Small World for iPad is a two-player-only version implemented to run on Apple’s latest gee-gaw, the iPad. Much has been written about the potential for boardgaming on the iPad, and Small World is one of the first Eurogames to make the leap to the device, although many more will doubtless be along shortly.
Last night I got a chance to play a game (and a half) of Small World on a friend’s iPad — and given that I am in the UK where the iPad is not yet available, this was especially exciting! So what did I think?
- The very first thing to say is that it’s a great app. For anyone with an iPad who loves games and has at least one friend to play with, then it is well worth the entirely reasonable £2.99 ($4.99) cost.
- The second thing to say is that it isn’t perfect, but neither is it finished, since the current version is only v0.91.
- And the third thing to say is that I am more interested in the potential and capacity of the medium as gaming platform, and less in the specifics of Small World, an app about which I shall now try very hard to be critical.
With all that said, how did we get on? Both of us approached the game without having ever played the cardboard version. Being a true geek I had downloaded and read the rules when the boardgame was published, but my opponent knew nothing about the game. For us, then, the game was a voyage of discovery. We had no meaningful preconceptions about how the game would work, what actions we as players needed to take, how long the game would last, etc., so we came to the experience cold. We switched on the device, tapped the icon, and waited to see what would happen next.
Visually, the game is a treat, but then this comes as no surprise. Days of Wonder have a great reputation for fantastic artwork, and that artwork looked at its best on the iPad’s brilliantly sharp and clear screen.
The launch menu offers players four choices: Play, Quick Rules, Full Rules, or The Boardgame. We tried the Quick Rules and the first thing it said was that the game needed to be played by two people seated face-to-face across a table, and that the device should be laid flat between them. This was fine for us, but it is an inflexible arrangement. The iPad is small enough to be taken anywhere and players will not always have a handy table to play on. Indeed, demanding that they do somewhat subverts the entire purpose of boardgaming on a handheld device. What if the players are seated side-by-side and wanted to hold the device and pass it back and forth? In its current incarnation the app does not support this, and indeed would actively frustrate any attempt to do so.
The remainder of the Quick Rules did an efficient job of giving us an overview of what happens in each turn, but there is little affordance in the game for the complete newbie. There is no ‘tutorial’ mode, for example, where the actions and decisions of the game are played out with the board and pieces in view. The Quick Rules are a single scrollable ‘page’ of information: well presented, but not very easy to use. A better implementation, perhaps, would be to break the information into screen-sized blocks to avoid scrolling, and then present a series of ‘bookmarks’ along the top of the screen so that readers could easily page through the rules in order, but could also return to specific sections if needed. Another benefit of this is that it would instantly communicate both the structure and the length of the rules.
Also, there is no obvious way once you’ve started playing to exit and revisit the rules. We were content to stumble through our first few turns, discovering and intuiting what was going on from how the game reacted to our actions, but being able to bring up the Quick Rules for reference during play would definitely be useful for some players.
Let battle commence
Back at the launch menu you can tap ‘Play’ to get things going. The first decision each player makes at the start of their first turn is the choice of race. There are six choices presented in a vertical stack, and here the iPad implementation is able to do much more than the cardboard, since the player is free to tap on each possible choice and instantly see the race’s powers displayed and explained. Choosing the top race is free, but to choose from further down the stack costs the player one victory point for each step, and the app clearly animates this by showing victory points, in the form of small octagonal ‘coins’, moving from the player’s victory point counter to alongside the races.
One oddity: each race is a combination of a power and a people (Pillaging Giants, Seafaring Tritons, and such like) but the main display shows the people first, and the power second, reversing the natural order. This means you tap on Pillaging Giants (for example) and the screen tells you about Giants first and Pillaging second. It’s simply the wrong way round.
Once you’ve chosen an active race the game starts in earnest. To the complete newbie, the ‘board’ and other game information appears relatively complex, and I felt that the app provided no ‘focus’ for what the player is immediately expected to do. This is really where a ‘tutorial’ mode would be useful. Experienced players do not need to be constantly reminded of what to do next, but it would be an enormous benefit to new players to be able to activate a sequence of overlaid panels or visual pointers that could lead them through the first couple of turns, or even an entire game.
