War makes thrilling fiction and tragic, morally ambiguous reality, but it often leads to dreary board games. Conquering the globe can be such a chore! If you're sick of tedious battles and inevitable stalemates (I'm looking at you, Risk!) but still have a lust for conquest, consider Small World 2. This excellent Android game is a simplified spin on classic war gaming, but it adds unique tactical elements that will keep you playing again and again.
The Spoils of War
Before you can begin your multi-civilization mission of conquest and destruction, you have to fork over $6.99 at the Google Play store. That seems like a hefty price tag, but digital board games tend to skew a little more expensive than other apps. Considering the quality of the game, it's a small price to pay. Especially considering that the physical game it's based on costs $50.00.
You might be wondering why the game is called Small World 2. According to the publisher's website, that's because the game was entirely rewritten from its 2010 launch. If you've got the boxed version of Small World sitting on your shelf, don't worry. This is identical to the game you've played. Note that it doesn't include any of the elements from the Small World Underground or Small World Realms expansions to the physical game.
From within the app, however, you can buy any of the three expansion packs available for Small World for $1.99 each. Each adds new species to command and new abilities to enhance your troops. These mirror the existing print Cursed!, Grand Dames, and Be Not Afraid… expansions.
I had no trouble installing or playing Small World on my Nexus 9, which is a little surprising. From over a year of hands-on experience, I can tell you that the Nexus 9 isn't the best or most powerful tablet out there. More often than not, my time using it is spent cursing because an app crashed. Yet even on this modest and, frankly, unstable platform, Small World 2 plays just fine.
Small World 2 is available for Android devices of any size. Testing the game was a breeze, whether it was on my tablet or my Nexus 5x. Your iPhone-using friends aren't so lucky; they'll have to upgrade to an Apple tablet, like the iPad Air 2.
Right away, I was struck by how good Small World looks on Android. All the art from the original game has been perfectly recreated, but the menus and interface are all new. Backgrounds feature carefully made digital paintings, with a comical, whimsical bent, which is appropriate for a not-so-serious game.
In Small World 2, you assemble your forces and move to attack adjacent regions. Taking control of a new region requires two units, with additional units required to destroy any existing tenants. While Risk requires that every battle be fought with a dice roll, Small World is all about sheer numbers. If you have more units, you win the battle. Simple. At the end of each turn, you earn a gold piece for each territory you control. The player with the most gold at the end of the game is the winner. Even simpler.
To gather that sweet, sweet loot, you'll need to select the best species. Each player selects a different species (described by a noun, such as "Wizards"), each with their own special powers, with a randomly assigned ability (designated by an adjective, such as "Stout"). You might be commanding the flying orcs one day, and the next field flying elves against seafaring ghouls. For example, Rat Men get more units than other species. Seafaring Rat Men can invade the watery regions of the map, which would otherwise be off-limits. The combinations are amusing and make for endlessly variable play. You always choose which forces to field, but the combinations are randomly generated.
At the end of your turn you can make a last-ditch effort to take one more region with insufficient forces thanks to the reinforcement die. Roll it, and you'll receive zero to three additional units to win the day. It's a teensy bit of randomness that can lead to surprising upsets and keeps players on their toes.
Most other war games are based on endless attacks using the same armies, but Small World is multigenerational. At the start of any turn, you can put your species into Decline, which removes your forces from the board save for a single unit in each area you've conquered. On the next turn, you pick a new group to lead, and continue to get points from the regions still controlled by your previous team for as long as they control territory. Figuring out when your group has run its course and when it's time to choose another is the tactical crux of the game.
This Means Cyberwar
Games of Small World 2 are fast-paced and fun. Territory changes hands about as fast as player's fortunes rise and fall. The game gets trickier the more players you add, but the murderous madness increases at the same rate. It's not quite as ludicrous as party games like Spaceteam and Exploding Kittens, but it's close. Think of it as a tactical party game.
Small World is loads of fun as a regular board game, but it's also one of the most voluminous. Each box has three different maps for different numbers of players, species cards, matching ability cards, about a dozen tokens for each species, and the gold coins. It's a mess. As someone who loves to play board games, I find a version that captures all the fun without any of the mess to be worth the price of admission.
In addition to keeping track of the game's pieces, Small World 2 also keeps track of all the associated rules and abilities. If you don't know whether to choose Mounted Ghouls or Merchant Amazons, just tap to read what that team's abilities mean.
Small World 2 also streamlines other clunky parts of the game. It automatically rolls the reinforcement die, adds bonuses, executes special powers, tracks your current score, and makes it clear which regions can be conquered by a unit and which cannot. Each turn goes very smoothly and very quickly. In fact, it may be a little too quick. Many digital board games, like Carcassonne or Hearthstone, have a confirm button that ends your turn. Anything you do before you tap that button can be undone. Not so with Small World. Once you make a play, you can't take it back, so it pays to think ahead.
Face Your Opponent (or Not)
Small World 2 supports tabletop play, which is designed to have the tablet placed flat and played like a traditional board game. I really like this mode of play, and Small World 2 pulls it off far better than Forbidden Island. You can also play over local multiplayer, which requires all opponents to have the game installed, or in pass-and-play mode, in which opponents pass one device back and forth. You can play by yourself or with up to four other friends. Don't have friends? You can play against game-controlled bots, but even if you win you'll have lost at the game of friendship.
You can also take the game online, but this is where Small World 2 fell apart. Online multiplayer requires an account, but I wasn't able to log in or perform password recovery with the app. No problem, I thought. I'm a master tactician, I'll just create a new account. Sadly, my plans were foiled. The new account creation mechanism in the game is broken.
I eventually created an account through the publisher's website, which was easy enough, although I was dismayed that the system generated a username and password for me. Once I logged in, I had no trouble finding opponents. That's far better than my experience playing San Juan, where I waited an hour and found nary a soul.
Take Up Arms
I was skeptical when I first downloaded Small World 2, because my experience with board games on Android has been less than stellar. Carcassonne, for example, is an excellent game on iOS but the Android version is just awful. Small World 2, on the other, looks and plays great. It's an excellent way to play and share this board game on a tablet or phone.
But this otherwise excellent game is held back by a broken account creation system that makes online play harder than it needs to be. If that were fixed, it would be an easy Editors' Choice. For now, I'll give it a high score but recommend you buy it only if you have friends nearby to play with.