Saturday, March 22, 2014

Small World, by Phillipe Keyaerts

My apologies if the song gets stuck in your head...
Are you a wizard? Have you ever been called a troll? When you were a kid, was your nickname, “Dwarf”? Any skeletons in your closet, or rats in your walls? These are the probing questions you’ll have to carefully consider during a game of Small World.

I’m kidding, of course – Small World isn’t a game of sharing your dirt, but a fantasy-themed territory-acquisition (meaning you DON’T share your dirt) game from heavyweight publishing company Days of Wonder.  That’s a group well known for Ticket to Ride and other titles, and Small World fits right alongside those hits in a hallowed place in my game library. Come on inside, and I’ll share a few secrets of my own!

In Small World, 2-5 players take turns spreading their hordes of minions across a world map, attempting to control territories and claim as many points as possible over 7-10 rounds, depending on the number of players. At the end of the last game round, the player with the most victory points is the winner. Players receive victory points at the end of each of their turns for territories controlled and bonus points for things related to their unique race and special powers. 

During each of their turns, players spread their tokens (specific to the race they currently control) over the map to control territories and score points. During the game players have to make decisions about when to attack, when to defend, and when to abandon their current race and special power in favor of a new one. 

The 2-player board, with bits and pieces
Small World is a game of exceptions, and most every rule about game play is broken by a race or special power at some point in the game. These unique powers give players the ability to bend the rules to their advantage. Keep this in mind as you read on, as a huge part of the fun of Small World is in breaking the rules! 

They're in Purgatory.
Small World comes with two boards, double-sided, so that the world is a different size depending on the number of players. The game begins with the board mostly empty, save for a a few spaces with "Lost Tribes", single tokens placed on select territories to provide some resistance in the early rounds. In turn order, each player chooses a combination of race and special power based on the pairs randomly created before the game. A player has a few choices and can pay (using coins that double as victory points at the end of the game) to choose a more favorable pairing, then begins his or her turn. If, on any turn during the game, a player begins a turn with no active race tokens on the board, that player again chooses a race/special power pair and begins the turn. 

At the start of a player's turn, he or she may pick up all, some, or none of the active race tokens on the board, then place them in territories, attacking those adjacent to existing active race tokens, (like risk, you can only attack adjacent territories) or attacking from any edge of the board, or any territory next to exterior water boundaries, if the player has no active race tokens on the board, as is the case at the start of the game. 

The races and special powers not only provide varied and unique changes to how points are scored, but also special abilities. They also define the number of active race tokens the player receives when the pair is taken, which is equal to the total of the numbers on each side of the pairing. Players never receive more tokens after taking their initial set, with a few exceptions. 

Much of the wonder in Small World comes from the various races and special powers available in the game, and the combinations that come from the random pairings. I'd like to explain each of them in detail and evaluate their merits, but I'd like to keep this to a reasonable length, and frankly it's already been done extraordinarily well at, here. I encourage you to read through the descriptions and imagine what it would be like to lead your Berzerker Humans through the hills of Small World, or have your Flying Orcs trample all enemies as they flee from your wrath! 

Any territory can be claimed by placing two active race tokens on the territory, plus an additional active race token for each piece of cardboard on the territory. These additional pieces could be other player's race tokens (declined or active), mountain tiles, troll lairs, forts, or tents. If another player's tokens were conquered as a result, that player returns one token to the box, and takes the rest back into his or her hand, ready to be deployed during his or her next turn. 

You can expand with your tokens as far as you'd like, but once a token is placed in a territory it can't be moved again for the rest of the turn, meaning there's a limit to the amount of conquering you can do in a single round. If, on the last attack of your turn, you don't have enough tokens to conquer a territory, but you do have at least one race token remaining, you can declare an attack and attempt to reach the required number of tokens with the reinforcements die. 

The six-sided die has three blank sides, a one, a two, and a three, and the result of your roll is added to your available tokens when resolving the attack on the territory. If you're successful, you place the tokens you have remaining in the territory, and you are no longer allowed to attack for the turn. Before the turn ends, you may rearrange your active race tokens across all territories controlled by those tokens (called reinforcing), then you collect one victory point for every territory you control, plus any bonus points from your race or special power. Your turn is then over, and the next player's turn begins. 

