In games, theme is important. An unusual or creative theme can be the element that grabs your attention and helps a game stand out from an ever-increasing array of options. Admittedly, theme might not be the most important aspect of a game – nobody’s going to keep playing a game if it’s repetitive, has a poorly-designed ruleset, or is just not any fun. But in many cases, the theme of a game can be the deciding factor that helps catch the eyes of your friends when you ask them which of your new games they want to play next or, in the case of themes that fit a game’s mechanics especially well, or adds up to an experience that keeps people coming back to play again and again.
While I’m up for any type of game, like most people, there are some themes I tend to enjoy more (civilization builders, for example – if I can discover agriculture or build the Hagia Sophia, I’ll give it a try), and themes that I usually tend to steer clear of (zombies, post-apocalyptic wastelands). One theme I hadn’t encountered in a game until recently, but which immediately piqued my interest, was the World’s Fair of the late 19th and early 20th Century. Given my interest in history, rapid (and sometimes goofy) technological advancement, and the culture of the Victorian/Edwardian Eras (the Gilded Age/Progressive Eras in the U.S.), my attraction to a game of this sort made sense. But while its curious theme helped get me to notice it, was World’s Fair 1893 able to deliver gameplay which was equally interesting? Did it end up being Best in the World… or was it just another ‘fair’ game?
World’s Fair 1893 places two to four players in the role of organizers of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, competing to score the most points by exerting their influence in each of the Fair’s five exhibition areas – Agriculture, Electricity, Fine Arts, Manufacturing, and Transportation – having exhibits they propose in those areas approved for official display, and collecting attractions for the Fair’s Midway. The five exhibition areas are represented corresponding spaces on the World’s Fair game board, surrounding the game’s central Ferris Wheel tile which not only serves as an iconic symbol of the 1893 Fair (which featured the original Ferris Wheel), but also keeps track of the time left in each of the game’s three rounds. On a given turn, players place a cube representing one of their supporters onto one of the five exhibition spaces, taking any cards located under that space, then finish their turn by adding a new card to that space, and to each of the next two exhibition spaces in order.
Cards in World’s Fair come in three basic types. Exhibition cards represent attractions proposed for inclusion in one of the Fair’s five exhibition areas. Influential Figures, the game’s second type of card, are prominent people who played a historic role in the Fair’s organization, and who help you manipulate supporters (yours and your opponents’) to your advantage in the game. Played on the turn after you acquire them, Influential Figures’ effects range from sending two supporters instead of one to an exhibition area, placing a second supporter in a neighboring exhibition space, adding a bonus supporter to the exhibition area associated with that figure’s realm of influence, or moving any supporter from one exhibition space to another. The final card type, the Midway Ticket, has the most direct, short-term payoff, with each worth a victory point during the scoring phase. However, every Midway Ticket also moves the game’s time counter (a tiny Ferris Wheel car-shaped meeple) one space further around the central Ferris Wheel time track. Midway Tickets thus represent guaranteed points, but come at a cost, moving the game ‘clock’ forward and shrinking the number of turns left for players to maneuver and score even more points.
When the car has made its first full revolution around the wheel, the round ends and the first of the game’s three scoring phases occurs. First, players earn points for the Midway Ticket in their possession. Then, whomever commands a majority of supporters in each exhibition area scores points, and is allowed to ‘approve’ a number of exhibition cards in their hand corresponding to that exhibition area (in games with three or four players, the second place player for each exhibition area also scores some points, and is able to approve one of their associated exhibits). Getting exhibits approved is crucial to victory, as only those exhibits which are approved (represented by exchanging the exhibit card for one of that area’s cardboard chits) count for end-game scoring. After the round’s scoring is resolved, play proceeds on to the next round.
After the game’s third and final scoring round, end-game scoring occurs, where players are rewarded for the number and variety of exhibits which they’ve been able to approve. While each approved exhibit will score at least one victory point, World’s Fair rewards players most highly for variety in their exhibition offerings, with a ‘run’ of one exhibit from each of the Fair’s five areas netting 15 points total. Given that the winning score for our first play of the game ended up in the 60 point neighborhood, 15 points for a ‘run’ of approved exhibits can represent a big chunk of a player’s score, and can also spell the difference between victory and defeat. These points are then added to those scored for Midway tickets and exhibition area majorities in previous three scoring rounds; naturally, after all the arithmetic, the player with the most points is the winner.
It’s appropriate that this review began with a discussion of ‘theme’ in games, as the biggest strength of World’s Fair is its theme and presentation. The artwork on both the gameboard and cards is colorful, and while it draws upon period illustrations and photographs for inspiration, each exhibit card and Midway Ticket image is original to World’s Fair. The fact that I had to examine the cards themselves when writing this review to confirm that the images weren’t duplicated from turn-of-the-century sources is a testament to the seamless fit between the graphic design and the overall theme and period feel World’s Fair creates. And not only is each exhibit and Ticket unique, it also features a brief historical fact regarding that exhibit, so you can always tell yourself that you’re learning a little something while you’re getting your hat handed to you in the scoring department.
