Board games can be amazing but they can become a bitterly expensive disappointment if you can’t get to grips with them or find the game-play uninspiring. You can read reviews on sites like boardgamegeek.com and watch play-sessions on web-series like Tabletop but the best thing you can do is get some hands-on experience before you shell out the big bucks. If you’re lucky enough to have a local gaming group you can play test to your heart’s content. Not everyone has that opportunity, though. One nifty alternative has been quietly growing on the tablet market, and it makes real economic sense too – electronic adaptations. Classics like Scrabble and Monopoly will always be strong sellers due to brand recognition but the arrival of geektastic games like Forbidden Island, Lords of Waterdeep and Carcassonne on the digital scene has opened up brand new frontiers for curious-but-frugal folk like me. I don’t see them really replacing the physical versions but they’re a cracking way to try before you buy, and also let you work up new tactics between ‘proper’ gaming sessions.
Take Smallworld, now. Smallworld is a game that pits players against each other to conquer territories and earn the most victory points in a limited number of rounds. There are a variety of fantasy-based races and special abilities, the random combinations of which give the players their troops and unique advantages. I was introduced to Smallworld at my local gaming group, and it looked brilliant. Unfortunately the people who brought it were not great at explaining how it all worked, and we’ve never had the opportunity to play it since. The physical game retails at anything between £25 and £35, depending on where you go. On the other hand, the i-pad version costs around £6.99 (though I snagged it half price in a sale). It was a total no-brainer and I’ve been hooked on it for weeks now. For clarity, I should say that the Smallworld 2 app is not a sequel to Smallworld, it is an improved version of the original digital release, funded by droves of fans in a Kickstarter campaign a few years back. Expansions are available via in-app purchase, but I’ll talk about them later.
If you’ve never played the game before, you’re going to want to watch the tutorial video. It’s right there on the first screen and is blissfully concise. The voice work may be grating as hell, but it tells you all the basics. Grit your teeth and get through it. Once you’re done with that it takes no time at all to start a game – and the range of options you have in this regard is pretty impressive. The solo game is perfect for practising on, allowing you to play against up to four computer AIs at a time. You get to control or randomise who goes first, and you have all the time you want to figure things out because nobody is breathing down your neck waiting for their turn. Are you just on a short break at work? Not a problem. The game remembers where you are and saves it for next time you turn the app on. Your best scores are recorded, so you can see how well your tactics are paying off. Feel like you’ve got to grips with it? Start challenging real people. You can compete with your bitterest rival in a face to face battle; pass your tablet between human and/or computer opponents for a broader scale conflict; play over a local area network so you don’t have to share your device with a bunch of screen-smearing oafs; or head into the wild blue yonder of the internet to challenge generals from all over the globe.
The adaptation faithfully recreates the images from the board game and keeps things as simple as possible. There’s no need to count how many troops are on a given location because the number is written right there for you. You don’t need to calculate how many troops you need in order to conquer a territory because the app figures it out. Rule wrinkles are handled with consummate ease: Get extra troops in a given circumstance? Sucking victory points from your rival? Automatically done. The focus remains on picking your targets, redeploying your troops afterwards, and sending your race into decline when it looks like you should switch to a different race. Any time you want to check what your abilities do (or even those of your opponents) you can click on the player and it’s all there laid out for you. This really helps you develop your strategies for both attack and defence. There’s not a huge amount of animation but the troop placement is smooth, the menus hidden nicely until needed, and the scoring is beautifully clear. The sound work is crisp but nothing to write home about. I’d like to hear different sounds and phrases to help bring character to the different races, or give a bit of personality to the AI opponents.
As with the physical game, expansions are available to purchase. Each will set you back two or three quid, but don’t sweat it. None of them are essential to play the game. They just provide you with a few new race and ability options. The additional cost would seem harsh to a new player, so I’d wait a while before forking out. If you’re still hooked later on, you’ll find the expansions are a swell way to shake things up, particularly if you keep playing with the same few people. It’s a hugely popular game, and deservedly so. It’s easy to pick up, has great variation of play, and a world of opponents in easy reach. I can see me playing it for years to come. Here’s the irony – I managed to borrow a copy of the physical game recently and was horrified at how many bits and pieces you have to fiddle about with. Troop tokens all over the place! The set up takes a while and putting it all back again at the end is a nightmare. I can see arguments breaking out about whether rules have been followed and whether victory points have been counted correctly. Pieces are bound to be lost and boards are begging to be jogged, messing everything up. Electronic adaptations are an amazing gateway to the physical board game, but you know what? In this case I’m going to stick with what I’ve got. Smallworld 2 on the i-pad. Brilliant game, brilliantly converted. You should give it a go.
GS Rating: 4/5
GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak
Track me down for a game if you like. I’m down as DionWP.