In It’s A Wonderful World up to five players take the roles of characters from Frank Capra’s classic (and surprisingly dark) 1946 film about redemption in small-town America. You can be George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), local banker on the verge of suicide and ruin, or the evil financier Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), or the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) trying to earn his wings by convincing George not to jump from the bridge…
There’s some folk–me, for instance–who would play that game, if it ever came out. But that game would have to be called It’s a Wonderful Life, which is the title of the actual movie. I mean, after reading the obligatory backstory at the top of the rules I think I get its title is meant as an ironic Fallout-style “hey we live in a dystopia but put on a happy face” thing. It’s just unfortunate that they chose a phrase that makes some people confuse it with classic Hollywood cinema.
And if my biggest problem with It’s a Wonderful World is its title, you’d have to conclude I think it’s a really good game, and you’d be right.
Alright. Moving on. IaWW is a pass-drafting game and as such owes inspiration to 7 Wonders, which was the second big-release game to it as the main mechanic (the first would be 2004’s Fairy Tale). Hadara was another 2019 release which was referred to me as “7 Wonders on Steroids” but although I enjoyed it I still think IaWW is the better game because it is more streamlined, elegant, and intense.
That intensity stems mostly from the fact that IaWW is only four rounds long, each consisting of a drafting phase followed by a production phase. You’d think that isn’t enough time, design-wise, to get an engine up and running and you’d be wrong. Again, this is due to how designer Frédéric Guérard has deftly tweaked here and pinched there to accelerate the tableau-building process.
To back up a bit: in IaWW you lead a post-apocalyptic empire to greatness measured in the usual VP accumulated in different ways. Each empire has its own card with a tiny amount of production capability–all identical if you use the bland A-sides, all different if you use the proper B-sides. After each round of drafting each player will end up seven cards, each representing a project that can be built for some mixture of bonuses, new production, and VP capability. You could if you wanted to then start all seven projects, which sit in front of you until they are completed by having the specified number and colour of cubes on them, after which they officially join your empire, adding their production and/or VP capabilities.
But you can also discard any project card at any time (including during drafting) for its printed “recycling” bonus, a resource cube of a particular colour. The proper and timely use of these bonuses is essential for finishing projects early so that they can produce later that same turn. It also solves the problem of what to do with the last couple of cards you get in the draft which are usually garbage because they don’t fit in with your strategy. If you can’t use their bonus on one of your pet projects you can just toss them in the recycling bin; the moment you have five cubes of any colour accumulated you must (and generally want to) convert them into an incredibly useful wild resource called, inventively, Krystallium, which you can immediately use on a project.
The other design innovations happen during production. Instead of all production happening willy-nilly at once, the game’s five resources are produced in a specified order from most to least common. So first all empires produce all the grey cubes permitted by their engines. Whoever produces the most gets a bonus–very useful for endgame VP–but more importantly, those grey cubes get added to projects and/or recycled right away, possibly completing projects which could then produce later that same production round, as long as what they produce hasn’t been produced yet. Then the same thing with black cubes, and so on. So if you plan things well (and you have to if you’re going to win) you can set up sort of a domino effect where projects that produce earlier in the phase help to finish projects that trigger later in the phase that in turn finish other projects, and so on.
And that’s IaWW in a nutshell. You draft what you love, hate-draft what you don’t want your opponents to get, and use the synergy of the cards you get to get the most VP. The recycling rule makes hate-drafting a much more viable alternative, since any card can turn into a resource and, at worst, you can eventually convert that cube to Krystallium if nothing else.
The big difference with strategy in IaWW is that you can (and probably should) set up your big VP-earners right away in round one and build your future strategy around them, even if you don’t complete them until round four. The fact that projects can’t be stolen and stay out in front of you until completion incentivizes you to “fake it til you make it” in terms of assembling your engine. There are enough copies of all the common production cards that you can gamble on completing that incredibly expensive-looking project if you literally play your cards right.
The rules for IaWW are exceptionally well-written, and not only is there a decent solo mode which is effing hard on its own, there are even solo scenarios which give you particular projects you have to finish as well as a VP threshold to meet. They’re also useful for getting to know the cards and work on strategies.
The art style and graphic design are clean and user-friendly, reminding me of Race for the Galaxy at its best. All in all I would definitely recommend IaWW for those who have grown bored with the (of course still excellent) world of 7 Wonders, and as evidence for my enjoyment of this game I will mention I’ve backed its first expansion on Kickstarter cand can’t wait to see what it adds to the already-excellent gameplay.
Now, who do I talk to about getting the IP rights to It’s a Wonderful Life”? I have an idea for turning it into a social deduction game…