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Review: Gorgeous Small World app shows board games can be great on the iPad

Sebastian Blanco
Sebastian Blanco|May 6, 2010 6:00 PM
Considering how good Small World (US$4.99) – the first big Euro board game of the iPad era – is, fans of these sorts of games are in for a really wonderful ride. While this app isn't perfect, we're here to tell you that it's well worth your time.

Maybe you've seen Apple pushing this game in the App Store, with the motley crew pictured above staring out at you from the flash screen. Without a familiarity with the physical board game, though, it's kind of hard to know what to make of it. Here's what's going on: Underneath the pretty fantasy graphics, Small World is a clever area control game, an almost completely luck-free strategy game that gives players a lot of great in-game choices. Each turn, you have a small number of tokens representing one of about a dozen tribes (trolls, halflings, tritons, etc.) that all have a random bonus power (one of twenty) attached. You send these little minions out to take over some territory and score points based on where you are at the end of your turn. Spread yourself too thin and you won't have much to do next turn. Stay too bunched up and you won't score enough points to win. In short, the game is brilliant if you're looking for something a little more strategic than Risk and don't need a twitchy tapping experience to have fun. Read on to find out all just how big Small World can be.


The Game

Long-time gamers will recognize Small World's mechanics from the 1999 board game Vinci. Vinci, a solid game, got the fantasy-theme upgrade in 2009 from Days of Wonder, the company that is also fully supporting the iPad app. The key to all versions of the game is understanding how the tribes work with their randomly assigned bonus powers, and it takes a few plays to figure out how they can be maximized. Each of the tribes also has an inherent special power which can, if you're lucky, mesh wonderfully with the bonus power. Sometimes, though, based on what's happening on the board, a less-than-ideal combination is exactly the right one to choose and make a few strategic attacks on your opponent's strongholds.

Wait. Choose? When do you choose a tribe? Each player gets one at the beginning of their first turn, and makes attacks with a set number of tokens. After a few turns, you'll need to wipe your get rid of your first tribe in favor of a new one. When to do this (and it's common to "go into decline," as it's called, twice per game) is just one of the delightful challenges of playing Small World well.

The standard rule is that it takes two tokens to conquer a territory. Each thing in that territory (e.g., an opposing token, a mountain, some sort of fortification) adds one to the number of tokens needed. Since most tribes only start out with around ten tokens and you can lose tokens in a fight, you can't just march across the board wiping out enemies left and right. Instead, Small World is a game of clever expansion and knowing when to risk one more attack and when to go into decline. There's too much strategy to get into here, but Board Game Geek has a lot of good discussion. You can also see the full rules here. We recommend getting the app and learning through playing. If you're interested, don't wait to pick up the app; the $5 price is likely to go up at some point.

The App

The first version of Small World on the iPad had a lot of flaws. There was no tutorial, games were not saved and not all of the tribes from the basic board game were present Thankfully, because we waited to get the 3G iPad, DOW has had time to upgrade the app and these complaints have been addressed. Now – we reviewed version 0.92 which was released just a week ago – all of the tribes and special powers from the base game are present and accounted for, except for the Diplomat tribe, which is something we can live with. We haven't had time to test out all of the race-bonus power combinations, but everything we've tested seems to have been programmed correctly.

The app features the same two-player map that's in the cardboard box version of Small World. The graphics are gorgeous and replicate the physical board game almost perfectly. When you drag tokens from off the side of the board and onto a target area, your supply shows how many tokens it will take to win that space. The one random aspect of gameplay (aside from how the tribes and powers match up) is the reinforcement die, which dominates the screen when rolled. It also seemed to come up empty just when we needed it most. Given all of the record keeping the app does for you, playing a game on the iPad is much, much faster than the board game (think 10-15 minutes instead of 30).

Of course, there are problems. The two big ones, as anyone who has tried out the app has discovered, are that there is no AI opponent and the game is limited to two players. The board game can handle up to five. If we could only get one of these two options implemented, we'd be hard pressed to pick one. Maybe an AI opponent would be nicer, because if you've got five people, you'll probably want to pull out the larger board game to play. But, we noticed that you can zoom in and scroll around in the map, which makes us think that a larger map with more people might be on the horizon. For now, we're happy that an AI opponent has been promised, "further down the road." And, while we understand why this app is iPad-only given the real estate needed to show the Small World board, that doesn't mean we don't wand a mini version for our iPhone or a more-crowded multiplayer option on the iPad. Oh, and some sort of internet play would be wonderful, too. And an undo button. Sometimes you just tap the wrong thing at the wrong time.

There was one other issue that we haven't seen noted elsewhere. We were not able to recreate this problem, but supposedly there were times when our Fortified Skeletons should have been able to attack a region but instead of the green outline saying "go ahead," we got the red outline that indicated we could not attack that area. We may have misread some information somewhere (maybe we didn't have the tokens we thought we had?), but it might be a problem. Anyone else notice this?

For the most part, Small World is a game of perfect information, making it ideal on the iPad. The only thing kept hidden is a player's score. You always know how many points a player received each turn – and watching the app calculate a player's score at the end of the game is a great way to learn scoring for anyone who plays the board game and is still a little confused about how powers interact. The physical game rules are complicated enough that this game requires a lot of clarifications – but once tallied, the chips are kept face down. In the app, you can tap your point pile to see your score. The rules suggest cupping your hand around your score while you do this to keep the total a secret. One suggestion: make it impossible to tap your opponent's score pile on your turn to peek at their score. It just seems wrong to allow.

Looking ahead, we can't help but wonder what else could be introduced into this great app. We always like to listen to our iTunes music while we're playing, but the app doesn't allow that. And how about some of the fan expansions or a randomly generated board. We know these things aren't officially supported by Days of Wonder for the board game, but it seems they could be added to the app without too much hassle. As for official expansions, you can bet your bottom dollar that they're coming. Anyone who knows Days of Wonder (makers of the expansion-heavy Memoir '44 and BattleLore) knows that it's only a matter of time. In fact, three official mini-expansions – Cursed!, Grand Dames of Small World and Leaders – and some fan-created add-ons (PDF) are available for the physical game with more on the way. We admit we're already waiting for them to enter the iPad. When they do, we'll be ready.