REVIEW: Small World

In preparation for reviewing the new Small World expansions, I decided to do a full review of the original game. As I’ve said, age is irrelevant in determining what I’ll write about. Any game you haven’t played is new to you, and my goal is to get more people thinking of good games. Only time can reveal just what games have lasting qualities. 

Publisher: Days of Wonder
List Price:  $50
Grade: A

When I first sat down with Small World, I thought I detected a whiff of eau de Risk. It’s an understandable mistake. Both have maps divided into regions, are driven by cross-border conquest, and use a “stack-and-attack” mechanic. But whereas Risk was belched forth from the fifth circle of hell, wherein the sullen and wrathful boil beneath the stagnant surface of a black pool of rancid water without hope or joy, Small World comes from Belgium. (If you thought I’d use this opportunity to make some cheap joke about Belgians, well … I’m better than that. Fortunately, Monty Python isn’t.)

Small World is the work of designer Phillipe Keyaerts. It’s really just a great redesign and re-theming of a Keyaerts game called Vinci, but thanks to the changes and the superb production job by Days of Wonder, it’s now a far better game with a much wider appeal. It was so good, in fact, that we awarded it the Game of the Year medal for 2010 at Games Magazine. (My personal pick for that year would probably have been Dominion, with Small World as a close runner-up.)

The Elements
As usual, Days of Wonder does a bangup job on the production. The art is terrific, with a combination of whimsy and expressiveness that just makes you want to pick it up and examine all the little details. I’d go so far as to say that the illustrations by Miguel Coimbra are a large factor in the success of the game. Any number of games can (and do) tackle this kind of territorial conquest, but none draw in the player as effectively as Small World, and much of that is thanks to the art.

The 14 races in the game (with more added in multiple expansions) are all stock fantasy characters: elves, halflings, humans, orcs, trolls, wizards, giants, dwarves, amazons, ghouls, ratmen, skeletons, sorcerers and tritons (sea creatures). It takes a lot of skill for an artist to make these feel fresh and fun, but Coimbra does it. Look closely at some of the tiles to find funny touches, such as a man controlling a giant dragon by dangling a little person (rather than a carrot) from a stick.

There are a lot of bits in the box. Races are depicted on banners, while special powers are depicted on badges. Each time you play, you randomly fit a race banner together with a power badge, thus creating a unique kind of unit for each session. For instance, Dwarves may be matched to the Flying power to create Flying Dwarves. Or Ghouls may be matched to the Merchant power to create Merchant Ghouls. We’ll talk more about just what this means in the next section. 
Each race is represented on the board by small, square tokens. There are 168 of these, distributed unevenly among the races. In addition, the game comes with victory coins, geographical features (mountains, fortresses, etc), and other special tokens. There’s just a lot of stuff in the box.

Finally, there are the boards. There are two, and each is double sided in order to create a balanced experience for 2, 3, 4, and 5 players. The boards are colorful and sturdy, and pack in a lot of detail without becoming confusing.

The Play 
In this Small World, space is limited. Territories are crowded together, and they simply can’t accommodate all the races. Your goal is to build and expand your territory, earning victory coins by holding land as long as possible.

To accomplish this, you begin with a race with its own special power. Six race/power combos are laid out in column next to the board, with each player selecting a starting force. Each race/power combo gets a total number of tokens to represent their forces, as well as some starting coin and any other power bonuses. These bonuses may be extra units, more cash, movement benefits, special attacks, or more. The huge array of powers and races, which are randomized for each game, is one of the main appeals of Small World, and keeps the game feeling fresh each time out.

Once everyone has their race and forces, they simply start claiming territory by placing and moving unit tokens. It’s a simple mechanic, with the player who has more units conquering the player who has less. There other factors and modifiers having to do with terrain, power, and lost races, but the basic mechanism is like a diceless version of Risk. Each turn, you collect one coin for each region you hold.

But that’s not where it ends. After grabbing and expanding your territory, you may find that your current race is stretched too thin. At this point, you can put a race into “decline.” You flip the banners and tokens, choose a new race/power combo, and continue the conquest with a new force. Your old race continues generating coin until it’s overrun, but now it’s weaker and you no longer control it directly.

In this way, you ride a sequence of races to victory, finding different ways to exploit the powers and weaknesses of each. In the end, the game is won by the person who collects the most coins.

