Sunday, June 6, 2010

Smallworld review

This tiny peninsula just isn’t big enough for all of us. Or even a couple of us. Such is the premise of Smallworld, another excellent offering from the active minds over at Days Of Wonder. In Smallworld 2-5 players vie for control of a small piece of land by using the races of the area to control patches of earth and spread around the region. The catch is that races quickly become overextended and forced into decline, which is really just a reason to dip into the supply and introduce some new genocide to the region. Great family fun! The game is played over a set number of turns and the winner is determined by who has the most points (gold). It should take about an hour and a half to two hours.

This game is all about the over crowding of a small environ- ment and the actual board does a great job of presenting that concept. Actually there are four boards for the game depending on how many players there are (okay, it’s really two double sided boards), each with fewer and fewer number of regions to conquer. And an actually physically smaller board as well. By the second turn of the game pretty much everything has been conquered and it’s time to start making some enemies by bullying people out of there turf. Land changes hand pretty frequently here. The artwork on the board is good, each different land type is clearly represented and there are a bunch of little details that breath some life into the landscape. I especially like the magical towers that dot the world, ringed with arcane energy it’s not very hard to imagine devious wizards concocting foul schemes within. The races themselves are all represented by small counters, colorful little tiles also with nice depictions. The reverse side of the tile is primarily grey and is used when a race goes into decline. The Ghouls might be the best looking of the bunch (don’t tell the Amazons I said so), though they are all pretty good.

The game turn is very easy and really only consists of two phases. First, a player deploys their forces over the board and conquers new territory, which is just about numbers. An uninhabited land requires two tiles to take over, add an extra for each occupying force on the space. Those hills with two Halflings on them? That will require four of your Giants to take over. Once a turn a player can also call in reinforcements in the form of a die that may allow you to take over a land that you were otherwise short on. When conquering is done, rearrange your forces for defense. The second part of the turn is scoring, which is usually a point for each occupied territory plus any bonuses that may result from a Racial or Special Powers.

One of the great things about this game (and something that really appeals to a strategy/analysis nerd like myself) is the endless combination of Races and Special Powers. And by endless I mean 280 possible combinations. There are 14 Races and 20 Special Powers which are randomly paired with one another as the game progresses. Some combinations are really great (like Flying Sorcerers) and others make world domination an uphill battle (such as the Hill Tritons). It’s really up to you, make the best of it. There is something exciting about the initial draw and the six combinations that come up for choosing. The catch is that for each Race that you pass up on to get to another you have to pay a victory point. Is it really worth paying four gold for those Pillaging Orcs when you can have Underworld Elves for no cost? Hmmm.

Going into decline is a key part of the game, an interesting mechanic, and really what separates this game from being a fantasy version of Risk. When you’ve decided that the glory days of your current race are behind you, you may choose to send your race into decline and choose a new one. When in decline the race loses the Special Power attached to it, though it stays on the board and continues to gain points for you for as long as it is alive (which probably isn’t going to be too long now that you’ve abandoned them). However, you may no longer move them around or conquer any new lands (the Ghouls are the exception to this. Ferocious undead that they are, they continue to feast upon the living even once their creator has written them off). The bad part of going into decline is that choosing to do so is your turn for that round, except if your current race has the Stout Special Power (yes, Stout Ghouls are pretty awesome), so it’s the only thing that you will do. It seems that over the course of a game you will probably play three races. Figuring out which Races and Special Powers work best at different phases of the game is a key ability in Smallworld.

I do really appreciate that some attempt was made at organ- ization in the game design. Too often it’s just not considered in game design and games with a lot of pieces wind up being a mess (see Pandemic and Last Night on Earth). Smallworld could very easily have gone down this road. Instead they did two things right that really enhance the game experience. One is a tray to organize the multitude of game pieces (Flying Frog games, I am staring directly in your direction). There are 14 races and each has around 11 little tiles, that’s a lot of pieces to just be floating around. Since they are constantly used it is important that a player can access them easily. A well organized tray makes a huge impact on the game, and cuts down drastically on set up time. The other time saving organizational aspect of the game is a little more obtuse, but appreciated none the less. This game has a lot of pieces which were all punched out of larger sheets. In the instructions for the game it recommends if you store your games upright or if you travel with them upright that you should place these extra sheets at the bottom of the box. What this does is raise all the trays and boards by about half an inch, thus making them flush with the top of the box. The result is that the loose pieces don’t move around as much. I can’t say that it is perfect, but it’s better than it would have been. As someone who frequently travels with games I really like it. It also makes me think that the designers are actually players and care about this stuff.

I think that Smallworld is a really fun game. Like most games from Days of Wonder it is above all things playable. What does that mean? Well, to me it means that a casual night of gaming meshes really well with it. The rules are easy, play moves quickly, it doesn’t take hours to complete, and most of all it is fun. I know that seems like common sense but some games seem to get so bogged down in a weighty mechanic or too many actions that all the good aspects of the game get buried under the bad parts. It’s not good for anyone. Games shouldn’t be about a designer trying to prove that they have come up with a way to revolutionize the field, they should be about getting together with your friends and enjoying it. The group of people that I play with usually meet on week nights, like to have a couple of drinks during the game, and don’t want to spend hours interpreting abstract concepts (though we certainly have). Days of Wonder has a formula that works really well and I hope that they stick to it.

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