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Small World 2 Review: Conquer Thy Neighbor
A few years ago I fell in love with tabletop gaming – that’s the appropriate way of saying nerdy board games. There’s a whole wonderful world of eurogames, thematic games, abstract, strategy, and role playing games just waiting to be discovered by the social gamer, and Small World is one of my favorites. This official digital version by Days of Wonder successfully ports the new and improved iPad version for the PC, but with zero added features or bells and whistles that I’d hoped to see in the translation.
If you grew up playing the standard stable of Monopoly, The Game of Life, and Risk – don’t worry there’s still time to play good board games. The closest example to Small World is Risk: You conquer territories and battle with other players on a geographical map. Instead of eliminating players and wrecking friendships, however, your goal is to score victory points every round using a rotating list of fantasy races and special powers. You get one point for every territory you own and it takes two race tokens to conquer an empty tile – no dice rolls necessary. Battling other players becomes a side mission in your quest to gain the most points in a set number of turns – but sometimes it may be necessary to take down the leader if they’ve been scoring big.
With luck reduced to a single, one use die roll at the end of your turn to try to squeeze out one last conquest, the experience becomes purely tactical and really shines as a multiplayer turn-based strategy game. The replayability comes from the large amount of races and special powers that get shuffled and randomly combined for every game. Each of the very stereotypical fantasy races (with artwork that is cartoonish and very aware of the stereotyping) such as elves, dwarves, giants, and wizards have a special ability and a number of race tokens to help balance them. In addition, special powers are randomly assigned to each race, creating a unique combination and roster that makes every game different. Powers range from Flying (attack anywhere) to Dragon Master (get a unique all-powerful dragon token) to Merchant (score double the points from each region) and also have a number of tokens to help balance them. Crazy fun combinations emerge like the Alchemist Halflings, Seafaring Giants, and the dreaded Bivouacking Skeletons. While some combinations end up being much stronger than others, a huge strategy is deciding when to grab which race, thanks to a decline mechanic that keeps you picking new races and destroying the remnants of the old, and keeping the small plot of land very crowded and bloody.
The tabletop mechanics translate perfectly to digital form. Race tokens still represent your army while various powers and abilities become their own tokens to drag and drop as necessary – such as the Sorcerers ability to turn a single foe into another Sorcerer (they should really be Vampires) represented as a wand next to your tokens. A very simple UI is all that is necessary for each turn: a Done button if you wish to end your conquests prematurely and another button for declining your current race. It all works perfectly fine, but is painfully designed for a small screen where real estate is premium – the iPad.
Small World 2 features several purchasable expansions right at release. As the physical board game has been out for years several expansions have been released containing additional races and special powers – exponentially adding to the already robust replayability and strategy of the game. The price is relatively comparable to their physical counterparts, but make sure you enjoy the base game before splurging. Note that only the host need own the expansions for everyone to play with them.
The PC version has none of the trappings you’d expect – not even a fullscreen option. When you maximize the window, it still leaves the map centered and the left side of the screen crammed full of players and their race/power combos – only by hitting a plus side next to their name and then clicking on their army can you open the info screen that tells you what exactly they’re capable of, which is not friendly at all to new players. The UI painfully reminds you of its iPad roots from its overly large buttons and click and drag conquering mechanic, and even the graphics on the menu screen have Pass and Play depicted as an iPad being shared between friends (I believe the appropriate PC term is Hotseat). While I wasn’t expecting a complete overhaul for PC – after all the iPad version does work perfectly well – I was hoping that Days of Wonder would take advantage of the PC’s larger screen size or at the very least rework the UI to take advantage of the mouse and keyboard. More missing features include a simple undo button to erase an errant mistake – thanks to the drag and drop mechanic for conquering it’s very easy to accidentally drop your army on the wrong region and cripple your entire strategy.
The strength of the digital game over its physical progenitor is in its asynchronous online multiplayer. This is one feature from the iPad version that I’m relieved was kept in. Since it’s a turn-based game with zero decision making on your opponents turn, you can essentially play the entire game at you and your opponent’s own pace. When creating a new game the turn limit has options for 15 minutes, 4 hours, and 48 hours. This is hilariously restricting as 15 minutes is still way too long if you want to play now, while 48 hours is your only option for when you just want to play some games with friends throughout the day. Steam actually has a built-in notification system for when it’s your turn – you don’t even have to be in the game, which is a really great feature and very reminiscent of the iOS push notifications. The negative side effect of the asynchronous play is that it’s very easy to become desynced with your opponents – even just switching from the game window to your web browser or desktop will usually pause the game and force you to re-watch the last turn while everyone else waits for you to catch up. Likewise while they do provide a quick button to switch between multiple active games, you’re typically forced to watch entire rounds play out even if you’ve already seen most of the action. A fast-forward button would be a life-saver.
Although it’s called Small World 2, this is simply the original board game you know and love. The ‘2’ comes from the fact that this is an update from the original iOS game – the very first digital board game on iPad. The original release only had support for two players and none of the expansions, whereas this version offers the full experience that Small World fans should expect.
A major perk to the digital version is that you can play solo with bots, and the AI is not only competent but quite good. Unfortunately there’s no difficulty adjustment so new players will be thrown into the fire as they try to learn the game while the AI scorches the land and lays waste to your armies. For veterans that don’t get a chance to play with friends often enough, the solo mode is a real treat, and like multiplayer always saves your game state so you can easily quit and resume at any time. Unfortunately there’s no way to add bots to help fill out a multiplayer match. Small World really excels with four or five players as the map gets bigger and armies clash left and right, but bots can only be added to solo play, a very disappointing restriction.
I really wanted to love Small World 2 as I was a proud supporter to help bring one of my favorite tabletop games to digital form. I’ve had a wonderful time playing with friends online and it captures the magic and mechanics of the game perfectly. But the directly ported UI and layout from the iPad version feels borderline insulting, and not having a full screen option with multiple resolutions is just mind-boggling. With cross-platform play bringing iOS, PC, and Android users together the online community should remain robust, and Days of Wonder has gained quite the following thanks to its other major cross-platform digital board game release, Ticket to Ride. If you’re a fan of tabletop gaming or have garnered some interest Small World 2 should satisfy your needs, provided you temper your expectations.