The Verdict 
Small World is a blast. It plays very fast, and has a loose feel that’s very appealing. It doesn’t require a lot of high-level strategy and military finesse to get ahead. Instead, you find particular ways to use each race to capture and hold a certain part of the map for as long as you can, and then use another race to keep that momentum going.

The appeal lies in the combination of races and powers, which makes every game different. There are a lot of ways to uses these combos to go for the coin. Some units can capture water tiles, while others are better in the mountains. One player may be able to ride a dragon into an enemy region, while another conquers with sheer force of numbers. Some race/power combos allow a player emphasize the monetary aspect or use a sneaky bit of magic, while others let you work the brute force or fast attack approach.

The mechanics are different from anything most mainstream American gamers have seen before, and this might make it seem like a very difficult game to learn at first. Don’t be fooled by that. It is, in fact, a very simple game and plays well across all age and skill levels. My wife and I can play with my son (age 12) and daughter (age 9) on an equal level. (In fact, the kids usually win.) You just have to understand a few key concepts such as race benefits, earning money from territories, and placing a race into decline. It’s actually a lot easier to learn than a quick read of the manual might suggest.

This is just a fun game. It’s not particularly deep, but it still manages to be rewarding thanks to all the variables and interactions among elements. If you know someone who insists on dragging out Risk, and that particular person cannot be sold off as cheap labor to Venusian slime farmers, then try to nudge them toward Small World.

4 thoughts on “REVIEW: Small World

  1. Your hatred of Risk, which I share with every fiber of my being, is one of the first things that let me know I'd love this blog. Your praise of Small World is further confirmation.

    I bought Small World last December based on your selection of it as the Game of the Year last year, and it instantly turned my wife, who isn't remotely a fan of fantasy, into an enthusiastic board gamer. It's almost always the first game requested if we organize a board game day with friends. And best of all? We DID convert a Risk-loving expanisionist with one round of Small World, and I haven't had to play a single game of the five-die monstrosity since we picked up this gem.

  2. I cannot tell you how happy I am to hear that. Thank you!

    The last game of Risk I witnessed went on for 3 evenings. One player was out in the first hour, and the next person out the next day. Two people were left to hack at each other for another evening-and-a-half. It was absurd. Every time a Risk player is converted to Small World, the universe becomes a tiny bit better.

  3. One of the many things I love about Small World is that it's random without being TOO random, and over the course of the game a player has the opportunity to make several crucial intelligent decisions to significantly affect their chances within that randomized range.

    The game revolves around three recurring choices: (1) which race/power combo to select; (2) how far to spread one's forces on any given turn; and (3) when to send a race into decline. You can get choice (1) exactly right — and there is, of course, considerable luck in what's available to you at the start of the game to choose in choice (1) — but one bad decision with respect to choice (2) or choice (3) can erase the significant advantage you had gained by choosing the best available combo.

    You say the game isn't particularly deep, but I would say that what's tricky about Small World is that it's a tactical game that constantly tries to fool you into thinking its a strategic game. The worst Achilles heel a Small World player can have is the belief that he has a winning strategy. Sure, a strategic approach has worked for me a couple of times, but when it has, it usually has depended on my opponents missing something obvious (such as the way I'd used the Holes-in-the-Ground of my Peace Loving Halflings to block myself from attack except in one direction).

    More often, the nature of the game catches up to you very fast — by design, you aren't meant to have enough time or room to maintain a strategy, and you have to be willing to cut and run, and make those crucial tactical choices of when to decline and what combo to take next. But so many of the racial and special powers seductively suggest that you can keep milking them forever if only you could just do it right, the temptation is hard to resist. I think the reason inexperienced gamers often beat experienced gamers at Small World is not so much luck as it is Keyaerts's devious use of abilities that feel familiar to long-term gamers but are not, in fact, the strategic devices we're used to seeing them be.

    Oh, one house rule that the Small World community has fairly unanimously accepted that any new purchasers should be aware of: in a 2-player game, remove the “Diplomat” special power from the stack. In a 2-player game, that _does_ create a powerful strategy, and, indeed, a severely unbalancing one.

  4. You're absolutely right about the pacing of the game. If you try to play a “long strategy” and stick with a race too long, you're finished. You have to think differently. There's definitely some complex factors in there, and they all interact in interesting ways.

    I'll also try to grab the Halflings if they show up. Love the power of those little Hobbit holes. My son keeps trying to find a winning strategy with the Tritons, but they always seem like a bust for me, unless they get a good power.

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