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Subject: Small World is great story but some pages are missing rss

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Colin Fahrion
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I recently picked up Small World. It caught my eye while I was window shopping at Games of Berkeley; upon getting home I immediately began reading reviews here. It seemed to be right up my alley, and it fit a niche in my game cabinet that wasn't being filled: that of a fun simple war game—or as they say here on BGG an "Area Control Game."

A Bit About Your Reviewer
I always find reviews more helpful when I have an idea who the person is, so let me first tell you what kind of gamer I am: besides classic games like scrabble and backgammon, I own Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Settlers and a number of various simple fun card games like Chrononauts and Give Me the Brain. I've also played a number of other board games, CCGs and RPGs.

When it comes to modern board/card games, I tend to like fun fast games with rules that can be explained easily, but strategy that takes a bit to unveil. I also prefer games with good themes and a nice visual design: I have a hard time playing ugly looking games–sue me I'm an artist. As such, I do lean towards euro games but I'm not stuck on them.

Anyway now that you get an idea of what kind of gamer I am, I'll get onto the review...

Style & Theme (A)

I love the theme and the style of the illustrations. I mean sure it ain't fine art, but it's got that goofy fantasy thing down perfect. It's the sort of game that you lay out and everyone leans in to look at the pieces, which is great for enticing new people to play. I mean what other game can you play something that is both hilarious and deadly? "Attack Heroic Ghouls! Attack! Oh noz! Commando Halflings have sprung up like gophers in our backyard!"

Certainly the layers of illustration can sometimes get so dense that it's hard to grok the state of the board at a glance—even the die gets lost—but personally I'm fine with that tradeoff.

Components (A)

Fantastic! The multiple boards is brilliant. The pieces are built of the most thick durable cardboard I've ever encountered in a game—I wish the Settlers of Catan pieces were this thick. The box organizer has it's flaws but it does a decent job, except for the coins which always fall about.

My main gripe is the player reference cards: I mean really did they need to make it the size of a record album? Who has that sort of room on their gaming table? 4x6 would have been perfect, but even letter size would have been an improvement.

Gameplay (C)

What I like
I love how well the game manages to feel vibrant and dynamic without resorting to cards or rolling dice every 5 seconds. The only random elements being the combination of races/powers and reinforcement die that is only rolled on your final conquest. With the exception of a few races (I'm looking at you Dwarves) the game is pretty balanced too. As a result, you feel that you are matching wits with other players rather than battling the game itself.

It scales well too with the multiple boards, and even plays well as a two player game. Not as well mind you as it becomes a bit of a tennis match, but still it's fun.

The random combination of races/powers also makes for great replayablity. Though to be honest this is a gimmick since once you run through it a few times the races get a tad stale. Of course, there are the expansions which add more races/combos; however, the best games are replayable without expansions because they reveal new depths of strategy every time you play and/or they have a timeless quality to them which makes them fun every time.

The decline mechanic is great. It's the lynchpin of the game: going into decline on the wrong round can make or break you, and it also really gives life to the game. As players place their races into decline and send new active races to stomp across the board, you really feel that there is a story being played out.

What I don't like
If there is a history to the world of Small World it is in the Lost Tribes, yet sadly they serve as nothing more than lifeless road bumps at the start of the game. Their very presence almost demands that they be used for something in the game.

Others have obviously felt the desire to pump life into the Lost Tribes and have suggested variants that use them (see Let's Pimp the Lost Tribes), and I've crafted a game variant myself I call Savage Tribes. These ideas also serve add a little spice to the beginning of the game—especially to the 2 player game.

What I really don't like
Where the story (and game) of Small World really falls flat is the end. After a set number of turns the game is over. That's it. Done. Count your chips. Ok Player A won. Meh.

It's like you're deep in a grips of a rich lively book and find some idiot tore out almost the entire last chapter—all except for the very last page. There's no climatic victory, no feel of triumph, it just ends and someone is the winner. Not to mention the fact that there is nothing fun about counting coins. Hell, most players never even bothered to count their coins until the end.

