Updated: Oct 25, 2020
To coincide with and celebrate the Board’s Eye View page achieving 4000 page Likes on Facebook, it seemed appropriate to turn our focus on the classic board game 4000 AD.
Back in 1972, when this game first appeared. Its UK publishers, Waddington’s, were virtually synonymous with board games. They were the UK publishers of Monopoly and Cluedo, and they’d occasionally bring out a new roll & move game to keep their continuing best-sellers company on retailers’ shelves.
In many respects, 4000 AD was ahead of its time. Maybe not 2028 years ahead of its time, but it certainly seemed novel back in 1972 to have a game with hidden movement (space fleets are launched into hyperspace: opponents can see where your ships departed from and how many sectors they have moved but they don’t know where they are moving to until the ships emerge from hyperspace). It was rare back then to have a game which didn’t use dice to determine movement. Another Waddington’s title back then, Risk, had set the mould for area control games yet here was an area control game that didn’t use dice to determine combat. In fact, 4000 AD is a game which uses no dice or randomiser at all.
Allan B Calhamer’s Diplomacy had been published more than a decade earlier and that too eschewed dice or other randomisers, but that was a title that was hardly aimed at the general market, not least because it demanded a full complement of seven players for a proper game. 4000 AD took 2–4 players (realistically, 2 or 4) and was aimed at a much wider market.
4000 AD also involves resource production: on alternate turns, more ships are manufactured for each pair of population and raw materials symbols in a player’s interstellar empire. This sounds pretty basic to modern ears but, remember, 4000 AD long predated the explosion of euro games.
It was an especially bold step for designer Earl Doherty to incorporate in the game’s design a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space. Although the board is seemingly divided into 12 sectors, the yellow and the red stars are considered to be a sector apart, so that the yellow stars are in a sector that needs to be imagined as a level above the red stars. This of itself was quite a conceptual leap for players raised on nothing more challenging than a diet of Monopoly.
Of course there is much in 4000 AD that has not aged well. Though it seemed refreshing to have combat that involved no dice, players disliked the crude finality of 4000 AD’s ‘winner takes all’ alternative: in this game, if your fleet outnumbers your opponent’s by just one ship, all their ships are destroyed with no loss of any kind to the larger fleet.
It’s hard to imagine a company publishing any game today with such tiny plastic pieces to represent the ships: the little discs are just 6mm in diameter. Publishers nowadays are also more conscious of the need to differentiate between colours. The choice in this game of red and green pieces is particularly unhelpful for those who are colour blind, and, even for those with no vision problems, the pink and red pieces can be difficult to distinguish in dull light.
4000 AD is unlikely to find itself reprinted any time soon but it's a game that you might just find turning up in a charity/'good will' shop. It you do, buy it and give it a go. And try to imagine how innovative it must have seemed 45 years ago.