Small World for iPad review

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.

Pondering the race selection as Spider looks on at something else entirely.

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…

greasy
All the touching makes for a real greasy iPad in mere moments of play.

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.

Parent's basement finds

While the amount of stuff in my own basement that I’ve lost track of continuously grows, the amount of stuff in my parent’s basements diminish by the year as they pawn off boxes and furniture with random drawers filled with gaming erm… jewels.  This weekend I ransacked my dad’s basement and here is what I dragged out of darkness.

Swords and Spells

While I’m a big fan of the D&D as the wellspring from which most gaming today flowed, the game itself has a history of pretty terrible rules, many of which exist in the nether realms of these small books from back when I was in kindergarten. This little book could be the very reason Games Workshop decided to make Warhammer Fantasy Battle back in the day as the rules are really just that bad: and to think, I actually played this as part of some early 80’s D&D campaigns.  This will probably sit in my basement shitter for a month or so and then get put away along with all the other old D&D stuff.

Ah Paranoia–an RPG with near 100% death rate for the Player Characters during any given SESSION, let alone a campaign. Sure sure, there were 6 clones of the PC’s each, but that basically meant that no campaign could go more than 6 sessions for fear of the entire cadre of characters being wiped out. It was fun and a refreshing change from dungeon crawling or being driven insane by elder things back in Jr. High, and this is certainly the best edition. Like many of my boxed games hidden away in dark recess of my basements, this came with some extras. In the bottom of the box looks to be the complete chit-set from the Ogre influenced Battlesuit game as well as a mess of stand up cardboard armies from Steve Jackson.  I’m assuming they were used to represent the characters during their ill-fated adventures.

The reason for my delve into the dank basement over the weekend was to search for a copy of the original Squad Leader, which I remember seeing in someone’s attic/basement/shelf back in the 80’s. While Panzer Leader is really not what I was looking for, I grabbed it anyway. It had a touch of mould on the box, but everything else looked great for it’s age and the counters are surprisingly high quality compared to today’s games. In addition, the extras include a chrome-plastic Transformers weapon, a few cavalry figures from THIS comic book ad, a staff from one of the lava dudes from Crystar the Crystal Warrior, a mess of counters for some Napoleonic SPI game and what looks to be the Dark Tower dragon (with his base broken off).

All in all, some great and terrible finds.  Sadly I could do the same sort of crap hunt in my own basement and be just as surprised.

Up the ASL

I spent 30 minutes Wednesday night rearranging AT-43 army lists and setting out the minis as board game night was just two this week.  Yet, instead of the gorgeosity made pre-painted plastic and massive 3-d Space Hulk terrain boards (good job Mouth), my friend wandered around my basement perusing my collection of games until I opened a random drawer and said: “Hey, how about ASL?” half jokingly.  I winced when he said “OK!” without hesitation.  “ASL The premier game system of tactical-level World War II combat uniquely combines soundness of design with attention to detail and ease of play.”  The last part?  Really?  The last time I tried to play, we stopped after the first Defensive First Fire phase (i.e. about 10 minutes into the game for experienced players after set up) and my head was spinning.  While both of us that tried it that first time are hardcore miniature gamers and myself (embarrassingly) have played hundreds of hours of Close Combat from Microsoft, we just didn’t get it– not in the least.  The rulebook sat in my basement shitter for about a year and was perused here and there with still not even the gleam of understanding. Then it went back in the box for an undetermined length of time until last night when, hand in hand, were able to ditch the mental flaccidity and get straight up inside the ASL.

Adding a few beers, a general disregard for the minutia of the rules and just rocking through the phases allowed both of us to get the game-at least on a high level, without support weapons, using a scenario with low counter density, and making constant, probably game changing, rules mistakes.  What’s more, we were both able to see clearly why the game of ASL has survived for going on 2 decades: it’s fucking good.  The array of extremely painful choices you have to make during the game are astounding and even the most basic scenario we played gave us a deep colon of tactical depth to plum.  It basically starts with a few American squads in the middle of a town as the Germans advanced through the woods to the south, then reinforcements come on the battlefield,  squads run to wood buildings in the town and shoot at each other, then some run away and a few are eliminated. That’s it.  How could cardboard pieces on a piece of colored cardboard compare to something like Company of Heroes? I’ll tell you:  tension, almost ZERO down time (this is key) and a really elegant means of determining LOS and fire modifiers made a scenario that we had played in tons of different games since Saving Private Ryan came out uncannily compelling.  I’m not sure what it is, but I want to bend back the rulebook and get up inside the ASL again.

