Tuesday 24 April 2012

Small World Underground

The original Small World is a fast-playing strategy game for up to 5 players who take turns commanding quirky races conquering provinces on a map which quickly becomes crowded.

The mechanics ensure that each race reaches the limit of their ability to expand in about three turns, encouraging players to place the race into decline and move on to another race. This results in waves of expansion which are more dynamic than a typical 'province control' game where players gradually accumulate ever larger stacks of counters (such as RISK).

The Underground sequel introduces a number of new game elements, adding a certain amount of complexity and uncertainty to the gameplay.

Relics are powerful magical items that provide new powers. The relics move to wherever they are used and therefore usually end up on the frontlines where they are exposed to counterattack and seizure by other players. For example a magical rug (shown in image below) allows your force to fly anywhere on the map, giving you the option of a surprise attack behind the front lines but then leaves the rug in that spot.

Places are stationary sources of additional income or abilities, such as a deep mine providing extra income or a keep providing defences and income (shown in picture below). They often become the focus for savage battles between the races as successive waves of invaders try to seize them for advantage.

While it could be argued that relics and places are too central to winning and therefore detract from what was a more balanced, free-for-all approach in the original game I would counter that there is a valid winning strategy in avoiding relics and places altogether. Maintaining a low profile and staying out of bloody wars can boost income as much or more than holding a mine for a short time.

Similar to the original Small World game, each race is randomly matched with a power. As these combinations vary each time you play the game will remain fresh for longer, throwing up new twists that change how each race plays and adds a degree of strategic choice about when to activate a specific race. Some powers encourage cannibalisation of your declined race while others may provide income when other players attack you. They may also give specific advantages linked to terrain, not having neighbours of another race and so on. This provides a strong influence on tactics.

The map has a dark colour theme, well suited to the underground realms it seeks to depict. A major feature is the river which divides the map, providing either an obstacle to expansion or a highway for rapid conquest depending on which race you control.

The game ships with multiple maps, each adapted to suit a certain number of players. This is a very welcome addition that should be adopted by other game makers.

Because of the way the river splits the board it could cause the game to split into two separate battlefields, however if the aquatic Kraken and Lizardmen come into play or if the rug or pipes are in play then this counteracts this tendency. Any race with the Quarrelling attribute may also find the river useful as a way of quickly expanding into pockets of occupation to maximise their income.

Counters are of good quality with distinctive graphics, using colours, icons and illustrations to allow easy identification. They are also sufficiently thick to make it easy to pick them up. Reverse side is used for when the race is in decline.

Game play is fast, with the situation on the board changing rapidly with each player turn. The objective is to accumulate victory coins which are rewarded primarily from province control exerted both by the active race and the race in decline for each player at the end of his or her turn. Coins are kept face down, making it difficult to track the exact position of each player and victory thus remains uncertain until the very last turn and counting of coins.

The game ends when the turn marker has reached the last position (nine turns for a 5-player game) so typically each player will control three races, two of which will have been put into decline.

Overall this is an excellent game for a small group and I would definitely recommend checking it out.

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