D-PADS AND DICE - Game throws twists in path to conquest

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In case you hadn't guessed from my previous columns, I'm very fond of games that are straightforward on the surface but have clever twists and hidden depths to them.

Small World is another game in that vein. Like a lot of board games over the years - Risk stands out most notably in my mind - Small World is a game about conquering your opponents and capturing more territory.

And indeed, like many games that look a bit like Risk, it has a world map, albeit a beautifully drawn one of a fantastical (and fictitious) continent. It also adds multiple playable factions, each with special abilities players can use to their advantage. But, unlike most conquest games, the factions are actually the centerpiece for the whole game.

Each faction - Elves, Amazons, Trolls, Humans, Sorcerers, etc. - not only has a special ability, but you assign a random additional bonus to each one. Maybe they can go in the water; maybe they have a crusading hero that gives them an edge in fighting. Everyone picks one, and then you go about playing.

You send your troops to take over territories on the board, although there's not much dice rolling involved. This goes by pretty quick, and everyone counts up the number of territories they have and scores points for how many they control after everyone takes a turn.

But after a turn or two, you'll find your resources getting spread increasingly thin and you'll have more and more difficulty spreading out.

Then the clever little idea that sets it apart from other games kicks in.

At any time in the game you can skip a turn and your faction goes into "decline." You stop using those pieces and start over fresh with new ones. The existing ones give you fewer points and can't really do much else, but you get a whole new bunch of pieces to send out, with new abilities.

In other words, Small World is really less of a straight-up conquest game and more one of the turning tides of history. The traces of previous factions and moves can actually stick around and affect the game over the long term.

The fortresses built by Trolls, for instance, stay in the spaces they occupied and create a permanent defense bonus. And you even need to consider the placement of the faction you used, as you need to retake those areas from their remnants.

The game puts a lot of emphasis on what decisions you make, and the immediate consequences of your choices are usually pretty obvious. The random elements that do exist keep it from getting boring.

If you want a good way to make your mark on the tides of history, play Small World. The board game was designed by Philippe Keyaerts and is published in the United States by Days of Wonder, with a suggested retail price of $49.99.

Walla Wallan Noah Hinz is a tabletop and electronic games aficionado. He's currently a graphic arts student the Evergreen State College, working on various art projects and game designs. He can be reached at noahhinz@gmail.com.

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