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World Without End (a full review this time)

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport’
‘King Lear’, William Shakespeare

A four player game of ‘World Without End’ would have driven the old king back out on to the blasted heath raving about event cards. At least he would have done so sat in my chair in a recent game; the only player to pay his dues at the end of a chapter? Check - next event card everyone loses their next action. Medical knowledge at a level ready to sweep the board? Check. Event gives everyone medical knowledge, next event makes all medical knowledge redundant. Never mind let’s build! Next event prohibits building for the chapter...and so on. The game can be very cruel to those who like to plan too far ahead or specialise. Thematically it makes sense - we are in the middle ages, subject to the whims of kings and priests, only one step away from having a bucket of night soil poured over our head that will pop out a goitre, bring us out in boils and give us bubonic plague. Life was tough and unfair in days of yore and so is this game. At least when played to full capacity with four players, but I’ll come back to this later.

‘World without End’ is designed by the same team that gave us ‘Pillars of the Earth’ and it is loosely based on Ken Follet’s follow up novel to his world wide best seller. I must confess to not having read either of these books; however the game makes you feel you are in the middle ages with snippets from the story used as flavour text on the event cards. The art work is instantly recognisable as the work of Michael Menzel, it’s a style I like as the board gives the game atmosphere -necessary when you are pushing cubes around. The rule book is one of the best written I have read and credit must go the original drafter and Patrick Korner the translation.

The board contains a space for an event card, a favour track, spaces for buildings, an area for Wool, Cloth, Wood, Stone (Hey it wouldn’t be a proper Euro without ‘em!). Six cards for each chapter are randomly drawn from the eleven available and are placed next to the board. The ‘Bridge’, the starting building project is placed on the board. Each player starts with two money and wool which they keep hidden behind a screen. Players also start with the same set of twelve action cards, four un built houses and two donation tokens. In this review i refer to all the tokens and cubes in the game as ‘resources’ the rule book only uses the term resources for Wood and Stone.

The game is played over 24 rounds which are divided into four ‘chapters’ of six rounds. Players take it in turn to be the active player, everyone gets to do something in a round but the active player has two extra steps. The active player draws the top event card turns it over and the event on the card is resolved.

The events come in two type’s; immediate effect, or stay in place for the whole of the chapter. Of the forty four events only twenty four will be drawn in the game. Most of the events are not going to make you happy, seventeen of them have a bad effect, for example players lose resources or a part of the game gets closed down. When they are in effect for the whole of a chapter they can be particularly nasty. A mere seven can be described as good or neutral, either giving resources, VPs for meeting a criteria or reversing the effect of some previous calamity. Five of the cards bring new building projects on to the board and fifteen offer the players the opportunity to make some kind of exchange; either a resource for a different type of resource, forgo an action for a benefit or resources or goods for victory points.

Next the player decides the orientation of the event card on the board. This is one of the cleverest mechanics of the game. Every event card has a resource on each of the four sides. The players receive the resource that points at them when the card is placed on the board. At this stage of the game the players are hunched over the board, holding their breath hoping against hope that they will get the one resource they need to either avoid end of chapter penalties or set up an efficient action later in the round. When deciding on the placement of the event card there are a few factors to consider; the first is the resource you need, the second is the favour track and the third (if you are able to remember what the other players have placed behind their screens) is screwage. The placement of the event card is usually greeted by one or more players with loud groans.

Each event card also has an arrow on one side. When placed the arrow will point to a number between zero and three which is the number of spaces the favour marker will move along its track. The favour track has ten spaces three of which give you resources, five victory points (dependent on what resources you hold or houses you have built) and two (‘outlaws’) cost you a gold to land on. You desperately need a grain to avoid chapter end penalties? Pay gold if the arrow moves you to the outlaw space. Another factor to consider when moving along the favour track is not setting it for a big points score by the player on your left. Another is that choosing zero and not moving the favour track does not get you a benefit on the track.

After the favour track has been resolved players take it in turn to play action cards. When a card is played another must be discarded, so it’s crucial to have some plan (however cruelly the gaming gods might treat it) for the chapter. The actions available are:
• to gain a resource (Grain, Piety, Wood/Stone), (three cards)
• repeat the last action you played
• convert wool to cloth
• sell cloth and wool at the market,
• move the favour track along one space and take the action
• build a house
• take rent from up to two houses
• building project
• donate to a building project
• medicine or gain one VP and a gold

Rent from built houses is the only way of guaranteeinga particular resource. To build a house players pay a gold and either a wood or a stone.(there are two houses for each resource type and one requires wood to build, the other stone). Each house has a ‘rent’ that will be one of stone, wood , gold, Victory points, Grain, Medical knowledge or loyalty tokens.In the games I have played house building is one of the first actions players have taken. There is also a space on the favour track that scores victory points equal to the number of houses a player owned.

