The fantasy boardgame Small World succeeds in a world bloated with fantasy boardgames because it forces us to do something we are, as geeks, very loath to do: let go.
At a casual glance you might consider it to be just another fantasy game of world domination (with a delightful Pratchett-like feel).
There’s a world map, resource management, units to deploy and attack with and a host races with their own unique strengths and weaknesses.
But Small World sets itself apart with a single key mechanic: going into decline.
When your horde of rampaging Orcs has pillaged and conquered as much as they possibly can you’re presented with a unique question: Should you keep going and try and milk every last little point (coins) you can with them? Or give up a turn, go into decline and start anew with a completely different race?
The trick is to know when it’s time for your race to fade away in favor of a new one — granted, all the traditional strategy elements from other fantasy boardgames are still there too.
If you go into decline too soon, you risk the coins you could yet gain from their continued expansion. Too late, you risk those a new race could earn you as they conquer the map for the first time.
It’s a tricky decision, and one that’s not easily made for my particular brand of geekdom.
My Orcs, smelly, uncouth beasts that they are, quickly wormed their way into my heart with their unchecked aggression (they earn bonus coins for conquering territories) and expansion. As they pillaged the countryside I developed an attachment to their short, stumpy tusks and all-too-familiar pot-bellies.
Deciding to go into decline and let them fade into the ages was a very, very difficult decision for me.
Each time I develop a race and march across the world — singing stories of their glories and achievements as I go — I also plot their eventual demise.
It’s an uncomfortable experience.
By the end of the game you may have played as three or four difference races, all eventually resigned to the history books. Orcs, trolls, ghouls, wizards, whatever.
It’s this mechanic that gives the game its unique edge, and while it brings a new strategic choice the player has to make, it also forces that player to do something rather contrary to his nature: let go and start anew.
For somebody like me, who likes to roleplay, who likes to develop a relationship with the civilization that I’m controlling, then it’s a game of many uncomfortable decisions.
But fun ones.
- This article was originally written by Dominic Davies in 2013.