Sunday, November 7, 2010

Smallworld - The 7-Up Of European Games

What, you ask? Why is Smallworld the "7-Up of European games", you ask? Because, like 7-Up claims to be, Smallworld is light, bubbly, and refreshing. Smallworld will never win any awards for being a triumphant example of tight, highly strategic boardgame design, but it sure as heck has for being light, easy to learn and play, and most importantly, fairly fun. It's games like Smallworld, though, that I have the most difficulty writing about because the game itself has no major flaws that would allow me to desecrate its good name, but on the other side, myself and the folks I've played this with are not exceptionally keen on it either. In short, it's a game with merit, a neat "mixed-up Mother Goose" mechanic to keep it fresh, but it's not something I would pine for or beg to get to the table. The only downside of the game is that Smallworld propagates racial genocide, which hasn't been in vogue for a while in Europe, or so I hear.

The concept of the game is that the players each play a race, or several races, of randomly drawn creatures with the sole desire to take over the world as best they can in a limited amount of time. The name "Smallworld" is derived from this concept, because the world is simply too small for everyone. Each race has its own racial special power, and to add to that, each has an additional, randomly drawn power. Further, each race and special power has a number of troops associated with it, and thus the amount of troops any given race/power pair has varies with the random draw, allowing for exceptional balance across the game. Each player takes turns placing troops or redeploying troops, all the while expanding the scope of their dominion. Eventually, though, the players' newly formed empires will recede, and the players have the option, at that point, to stop using that race and begin again with a new race. The game is made up of rounds, and at the end of each round, the players earn Victory Points (VP) based upon their level of control of the world, and at the end of a set amount of rounds, determined by the player amount, the game ends with the most dominant player winning the game.

The component and art quality is really quite good, and although the art direction is a bit on the caricature, cartoony side for my tastes, the theme is consistent and very suitable to the game. All of the components are of good quality cardboard, with the exception of the exceptionally well-designed troop tray, which is made of plastic and has a nice cover to stop the natives from escaping, of which there's 186. Other components consist of two double sided boards, a bazillion VP chits valued at one, three, five, and ten. Then there's the meat of the game, which is made up of fourteen racial banners and 20 special power badges, along with a gaggle of special chits which can be used with some of the power badges during gameplay. There's also a turn marker made to look like a 2-D crown, and a special die for use during some attacks. All in all, there's a crapload of stuff packed neatly into the little Smallworld box, and all of it looks very nice indeed. Finally, there's the game manual, which is very understandable and well laid out, and six player references.

Setup is a little more complex than other games, and takes a little longer than one might expect for such a light game. First, a board needs to be selected and flipped to the correct side, based upon the amount of players in the game, with the turn marker placed on the first turn on the turn track. Next, shuffle the race cards and select five of them randomly, and place them on the board in a column, and in the order you chose them. Although the game calls the race cards, "racial banners", this is a political year, so I'm calling them race cards specifically to attempt to get you to tell other players on the table that they've played the race card when they use their racial powers in game. Yes, I digress. Anyhow, do the same thing with the power badges, which physically dovetail with the race cards to create one new, unified race card with an associated power. Once you've got five complete race cards, make a stack of the rest at the bottom of the column, as when one is used, a new complete race card comes into play at the bottom of the column. In essence, at the beginning of the game, you'll have six races to pit against one another, with the sixth being the last of them and sitting on a stack of the remaining completed race cards. This acts to hide the identity of the racial mixes so you can't plan racial jokes in advance, such as, "How the hell are the Dwarves Mounted? Who's short enough to get behind them while they're bent over?"

Now that you've got the race cards sorted out, you'll need to get into "Capitol Hill", which is what I call the tray where all the races are intentionally segregated for the purposes of being pitted against one another later, and get out the "Lost Tribe" tokens to place them on their respective places annotated on the map by the Lost Tribe icon. Finally, hand out five VP tokens to each player, and you're ready to start your fascist, imperialist aggression against your friends or relatives. There's some token-placing which really seems like a waste of time, such as placing mountain tokens on spaces that depict mountains, but really, if the damned board has a picture of the mountain on it, why the hell do I really need to place a big token shaped like a mountain, with an illustration of a mountain, on it? Total redundancy, because as far as I can tell, and as many times as I've played it, you can't destroy the mountains, so this is a serious WTF design choice. Anyhow, let's skip that and just move onto how to play.

To begin, you need to select the first player, which is done by determining who has the pointiest ears. I'm not making that's in the rules. Assuming someone is more Vulcan than the rest, that green-blooded monster must pull a "Jesse Jackson" and choose a race card to play. To do this, one can simply take the first race card in the column, but if the person has some sort of bigotry against that particular race, they may choose any race they wish in the column, but as a penalty for being an unabashed racist, they must place reparations, in the form of a VP token, on any race card that lies above the one they chose in the column. Next, they must move all of the race cards up one space to fill in any gaps made by the player's selection, which exposes a new race card for exploitation. As noted before, each race card and mated power badge has a value placed on it, and you simply need to add the two values together to get your starting army size, and once you've done that, simply head to Capitol Hill and snatch that value's worth of the troops of your race.

To play, you may place your tokens on any space adjacent to water on your first turn, to represent a hostile invasion by sea. This is only on your first turn, as you can move your troops from owned territories to adjacent spaces in later turns. Anyhow, to take a territory, simply place two tokens on an empty territory as an occupying force, plus one token for virtually any other token in the space, such as a mountain, a Lost Tribe token, or an enemy token. There's a ton of these little special tokens, but the rule is pretty hard and fast regarding the cost of a conquest, so it's a pretty pedestrian matter to figure out how many troops are required to place in a potential conquest. In some sort of strange homage to Ameritrash, on your last declared conquest, you may roll a specially pipped die that has zero through three pips on it, and add that value to your attack value.

