low army count, no navy. They might be able to use their empire ability to take over all of India, but they might not, and even so it isn’t worth spending all those armies just to go from dominance to mastery.

–          Epoch VI: Japan – The single worst empire in the game. In an Epoch full of massive industrial and naval powers, Japan has few armies and no navy. And it goes last on the one turn where there is no possibility of a last/first swing. You’ll be able to master Japan/Korea, but that’s about it. Even if you have something like Naval Power, all of the juicy overseas targets will be occupied. Japan is so bad that being slightly in the lead going into Epoch VI is usually a death sentence.

What Events You Should Take

It is often easier to identify the good empires than the good events. While it lacks a certain subtlety, you won’t go too horribly wrong sitting down to play A Brief History of the World and picking whatever empire has the biggest number on it. But the events are less obvious.

–          Epoch I: The Population Explosion and Allies cards are quite good for expanding your empire. They’re often worse in the short-term than Israel or the Canaanites because those minor empires come with capitols, but they can be better if the addition of the Levant doesn’t earn you presence/dominance/master in the Middle East, when an extra army might let you grab control of a continent you otherwise couldn’t. Especially since your minor empire will get wiped out pretty immediately. Israel is probably the strongest play because you can save it for later. Treachery is one of those cards that can have its impact limited by its inability to be played in the middle of a Leader or Weaponry turn.

–          Epoch II: All of the minor empires are good in this Epoch, especially the Celts and Phoenicia. Siege Craft and Disaster should be avoided if at all possible, and the sea-only Astronomy from this Epoch is pretty bad as well.

–          Epoch III: There are a strong array of cards available in Epoch III. The Elite Troops card is here the one stinker – like Siege Craft, it suffers massively from being a card to play for big invasion turns while also being really limited and interfering with the much better Weaponry and Leader (and Naval Power). Civil War and Barbarians will generally steal a city and grant presence at a cheap cost, while Yamato is an excellent investment in Japan, which will generally be untouched until Epoch VI (the Mayans are similar, but worse).

It’s an Event card from Legend of the Five Rings. It’s about an Empire, just like a lot of the Event cards are minor empires. See, it’s funny if you know L5R. OK, it still isn’t funny even if you know L5R. But it maybe sort of makes sense as a reference. Right? Anybody?

–          Epoch IV: Here, on the other hand, is a relatively weak set of cards. The Khmers are typically the best, followed by the other minor empires. Even when minor empires aren’t exciting, they generally make their value back almost immediately from their cities. Migrants is a bit of an odd bird. On the one hand, it gives you presence in two continents, which would usually be very strong. On the other hand, these continents are worth almost nothing during this Epoch and Migrants is quite expensive. If you go for Migrants, I would suggest grabbing Congo Basin and the Great Plains. In both cases, this is because these are undesirable territories. I know, I know, that seems strange, but in order to maximize your points for the presence, you want them to stick around. When your opponents visit these continents later, they will want to grab the monument territories. If you’re in those territories, they can kill your presence and get their resources as well. If you’re sitting off somewhere else, they’ll generally take the monument and leave you alone. And, of course, you don’t want to start in somewhere like East Africa or Central America where a major or minor empire might pop up. All of the cards above are worth playing, but they don’t amass a lot of points overall. The Black Death is too situational for my tastes – sometimes you get to wipe someone out and take over a continent, and sometimes you’re stuck just poking another player and not getting much out of it yourself. Siege Craft and Engineering are to be avoided.

–          Epoch V: Diplomacy and Chola can generally be deployed to gain presence where you didn’t have it, and are at least a new city to repay the coin cost of the Event. Zimbabwe is OK. Astronomy is situational, but can be extremely powerful when combined with the right empire. For example, both the Ottomans and the Russians have a solid number of armies and can generate a ton of points by using Astronomy to go into unoccupied territories in North and South America, and Africa, before the traditional naval powers for the Epochs have a chance (Astronomy is not good for attacking because it doesn’t preserve your dice and can’t be combined with Weaponry/Leader). While I like Allies in Epoch I, it is usually much weaker here, despite providing an extra ally. Unless you can naval into a convenient spot, it can be hard to find empty territories to maximize its effects. Disaster and Elite Troops are, as always, to be avoided if possible.

–          Epoch VI: We again see efficient city/presence sniping in the form of Diplomacy and Civil War. The Netherlands can be a very strong minor empire but is more situational because there are no further turns to recoup its cost. If it grants presence in Northern Europe and/or can use its extra army to grant presence (or maybe even grab a monument!) then it can be a point bonanza. If you’re already in Europe and have an empire that’s late in the turn, it can be a dud. The Thai, on the other hand, are only of any value if they grant you presence, and even then barely pay for themselves. Naval Power is also pretty situational but can be very strong. Many of the empires in this era already have navies, but granting a navy to Russia or the Qing Dynasty so that they can gobble up things like Australia before the British or French lets those empires generate a lot more points than they otherwise could. And the United States can be terrible without Naval Power or Astronomy. Population Explosion is almost always handy here (unless you’re Japan, I guess), while Famine is not great.

Well, maybe that wasn’t as brief as I intended. As always, feel free to comment or provide your own thoughts below!

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