Days of Wonder’s game Small World is one of our favorite casual strategy games, one that presents players with a small number of complex decisions, relies much more on strategy and skill than on chance, that replays well, and that looks great. They’ve now released Small World for iPad (not for the iPod or iPhone, though) as a two-player game, user versus user or user versus AI, and outside of a few small glitches in gameplay, it looks great and has the best live two-player experience we’ve found so far, although I’d still say Carcassonne is the best overall boardgame app.
The concept in Small World is one of constrained resources. The map is small and its territories will be rapidly filled up by the two players. The players each select a race & skill combination from the table (one is free, others cost from one to five coins) with which to conquer territories, but those races don’t come with many tokens, and since you must have at least two to take over an empty territory and have to use one token to hold a territory you’ve taken, you run out quickly and must put your civilization into “decline” so you can select a new one. You earn a point for every territory you hold at the end of your turn, plus various bonuses. And the decision on when to decline your current race skill/combination will also be based on when your opponent declines or is about to do so, on what options are available on the board, and on how many points you’re still getting from the last civilization you declined, which will most likely disappear when you decline a second one. (For more on the boardgame itself, you might want to read my review of it from last July. The issue I raised about the Diplomatic skill has been solved in the iPad version by eliminating that skill altogether.)
The game’s best feature, by far, is the mimicking of the tabletop by allowing for two players to face each other on opposite sides of the iPad; the player control bars appear on the top and bottom (viewed lengthwise) and the board doesn’t rotate. Pass-and-play isn’t really a hassle, but this is much easier, and given how much the iPad cost I feel a little better about just letting the thing sit on the table while we play. The game also allows you to choose a start player or have it determined randomly, and even lets you choose background music from your iTunes library.
Play is mostly intuitive, with simple drag-and-drop moves and clearly marked buttons for things like redeploying tokens or declining (click on your main race card and it gives you Info and Decline options). Instructions and key details on races and skills are easily available in-game. It offers no undo option if you should drag-and-misdrop, however, and the game doesn’t allow you to save certain skills (like the Sorceror’s ability) till the end of your turn, automatically moving you to redeployment if you’ve used all of your tokens. The graphics in Small World are outstanding, crystal-clear replicas of the physical game pieces, with even smaller tokens easy to discern.
The AI player is adequate, but no great shakes. It avoids stupid errors and usually chooses its race/skill combination well, but would probably be better served with a more aggressive attacking mode and faster recognition of impending doom (I’ve found that the right race/skill combo can wipe the AI off the map, depending on who the AI chose in the first place.) Like that of most AI players in other games, its short-term thinking is better than its long-term thinking. But if you’re just learning the game or enjoy a quick game even though you’re about 80-90% likely to win, it does the job.
What Small World for the iPad needs most of all is online multiplayer. They offer it for their Ticket to Ride app, which doesn’t have local multiplayer; both apps have in-app upgrades available, but I’d like to see them focus on nuts and bolts like these.