Small World 2 – PC
Developer: Days of Wonder
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Release Date: December 11, 2013
Genre: Board Games
Nerd Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Reviewed by Malefico
This game is deceptively difficult, frequently frustrating and incredibly enjoyable.
Developed from the Days of Wonder board game of the same name, which itself is an evolution of the creator’s (Philippe Keyaerts) 1999 tabletop game “Vinci,” Small World 2 is a casual/strategy game with surprising depth and complexity. While it’s easy to learn the basic mechanics, it’s far more challenging to win.
There are a number of different types of matches available. Most are turn-based, while one of the online match types is described as real-time.
The controls are the paragon of simplicity; simply grab some troops from your available units and drag them around the map. Any territory in which you can battle is outlined in green. Spaces that either have too many enemies, are protected by Special Powers, or are out of your reach are highlighted in red.
You start with five Victory Coins and the opportunity to choose the Race with which you’ll begin the game.
Gameplay is organized into turns, with each round lasting ten turns. These are further subdivided into familiar war board game segments. There is a Conquest (Combat) phase and a Deployment phase. Players are awarded Victory Coins based on the number of regions they occupy at the end of each turn, adjusted for various bonuses. As an example, players may receive extra coins for conquering a specific type of terrain or capturing an occupied space. Regions occupied by enemy or neutral troops require more of your own soldiers to take over. If you lack sufficient units to absorb a space, you can opt to roll a virtual six-sided die to determine if you are successful. This die is special in that only the numbers one through three are represented; the other three sides are blank. When rolling, you can receive anything from no help to three additional “lucky” units that enable you to monopolize the region, at least for a while.
Players start with a finite number of available troops, and this pool shrinks each time they expand into new territory. Players also lose one available army if they are booted out of a space, except for the Elves who retain all troops for use on the next turn.
During any turn before taking an action, a player can decide to go into Decline. If this choice is made, the player surrenders any reinforcements. Each occupied territory is held by one of his/her troops, which are “turned over” and can no longer move or fight, but merely defend the spaces until they are taken over by a hostile force (Exception: The Ghoul race still moves and fights as if they were alive with whatever remaining strength they had when put into Decline.). However, the player still scores points on spaces occupied by any of his Declined armies, sometimes even modified by bonuses.
During combat, a player can choose to abandon captured territories to increase the number of available troops for the combat round, however, this proved to be costly on numerous occasions and I ended up earning fewer VC than I would have if I had left well-enough alone.
Following so far? OK, here’s where the game gets interesting. There are 28 different races, each with their own unique abilities and 36 Special Powers. Only some of them are available with the original version of Small World 2, while the rest come with DLC, purchased separately. These are combined randomly at the start of the game to provide a vast array of capabilities for you and your opponents. They are organized by their cost in Victory Coins. The top choice costs no VC, while those beneath cost an increasing amount.
The fact that you never know how the options will be combined and which ones your enemy will choose means there is no “correct” strategy and that players are never safe from attack, no matter how carefully they expand and reinforce.
The Bottom Line
The graphics in Small World 2 are perfectly acceptable. Given that it’s a turn-based game, animations are minimal yet adequate. The POS handled this game with no problem, and it would no doubt function well even on a system that had no discrete GPU, although very old configurations might struggle a bit. The music, a jaunty tune that never changes, quickly becomes old. Luckily, you can mute both the track and the sound effects. SFX are OK. Repetitive, but again, given the relatively simple nature of the game world, this is not unforgivable.
As initially stated, the game itself is deceptively complex and adept at tossing the player curve balls just when one thinks one is doing well. Against the AI, the player always goes first. The rules of the AI seem to be simple but brutally effective. It tends to perceive weaknesses, whether the player has overextended (which happens without fail, thus the ability to go into Decline), or the AI just chooses a force that is more agile in the field, it frequently delivers the smackdown on unwary humans. I must have played about 100 matches of Small World 2 since I downloaded it, and I’ve only won about 10% of the matches. Granted, I played quite a few and got pimp-slapped by the AI before I wised up and read the rules more in-depth, but still… Well done on the humbling experience, Days of Wonder.
I found it was actually easier to play against humans (sometimes) than to challenge the AI. At least people occasionally make mistakes. In my experience, the AI only really fumbled once when I Declined on the second turn. That seemed to throw the computer into a repetitive pattern of abandoning and redeploying itself fruitlessly. Aside from that one match, the AI proved to be far more resilient than most formulaic opponents in turn-based or even RTS games.
Small World 2 is immensely entertaining. Its replay value is extremely high, given that each game is entirely different whether you’re playing AI or human adversaries.
I even have to give this game props (and points) for being so devilishly discouraging. Aside from the multitude of matches I completed, there were numerous occasions when I got myself hopelessly into a hole early on (VC-wise), nerd-raged, cursed the game, and walked away from it. It kept drawing me back, though, which is something I’ve rarely experienced with respect to any video game, old or new. I have to say, I’ve never enjoyed having my posterior presented to me over and over again with quite the same mixture of annoyance and resolve to try again and do better.
In this day of cookie-cutter FPS offerings and other hackneyed genres, it’s refreshing to find such a simple game that offers so much challenge and presents a totally different situation to the player each time a match starts. More and more, I’m thinking about ignoring major releases and focusing on titles released by smaller, independent developers. In my opinion, indie games are where the real action and enjoyment of the pastime reside.
I have to say, I am thoroughly impressed with Small World 2. If they had taken just a little longer to include different music, or better yet, thrown in a feature that allowed you to stack up MP3’s jukebox style, this game would be well-nigh perfect. Anyone who’s played Risk or any of the Milton Bradley Gamemaster Series (the rights to some of these were later acquired by Wizards of the Coast, who re-released several and also introduced expansions), or any turn-based board war game will thoroughly enjoy this digital adaptation while hopefully appreciating the subtleties of the title. While it’s similar to these, Small World 2 offers its own special gaming experience.
I have to give Small World 2 8.5 out of 10. Now, I’m going to post this and play some more Small World 2.
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