World Without End

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Kosmos/Mayfair Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 90-120 minutes; $49)


worldwithoutboxIt’s been 200 years since Prior Phillip oversaw the construction of the great cathedral whose name became both the title of a successful novel and a successful game: Pillars of the Earth (featured in the Summer 2007 issue of Gamers Alliance Report). Now, in a sequel to the game, Michael Rienack and Stefen Stadler, the design team that gave us Pillars, return to the world created by author Ken Follett and offer up a game based on Follett’s subsequent novel: World Without End.

World Without End comes in the same size box as Pillars to hold its varied components: a large game board, gold counters, 100 cards, an assortment of markers (indicating medical knowledge, plague, piety, loyalty and favor), 10 die-cut tiles, resource cubes (25 wood, 15 stone, 1 metal), 35 commodity pieces (10 grain, 15 wool, 12 cloth), 16 “houses”, player screens, a “tax die” and more. The goal is to amass the most Victory Points and, in the England of the Middle Ages, this means striking the proper balance in living your lives.

Each player receives, in their chosen color of blue, red, green or yellow, matching sets of Action cards as well as 4 houses, 2 donation seals, scoring tokens, a player screen and a summary card. In addition, everyone gets 1 wool and 2 gold as starting resources.

The large mounted board shows the town of Kingsbridge including a perimeter scoring track, a “favor” track and a “city council space” for drawn event cards. All scoring tokens begin on “8” on the scoring track with the various resources distributed in the allocated spaces (stone cubes at the Quarry, wood in the forest, grain in the field, piety markers on the cathedral). Cloth, wool, loyalty, medical knowledge and gold counters form a general supply off the board. There are 44 event cards divided into 4 “chapters” (from I to IV) of 11 cards each. With each stack shuffled separately, five cards are removed, face down, from each stack and are out of the game. Only those cards remaining will impact on the game’s events and circumstances. There are also several cardboard cutouts of structures that may (or may not) appear. When the game begins, however, one of these (the bridge) is in play and that structure is placed on the board. The “favor marker” begins on the leftmost “outlaw” space on the favor track. True to its “novel” roots, World Without End is played in a set of four “chapters”. Each chapter (or round, in more common game parlance) consists of six events and, in turn order, follows the same basic procedure.

First the top event card is revealed. Any effects triggered by the event are carried out immediately. (Some events are colored blue and remain in effect until the chapter/round is over.) Now comes the tricky part.

The event card is then moved onto the board’s city council space. In so doing, the active player determines each player’s income for the turn. Each corner of the card depicts a particular resource or a Victory Point and the corner of the card pointing to each player is that player’s income that turn. In addition, once placed, an arrow on the card will point to a number (from 0 to 3) indicating how far the favor marker will advance on the favor track (and the favor the active player will receive). Favors can be good (awarding a player Victory Points, additional piety or grain or wool) or bad (losing 1 gold to outlaws). Now, in clockwise order from the active player, all players play a Action cards.

From a player’s deck of 12 cards, he chooses one to play FACE UP and one to be discarded face down. During each chapter, a player will be able to perform only 6 of his 12 possible actions. When the chapter/round ends, all 12 cards are returned to the player, available for future use during the next chapter. Actions you choose will vary depending on events and situations as they occur. Take, for example, plague.

worldwithout2At the start of the third chapter, plague strikes Kingsbridge. The 11 plague markers are mixed and placed, face down, onto the 11 numbered houses on the board. When an event card is revealed at this point, it will also reveal a number corresponding to one of these houses. Their inhabitants have caught the illness and you, IF you have the requisite amount of medical knowledge AND play the appropriate Action card, can cure them earning Victory Points and other benefits for doing so. But that’s only one thing Action cards can do.

