Long read: Who is qualified to make a world?

In search of the magic of maps.

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App of the Day: Small World

Over all.

The idea of a Small World may have been around forever, but what really imprinted it in our collective subconscious was good old Walt Disney. For a theme park ride, he wanted a tune with words that could easily translate into any other language - and the Sherman brothers, his in-house composers, delivered. It's a comforting song, one meant to inspire thoughts of fraternity and far-off relatives. We're all in it together!

Small World's first impact is its vicious inversion of the title. Here the fact that everyone's not too far apart is the prelude to conquest, empires that rise and fall over the course of 10 minutes and a never-ending stream of battles. It's probably a bit closer to the truth.

The playing area is a world map divided into chunks, certain of which have characteristics: ocean can only be captured by seafaring races, mountains are easier to defend, and so on. At the start of the game these chunks are occupied, but any crazy natives are soon boshed out of the way in the name of progress and empire-building. Two players take turns to conquer certain regions, using a limited number of attacking tokens per turn, through combat that equates to higher number beating smaller number.

The twist is that, through losing tokens in these battles, your current race becomes weaker every turn. When they're becoming ineffective, you can enter the empire they've constructed into decline - which means you choose a new race for the next turn, and the old one turns grey. You can't move them anymore, but they man the barricades with basic defences, holding those positions and collecting gold until they're removed by force.

This mechanic gives each game its own rhythm, with the ever-present option of entering decline letting you rapidly shift tactics. Certain races like the Ghouls are designed specifically to die - cover an especially wide spread then enter them in decline, and they'll remain under your control with their full strength while you use the next race. It forces your opponent to fight on two fronts and mop up loads of itty-bitty regions, while you make money hand over fist and overwhelm weak defences with numbers.

Small World's replayability comes from the ingenious way it creates the races anew for each game. Each one has an adjective and a noun which are randomised - the last game I played had Alchemist Humans, Heroic Trolls, Hill Tritons and Dragon Master Ghouls.

Each adjective carries its own ability. For example, an Alchemist race gets extra gold at the end of every turn in which they're still being used, while Dragon Masters get a dragon to destroy one enemy settlement each turn. Quite apart from the adjectives, the races themselves are wildly differentiated: Ratmen rely on strength in numbers, whereas Trolls set up defensive lairs in conquered regions, while Skeletons increase their numbers by conquering more and more land.

This simple twist in the names creates a rich mix of possibilities, one in which you always end up with an edge your opponent hasn't got and vice versa. Certain attributes also feed into the 'decline' period, so you quickly become wise in maximising a new race's abilities and moving on to another that complements what's on the board.

The only caveat with Small World is that you really need a board game buddy - though the app is a great conversion of the source, it lacks online play. That's terrible news, of course, but it does make every game feel like a bit of an event - because Small World is worth it. The battling couldn't be simpler, but the idea of decline and fresh races every time keeps this interesting long after you've mastered the fundamentals. It's a Small World, but a perfectly formed one.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.