Half of this problem lies in the hidden Victory Points (which really should have been called Conquest Coins or something more fitting with the theme). Sure hiding the totals reduces "bash the leader" and kill'em all griefers, but I'm not so certain that's an issue really since bashing and kill'em actually fits the theme of the game. As I mentioned above, the game is fairly well balanced. You get a sense that there is a lot of back and forth with one player in the lead and then another; however, with the points hidden that fun horse race tension is absent.

Some of the best games also give the players some control over the end game: In Dominion, players can choose to drain a third card stack to hasten the end of the game. In Ticket to Ride, a player can play lots of easy routes to get rid of cars or save up to use their last cars on a long route for more points. However, there is no such mechanic in Small World—it just ends.

Conclusion (B- with the possibility of extra credit to bring it up to an B+)

There is so much I love about this game, but the end game really kills it for me. During the game, I'm excited and deeply engulfed, and then the last turn hits like a wall constructed of Magical Drywall of Boring (make a saving throw against ennui).

The next time we play, I'm planning on writing scores down on paper for all to see, scrapping the turns, and playing to 100 points: once a player reaches 100 points there is one last round of the game with the player who got 100 points getting the final turn. That last turn will surely be a massive leader bash festival, but that's loads more interesting than "Ok everyone last turn."

If that (or another variant) salvages the end game, then I'll be overjoyed and I'll likely rush out and pick up the expansions. If, however, I can't find a way to make the end anything better than a dull exercise of remedial addition, then Small World will likely end up in the Marketplace.

Updated Grade (B)

Since writing this I've played a few times with open scores and came to the conclusion that I agree with Rob Doupe: the game becomes a bit too point focused. Plus, ending on a specific score doesn't add anything to the story. Whereas there is at least some story played out by ending after a specified number of turns (as Alex Martinez pointed out).

What I do like instead is the suggestion some have made to have hidden scores yet have all players announce point totals at specified intervals (with a two player game we tried it at round 4 and round 8). This approach is a nice compromise.

As a result of Alex's lovely prose and the score announcement variant, I've given the game some extra credit points which ups it to a solid B. I didn't up the grade any further as part of me is still hoping to find a more poetic end game.
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J. Jefferson
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Great review, I really agree about the lost tribes. I think a well-written story might ease the problems with the end a bit, but your point about the more interesting end games offered by Dominion and TTR is well taken. The one thing I do like about the ten-turn limit is that it avoids the never-ending-game possibility offered by, say, Risk. I think other games, like Mr. Jack, pull off the limited number of turns mechanic a bit better--there, just surviving the requisite number of turns allows one player to escape and win. Here, it's unclear what happens at the end of those turns that makes any difference, and the approaching end of the game has some influence over strategy, but not a huge amount. (It could be that this strategy will reveal itself more as I play a few more games.)
 
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Ron D
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See if you can find the rule book to Vinci. Small World is a remake of Vinci and one of the biggest changes was the end of game trigger. Vinci had a public VP track that ran around the outside of the board, and the game ended at a certain number of points (different depending on the number of players.) It was probably the most contentious change between the two versions. We never had a huge bash the leader problem, but some people hated it.
 
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JimbobJones wrote:
Although your opinion is your opinion, I'm curious how you feel about Dominion's ending (since it's your most highly-rated game). Because the times I've played it, the ending has been the least-exciting of any game I've ever played, with "what, it's over?" being the most common comment.

Small World's ending is fine with me. Like most games, you know when it's coming, and you plan for it. Guess I'm just curious as to what type of ending you were expecting.


Too true. Dominion is a great game, but the ending is garbage.
 
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Colin Fahrion
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Ron, I've never played Vinci, but I understand from reading other reviews that Small World was based on it. From reading the Vinci forums, it seems that the Vinci game end is triggered when a player hits the required total and then you finish the current round. Whomever is furthest along is the winner. So if it is the last player in order who crosses the line the game ends immediately.

The game end that I suggested is more akin to Ticket to Ride where everyone gets a round to catch up and then the leader gets one final round. My approach is more likely to end with a big leader bash at the end, though close smart players will also try to better themselves. So I guess it's all in what flavor you want in the game end. I'll likely try both approaches to see what feels best.

