I’ve never played Small World, a fantasy boardgame published by Days of Wonder, the creators of gateway boardgame Ticket to Ride, the frustratingly frivolous Memoir ’44, and the oddly complex add-on boondoggle Battlelore. Days of Wonder does their thing pretty well, even if that thing isn’t my thing. And I have the big fat boxes at the bottom of the stacks in my closet to prove it.

But what better way to ring in a new iPad than with an iPad only game you’ve been curious about for so long? So now I’ve played Small World. It’s utterly brilliant. This iPad version, on the other hand…

After the jump, stout wizards, swamp orcs, and bivouacked halflings

The problem with reviewing ports of tabletop games is that it’s difficult to sort the tabletop game from the port. Where do you draw the line in a critical discussion? If I dislike Summoner Wars — and boy do I dislike Summoner Wars — what am I supposed to do when the port itself is actually pretty good? And if I adore Le Havre, should it get extra points when I’m talking about the somewhat clunky iOS adaptation? Nightfall is such a weird beast on the tabletop, so how much should I hold that against the port? And what kind of uninformed doofus spends days delighted by Ascension with no idea that it’s a port of an actual real-world tabletop game? Don’t answer that last one.

At least with the iPad version of Small World, I’m clear on what’s what. As a boardgame, on the tabletop, from a design perspective, I am astonished that I’ve been missing out on Small World for so long. It’s a triumph of simplicity, depth, variety, and imagination. The basics of players taking turns dropping a handful of tiles on a map to conquer territory, and scoring a single point for each territory, are as easy as could be. There’s even the slightest dash of die-rolling randomness, but only once and only at the end of your turn. This is arguably the simplest gameplay in any Days of Wonder game (you know you still get briefly confused about the train colors, card colors, and route colors in Ticket to Ride, the same way you have to stop and think for a second when you’re figuring out time zone changes).

But Small World’s ultimate brilliance is in the special rules for each player’s handful of tiles. By randomly matching races and adjectives, each with their own rules tweak, and then letting players choose from a list of dynamically generated factions, Small World is a masterfully elegant fantasy world generator. Behold the financial prowess of the merchant ratmen, the insidious threat of underworld skeletons, the rampant military might of berserk amazons, the impregnable dragon master halflings, the unstoppable spirit ghouls, the timeless endurance of stout elves, and the brief reign of wealthy dwarves! These are all the stuff of any detail-choked, fifteen hour, turn-based, 4X fantasy extravaganza. Yet here they are, each expressed simply, vividly, and cleverly, with each player getting to play a couple of them in a game that takes less than an hour, and with each game revealing its own unique cast of characters. No wonder Small World has so many expansions and follow-ups. Richness and simplicity rarely get along so well.

But then there’s the issue of this awful iPad version, which is little more than an ad for the boardgame. It’s a demo, really. A demo you have to pay to play. It expresses the basic brilliance of Small World, but in a limited context. The Small World boardgame scales for 2-5 players. But the iPad version only supports two players. Since it’s an iOS game, you’d expect asynchronous play, especially for something as streamlined as Small World, where each player gets ten turns, no more, no less, and no mucking around during another player’s turn. No such thing happens here. Instead, two players — and only two players — can play on the same iPad. There is no provision for online play, there is no provision for games with more than two players, and there is none of what Days of Wonder has accomplished in Ticket to Ride, an iOS adaptation that supports online play and a variety of configurations, or Memoir ’44 Online, a content rich free-to-play adaptation for the PC.

I’m also surprised at Small World’s crucial and amateurish interface issue of being unable to check what the other player’s pieces can do. Once your opponent has selected his race, that information is forever shut out of the game. Sure, you can call up information on your own race and the races available for selection later in the game. But the other player’s pieces currently in play remain a mystery. How does that not get fixed even after the game has been out for months?

As an iPad game, Small World is a big disappointment. But as an advertisement for the boardgame…well, I’ve just ordered the basic set and two of the expansions. Mission accomplished, Days of Wonder! There aren’t many iPhone games that end up costing me another $50 after I’ve bought them, much less disappointing iPhone games.

2 stars