Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Tuesday Reviewsday: Small World

Players: 2+  
Playtime: 45minutes+
Replay Value: 10/10
Small World (released in 2009) is a brilliant example of a game that has been play-tested, balanced, re-tested, re-balanced, critiqued, and trialed, then put on a shelf for six months before being play-tested again with fresh eyes. There may be overpowered combinations, and 'weaker' combinations, but after just one play through you'll learn to lynch whoever is winning at the time as you fight to control most of the Small World.

If you have ever read a fantasy novel, played Dungeons and Dragons, lamented that carrying swords is no longer common practice, or wished for your own pet dragon you will feel instantly at home in Small World. The win conditions are simple, have the most gold at the end of the game. You get gold by holding territories, which you conquer with a race of your choice. At the start of the game there are 5 different races available, each with their own skills and limitations. Every time a race is chosen, another is dealt from the deck. To keep things interesting, each race is paired with a random modifier, they can be Wealthy, Berserk, Sea-faring, Mounted or even Dragon Masters.

At first the game is pleasant. You are given a limited number of tokens, and it takes two to conquer a territory. At the end of a turn each territory pays one gold, plus any race bonuses, e.g humans get bonus gold in farmlands. If there are obstacles on that territory, such as a mountain, a local tribe or an opposing army you need an extra token for each obstacle. Mountain plus tribe equals four tokens. If your opponent left three tokens on a territory, you need two tokens for the territory, plus three more to beat his army. It's easier to expand into unoccupied territory, but that wouldn't be very fun.

Small World is built small. Rather than try and tweak the game play rules depending on the number of players, the creators of Small World tweaked the board. The base game of Small World comes with two double sided boards, designed for two, three, four or five players. Playing on the correct board is essential. By the end of the second or third turn, you have to turn on your neighbours to keep expanding. A lot of races such as Skeletons or Orcs get bonuses for killing their enemies. Playing on the wrong board completely throws the intensity out of the game.
5 player board
Each race has a set number of tokens representing an army. In order to maintain control of a territory, a player must leave at least one token there. Most races will thin out within three or four turns, meaning a player must place their race 'in decline' and select a new race. In decline races stay on the board and continue scoring points, but cannot take any action. Players need to spend an entire turn to decline a race, meaning they need to balance the need for a new race with the time spent declining the old race.   

You never have enough armies to do what you want. Most turns end with an odd token or two that isn't enough to conquer another territory. Small World has a specially designed "Reinforcement Dice' with three blank sides, a side with one pip, another with two pips and a side with three pips. According to Tabletop, it is colloquially known as the dice of Rolling Blanks. Despite a 50/50 chance of rolling something I successfully rolled blanks six times last night, without ever rolling a number. You can use the reinforcement dice at the end of your turn when you don't have enough tokens. If you need three tokens to conquer a territory, but only have one left, you need to roll a two or a three. There is also a race modifier called Berserk which allows you to roll the dice every time you try and conquer a territory. It should be a great power that lets you swarm over the board, but whenever I play it's just an outpouring of swear words as I roll blank after blank.

The game ends after a set number of turns. A two player game has ten turns, but a four player game only runs for eight turns. The slight reduction in turns keeps the game from dragging too long, but it also means completely rethinking your strategy. Towards the end of the game players can spend five minutes staring at the board calculating the most effective option. No matter how careful you are, your opponents will always mess things up for you.

Some races don't have many armies but will have other abilities to balance it out. For example Trolls can only capture four or five territories before running out of armies, but in each territory they build a Troll Hole, meaning enemies need to use an extra army to take over that territory. Trolls can be an excellent starting race because the extra defenses stay in place after the Trolls are placed in decline, making other players reluctant to spend the extra armies to defeat them. However, players are human. If you won the game using the Trolls last time people may decide to lynch you.

The scoring in Small World is slightly hidden. At the end of your turn, you count up your territories and bonuses and announce how many points you scored in that turn. However, your points tally is kept with coins, which you can keep face down. It is easy to forget how many points each opponent has, and when you are playing with three or more, people will try and goad each other into taking down the 'leader'. I've lost many games because people have ganged up on me when I was 'winning' only to reveal points at the end and see I was barely in contention.

2 Player board
The absolute best thing about Small World is that you can play with two people. It loses the sneaky human aspect of trying to get people on your side, or making someone else out to be the bad guy, but the strategy is still there and it's just as good. Most games that scale-down to two player feel like they lose something in the process. Small World feels like it was built with two players in mind. You can even try and psych your opponent out picking a certain race, or attacking a certain part of the board.

Small World is not a light game. You don't want to introduce your non-gamer friends to tabletop with this game. The first turn can take five minutes, because players will weigh up the benefits and drawbacks of each race and try and plan at least two turns ahead. The middle of the game may speed up a bit, but at the end players will once again start counting each point and weighing up each possible strategy.

For players who are willing to spend all day playing a succession of games with only breaks for snacks and the bathroom, Small World is a must have. With more than ten expansions you've got options if the base game ever gets stale although after a year it still works for me.


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