Rise of the Machines

beatings by a machineA computer has beaten a professional Go player. It’s pretty shocking really as compared to Chess, where humans do not stand a chance, Go presents incredible problems due to the sheer number of places that a stone could be played in any given turn.  Humans can instantly eliminate 95% of the spaces of play on the board and focus on the areas that most need a stone; seeing the strategic as well as the tactical implications, reading eventual shapes long before the actual stones are played. A computer, coming from the much more flatly tactical game of chess, would have to crunch through all the possibilities, eliminating each only when the entire tactical line of possible moves was ruled out.  This proved to be impossible, and for many years computers could barely keep up with middling amateurs (of which I don’t even rank near middling).  All I can conclude with is we should be prepared to kneel before our robot masters sooner than later after a breakthrough like this.

Talisman HIGHlands

HIGHLANDHearkening back to my mental state when I first became fanatical about Talisman (1991), Fantasy Flight has announced the newest BOARD expansion for Talisman 4th edition: HIGHLANDS.  This puts to rest for awhile the debate about the City expansion being released.  Included will be 6 characters– obviously one is the Highlander, and from the tiny pic of the box cover I see the Valkyrie (awesome!) , but I can’t pick out any of the others. I do see a total of three sets of boobs there though.

COSMIC ANNIHILATION

With the arrival of the Cosmic Encounter expansion and with my stout-hearted board gaming group in tow,  we started what will end up being a year long Cosmic Encounter campaign I have dubbed the COSMIC ANNIHILATION!!!  The plan is quite simple:

  • Play games of Cosmic Encounter – this is a no brainer, but we are going for 4 Planet, 4 bases FTW to keep the games shorter.
  • After each game, Aliens that have lost are removed from campaign play and the winners continue.
  • Flares of eliminated Aliens are still used in the game, but may not be selected at start of play. (we will have a Live deck of flares and an eliminated deck to fill in the quota)

The idea was that there are Aliens that few people play, either because there is too much text on their cards or they have been blackballed after a few losing games (Citadel), so to give every Alien a go, it was time for the COSMIC ANNIHILATION.

Game 1

Tripler, Leviathan, Bully(W)

Notes: Leviathan had the Lunar Canon (!) and got 1 planet away from the win, Bully had the Prometheus ship, both Bully and Tripler lost their powers at least once each.

Game 2

Mirror(W), Deuce, Amoeba.

Notes: Deuce gained zero planets and the Amoeba was destroyed almost completely while allying.

Annihilated Aliens

Deuce, Amoeba, Leviathan, Tripler

Expansions

Wife: Well it can’t be that much, it’s just an expansion.

– Probably 20-30 Dollars, but I saw an expansion in the store today that was 60$.

Wife: Woah, that must be a pretty terrible game* to need such an expensive expansion.

*Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition

Emotionally responding to advertising directed at my specific demographic

Fantasy Flight began tantalizing us with skyscraper ads on boardgamegeek.com for the new Cosmic Encounter expansion late last week, and I must say, it’s working on me quite well.    I’ve wrestled recently with my own conclusions after hearing my wife declare, simply, that Cosmic Encounter is the greatest board game ever made.   It’s starting to become extremely difficult for me to deny this conclusion not only when faced with the jewel-like quality of the Fantasy Flight edition, but the fact that 35% of my boardgame playing in 2009 was Cosmic Encounter. This includes some of the ‘fast play’ type games like Inn Fighting and the much-worshiped Dominion.  We’ll have to see what happens in 2010: especially if anyone in my game group finally gets their dirty hands on Chaos in the Old World.

Getting Monked

Ah, Talisman…a chance for lady luck to have her way with us and endup passed out in the backseat with our underwear around our ankles most of the time–unless we draw the MONK! The grizzled veterans tell their tales and it’s well known that the Monk is  one of the top tier characters along with the Prophetess and the Astropath (from the Timescape expansion).  Depending on the expansions to 2nd edition that you have, it’s an ‘any given sunday’ situation with those three, but while the Prophetess can get stomped, and the Astropath can get a little unlucky raping the Timescape deck, the Monk has few weaknesses at any point in the game.  Having now played my 11th game of 4th Edition2.0 Talisman from Fantasy Flight, it’s become clear, with the Astropath awaiting his appearance (in some form or other) and the Prophetess nerfed (in a rather good way I might add), that the Monk– if played without the mega-nerf from the Fantasy Flight upgrade pack– is lord and master of Talismanland.  Out of the 11 games,  4 had the Monk, and of those 4, only one game did the Monk not prevail due to a late-game Toading no less.

That said, I want to explain why I think, unfortunately, he cannot be fixed in the present edition.

