Tuesday, November 2, 2010

REVIEW: Small World: Necromancer Island

Publisher: Days of Wonder
Grade: A
Price: free with purchase

I made a serious mistake when I first started playing the Necromancer Island scenario for Small World. I assumed it just added a unit with a very special kind of power. It took a few turns to realize that it’s a complete game-changer.

Necromancer Island isn’t for sale, but is being given away with purchase of the Small World game or expansions, online or from authorized retailers. (Days of Wonder automatically adds it to orders for the Be Not Afraid expansion, which I'll write about soon.) It demands a significant shift in strategy that requires some experience with the way the nuances of the game.

In the scenario, one player becomes the Necromancer, who sends forth Ghosts from his impregnable island redoubt at the center of the board. The Necromancer begins the game with 1 Ghost on his island, 13 Ghosts in reserve, a Well of Souls marker, and 6 random Powers. (Cursed, Spirit, and Stout Powers cannot be used by the Necromancer.) He chooses 1 of these 6 Powers at the start of the game, and leaves the rest in reserve.

The Necromancer builds his army from the bodies of the fallen. Each time a Lost Tribe or Race token is defeated in battle, it goes to the Well of Souls. The Necromancer can exchange 4 of these tokens for 1 Ghost token, which is then put into play.

A Necromancer may also spend coin to buy a Ghost or to buy an additional Power from his reserve. The cost either of this is equal to the number of Powers he has in play plus the number of Ghosts deployed on the board. For example, if the player has 2 Powers and 6 Ghosts, an extra Ghost or an additional Power would cost 8 coins.

The creates some vital shifts for the players in the game. For starters, I cannot imagine how a Necromancer can win a money game unless it’s through stacked powers that generate quantities of coin. The problem with the Necromancer is that he gets off to a very slow start. He has an ideal spot at the center of the board, but it takes time to even deploy a single unit, and the game may be half over before he starts sending out Ghosts in any quantities.

And Ghosts don’t die. When a Ghost region is conquered, one Ghost goes into the Well of Souls and all the others go back into the player’s hand for redeployment.

Because of this, the Necromancer has a special victory condition. Once he deploys all 13 of his Ghosts, he wins. This forces the other players to weigh carefully any attack they make, because every unit killed in conflict makes the Necromancer that much more powerful.
The ability to stack powers creates some potent combinations, and I imagine some of them are probably unstoppable. The cost for powers goes up steadily, and their benefits seem well balanced against the limitations of the Necromancer rules.

Meanwhile, those playing with standard races must weigh expansion and conquest against any benefit it might give the Necromancer. Is it worth taking an extra territory if it put another Ghost into play? Late in the game, players nervously watch as the Ghosts in reserve are steadily depleted, and gauge their moves accordingly.

It's a terrific twist on the usual gameplay, and it will definitely force experienced Small Worlders to rethink their strategies. Because of its unique dynamics, it's playable by up 6 people, which is nice. 


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