|A wall of rules text for such few tokens!|
White Ladies and the Challenge of Elder Dragons
If you have played a lot of games of Small World and own or have tried different expansions (in this case, Grand Dames of Small World), introduced new players to the game, play the app, or have a regular gaming group, you have probably had White Ladies come up on the list of races.
White Ladies are the only race in Small World that has two as their base token number, for a total of only 7 possible race tokens if paired with a special power that grants 5 tokens (9 total if you happen to get the Hordes of White Ladies combination). When you put White Ladies into Decline, each region they occupy becomes immune, forever yours until you put another race into Decline to take their place, but, if your experience has been anything like mine, they are seldom, if ever, picked. Even when explaining their rules to new players, instinctively, they tend to go for other race and power combinations that they feel sound like the better choice, and they're probably right.
White Ladies occupy an interesting design space in Small World - they're the lowest population race in the game, have a powerful In Decline effect, but their success still hinges on them spreading out and holding regions, making them a poor choice compared to other alternatives. Despite their In Decline power, it's safe to say that they are universally considered the least powerful race in the game. I wanted the challenge of coming up with something that would make an effective 2-token base race.
For me, the answer to getting around the inherent weakness of low population was to allow the race to generate Victory coins by holding less while slowly building more. Thematically, the notion of a great ancient dragon in the vein of Smaug, greedily brooding over his hoard of treasure, not wishing to be disturbed (and exerting great wrath if someone does), fit this idea perfectly.
Part of the challenge mechanically was preventing the Elder Dragons player to be rewarded too hastily for their choice - it takes 3 turns of occupying a region after the initial conquest (then again every 2 turns thereafter) to generate 10 Victory coins for it, during which your opponents will have ample opportunity to stop you. However, in doing so they will gain no benefit for displacing you from your lair - they'll have to give up a Victory coin, essentially earning none for their conquest. This means that in a multiplayer game, someone is going to have to bite the bullet, or allow you to go on. The Elder Dragons player is also losing a lot in this interaction - by holding less regions, more areas of the map are opened up to your opponents, who may then spread out, Decline, and move on to their next race, leaving you in a world of hurt when you finally decide it's time to put the Dragons out to pasture and the board is full of enemy tokens both declined and active. In addition to this, by being conquered, you lose a token, making it much harder for you to overcome diminishing returns and claim regions to replace the ones lost - better have that reinforcement die ready.
In decline, Elder Dragons generate 3 Victory coins, including the turn you put them into Decline. You're not likely to be spread out over many regions, so your opponents will want to stamp out the In Decline Dragons as soon as possible. This is also useful early on in the game, when you may not want to stick with Elder Dragons for the amount of turns it will take to earn substantial paydays.
In the early game, Elder Dragons are especially great with the Stout special power, allowing you to collect a decent payday while forcing your opponents to begin by conquering your in Decline regions, and the Underworld, Seafaring, and Flying special powers, which will allow you to spread out over the map and be harder to reach in one go. When you want to stick with them for a longer period of time, especially in the mid to late game, defensive special powers such as Fortified, Heroic, and Bivouacking are great.