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Subject: Mechanical Review: Small World rss

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Mech Gamer

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I like fantasy as a genre - I don’t recoil at orcs, hobbits, centaurs or gelflings. I mean, I wouldn’t own a Gandalf lunchbox, but that’s really more to do with the lunchbox than the Gandalf. My tastes verge on the mainstream, sure, but I’d consider myself a fantasy ‘fan’.

But fantasy boardgames? Hmmm. Trickier, and I’ll tell you why. Everything I’m about when it comes to board games is showing people how accessible and awesome they are. Board games are FUN; they are also complex and interesting, but all that comes later. First you have to get people playing, people for whom the longest list of rules they may’ve ever read was the two page pamphlet that came with Monopoly and frankly, that was a bit much.

Fantasy games scoff at me and my ilk. Accessible? Pah! Don’t even look at me. If you haven’t studied the last three releases on Dark Elf behavioral science then you’re going to REALLY struggle when we get on to the Dark Elf/Basilisk hybrid that we’re travelling to the Caves of Agnorak to destroy.

I’m being facetious, but fantasy games don’t tend to worry too much about being welcoming. And that’s fine, they know their market. They just won’t be hitting my table when I’m trying to get some friends to play a game.

But then Small World comes along and you look at the front cover and that it’s by Days of Wonder and you think.. maybe you? Maybe you’re the breezy, fun fantasy game I’ve been looking for?

So how does it work?

The Board

The board, funnily enough, is very similar to the one found in the Evo box, with 4 different boards for 2,3,4 and 5 players. This is no coincidence - the game is by the same designer. The similarities between the two games are largely superficial, but they are there, and the board is the most obvious.

Like the Evo board, the art work is lovely and the boards are high quality. Littered over its surface are divided segments, each a different terrain type - mountains, swamps, fields and forests, you know the drill. On each of the boards there is water surrounding the land, and usually a lake in the centre as well.

But unlike Evo, the board doesn’t get smaller as the land gets hotter, forcing your characters to get to cooler ground. The board gets smaller (or at least, more cramped) because soon, it’s going to be inhabited by loads and loads of creatures.

The Races

There are some really clever ways that Small World deals with Races. I love numbered lists so here is one:

1. The Race cards are interlocking, so each slots neatly with a Class card. Five of these combinations are laid out at the start of the game, so you can have Barricading Halflings, Dragon-trainer Orcs, Marauding Elves etc, etc. What this means in practice is that each race will have at least two special advantages, one for their Class and one for their race, and possibly a disadvantage or two.

This helps replayability, as there are hundreds of possible combinations of creatures to fight with.

2. Small World understands that nothing lasts forever, and introduces a mechanic by which you decline your race when you feel that you’ve done as much with it as you’d like. A declined race stays on the board, for now, but does not attack and loses its special abilities (except in some special circumstances). Then, from the beginning of your next turn, you can select a new race from the pile, along with its class, and start again, working from the outside of the board inwards, cleaving a swath through all the races still clinging onto their civilizations.

This great dynamic introduces a careful balancing act. Going into decline is one of the most powerful and damaging things you can do on a turn, and has to be done at the right time. It’s like going into the Pit-stop in Formula 1 - it’s gotta be done sometime. But it’s gonna to cost ya.

3. The powers and advantages of the races are varied enough that you get genuinely excited when it comes time to change. Looking at the board, it becomes clear which race’s powers will be the most useful depending on the situation. The powers largely divide into two groups - those that give you more attacking power, to cut out a section of the board for you to hold, and those that give you extra gold (the victory points of the game) for the places you do hold.

If there is plenty of space for you to spread into, go for a race that gives you some extra gold. Otherwise, saddle up your Undead Skeletons and get slashing.

Combat

Combat in Small World is simple, but interesting enough to not feel arbitrary.

At the beginning of your turn, you may gather your troops by picking up your army, leaving just one on any space you want to keep. You then use these gathered troops to attack. If you went into decline last turn, you start anew from the outside of the board with a whole host of new creatures.

When attacking, every land tile requires 2 soldiers to conquer it, plus any other modifiers (opponents, barricades, terrain). So two enemies, on a mountain, would be 2 (base cost) + 2 (one for each enemy) + 1 (for the mountain) = 5. You would require 5 of your army to conquer the tile. If you do so, one of the enemies is killed, the other is returned to the hand of your opponent to be redistributed later. The tile is then yours, and if you have any creatures left in your hand, you may continue to place, with the same rules.

If with your last few troops, you want to take on a tile that you don’t have the men for, there is a die which can help you get a bonus to push your army that little bit further.