Building projects allow you to build one or two sections of one of the projects o the board, the projects require either stone or wood and a player scores three points for each section built.

Players may also donate a gold towards the building project, the donation (marked by a token in the players colour) yields resources and victory points when the project is complete. For example the bridge gives one VP and three gold when complete. At the end of each chapter a section of each building is finished by the crown so timing donations well can be a cheap source of VPs or other resources. Five of the potential building projects arrive on the board by way of events. I have seen games where all five have arrived and some with only one. One building, ‘The Tower’, is automatically added to the board at the beginning of chapter three.

Chapter three sees another change in the town of Kingsbridge. The plague breaks out. Now the players get to be nurses and doctors and score VPs for curing the sick. Eleven plague tokens with a number between one and five are randomly placed face down on set spots on the board. Event cards in chapters three and four will reveal the plague tokens, they then can be cured. To cure a plague token a player needs medical knowledge; this can be gained from event card resources, events and house rents. The medical knowledge required is equal or greater than the number on the plague token. Multiple tokens can be cured with the same action, for example if a player has medical knowledge of five be could cure plague tokens with a value of three and two. Each token cured gains the player two points and each spot cured gives the player a resource or other benefit. Along with building projects curing the plague is the (second) best way of gaining points in the game (so long as the event that wipes all tokens off the board does not arrive too early in the game). Medical knowledge is not spent when curing; it stays with the player and can be used again.

Like Agricola the best way of scoring VPs is to avoid paying the penalty at the end of each round, so half of a player’s effort will be spent in avoiding having a shortfall at the end of each chapter. The ‘Mandatory Duties’ at the end of each chapter are two piety (you had to suck up to the church back in the middle ages) , two grain (they ate then as well) and pay tax to the crown (between two and five gold based on a die roll. For every piety you are short you lose three VPs, for every grain two and one VP for every gold. Not only that but you receive a penalty in the next round, without grain you don’t receive your income from the placement of the event card, without piety you have to discard a random action card and without gold you miss your next action altogether! Victory point penalties are doubled in the last chapter. The unpleasant after effects of not paying your dues can be negated by expenditure of a loyalty token, you don’t escape the victory point loss but the after effects are gone. Loyalty tokens can be gained from house rents and the event cards and there are two spots on the favour track that score you points for owning them.

Point scoring is incremental rather than exponential, more like Cuba than Le Havre. Trying to build a specialised engine to build up to a grand finale only has limited success, you are limited by only being able to take the same action twice in each chapter and that ‘house rents’ only give two resources. Moreover event cards can completely close down either building or medicine. In a first game it is easy to spurn easy points offered by the events in the hope of saving resources for later scores, my advice is don’t; those three points can seem like a lot at the end of a game in which fifty points (you start with eight) can be a winning score.

I think the big bugbear for a lot of geeks will be the lack of control in the game. In two player games you get to choose resources and use the favour track 12 times, in three player 8 times and in four players it’s six. There is a huge difference in the amount of control a player has between two and four players Because resources are finite they can and will run out in a four player game, it might be a viable strategy to hog grain or piety and cause your opponents to starve or get into trouble with the clergy. This makes it even harder to be master of your own gaming destiny, especially in a four player game. If I had to try and pigeon hole the game it would as an ‘Experience Euro’, the flavour text on the events are best read aloud to create a back drop for the nasty (or nice) thing that follows. In my opinion the control /game experience balance is best with three players. Planning in the game is difficult with so much effort going into paying duties and warding of negative events. However, careful planning and flexibility is required in the ordering of player’s actions , choice of discard is just as important as the action played.

The complexity is moderate - I’d put it at a 2.5 on the Geek scale, neophyte ‘Geeks have had no problem learning the game and there is a ‘baby steps’ intro version of the game if you want to ease yourself into it ,though I don’t think it’s necessary for gamers. It is a reminder that this game is aimed at the more complex end of the family game market, and should be judged with that in mind.

In conclusion I really enjoy playing this game, normally a lack of control puts me off but the combination of the mechanics, the requirement to keep balanced and respond to events make for an immersive game and two hours well spent.

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