Small World was one of the big board games of the last year and I picked it up like many based on reviews of it and it’s predecessor Vinci. I found it OK, but it didn’t totally grab me the first few plays. After about 6 plays however, it really started to grow on me. The game works well in that Euro/Ameritrash hybrid genre that we keep seeing in recent days, but what I like about Small World best is that is an asymmetric strategy game and like the granddaddy of all asymmetric board games, Cosmic Encounter, has a lot of room to grow. While Small World oozes with theme and comedy, the board is totally insane on the eyes and in all honesty I think I would prefer the theme of the original version (Romans, Greeks, Carthaginians, etc.) to the wacky fantasy theme– but the fact is, the game sold a lot and it’s quite fun to play once you get the hang of it–and now we have the first launch title of interest for the iPad making some history last week.
The only reason I’m exposed to the iPads is due to work– no one I know personally has plans to pick one up in the short term. As frivolous as it is, I must admit the iPad is an awesome piece of consumer electronics: far better than what I expected both in size, readability and responsiveness despite a terrible name that somehow passed muster with everyone at Apple with a dirty mind. That said, I’ve really only used it to read some comic books, watch an ASL video and, of course, play some Small World.
So what is Small World? In short, 2-5 players try to conquer a piece of cardboard with a map on it, scoring points for the number of regions on this piece of cardboard they control at the end of their turn. To do this, players choose a combination of a Race, like elves, dwarves, orcs, wizards and a Skill like berserk, commando, Ethereal, etc. This gives players an adjective, noun combo i.e.: Commando Amazons (a favorite for many reasons), Berserk Trolls, and so on. Each combination gives a player a number of Race tokens and two means to break the rules of the game: one with his Race power and one with his Skill power. The player then attacks parts of the piece of cardboard to score as many points as possible. Each player turn is scored, and whoever has the most at the end of 10 turns is VICTOLY. The key funny business in the game is that players can choose another race after sending their original race into decline. Knowing when to decline your race and what race/skill combinations to select based on the board conditions are the painful and fun choices for players.
With the iPad version, you can play with another person sitting in front of you (there is no online play and no computer player) in the same way you would the board game, but without the box, pieces of cut up cardboard and cardboard map.
First, I want to make note a few flaws in the iPad version of Small World in terms of gameplay. The game crashes sometimes after a race is selected. You can tell when this happens as the player’s name and score disappear from the map screen and though you can mess around with the active buttons on the screen– the game will not continue. This is exacerbated by the fact that the game does not save it’s state on exit, so if you exit the application for any reason, you have to start over. This is a bit odd as just about every application on the iPod touch had the save state feature, even the real time ones like Field Runners.
Second, the iPad version is only two player. This may put some people off who are used to the wonderful backstabbing and mystery score of the 4 and 5 player games, but after playing quite a two player games, I’m slowly becoming convinced that it may be the better way to play. With two, the game plays extremely fast and you can predict fairly well what powers your opponent will choose, when they will decline and where they will enter the board. This is very tough in a 3-5 player game as so much is going on you basically hang on for the ride and hope for players not to notice how well you are doing (Merchant Wizards seem great for this).
The final issue I had with the game is that when selecting my stack to drag to a space to attack, it didn’t pick up that I was trying to select it as well as I would have expected– you have to have your finger/appendage directly on the stack to move it. This may seem a ridiculous complaint, but when someone hands it to you in a morning scrum and you have to take your turn before anyone notices, you want to go fast fast fast.
That said, let’s get into what’s awesome about the iPad version of Small World: It plays fast, fast fast! No digging through stacks of counters, or searching for the 3 and 5 gold coins in your game box, nor counting your gold in secret means that 2-player games can be over in done in 10 minutes at which time you can be on to another game or doing something else, like finishing your morning scrum. What’s more, the multi-touch means you can check out your gold total while the other player is taking his or her turns.
The graphics look extremely crisp, and it’s very easy to pick out what is what, especially if you are used to the insanity of color that the boardgame tends to become during a game. Small World, good gameplay aside, is all about the funny illustrations and the iPad does them all justice here–though the screen does get awful greasy…
Except where noted far above, the UI and interface is spot on. If you are a veteran Small World player you will know exactly what to do as soon as you start playing, it’s that intuitive. The only confusion came when one was selecting a race and want to go back to the map, then back to the race selection screen. There is no button or link– you just touch the screen (this was a d’oh moment).
If you have an iPad and have any reason to try to have fun on it, you should pick up Small World. It’s dirt cheap and if you even play it 2-3 times you will have well spent the cash; chances are you will play 10 to 20 times that number in a single week. I’m very impressed with the hardware and am very much looking forward to many more board games on the device. Books? Movies? Tax Software? BLEH. Board games are what the iPad was built for.