Action cards allow players to receive grain, piety and a resource (either one stone or one wood cube). Other actions include placing up to two resources (wood and/or stone) onto a building project and scoring 3 VPs per resource, converting wool to cloth, selling wool and cloth, building a house (these houses, separate from those inflicted with plague, cost 1 stone or 1 wood – watch out for the typo on the Action card that reads “1 wool” instead of 1 wood), collecting rent from up to 2 of your build houses (rent is collected in the form of resources, gold or Victory points), donation (where, at the cost of 1 gold, you place one of your donation seals on a building in progress to reap a reward once the building is completed), medicine (where you may get either 1 gold and 1 VP or, as mentioned, nurse the afflicted for additional rewards), favor (allowing you to advance the favor marker one space and get the ensuing benefit) and privilege which allows a player to do a just played action a second time.

Once all players’ cards have been used (or discarded), that chapter is over and certain things occur. All blue (long ranging) events are removed from play, one matching resource is added to every building still under constructions, any spaces out of play due to events of the chapter (marked by covering tiles) have their covering tiles removed and, most critically, all players must meet their “mandatory duties”.

At the end of each chapter, all players must show they have lived a virtuous life (by paying 2 piety), feed their people (by spending 2 grain) and pay their taxes (which can be anywhere from 2 to 5 gold based on a die roll). Failure to meet any of these obligations is costly. For each piety short, a player will lose 3 victory points, 2 points are lost for each grain shortage and 1 point lost for every gold piece of the tax obligation a player cannot pay. What’s worse, each shortfall comes with its own additional penalty: piety – an opponent randomly discards an action card from your hand, grain – you lose your next personal income, taxes – you play both of your action cards face down on your next turn, reducing your six actions in a round to five, essentially losing a turn. (But all is not lost. Paying one loyalty counter per penalty will protect you against it – but you still lose the Victory Points!) And things can get worse. When the final chapter duties are paid, shortfalls result in TWICE the Victory Points lost!

With the fourth and final chapter completed (and Victory Point losses calculated), players still have a chance to add to their scores. They receive 1 VP for each stone and wood cube still in their possession and 1 VP for every 2 gold (with half-points allowed). The player with the highest final total of VPs wins!

The “favor track” is similar to what is used in Pillars and works consistently well. But the heavy luck element of drawing master builders in Pillars has been replaced by a much better mechanism: the placement of the event card by each player in turn. This creates a wonderful opportunity for a player to weigh the benefits of a particular resource against benefits to be won by favor advancement. It’s great if both benefits dovetail neatly together but, more often than not, this will not be the case.

Players need to plan, if they can, for the competition for resources that need to be paid at the end of each chapter. We’ve found grain to be the most hotly contested for the most obvious reason: there are fewer of them. At least 2 grains are needed to be paid each round but only 10 are available. With four players competing, should one player hoard this valuable commodity, others will find themselves suffering the penalties. Loyalty tokens will protect a player from these penalties – but NOT from the loss of VPs. And penalties are another strong point of this design. While penalties hurt (as they should), resulting in loss of income or loss of a turn or a totally random card play, they are not game-breaking. Suffering penalties do not, in and of themselves, bury you in a no-can-win position. You can rebound from penalties (even multiple penalties) IF you can adapt your actions to the expected and often unexpected events revealed.

But this is a game where planning only takes you so far. Events are not automatic. Since virtually half of the events possible in the game will NOT appear – and you don’t know which – you can never be sure of what will happen next. Building structures, for example, come into play only if the right event card appears. If the card doesn’t, then other avenues for earning Victory Points need to be travelled. For some, this will be too chaotic, too “luck-driven”, too frustrating. For others, like me, the challenge of being able to “think on your feet”, to adjust “on the fly”, to weather adversity and come out on top, keeps the game fresh and exciting. About the only caveat to the game is the board’s artwork. Its atmospheric medieval look is consistent with the theme and its predecessor Pillars (no surprise here as the artist for both games is Michael Menzel) but the board is dark, making seeing the buildings (and particularly, the plague markers and their houses) a bit more difficult to read during play.

If World Without End heralds the beginning of a Pillars of the Earth franchise in the mold of The Settlers of Catan with its many spin-offs (a perception borne out by the just released Pillars of the Earth: Builders Duel), then you couldn’t do much better. Rieneck and Stadler have created a world that captures the essence of the novel while remaining both challenging and absorbing as a game. World Without End is, without question, a top notch design which I personally enjoy even more than the highly regarded Pillars of the Earth. Recommended.


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