Small World is an ingenious bit of design work for how it takes very simple rules and then breaks them in very simple ways. Every time you play, you create random pairings of races and traits, each of which alters the basic rules. You pick a faction from this lottery of randomly paired elements, and you play that faction until they’ve expanded as far as they can get. Then you pack it in for a new faction, leaving the old faction to linger for a while, earning you a few victory points until the remnants are picked off by younger thriving Johnnies-come-lately. It’s like world history. Greece, then Rome, then England, then America. But here it’s halflings, then giants, then sorcerers, then kobolds. I didn’t mean to equate America with kobolds. It just came out that way.
The beauty of Small World is how these combinations can surprise you. In a recent game against my iPad — games against humans are more gratifying, but not always an option at 11pm when you just want a quick fix — I happened across the priestesses, a modest race that gets to stack all its units into one region when it goes into decline. This is the priestesses’ ivory tower. The ivory tower is a convenient single target for marauding races who want to knock them out of the game completely, but until then it earns a hearty stack of victory points every turn. So you usually put the tower in the mountains, to help defend it. I mean, where else would you find any self-respecting ivory tower? In farmlands? On a plain?
In my game, the priestesses were paired with a trait called sea-faring. This means they’re the only faction who can occupy oceans. So as soon as they spread as far as they can go, as soon as I opt to pack it in to play a new race, it occurs to me that an ivory tower in the ocean can never be attacked. There is only ever one sea-faring race in a game, and since there’s no other way to attack or occupy an ocean territory, my ivory tower is basically impregnable. Overpowered? Perhaps. But the thing about balancing a game like this is that the other player could have just as easily gotten the sea-faring priestesses.
So my priestesses camped the ocean, recalling their glory days, raking in an extra six victory points per turn. My iPad’s rampaging wizards, then goblins, then amazons couldn’t do a thing about it. That was one of the few games I actually won.