Once you have pushed as far as you can that turn, you may redistribute your army for a better defensive position. Obviously the more creatures you have in one particular square, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to defend that position. I guess it’s rather like Risk, but simpler and more fun and the whole thing only lasts an hour and a half.

Narrative

Not so much a mechanic, I confess, but the thing about Small World is that it plays like a Fantasy novel, if you let it. In some games the theme is tacked on; sometimes they are truly embedded; but only very rarely do you feel like you are playing out a story. The fantastic Eminent Domain has a space theme - and it’s fine, it’s serviceable. But it’s not a story.

In Small World, when you are being attacked, your elves falling at your frontiers, and you don’t know whether to abandon hope and decline or hold your quarter for just a little bit longer, but then a tribe of Giants controlled by another player storm down the mountains and smash your attacker from their flank… this is what makes the game. Next thing you know, a band of Amazons is swarming from the bottom-left of the board, and everyone knows that if they don’t stop them, it’s going to be all over for everyone. Alliances are struck and broken.

Personal Opinion: Small World is a good, solid game, that has interesting dynamics and a fun-themed play style. Two main problems present themselves. Firstly, it has a bit of Munchkin-itis, that is, it’s simple to explain the basics but the whole game is set up so that the basics are subverted all the time. This is actually something I tend not to like about games. I like games that have set rules that are more or less solid throughout the whole game. Obviously sometimes it’s going to be necessary that a particular card or super-power is going to allow you to break the rules in some way, but I don’t like games where that is the whole premise, mainly because it’s hard to understand for new players. Small World is definitely somewhat guilty of this, as almost every single race and class breaks the rules in some way. So don’t play with more than 1 or 2 new players at a time.

The second thing is that winning seems (though actually isn’t) a little bit random. Here’s why: It’s a game of turn efficiency hiding behind a game that looks like world domination. So what people think they’re going to experience is one race killing everyone else to win the game, though in fact this isn’t the case at all. The person who wins is the person who makes an average-to-good amount of gold each turn… not the people that boom and bust. So when the winner is revealed, it’s often not someone who seemed to be doing particularly well. Some people don’t like this.

Overall, Small World is a mighty fine game, but possibly not immediately appealing.
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Derek Stephenson
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Great Review and breakdown of the different elements. It's really interesting what helps drives opinions on people's games. One of the reasons I really like Smallworld is for the same item you list as one of your issues with it. I seem to prefer games that have simple base rules but lots of bits that change it up. More so I like teaching those games to new people becuase I find questions get aksed anyways so instead of spending a bunch of time teaching up front, you can teach more as you go. Granted with Smallworld the iconography on the races and is wacky and by much less than intuitive.

Anyways by no means a criticism, strictly an interesting observation on how people can view the same element in different ways.
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Jeffrey Drozek-Fitzwater
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mech_gamer wrote:
Two main problems present themselves. Firstly, it has a bit of Munchkin-itis, that is, it’s simple to explain the basics but the whole game is set up so that the basics are subverted all the time. This is actually something I tend not to like about games. I like games that have set rules that are more or less solid throughout the whole game. Obviously sometimes it’s going to be necessary that a particular card or super-power is going to allow you to break the rules in some way, but I don’t like games where that is the whole premise, mainly because it’s hard to understand for new players. Small World is definitely somewhat guilty of this, as almost every single race and class breaks the rules in some way.


Disagree strongly. One of Munchkin's biggest problems is you can have a 10-minute argument about how two cards interact and what the result is supposed to be. In Small World, all the races and powers fit neatly into the rules. 90% of questions presented on this forum are answered by checking the rulebook.
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Danny Mack
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bobcatpoet wrote:
All the races and powers fit neatly into the rules.

If only. (But, seriously, I know the spirit of what you are trying to say.)

bobcatpoet wrote:
90% of questions presented on this forum are answered by checking the rulebook.

Yet the same 10% keep being asked overandoveroverandoveroverandoveroverandover again.
 
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Fernando Robert Yu
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bandit_boy7 wrote:
bobcatpoet wrote:
All the races and powers fit neatly into the rules.

If only. (But, seriously, I know the spirit of what you are trying to say.)

bobcatpoet wrote:
90% of questions presented on this forum are answered by checking the rulebook.

Yet the same 10% keep being asked overandoveroverandoveroverandoveroverandover again.


In reality, people these days do not read carefully, being more accustomed to the "accessibility" of the internet, hence the same questions are being asked overandoverandoverandover.......
 
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