First and foremost, one of the major changes to Talisman 4th Edition from 2nd is the ability for characters to take Craft-based enemies as Trophies.  Trophies are the new name for when you defeat an enemy in battle and take the card and when the amount of strength (or craft) = 7, you can turn it in for a strength (or craft).  In 2nd Edition Talisman, only Strength-based enemies could be taken as trophies.  Craft was gained in other ways (rolling the mystic, craft spells, etc.).  Hence the path to victory for craft-based characters was longer and a bit more arduous– however, most had advantages over their strength-based characters with better special abilities or constant access to spells.  What’s more, the route to the crown of command was less dangerous via the craft method: the Mine route has the character face the Vampire Lord, who has the potential to be far less deadly than the equivalent on the Strength side–Dicing with Death.

The addition of allowing characters to take craft-based trophies, while logical in many respects, breaks with the original design of the game.  It allows characters to ramp up their Craft with a speed unheard of in the older editions (just a note: I don’t really count 3rd as canonical).  The traffic of characters going through the Mines-Vampire-Pit Fiend pathway to the middle as increased massively as a result (as noted above, it’s always better to hit the Vampire up there compared to the sometimes fatal Dice with Death on the Crypt side), but more importantly, it increases the Characters who start with a high craft and can attack other characters using Psychic Combat (Ghoul, Wizard, Sorceress) ability to have a whole pile of craft to crush in PVP.  While those three characters are solidly in the second rank (the Sorceress may be in the first rank) in terms of character tiers, the character this fundamental change to the game effects the most is, predictably, the Monk.

Let’s have a look at what the Monk can do other than sit there and look like a fat slob:

sd_monk-reference

Str: 2, Craft 3, Lives 4, Fate: 5 (!?)

Special Abilities:

Your inner belief allows you to add your craft value to your strength during battle
After rolling the dice for praying, you may add one to the score.
You may not use any weapon or armor during battle.

So, our man here starts with one seemingly major disadvantage with his inability to us any weapons or armor in combat, a minor advantage with the praying bonus, and what has always been the greatest single skill in the game– adding your craft to your strength score in combat as if the character always had a warhorse or always had a Psionic Blast spell.   This gives the Monk an effective 5 strength out of the gate as well as the ability to increase this with an increase in either Strength or Craft– a huge advantage over all the other strength-based characters who can only increase their combat value with weapons (at most 3 strength) and Strength increases.  Given that in the old edition, Craft was not all that easy to come by, the Monk was still very powerful, but with the addition of Craft Trophies in 4th edition, the Monk is well nigh unstoppable and had to be nerfed.

The 4th edition 2.0 Fantasy Flight nerf to this power is listed in the description above.  Note the word ‘Value’ next to craft — this means that the Monk can only add his starting Craft to his strength for the entire game, regardless of his current Craft score, and that amounts to a measly +3 in combat.   This kicks the Monk from the top tier to down somewhere around the Elf for effectiveness.  Sure, the Monk has an early advantage in that he can rack up some strength Trophies along side the likes of the Troll or the Ogre Chieftain without the weakness to Craft enemies, but this is going to be short lived.  Since Talisman scales itself as characters gain in Strength and Craft, a +3 advantage has a minor effect in the mid game, when players have 6-11 strength and rather useless in the late game when players are pushing 12-20 strength.  In addition, the inability to use weapons or armor, a minor drawback in 2nd edition, becomes a major flaw for the Monk in 4th.

Now we have a character who’s original ability ported over to the new edition of Talisman is heavily unbalanced (and in a game as unbalanced as Talisman, that’s saying something!) and a nerf to that ability that makes him far too weak to compete.  What was the solution? Tack on a heavy load of Fate points!   Though characters of Good alignment cannot normally get their Fate points back, a whopping 5 really shows to me that the design team was reaching to try to bring the Monk back to parity, even to characters of mid-range power.

At this point in this post, I would normally bust out my ingenious solution to this design problem and say it’s the best (though, of course, not playtested nearly enough) and say something like’ how could the designers not thought of it?’  The solution or even good suggestions for this problem, however, I do not have.    One way would be to disallow the Monk to gain Craft or Strength trophies during the game, but then you may be back to nerfing the character so much that he’s, again, as bad as the Elf.  A second may be to change the Monk’s alignment to Neutral rather than Good.  Though Fate is good, healing for free at the Chapel any time you need to is even better and means trying to PVP the Monk early game (as say the Troll or Sorceress) is a real chore.  The third idea would be simply to increase the amount of Warhorses in the Adventure deck and (especially) add one into the Purchase deck.  This will allow most savvy players to at least attempt duplicate the Monk’s ability.  Again, none of these three ideas are what I would consider a good fix for the problem. That said, I think the Monk as printed in the original 4th Edition was a glaring, overpowered oversight due to the addition of Craft trophies, but the 4th 2.0 fix makes the Monk so weak that he’s rarely going to see play–and it’s also a terribly boring power to have.