If you conquered an unoccupied space, nothing happens other than the fact you've occupied a space, but if an enemy or neutral territory was taken, that player sends one of their defeated tokens back to Capitol Hill and the rest are normally redeployed into one of their owned territories at the end of the current player's turn. After spending all of your tokens, you can then redeploy your own guys to reinforce your territories to further expand your influence. At the end of your turn, you tally up the amount of territories you control, plus any racial or power badge bonuses, and take that amount of VP tokens. That, in short, is all there is to playing Smallworld. Well, almost.

As I noted earlier, when your race essentially runs its course, you may put them into decline. This consists of simply flipping over all of the tokens of that race to their dark side and removing all but one of those tokens from each occupied territory. Then, you remove the power badge from the race card, mercilessly stripping any power from the newly-subjugated race, and finally, you flip their powerless race card to the darkened side. Doing this costs an entire turn, and once you're done putting your race into decline, you score the territories as you normally would. These powerless tokens, while not able to be deployed or used in any manner, still score points for the ruling player until they are conquered or until the same player puts yet another race into decline at some point in the future, where they're arbitrarily removed and thus have failed as a viable gene pool. On your next turn, since you do not have an active race, you simply draw a new race as you did on your first turn, hoping this race will fare better than the last.

Now, that's really all there is to Smallworld. It's a very, very simple game, as I said initially, but that doesn't mean it's not full of strategic choices, because it is. It's almost a wargame, except that it's actually an area control game masquerading as a wargame, in my opinion. There are a lot of really neat pairings for race cards and power badges, and some make for interesting and fun "master races" that are generally more powerful than most, such as the Commando Amazons, which only require one token to occupy a territory due to their Commando power badge, start with 10 troop tokens, and get to play 4 additional troop tokens per turn for the purposes of conquest but which are removed at the end of your turn. The balance between the power badges and races is actually really well done, though, so there's not much in the way of Kingmaking, so to speak.

Now that you've learned about the basic gameplay and what the game's about, let's talk about the all-important fun factor. There's not a game that's quite like this out there, with so many neat little qualities all stuffed into one package, but at the end of the day, I just didn't have all that much fun playing it the first or any subsequent time, and neither did anyone I've played this with. I'm not saying it's bad or boring, so save your nerd rage for someone else, but I am saying that it's just not a super-compelling game. I like the fact that it's a pretty short game, playable in under an hour in almost all instances, and I also like that it's got very few rules, so it's easy to learn and play.

The problem is that it's pretty redundant, and the choices allowed you on any given turn are pretty much obvious; there's no "masterstroke" plots within plots you're going to pull off. Further, the endgame is pretty anticlimactic, with one guy usually saying, "yep, I won" and that's about it. El Grande, Cave Troll, or any number of games do Area Control better, and there's a bazillion games that do wargame better. There's a bazillion games that do variable player powers better, too. There's just not a lot that seem to pack them all into one little package, and do it so pretty, so it's clear that the game has a lot of merit. It's just not for me, that's all.

There's a bunch of expansions out for Smallworld, too, that have a bunch of new races and powers, and the latest one I know of has evil Necromancers or something and a new, bigger Capitol Hill tray that will hold all of the original races as well as all of the expansions. Hell, that must be the U.N. Building.

What Makes Smallworld Bigger Than Elvis:
- Neat art and a wonderful theme
- Brisk gameplay and easy rules allow a low barrier to entry for everyone, including the "Powerful Bilt Yoot Fa'Merica"
- One of the best chit trays, ever
- It allows you to be an overt racist without offending most people at the table

What Makes Smallworld Smaller Than El Vez:
- It's not incredibly compelling, and a bit on the repetitious side
- Fiddly as "The Devil Came Down To Georgia"
- "Jack of all trades and master of none" game design

The fact that it's sold incredibly well and is way, way up in the charts indicates that it's a good game, and I'm here to tell you that I agree with that assessment. I think the game has some merit, but it's just a lot on the dry, repetitious side for me. I guess the best analogy I can put out there is that it's a fairly cut-throat pseudo-wargame for people who like Eurogames and don't dig Ameritrash-style wargames. There's lots of player interaction, which is great, but all I can say is that I just really didn't like the game all that much. I'd play it if I was at a buddy's house, and I'd be fine with it, but I know that I'd be wishing I was playing Cosmic Encounter instead. I recommend that you either try Smallworld, or research the piss out of it, before taking the plunge, because you and I both know your OCD will make you buy all the expansions too, and that's another $80.00 on top of a $40.00 price tag, and if you don't like it, you'll kick yourself.

3.5/5 Stars

For those of you interested in Smallworld, go ahead and check it out at Days of Wonder's site here:

For those of you interested in who the hell El Vez asked for it...

And my new pre-emptive strike for all the recent letters of anger regarding not telling players EVERY SINGLE OPTION IN MY TRUNCATED RULES SUMMARY:
For all you Smallworld fanbois that are going to inexplicably write me and tell me how I've forgotten all kinds of critical aspects of, I didn't. I'm not writing a complete rules summary here with, as Arlo would say, "twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was." Leave it to Universal Head to write a summary, because he's the best at it. I'm just giving people the basics here. Go nitpick Twilight's depiction of vampires or debate whether Greedo fired first if you want an argument.

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