Small World was one of the debut games for the iPad, and with it Days of Wonder set the bench mark (which they have since managed to exceed with Ticket to Ride). Small World has exploded into the popular line of games. It has spawned four expansions (two of which are available as in-app purchases), and an alternative Small World: Underworld. The iOS version of this game is designed to replicate a two-player match, which uses a specific board tailored to the iPad dimensions.
The premise of the game is that you represent one of many (in this case two) forces that have control over a number of races. Each race attempts to expand and claim land, only to expire at a certain point. The game is a reimplementation of a game released in 1999 known as Vinci transforming the game from historical warfare into zany fantasy battles. Each player will typically have about two races in play, one being their active race, and one being their in-decline race. The key to victory is knowing when to go into decline and when to hold on to fiercely fought for territory.
One of the most critical elements of the game relates to race selection. Whenever you must choose a race you are given up to five possible combinations of 14 Races and 16 Powers (up to 19 Races and 26 Powers with both expansions). Each race has a racial power, which will combine with the random selection of the juxtaposed special power. Powers come in all shapes and sizes, and they are all modifications or amendments to the typical play of rules. All the powers have been carefully designed to ensure that no power combination is redundant, but not all races or powers will give you equal numbers of race tokens (which forms the basis of your army), and not all are desirable. For example, there is a power in the Cursed expansion called Cursed, which gives you no power and no additional tokens. Similarly the value of certain powers increases or decreases depending on how many players there are playing, and certain combinations are much better than others.
Regardless, in order to choose one of the available combinations you will likely have to skip over others. To do so, you have to pay one victory point to each you skip over, which means that eventually a race of less value will accumulate value, and maybe enough to be worth acquiring.
Each game turn is very easy to grasp. You go through your entire turn and attempt to claim as many regions as possible. This is done by placing a base of 2 tokens down on the region, and one for any additional tiles there. So regions with a mountain will cost an extra tile, regions with a lost tribe will demand one, and attempting to conquer a region with other tiles will cost 2+ the number of race tokens in that region (and any additional tokens). In the physical game, all of these are represented by independent tiles (such as the mountain tiles which seem redundant until you remember it’s there as a mathematical prompt).
At the end of your turn you can rearrange the amount of defense you have on each tile in anticipation for the next player’s turn and then score one victory point for every region you control. Certain types of powers will give you bonuses relevant to certain regions, such as Humans who get +1 coin for every farm, and wizards who get +1 coin for every magic source. You have ten turns to score more points than all the others (less in games with more players).
However, the key to victory is going into decline. Most races will reach maximum expansion somewhere between 2-4 turns. At that point, it is probably a good idea to put them into decline at the beginning of your next turn. This will remove all but one token off each region that you have claimed, and flip them over to indicate the inactivation of their power (a few rare special powers and racial powers remain in-decline). Yes, this costs an entire precious turn to do, and yes this means your race is now more vulnerable to attack. However, it does mean that at the start of the next turn you have the opportunity to control twice as much space as before (you can even conquer your own tokens to do so). At the end of each turn you score points for the regions controlled by your active and in-decline races, potentially doubling your score in a round.
Naturally, the name of the game refers to the fact that there is simply not enough space for four (maybe five with the right combo) races to coexist. They just don’t fit. This forces players to conquer lands belonging to their enemies races at one point, or developing a sufficiently strong defensive strategy that doesn’t undercut their income. The problem with playing defensive is that you get most of your points from land, and a strong but small holding will not get you far. Knowing how to time going into decline is key, and the best players are aware of the opportunities created.
As already stated, Small World set the bench mark for iPad board games upon its release. The board itself has been reshaped slightly (it’s more elongated in the real version) to fit the iPad screen dimensions perfectly. This is both its strength and its weakness. Its strength comes from the fact that it is clearly custom built for the device, and allows you to see the entire game in a glance and have it flat down as a coffee table game. Big points for that. The down side is that it eliminates the opportunity to have 3 or more player games, because there is a specific board configuration for each player number set up. Days of Wonder have indicated that they aren’t keen to try to make larger board fit onto the screen, but that they haven’t ruled it out.
I for won would think that maybe a compromise would be to get the ports of their other expansions ready for play. One of those expansions (Necromancer Island) would allow for a third player without needing to change the board format. Also, they could easily import the 2-player form of their newly released Underworld variant. Both of these implementations would open the game up just that little bit more.
The graphics, artwork and music are all gorgeous. They perfectly resemble the artwork of the game proper and the presentation easily lends itself to fingers dragging the tiles around. Small little animations give you subtle visual cues as to what your actions will bring. Also, while you can use the game’s inbuilt music, you can also just play music stored on the device itself for a change. A nice touch indeed. Perhaps most impressive is their smooth and comprehensive tutorial. Any player who doesn’t know the game will have no fear of being integrated into the game. Dive right in and you’re there.
As of August 2010, the developers also released two of the expansions (then the only ones at the time), being Cursed and Grand Dames. Both introduce a combination of new races and powers, including Gypsies, White Ladies, Priestesses, Goblins, and Kobolds. They also bring in a stack of new powers like Cursed, Peace Loving, or Were- (which is very amusing when you get Were-humans since were is an archaic word that simply means “man”). You can turn these on or off at any point in time, so as to vary the play.
There has been a trend among its fandom to create a variety of custom made races and powers. Some of these have already made it in some form into those expansion, and some into the other expansions of Be Not Afraid. With the recent release of Small World Underworld we can look forward to a large influx of new designs yet again.
8/10: Small World is undoubtedly a staple of board games for the iOS. Many game developers can learn from their work and their philosophy of allowing computer games to supplement and complement physical games. Sadly despite the praise I can give, as long as the game permits only a 2-player variant it diminishes the game and cannot achieve higher than an 8.