Throughout human history, empires have grown and then subsequently collapsed, allowing new civilisations to emerge.
It’s a phenomenon that isn't touched upon in games half as much as it should be, with most strategy titles content on allowing you to grow your own personal empire larger and larger as a reward for good tactics.
Small World, based on the boardgame by Belgian designer Philippe Keyaerts, is different. It’s a game that relies on your ability to seize power, but also to know when to let it go.
It’s a small world
The game is played across a single full screen map deliberately too small to contain the various fantasy races destined to live inside its borders.
Each player picks from a random combination of races that includes Elves and Trolls, and a slate of abilities like Merchant or Diplomat at the start of the game. Naturally, each race and ability comes with unique advantages and disadvantages. Pairing the Merchant ability with Orcs, for example, creates oddly mercantile Orcs.
Any combination passed over by a player gets an additional Victory Coin added to it, thereby making even the weaker combos more appealing later down the line in much the same way as another classic boardgame, Puerto Rico.
The ultimate aim of the game is to finish the tenth turn with more coins than your opponent.
It’s a cruel world
Victory coins are won by annexing territory, either from the hostile natives or from your opponent.
This is performed by placing two of your race’s units, plus the number of opposing units, onto the targeted land. A die is only used if your final units don’t quite have the numbers to make an automatically successful attack.
Every battle costs the loser a unit from his race, making it harder to push forward on their turn. Eventually this results in one player being unable to act unless they send their once-great empire into decline, skip a turn, and resume with a new race from the pile.
It feels a little like Risk, but with more certainty to the gameplay. There’s a balancing act in knowing how far to push your empire and how much you can knowingly leave vulnerable.
There are also the additional tactical considerations dependent on the race and ability combination you choose. Additionally, races in decline act as natural bottlenecks (not to mention victory coin producers for their owners).
It’s a beautiful world
The presentation is flawless, while the simple tap controls and the way it handles the two-players-around-the-board is exemplary.
Unlike the boardgame, Small World for iPad is strictly a head-to-head game – either against a fellow human or the computer.
This is initially a disappointment, especially considering that the computer has only one level of difficulty. But the initial release didn’t even feature a computer-controlled player at all, so hopefully developer Days of Wonder will release an update in the future.
Once the initial difficulty curve is conquered (with help from an excellent tutorial and in-game guide) Small World should almost certainly rise up in any boardgamer’s list.
The lack of difficulty options and more expansive multiplayer, however, may force it into decline quicker than expected.