 
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Curt Carpenter
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So the worst thing you can say about it is that it has a fixed number of turns? Ok, wow. There are a lot of great games that fall into this category.
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Colin Fahrion
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JimbobJones wrote:
Although your opinion is your opinion, I'm curious how you feel about Dominion's ending (since it's your most highly-rated game). Because the times I've played it, the ending has been the least-exciting of any game I've ever played, with "what, it's over?" being the most common comment.


The first several Dominion games I played had that "what, it's over?" feeling too. However, as I've gotten more skilled at the game I almost never get that feeling any more. The first part of the game is all deck building and then at a certain point the game switches to screw making a perfect deck I need land (Victory points). After that switch, it becomes a race to get the last Province and, if they feel behind, picking up any other Victory card along the way.

As a result, in Dominion, the players feel they are in control of the end game. There's only so much power and land you can acquire, so it's a race to who can scoop it up the fastest and stall the others. Also, the land grab makes it feel like a King Making story. This is why I like Dominion's end game.

In contrast, Small World just ends without any player control. This isn't a required mechanic but Small World has the additional problem that the ending feels arbitrary. There is no narrative to the hastening end and no king making or other story playing out. In fact it, really just feels like the story/world continues on but the game is forced to end before it gets too boring.

For example: in the game we played last night, the winner had scored most his points in the beginning and middle. By the end, he was battered and bruised with barely any land left, but still holding on because a second decline would have been worse for him. When we ended and counted points he won handedly, but you couldn't tell by looking at the board since other players were in a better position by then.

This example is exactly my point. From a story perspective it feels like something is missing. Ok he won became King or whatever but why? There's a chapter missing that explains what comes between his ending on a sour note and being the proclaimed winner.
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Colin Fahrion
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Jefforama wrote:
The one thing I do like about the ten-turn limit is that it avoids the never-ending-game possibility offered by, say, Risk. I think other games, like Mr. Jack, pull off the limited number of turns mechanic a bit better--there, just surviving the requisite number of turns allows one player to escape and win.


Thanks Jefforama, I'll have to find a way to check out Mr. Jack. I like the look of it, and from the sounds of it they have worked the turn limit into the story unlike the arbitrary feeling nature of the Small World ending.
 
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curtc wrote:
So the worst thing you can say about it is that it has a fixed number of turns? Ok, wow. There are a lot of great games that fall into this category.


No, if you were reading, it's the arbitrary artless nature of the ending—and the lack of any tension leading up to the ending. Other games, like as Jefforama points out Mr. Jack, work a turn limit mechanic into the story of the game. There's no narrative reason why the game ends in Small World, it just does without fanfare or even a sense of things being over.
 
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Curt Carpenter
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catcubed wrote:
curtc wrote:
So the worst thing you can say about it is that it has a fixed number of turns? Ok, wow. There are a lot of great games that fall into this category.


No, if you were reading, it's the arbitrary artless nature of the ending—and the lack of any tension leading up to the ending. Other games, like as Jefforama points out Mr. Jack, work a turn limit mechanic into the story of the game. There's no narrative reason why the game ends in Small World, it just does without fanfare or even a sense of things being over.

The "arbitrary artless ending" is fixed number of turns. Mr. Jack does not have a fixed number of turns. Only a maximum number of turns. Again, there are many games, including highly rated games, with a fixed number of turns (not just a max number of turns). Even games where simply high score wins after fixed turns. E.g. El Grande.
 
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J. Jefferson
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Quote:
The "arbitrary artless ending" is fixed number of turns. Mr. Jack does not have a fixed number of turns. Only a maximum number of turns.


I think that's a key difference, but not the only difference between the endgames of SW and MJ. Somehow, the maximum number of turns is worked into the plot of Mr. Jack in a way it's not worked into Small World. The end of Dominion is as unrelated to the theme of dominion as is the end of Smallworld, but I think one of the points of this review was that the endgame of Dominion offers a meaningful choice as to whether to try to end the game sooner or later, whereas SW just ends the game after a certain number of games.

Personally, I see value in ending a game after X turns, but I recognize that in that fixed endpoint, something may be sacrificed strategy-wise.
 