Note the word, "active", when describing race tokens - at the beginning of a player's turn (even before picking up tokens), if that player doesn't like the options he or she has, the player can choose to "go into decline", turn all active race tokens over, removing all but one from each occupied territory, and then end his or her turn. Doing so costs an entire turn, but has the reward of maintaining some control over territories while gearing up for a whole new batch of tokens with which to attack other players and hold new territories. 

Because each player has a limited number of race tokens, as defined by the combination of race and special power taken, and can only control so many territories at a time. Because of this finite number of tokens, players are forced to think carefully about what spaces to take over, when to attack, and how and when to defend their own territories. 

One of the most compelling challenges in Small World is the decision each player has to make about when to "go into decline", or abandon their starting army and spend a whole turn waiting for a new one. This decision is occasionally made for you because of a bad turn - like having most of your army wiped off the map - but it can also be an easy choice if you're in the best possible position, and control a number of territories equal to your total number of tokens. In this case, there's nothing to be gained, and going into decline costs you nothing and gains you a whole new set of tokens to play with. 

Usually, though, you're somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, holding a few tokens in your hand to start the turn and staring at a board that doesn't present many easy options for expansion. I've never found the right equation for determining when to go into decline, but as a general rule I'll do it if I can get the same number of points I'd get if I played my turn, or there's a game-breaking combination of race and special power available to be nabbed.

With a few exceptions, deciding when to go into decline is the most important decision each player makes during the game, and often determines the winner in a game of equally-matched players and race/special power combinations. Be prepared to think critically and do a little number crunching if you want to claim victory. 

The Tragedy of the Commons is an economic theory that describes how individuals often harm themselves in the long run by doing what's best for them in the short run. That's a gross over-simplification, and likely a bit of stretch (don't blame me if you're an economist, I'm just a finance major), but the theory helps me understand what happens in large (3-5 player) games of Small World. 

Because each turn is a point-maximizing exercise for each player, it's often possible that "screwing" the leader is not the best play for a single player. The leader, for instance, could have a nice set of Troll lairs sitting on top of mountains, which means it takes 5 tokens to conquer a single Troll space, instead of the normal 3 tokens for a regularly-defended single-token space. It obviously makes much more sense for a player to avoid the Trolls and attack the weaker opponents - it's the move that best uses the available tokens and scores the most points for the round. 

The problem with this approach is that when a player takes an early lead and fortifies well, it's never in a player's best interest on a single turn to reduce those fortifications. If I'm getting 12 points per turn and you have to take a turn of 5 points to knock me down, instead of a normal turn of 10 points, it's hard for you to decide to harm me rather than to help yourself. It's much easier to try to convince somebody else to go after me, particularly because doing so may weaken them as well. 

And so, games of Small World with more than 2 players often turn in political struggles, in which a leading player gains an advantage and lays low while the other players - the commoners - are mired in the tragedy of doing what's best for them in the short term (a single turn) but worse for them in the long term (letting a leader run away with victory). 

The 4-player board, it's gorgeous!
Because there's very little variance in the game - only the reinforcement die (used each turn or as part of the Berserk special power) and the pairing of races and special powers are truly random in the game. "Risk without randomness" is how this game was pitched to me when I first played it, and it's an apt description. If there's a runaway leader, it's hard to catch up, but on the flip side, it's hard to become a runaway leader when both players are experienced. Consider this when you play, but don't let it stop you from trying a fantastic game. 

Days of Wonder has a reputation for putting out hit games, complete with beautiful art, great theme, and compelling mechanics. Small World is no exception – the game is everything you could want from a box of cardboard. Everything about Small World says “great design”, as the game board, components, rulebooks, and reference sheets are all designed so that players can read them and easily understand what they’re for and how they contribute to game play.

The wizard's right, grab your mobile device and do both of these things!
I can’t say it enough, this game is a staple and a must-own for anybody who has at least a two-person gaming group (including themselves).  There are multiple expansions, mini-expansions, crossovers, and super-functional mobile apps for gameplay as well. If you have an iOS or Android device, pick up Small World and give it a spin, it’s been converted to mobile device really, really well. Then you can confidently stroll into your friendly local game store and pick up the full game – which is a thing you should absolutely do!

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.

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