Friday, December 25, 2015

The SFF Year in Review: 2015

Prolific SFF writer Tanith Lee left our mortal plane, at age 67. Linda Nagata completed her Red trilogy, demonstrating that it is still possible to write good military science fiction, provided one writes an actual story rather than erotica about ordnance. Adam Rakunas published a wonderfully competent first sf novel, with only one unbelievable element: the survival of labor unions past the twenty-first century. Alternate history and Philip K. Dick fans were treated to a new Folio Books edition of Man in the High Castle and an Amazon Prime tv series on same. The Nazis certainly were unpleasant fellows! Chris-Rachael Oselund wowed the Geek-o-sphere with her Dune Sandworm spice bread recipe. Quoth Stilgar, "Mmm! Shai-Hulud!" The oxymoronically-named Final Fantasy VII made it to iOS, which means that one can now play the RPG classic on a phone. Mad Max: Fury Road angered “men's rights” advocates (that's a euphemism for “assholes”) by including some competent female characters. Avengers: Ultron evoked no strong emotions whatever. The long-awaited Sandman movie did not materialize. The Sad/Rabid Puppies' effort to sabotage the Hugo Awards resulted in No Award in several categories. Of the second season of True Detective, we shall not speak, except perhaps in curses. Jessica Jones was awesome, but dark, dark, dark. The scariest super-villains, it seems, are the unexceptional ones. Those seeking lighter fare found much charm and wit in Otherspace, an updated (and very funny) American version of Red Dwarf. The Anthropocene still grinds on toward its messy, fatal terminus, but in his meticulously-researched guidebook to our worst-case-scenario future, Frank Landis predicted that humanity would survive. Our current civilization - well, not so much. And in her much-hoped-for return to blogging, Ana Mardoll showed that if we do intend to preserve some part of our current civilization, it shouldn't include C.S. Lewis, because he's a wanker.

Oh, and there was some sort of Star Wars or Star Trek movie, too. Star Something, anyway.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Games That Don't Suck: Small World

(For a list of games in this series, click here and scroll down.)

Small World, the second fantasy board game so far reviewed in this series, bears some similarity to an older and more complex game beloved of old hobbyists, History of the World (and to HotW's inferior predecessor, Risk). In both games players compete to control territories on the board, using empires that expand and then decline. Unlike those in History or Risk, the “empires” in Small World are fantasy races, some stereotypical (elves, dwarves), some more esoteric (ghouls, ratmen, tritons), all fighting to control a fantasy kingdom of rolling farmland, cloud-capped mountains, murky swamps, and eldritch forests. Small World gives each fantasy race multiple turns to expand, though a given race's military potential will diminish with each turn, and a player can only play one race at a time. Each player must decide on a given turn whether to keep expanding with their current active race, or put it “into decline” (ending the race's expansion and special abilities) and acquire a new race with new advantages. Players have a variety of new races to acquire, from a line of five that are replaced from the stock as other races are chosen – and each race has a different special Power assigned to it when it enters the line. This selection process adds another layer of complexity to the players' decision-making. While Small World's rules are simple, the strategic depth that these important choices lend to the game, combined with its high-quality components and light-hearted tone (the skeletons, for instance, all wear cowboy hats), makes this title one with great entertainment and replay value.

Small World employs a simple turn mechanism. Each player takes turns expanding into the board with a number of tokens – averaging a dozen or so – determined by the player's active race and special Power. An expanding race conquers a new region by placing at least two tokens on it, plus one for each opposing counter on the region. Opposing counters include mountains, special defensive tokens (like troll lairs), and the tokens of an opponent's race. Once the active player is nearly out of tokens s/he can attempt to conquer one last land by rolling the reinforcement die, which gives 0-3 temporary virtual armies to aid the conquest. The player then redistributes ("redeploys") tokens among their active race's conquered regions, perhaps stacking tokens in some particularly valuable lands to shore up their defenses, and counts their points. Play then passes around the table until everyone has taken their individual turn.

On subsequent turns a given player can choose to put their active race into decline or continue expanding with it. If s/he makes the latter choice, the player gathers up all tokens but one from each land occupied by their active race, and uses that pool of tokens to conquer new lands, following the expansion rules above. Obviously, as a given race expands its pool of tokens will shrink by at least one for each new land conquered. I say “at least,” because when a player conquers a land occupied by another player's tokens, the defeated player permanently loses one race token for each conquered land. Eventually a given player will find that their active race has too few tokens to expand and that s/he has to put that race into decline (losing a turn in the process) and acquire a new one. Deciding when one's active race is “ready” to decline is up to the individual player, but if one leaves it too late one risks having a thinly-stretched race overrun by other players, without enough turns left in the game for a new race to earn lots of points. A race in decline, however, is more vulnerable because it loses its abilities and can only keep one token in any given land.

When it is active, each of the 14 races in Small World has a racial ability that gives it a point bonus or lets it bend the rules. Elves, for instance, don't lose a counter permanently when one of their lands is conquered; trolls receive troll lairs to help them defend territory; humans receive an extra point for each farmland region they occupy. Each race also has one of 20 Powers assigned to it when it first enters the game: a Stout race doesn't lose a turn when it declines, a Seafaring race can conquer water spaces, and a Commando race needs no underwear (just kidding). At the start of the game the players line up five races and powers at the edge of the board, and can either purchase whichever combination is at the head of the line, or pay victory points to buy more desirable combinations further back. New race-power combinations enter the line as old ones are drawn. A typical game sees 5-8 races and powers making it to the board, and since there are 280 race-power combinations, it will take many plays before the game becomes truly repetitive.

At the end of a player's turn, s/he collects one point for each region occupied by his/her active race AND by any race s/he has put into decline. (If a player puts two races into decline, the oldest one will disappear.) Players earn additional points if their active race or its associated Power receives bonuses for occupying particular regions. The game usually takes about an hour to play, as the number of turns varies inversely with the number of players; a 2-player game lasts 10 turns (per player), a 5-player game only 7. Whoever has the highest point total at game's end is the winner and receives all rights and prerogatives thereof, which presumably means s/he gets to wear the cowboy hat.