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The story of Small World is perhaps the most realistic story in any empire conquering game ever. Empires rise. Empires fall. History is divided into arbitrary eras, but the world keeps spinning.

Personally, I enjoy this about Small World. It isn't an empire building game. It's the story (the REAL story) of any civilized world, a steady rise and fall of various empires. Is the ending arbitrary? I suppose it is, but that's kind of the point. There is no beginning or end in Small World's "history". You are just playing a moment in time and while it's important to the game you're playing, it's not about changing the course of history or forging an eternal empire.

Of course, you could also just argue that this is a light territory conquering game that isn't about conquering the world and if it didn't have some kind of endgame trigger then it would just go on forever. Having a preset number of turns isn't a weakness of the game for me. It's a strength. It means that Small World will never drag on, and that's why I like it. Because Small World is a fun, light game that never wears out its welcome.

Perhaps the hardest thing for some gamers to accept is a simple game. So many games want complexity for complexity's sake. I like complex games. But I also like games that fill a niche, and Small World does that for me. It's a fun game that almost anyone can play and understand with just enough strategy to be engaging and a built-in time limit to avoid having it drag on.

Just a matter of perspectives, I guess.
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Fred Heis
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Definitely agree that the OP needs to check out Vinci - I think this would solve the end-game concern.
However I'v got to say I really like games that end like this, whether there is a fixed turn end or not, but you've no firm idea about who has won. That's the tension-builder for me. Although you have a suspicion of who's in contention, it's not until the final VP count-up that you actually know.
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Rob Doupe
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catcubed wrote:
Half of this problem lies in the hidden Victory Points (which really should have been called Conquest Coins or something more fitting with the theme). Sure hiding the totals reduces "bash the leader" and kill'em all griefers, but I'm not so certain that's an issue really since bashing and kill'em actually fits the theme of the game. As I mentioned above, the game is fairly well balanced. You get a sense that there is a lot of back and forth with one player in the lead and then another; however, with the points hidden that fun horse race tension is absent.



Be careful what you wish for. I played Vinci, and the open scoring led to a very long and dull final couple turns, where each player calculates exactly how many points they need to take off the player(s) ahead of themselves to win.

For me, the best quality of Small World is how briskly it plays. Place your guys, score, next turn. With open scoring, it would become (like Vinci) a much more careful, meticulous game. And there just isn't enough game here to warrant that kind of analytical play.

Small World is a light game that plays light. With open scoring it would be a light game that plays heavy.
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Colin Fahrion
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Rob Doupe wrote:

For me, the best quality of Small World is how briskly it plays. Place your guys, score, next turn. With open scoring, it would become (like Vinci) a much more careful, meticulous game. And there just isn't enough game here to warrant that kind of analytical play.

Small World is a light game that plays light. With open scoring it would be a light game that plays heavy.


You make a really good point. I agree it is a comparatively shallow yet fun game which is meant to be played fast.

Since writing this review, I've played a two player game with open scoring to 80pts. It played well, still was a fast game, and both myself and my friend I liked it better. I'm curious to play with open scoring with a larger number of players. It may end up that this slows the game down too much.
 
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Colin Fahrion
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KingCroc wrote:
The story of Small World is perhaps the most realistic story in any empire conquering game ever. Empires rise. Empires fall. History is divided into arbitrary eras, but the world keeps spinning.

Personally, I enjoy this about Small World. It isn't an empire building game. It's the story (the REAL story) of any civilized world, a steady rise and fall of various empires. Is the ending arbitrary? I suppose it is, but that's kind of the point. There is no beginning or end in Small World's "history". You are just playing a moment in time and while it's important to the game you're playing, it's not about changing the course of history or forging an eternal empire.

Of course, you could also just argue that this is a light territory conquering game that isn't about conquering the world and if it didn't have some kind of endgame trigger then it would just go on forever. Having a preset number of turns isn't a weakness of the game for me. It's a strength. It means that Small World will never drag on, and that's why I like it. Because Small World is a fun, light game that never wears out its welcome.

