Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Wargamer's review of Small World

Some special tokens: Dragon, Hero, Halfling Holes-in-the-Ground.

Small World is the wildly popular fantasy conquest game designed by Philippe Keyaerts and published by Days of Wonder.

There's quite a bit of divergence of opinion on whether Small World and similar conquest games such as Risk, History of the World, Britannia or Small World's predecessor Vinci ,are properly termed "wargames." They're certainly not "simulations" in any real sense of that term, but it's hard for me to see how any game whose theme involves conquering territory and exterminating the inhabitants isn't a wargame of some sort. In any case, these sort of games definitely come out of the wargame hobby and are often played by wargamers.

In Small World's case, the potentially grim theme is lightened up considerably by a number of aspects of the game. One is the fantasy setting itself, which, like a cartoon, removes some of the emotional impact that would otherwise accrue to the theme. Many of the "races" in the game are not human and some, like the skeletons and ghouls, are arguably not even alive. Also contributing to the light-hearted nature of the game are the various special powers, which include some that are rather non-violent (Diplomat, Merchant), amusing (Alchemist, Stout) or neutral (Hill, Flying) alongside the more brutal (Beserk, Pillaging). Finally, and probably most importantly, the brilliant illustration by Miguel Coimbra creates a light tone that permeates the entire game's presentation. It's one thing to have Commando Skeletons, Forest Elves, or Seafaring Amazons in a game, but Commando Skeletons wearing Cowboy hats, Forest Elves smelling flowers or Seafaring Amazons attired in little more than makeup and some strategically-placed leaves is another thing entirely.

Like all Days of Wonder products, the physical presentation of the game is first-rate and quite opulent compared to the typical wargame. There are two full-color, double-sided and lavish;y illustrated maps, all the various counters and chits are thick, colorful and durable. The rule sand play aids are printed on slick, high-quality paper and there are plenty to go around. All are packed snugly inside a box with an insert carefully designed to hold and organize all the components . Indeed, the tray holding the race tokens is a little too precisely engineered -- it can be hard to pull out the tokens you need.

Map detail from the 2-player map

Special notice is due of the maps. There are four provided, which one is used depends on the number of players -- 2, 3, 4 or 5. This makes the game very scalable within its range of players without changing the character of the game or using large swaths of unused map space on the table.

The game play is very straightforward. At the start of a player's turn, if he or she doesn't already have a race. they select a race and special power from among a column of race/special power combos. They can pick the top one in the column for free, or pay one gold coin each for every race they skip, placing the coin atop the skipped race. This allows players to exercise some strategy in the selection of the race while providing an incentive to eventually pick one of the less-favored combos because of the bonus in gold coins they accumulate.

Victory coins: Reverse; Obverse 10, 5, 3 and 1

This brings up an important point -- how to win. While the game seems to be about conquest, it's really about accumulating gold coins. Although called "Victory Coins," experienced wargamers will recognize these are just victory points in the form of money -- as there are no economic or trade aspects in the game. There are various ways to get Victory Coins, but the basic and fundamental method is by occupying territory at a base of 1 coin per space.

An Active Special Power/Race combo - Hill Amazons and token

The player collects the number of tokens granted by the special power/race combo and then conquers territories. For example, the Hill Amazons combo gives 6 tokens for the Amazons and 4 for the Hill special power, for a total of 10. The Amazons get four extra tokens for use when attacking, only, that can't be used to occupy territories . The Hill Special Power also gives a bonus of one Victory Coin for each Hill territory occupied. The basic combat mechanic is majority rules. So long as the attacking force outnumbers the defending tokens by 2, the attacker wins. Some combos enhance the attackers or reduce the winning margin but in every case the attacker needs at least one token to capture an area. The defenders count the number of defending tokens, which can include race tokens, mountain tokens or tokens for defensive positions such as forts, bivouacs or troll lairs. Often the active race will end up without enough tokens to win automatically and for their last conquest the attackers can roll a special die which adds 0, 1, 2 or 3 to the attackers notional strength. Three faces on the die are blank, and one each bear 1, 2 or 3 pips, so success is far from guaranteed.

After conquests the player score victory coins for the regions occupied and any special conditions they have met.

A Declined Race - Skeletons and token, Note that most special powers are lost when a race declines.

Instead of conquering territory a player can decline their race, which is one of the key mechanics of the game. On the turn they decline their race the player can do no actions and just collects victory points for the areas they already occupy. In every occupied area they flip one race token over to its "decline: side and remove any extras. The area will defend with just the one token from that point. But as long as the player's declined races are on the map, the player continues to score victory coins for the areas they occupied. Deciding when to decline a race is one of the major strategic decisions of the game. And this is another wargame-like aspect of the game, because there is a lot of strategy involved in the game. Which territories to conquer, who to take them from and when to decline your races are all vitally important.

Typically a player will go through at least two and probably three races over the course of a game. Timing them properly will often mean the difference between being competitive or not.

The game scales well from 2-5 players, but like many multiplayer games it really shines when you have at least four involved. There's enough strategy involved to keep players engrossed in the action, but not so much that players are deterred from table chatter. Turns move right along and the game box promise of finishing in 40-80 minutes will be kept.

Can it be recommended for wargamers? I think so, so long as your sole reason fo playing isn't recreating history or analyzing military events. Small World is, by no stretch of the imagination, a simulation. But is it a lot of fun. There's every indication it will be played for a long time to come. The ever-changing combos, the different maps and the inherent dynamics of multiplayer interactions will mean that there's a lot of replay value.

The game also can serve as a true gateway game with your non-wargaming friends and family. The box rates the game at 8 and over and so it's a good dad's game for cuiltivating budding gamers.

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