Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Disney rides would be better with Berserking Skeletons

Hillary and I met up with the Birmingham group of boardgamers again this week. One of the attendees had brought his copy of Small World, which was just released this month. I'd read favorable reviews of the game, so we quickly jumped into the group and gave it a try.

Small World is a light civilization-style territory control game with a few minor wargame elements. I've been told that the game is basically an updated, fantasy-themed cousin of Vinci (which I've never played, so that description didn't mean much to me).

Each player takes on the role of a civilization, one of several fantasy races (orcs, giants, humans, tritons, etc.), each having its own unique ability. Each race is also randomly paired with a special attribute that grants another ability (such as Merchant, Flying, or Diplomatic). The attributes are fairly powerful, and can create very effective combinations with a race's built-in ability.

The gameboard is a colorful map consisting of a few dozen regions, several containing symbols that denote natural resources. Although not laid out in a hex pattern, the board reminded me a bit of Catan; each region is distinctly a field, or a mountain, or a swamp, etc. Scattered around the map are remnants of a "dying" civilization that once controlled the area, but otherwise the lands are clear and ready to be settled.

Players colonize and conquer by placing the unit tokens for their race on the map. Taking a clear area requires two units (barring any special abilities), while conquering an inhabited area, or one with a mountain, will take more. The simple rule of thumb is "two units plus one per piece of cardboard already on the space" (a piece of cardboard being any token: an enemy unit, a defensive emplacement, or a mountain).

Combat is neither random nor contested -- if enough units are used to attack, a player can force enemy units out of a space and take it. For the final move of a turn (usually when only one or two units are still available), a player may roll a die and add the result (0-3) as "bonus" units, only useful for determining the attack's outcome. When a stack of units is defeated in battle, one is removed from the game, and the rest are returned to the owner to redeploy among other territories. This causes attrition among each civilization as battles are fought, since most races can't replace a unit token once it is lost.

At the end of each player's turn, that player receives victory points based on the number of spaces currently controlled, plus any bonus points granted by special abilities (for example, Humans get an extra victory point for each field they control, while Orcs get a bonus point every time they conquer an occupied region).

A key game element is the ability to "decline" a civilization and choose a new one. When declining a civilization, each unit stack is reduced to one unit, and the civ can no longer move, use special abilities, or conquer territory. However, the race still scores points for the controlling player as long as it continues to exist. A common strategy is to make a quick land-grab with a populous or unusually mobile race, put it into decline, and then choose a more combat-oriented race to either defend the now-declining civilization or simply start conquering more territory while the declining race continues to score points.

Gameplay seems to run about 60-90 minutes. With five players, our first game lasted around two hours, but the second was over within about 75 minutes. Each game only runs eight rounds (at least for the five-player version), so at any point you've got a good idea of how far into the session you are, and how much time you have left to set up a win.

After two games of Small World, I have to say I'm very impressed. The random combinations of races and attributes keep the game fresh, and the combat dynamic is so light and simple that conquering territory never becomes cumbersome. At first I was worried that the imbalance between the different race and attribute abilities would be a problem, but this wasn't the case in the sessions I played. Civilizations move up a "stack", and players can pay victory points to take a more desirable combination that's a bit further down. Even if a player lucks out and gets a very powerful combination, chances are good that there's something else on the stack that can counter or defend against it.

Player interaction is moderately high. While there's no way to immediately respond to another player's action, you can directly affect their units and territory on your own turn. For example, during one game Hillary controlled nearly half the board and had a great race/attribute combination. It was obvious that she would win handily if left alone, so I started a new civ as a heavily militant race and blitzed through her borders, conquering nearly her entire territory within a couple of turns. (I'm lucky I didn't have to sleep on the couch that night.)

I do have a few minor complaints about the game design. The first problem concerns turn order. There's a distinct advantage to going first, especially later in the game when removing enemy units (and their potential to score points) is as important as capturing your own territory. Since players score at the end of their own turn, moving earlier in a round is beneficial -- especially during the last round. I've already seen a suggested rules variant for fixing this (keeping victory points visible and ordering turns from lowest to highest current point total), and I'd be interested in trying this out to see if it balances the game a bit better.

My other complaint is that the gameboard gets very busy, and it can be hard to keep track of everything that's going on. The unit counters don't have very distinct color schemes, especially when a race is in decline (tokens are flipped over to a "grayed out" side). This can make it difficult to spot units of different races and count up victory points at the end of a turn. It would have been nice if the designers had given each unit counter a unique race-specific colored or patterned border.

Aside from this, the game components are well-made and the artwork is appropriate to the theme. The cardboard counters are thick and seem like they'll hold up well during multiple plays. The game's plastic box insert keeps all of the dozens of tokens separated perfectly, and hopefully other game publishers will use it as an example of how to design built-in component storage.

Most importantly, the game is fun. After finishing our initial two-hour session, the owner of our copy asked "Do we want to play again?", and the answer was a quick and unanimous "Yes!". I can't think of too many hour-plus games that get this kind of reaction.

Overall, Small World is an excellent game, and I would have already bought my own copy if my wife hadn't already threatened to kill me for buying Dominion this week.


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