You Should Play: Small World
[These days, keeping up with games can be a full-time job. So how do you separate the signal from the noise, the wheat from the chaff, the Temple Runs from the Temple Jumps? Allow us to help by regularly selecting a game You Should Play.]
It’s possible I’ve already mentioned in this space my love of board games, but in case it’s not clear: I love board games. And the iPad makes it a snap to take many of your favorite board games along with you, wherever you go, without the extra bulk or having to worry about losing pieces.
Days of Wonder’s Small World was one of the first board games—heck, one of the first games period—for the iPad; it debuted along with Apple’s tablet in April 2010. Based on the the company’s tabletop game, Small World thrusts you into a realm in which you take control of your typical fantasy races: elves, dwarves, hobbits, giants, ghouls, trolls, and way, way more.
Small World features more than a dozen different playable races (not including the ones found in the expansions), and at the beginning of the game you choose from a handful of them. However, each also gets its own special power—”flying,” for example, which lets your race conquer non-adjacent regions, or “seafaring,” which lets you conquer lakes and oceans. Therein lies the genius of the game: The combinations of power and race are randomized on each playthrough, so every match is a little bit different.
Once you’ve chosen your race, your goal is to conquer as much territory as possible, but there’s a catch: As the name suggests, the board is not exactly what you might call “large.” You and your opponent are pretty much constantly jockeying to control the same spaces on the board. In another interesting twist, you don’t stick with the same race for the entire game—at some point, you’ll opt to put your current race “in decline” and choose a new one. You’ll often end up controlling around three races throughout the course of a game.
So what makes Small World rise above the ranks of classic board games like Clue and Risk? The above description only scrapes the surface, but I can think of a few factors that sets the game apart.
Speedy: Since the iPad version is limited to just two players, you can play a game fairly quickly—usually in 30 minutes or less. That makes it the perfect distraction to whip out while you’re sitting at the airport, or as a pastime while you sip your morning coffee. And if you want to improve your game, you can always challenge the built-in AI to a match.
Strategic: Like Risk or any number of other territory-conquest games, there’s a lot of strategy in Small World. Where do you deploy your troops? What regions do you want to control? How do you best use your race’s abilities and your additional special power? Even those of us who don’t love crunching numbers may find ourselves thinking about whether it’s better to take over a region devoid of enemies, or overrun our opponent for a more valuable piece of territory.
Unique: Despite its similarities to those conquest games, Small World’s race/power combinations and its ability to switch races make it utterly unlike any other game I’ve played. Starting out, you’ll find yourself marveling over every new combination as your mind starts contemplating the manifold possibilities of these new troops. The combinations aren’t precisely endless, but there are more than enough to keep you occupied learning new mechanics and thinking up novel strategies.
Fun: Even when you’re losing at Small World, you can never really hold it against your opponent. After all, it is a small world, and you’re going to be thrust up against each other sooner or later. It’s conquer or be conquered—that’s just the way of things. The game changes rapidly from turn-to-turn, and as races move into decline, a player that was recently on top may find themselves crushed under the bootheel of their opponent.
Expandable: Should you, after a multitude of games, find yourself tiring of the included races and powers there are two expansions, each offering a few new races and powers, available as in-app purchases of $2 apiece. Or you could always grab the real-world tabletop game, which lets you play games of three, four, or five people. The real-world version also has a number of additional expansions, like Small World: Underground (which can also be played independently as a game), and the new Small World: Realms, which adds a customizable game board into the mix. Really, the world is only as small as you want it to be.
Developer: Days of Wonder
Platforms: iOS (iPad only)