Mappa mundi minor
The essence of the gameplay is the placement of your race tokens onto the map to conquer new regions and expand the race’s influence. On the iPad this is done by dragging the top token from your stack over the map. As you do this each region is outlined in green or red to let you know which regions are legally playable, and the stack dynamically changes to provide feedback on how many tokens in total each possible legal move will require. This sort of visual feedback and rules enforcement is, of course, exactly where an electronic implementation of any game beats the cardboard edition hands-down. However, I think Small World could do more.
The feedback is good, but the problem is that comes after the event. In the case of dragging tokens to illegal regions, the region only gains a red outline after you drag your token over it. For me, a better and more instantly readable way of showing this could be to visually indicate these possibilities before I begin to drag my tokens around the board.
Each race (generally) may only enter the landscape around the edge, and from there (generally) may only expand into regions adjacent to occupied regions. One way to explain this would be to ‘dim’ those regions that cannot be reached at any particular time. Doing so would bring the legal placements visually to the foreground, providing exactly the sort of ‘focus’ that I mentioned, while still allowing the entire map to be read. So, at the beginning, only the regions around the edge would be ‘lit up’, and once the first region had been occupied, only those regions adjacent to it would be.
The possible progress of each race onto and across the board would then be revealed without the player having to experimentally drag tokens to regions only to have, after the action, the illegality of the move revealed. In this implementation there would be no need for the ‘noise’ of green and red highlighting. Legal regions could subtly highlight as the player dragged the token over them, but there would be no need for feedback over illegal regions, and if the player let go of the token there it would simple snap back to the stack.
Hiding in plain sight
One interesting aspect of the game, and hence of the implementation, is that a player’s score is effectively hidden. In each turn the amount by which a player’s score increases is public, but the incremental total is secret. The notion of hidden information, data intended to be known to one or more players but not to their opponents, will be a headache for any iPad game, and is something cardboard does better. In the cardboard edition of Small World, the victory points are earned as cardboard coins which are then stashed face-down.
The makers of the iPad edition are fortunate that this is the only hidden information the game requires, and have implemented a workable solution. In the corner of the screen facing each player there is a coin image which can be tapped and ‘flipped over’. The rules suggest players do this by shielding this area of the screen with one hand when they tap it. This not perfect, but it works and is fun. However, the nature of the iPad, which offers by definition a single public surface, is a hurdle to any game with hidden information, the presence of which is a feature of many, many Eurogames. This limitation will greatly limit the number of type of boardgames that can wholly and successfully make the jump to the iPad or any other tablet device.
Another important aspect of Small World is that, in addition to its information being almost entirely public, its choices are almost entirely deterministic; that is, there is hardly any luck. Recreating luck-driven mechanics in an electronic implementation of a game is relatively straightforward. In Small World there is a single die that is thrown, if necessary, during the final conquest of a player’s turn, possibly giving them a one-time boost. In game design terms its a nice way to introduce a little bit of ‘push your luck’ into a game that would otherwise be entirely strategic. My problem with this is that nowhere does the game tell me what odds the die represents. If I had the cardboard edition I could pick up the die and physically inspect it. In Small World for iPad the die is manifest as an animation that each time randomly reveals one side of the die, but we were both frustrated at never being able to find out the true balance of probabilities.
Small World, big difference
It’s a small issue, but, I think, a revealing one. We can attempt to mimic the physicality of real-world boardgames on touchscreen devices, but however good this mimicry, it seems likely that it must always impose limits on the game’s discoverability and on players’ ability to seek to understand the game and its components in a way that is personal and meaningful to them. The device, whatever its form, abstracts the player from experiencing the game directly, at least in the traditional sense. And remember that the game itself, whatever its form, is also an abstraction.
Any game is an intellectual model, and players must first interpret that model and then create there own patterns of physical behaviour, in terms of their interaction with the game components, before they can play confidently. Traditional games describe the model within their rules, but do not necessarily seek to define the players’ behaviour; in any case players are free to do as they please, creating patterns that make personal sense to them.
The coming breed of boardgames, of which Small World for iPad is an exemplar, unfortunately cannot avoid going further. The upside is that the game’s intellectual model can be better regulated through feedback and in-built rules enforcement; the downside is that the players’ physical behaviour must also become regulated, which will inevitably reduce a player’s ability to develop a more personal and, perhaps, more emotional relationship with the game.
As I said, Small World for iPad isn’t perfect, but it’s a good start and great value. But whether it, and all the iPad boardgames yet to come, can or should convince a new generation of boardgamers to abandon cardboard is another matter.