World’s Fair is also straightforward and easy to learn, yet offers players with a fair amount of strategic complexity. While the estimated playtime printed on most games needs to be inflated for a first playthrough, as players familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of both rules and strategy, during my first play of World’s Fair, everyone caught on to the basic mechanics after one or two turns, finishing the entire game very close to the 40 minutes listed on the box. With such a relatively short play time given the strategic options which it presents, World’s Fair is a rarity in that it’s a medium(ish)-weight game that can easily be played in situations where time is limited, or when you’re looking for a quick option to warm up for a meatier (and longer) challenge.
The Midway Tickets in World’s Fair also present a very interesting design choice, forcing players to trade off points against the time remaining in the game. In my first play, I stayed away from the Tickets precisely because I didn’t yet have a handle on the natural pace of the game, and was wary of ending things before I was able to accumulate enough exhibits or exhibition space majorities. While this was a mistake (one I think was directly responsible for my dead last finish), the need to be able to strike this balance presents a distinctive challenge and gives World’s Fair a flavor all its own. Treating time as a resource is one of my favorite game mechanics, and while World’s Fair doesn’t do it quite as well as The Village, compared to that game’s higher complexity, the fact this game incorporates and executes this feature as well as it does speaks to its solid design.
…and Some Cons
However, can’t help but feel that World’s Fair could have been a bit more. While each of the 50 exhibition cards and 28 Midway Tickets feature a unique attraction, increasing the thematic flavor of the game, these 78 cards are still either just an exhibit or a Midway card from a purely functional perspective. Likewise, one exhibition area is functionally the same as another. As a result, the artistic and thematic variety which plays a big part in the game’s initial drawing power doesn’t quite translate into a similar level of variety in its gameplay. Defining characteristics of particular exhibits, or even of the five exhibition areas, just sticks out to me as a missing feature which could have elevated an otherwise a good game to a great one.
While not necessarily a negative, the gameplay of World’s Fair also might not be for everyone. Given the key role exhibition area majorities play in both generating points mid-game and getting exhibits approved for end-game scoring, players have to play in response to their opponents and existing supporter majorities as much as, or more, than they play in response to the cards available on the board. While not as aggressively zero-sum as 7 Wonders: Duel, World’s Fair is still a game where your ability to choose and independently pursue your own strategy is somewhat limited. Although there’s something to be said for the challenge of this sort of game, for players (like me) who enjoy a more Euro-like balance of interaction with your opponents and independence, a la Le Havre or Orleans, World’s Fair might be better as an occasional play than a candidate for your regular gaming rotation.
What a great little game. It’s a bit unassuming, as it doesn’t re-write the book on an existing mechanic, but it’s approachable, light, and has a think-y edge to it. There are not a lot of games that scratch the Euro itch in the same shorter game experience. This has the potential of being a great gateway into Euros for a lot of gamers maybe a bit sheepish to make the plunge into some of the heavy hitters the Professor of Games (that’s Andy) mentions above.
I think the Ferris Wheel / Time mechanic clicked with me relatively early, and I found the value of speeding up the game when I wanted to, as I had also been the only person to collect a full set of colored tiles (2, actually), and me pressing the issue to end the game coupled with my complete sets got me the victory.
The artwork really is incredible. Some of the Influential Figure cards have multiple copies, but each Exhibition and Midway Ticket is unique. That’s a lot of unique drawings! The spaces on the board also have fantastic art, some with a 3-D effect. While I like the game quite well for what it is, I think a good half of my enjoyment comes from checking out the cards, the historical factoids, and just the overall presentation of the game.
Overall, the components are pretty nice, but I have a minor gripe with the cards. They are cheap. They bend easily, tick on the sides easily, and just do not feel up to snuff with the rest of the bits. I checked the Kickstarter page and didn’t see a Stretch Goal or upgrade option for nicer cards. One of my favorite components in the box is a potential Meeple of the Year nominee! Meet, the Ferris Wheeple Car:
World’s Fair has a lot going for it – theme, elegant design mixed with strategic complexity, a short playtime, and an easy to grasp ruleset. It’s a rare option that offers more strategy and heft than a lightweight game, yet can be played in under an hour (perhaps even half an hour with experienced players). But in the end, World’s Fair is missing something – a theme as large, varied, and jam-packed as a World’s Fair in the Gilded Age somehow doesn’t fit with a game that’s quick, clean and straightforward. It’s a good game. And it’s a good theme. But in this case, those two halves of the package just don’t seem to fit together as well as they could.
Up With Meeple Rating:
Bronze medal games are games that are enjoyable and fun, and that you’d like to play again. They might have a minor flaw or two, or there might be a similar game you like to play better, but they’re still games you make a point to play periodically, especially if they haven’t hit the table in awhile.
World’s Fair 1893
by J. Alex Kavern