Perhaps the hardest thing for some gamers to accept is a simple game. So many games want complexity for complexity's sake. I like complex games. But I also like games that fill a niche, and Small World does that for me. It's a fun game that almost anyone can play and understand with just enough strategy to be engaging and a built-in time limit to avoid having it drag on.

Just a matter of perspectives, I guess.


Thanks for your comment Alex. Really. It's a brilliant bit of prose which really captures the spirit of the game and does give some narrative to not only the end turn but the entire game. It would have been nice to have something of this sort as an intro to their manual. Maybe Days of Wonder should hire you as a writer.

In any case, your point is well taken that Small World is really just the tale of an era in history. No king making or empire building just the ebb and flow of civilizations.

I want to experiment with Vinci's style of open scoring, but if that bogs the game down too much then it may achieve the opposite of my intentions and destroy the overall story. We'll see.
 
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Colin Fahrion
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BTW, thanks everyone for your replies. The thanks goes both to those that agreed and those that disagreed with the opinions in my review.
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catcubed wrote:
curtc wrote:
So the worst thing you can say about it is that it has a fixed number of turns? Ok, wow. There are a lot of great games that fall into this category.


No, if you were reading, it's the arbitrary artless nature of the ending—and the lack of any tension leading up to the ending. Other games, like as Jefforama points out Mr. Jack, work a turn limit mechanic into the story of the game. There's no narrative reason why the game ends in Small World, it just does without fanfare or even a sense of things being over.


I kinda agree with this sentiment. Not sure I have a suggestion, though, and it hasn't hurt my enjoyment of the game too much to have it just end.

Also agree on Lost Tribes being something of a missed opportunity (that was my Pimping article the OP linked to) - I like your savage tribe suggestion, too.
 
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Colin Fahrion
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After some playtesting, I've come to the conclusion that I like the compromise of sticking with a specified number of turns but announcing the scores at specific intervals (for two player with did it at round 4 and 8). Considering this and after ruminating on Alex's lovely prose I've upped my grade to a solid B. I've updated the above review to reflect this.

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catcubed wrote:
After some playtesting, I've come to the conclusion that I like the compromise of sticking with a specified number of turns but announcing the scores at specific intervals (for two player with did it at round 4 and 8). Considering this and after ruminating on Alex's lovely prose I've upped my grade to a solid B. I've updated the above review to reflect this.



Aw, shucks. You'll make me blush.

Just glad I could help you appreciate this fine game for what it is. Small World has rapidly become one of my favorites. It's accessible enough to be a gateway game and complex enough to reward experience players looking for a light strategy game with depth. I break it out with my casual and hardcore gamer friends and it is always well received.
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If the set number of turns bothers you because you can't adapt your strategy enough, then here is a variation off of the top of my head.

Play until every race has been used. Not sure at the time length of the game (especially with the expansions), but I think it could work with one small amendment to the rules. The last round begins when a player has no active race, and is not able to get another race. Everyone then finishes up, and then you count your coins.

Story wise you can look at yourself as some kind of Small World god. You are the patron of some race while it is strong, but then you switch over to new blood as time goes on. When everything is said and done the coins represent who cared for, or abused, their races the most.

Strategy wise, I think this variant would add even more depth to the question of when to decline. Which in my humble opinion is the heart of the game.

DD
 
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Dumb Dwarf wrote:
If the set number of turns bothers you because you can't adapt your strategy enough, then here is a variation off of the top of my head.

Play until every race has been used. Not sure at the time length of the game (especially with the expansions), but I think it could work with one small amendment to the rules. The last round begins when a player has no active race, and is not able to get another race. Everyone then finishes up, and then you count your coins.

Story wise you can look at yourself as some kind of Small World god. You are the patron of some race while it is strong, but then you switch over to new blood as time goes on. When everything is said and done the coins represent who cared for, or abused, their races the most.

Strategy wise, I think this variant would add even more depth to the question of when to decline. Which in my humble opinion is the heart of the game.

DD


As Jimbob says this would make it a tad long if you used all the races—especially if you included the expansions. However, maybe you could do with limiting it to a randomly chosen assortment of 8 races and 8 powers only.

I may try this next time. Thanks for the idea!
 
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