Small World Review
Ah, it’s a nice day for the merchant halflings. Originally hailing from their comfy holes in the ground, they’ve expanded into the surrounding regions, receiving a modest amount of gold for their wares. They are content to lounge around and enjoy a peaceful halfling life, content to ignore and be ignored by the bigger folk of the world.
…But wait, what was that glint that flashed across the noonday sun? Is that…is there something flying up there? The lazy halflings look up dismissively, realizing a moment too late that the DRAGON MASTER AMAZONS have come to invade their peaceful domain. Legions of dragon-riding amazon women swoop down, wreaking havoc down onto the halflings’ grassy land. The halflings retreat! They run back into their holes in the ground, locking the door shut and peeking out their windows cautiously until those dastardly amazon women have conquered all of the surrounding regions.
Ah, but if only it were that simple. You see, the ALCHEMIST RATMEN have been eyeing those dragon-riding amazons for a while now, and they’re just not going to have it. As these weird abominations converge upon the battlegrounds that the amazons just blazed, they slowly overtake the land that the halflings were so peacefully enjoying so shortly before. The halflings, reduced to nothing and hiding in their holes, live the last of their days out in decline, noting the sad truth that it’s a Small World.
This picturesque description is a pretty fair representation of a few rounds of your typical Small World game. Small World, published by the board game giant Days of Wonder in 2009, is a tight area control/conflict game that lives up to its name in spades. Each player, in this crowded fantasy land, controls their own quirky race that’s fighting for their own place in the world. As players conquer new territory (using special powers and abilities granted by their races and their respective traits), they increase their presence on the map, earning more and more points, which points determine the winner of the game.
Conquering the world, however, doesn’t happen in one day, so players will not be limited to one race. As their race conquers and ultimately spreads themselves thin, they will eventually go into decline, living out the rest of their days as a sad shadow of what they once were, leaving themselves open to the conquests of a fresh new enemy. Such is the life in the realm of Small World. Although it’s a sad story for this world’s inhabitants, it’s a happy one for players–This is quite a fun little game, and we’ll do our best to explain why in this Small World review.
How do you play the game? Is it a fun experience? How much interaction is there between the players? Is there very much luck involved? Will it take forever to to learn and teach?
Setting it up
Small World comes packed with two colorful, visually popping boards. Each board is double sided, and is intended for a specific player count. Two to three players will use the small board, while three to four will use the bigger one. The board itself is static, though there is a modular board expansion for folks who are into that kind of thing.
After setting up the board, which comes with some chits that are placed in predefined spots (such as mountains and non-player enemies), each player needs to choose a special race and power combo.
While the details on races and powers will be explored in more detail a little farther down, it’s important to know that the races and powers available for the choosing are randomly selected. They are chosen from a pile and placed in rows, and players take turns choosing their starting race. The first race is free, but the second one down costs one coin (victory point), while the third costs two and so on. This is done by placing a coin on each race until you reach the one you want to grab. If a player grabs a race with coins on it, he or she can keep them. This ensures that players will be compensated if they end up choosing a “bad” race that was glossed over by everyone else.
What’s the point?
The object of the game in Small World is to, you guessed it, gain the most victory points out of all the players. The what in the object of the game, then, is much less important than the how, as you’ll have to conquer land and squash your enemies to gain said points.
The main channel through which to earn points is is to simply occupy space on the board. The more space that your race covers, the more points you’ll earn at the end of your turn. Aside from that, there are various abilities granted from both powers and races that can change certain rules, or provide you new ways to earn victory points.
Because occupying space is such an essential component when it comes to earning points, Small World must inevitably turn into a bloodbath. As each race starts taking up their own space, it will become necessary to move into your enemies’ borders and steal what is theirs so that you can have the edge over them. The main crux of Small World, then, is to conquer as much space in the most efficient way they can, as going into battle and taking land will take a toll on your armies. Typically, the player who can gain the most while losing the least will be crowned as the winner of Small World.
Conquering the World
Small World takes place over a set number of rounds–this number is different depending on the player count, but games will be anywhere between 8-12 rounds. In a given round, each player will take a turn where they can either conquer new land, or go into decline, both of which we’ll cover in more detail in just a moment. After each player has taken their turn, a new round begins, and the game continues until the last round is finished, in which the player with the most victory points wins.
In terms of what you’re actually doing, the game is very simple. This is not a game where each player has thirty different actions to choose from every turn. In fact, your choices are quite limited–you can conquer, or you can go into decline. That’s pretty much it. Let’s talk about conquering first.
Every player will have their own combination of a race, and a special power. We’ll cover this in more detail later, but it suffices to say right now that your race/power combination dictates how many units you have to start out with. If your race doesn’t have any units on your board yet, your first turn with them will be called your “first conquest.” On your first conquest, you can choose any region that’s bordering the edge, and conquer it to start your reign of terror.
To conquer a region, all you have to do is move your units into it; there are no dice rolls or epic battles here. However, you have to have enough units to be able to move in, and this number will change depending on how much “defense” the region has. You can only conquer a region that’s adjacent to you (unless your race/power says otherwise).
If you have no units on the board, you can do the “first conquest” mentioned above, and start off by taking an edge tile. Otherwise, you can start your conquest from a spot on the board that you already occupy.
To conquer a region, your units need to equal the tile’s defenses, plus one. The base defense for a region is 1. That means that, to take any given region, you have to move in at least two units (1+1). Enemy units add +1 a piece, so if a region had two enemies in it, you would have to move in four units (1+2+1) to take it over. Furthermore, there are other obstructions, such as mountains and various race/special powers that can add defense. Throw some mountains on that space, and now you’re looking at bringing FIVE units minimum to take over the spot (1+2+1+1).
If you do take over the region, all enemy units inside of it will return to their player’s inventory (save for one, which is permanently lost) and you will now own the space. You can continue this as long as you’d like until you run out of units. Thing is, you have to leave behind your units every time you conquer a tile. That means that, if you start out with a group of eight and conquer your first empty region, you’ll have to leave two of those guys behind. Say the next space you take “costs” three units, and you’re leaving them behind too. An eight man army might only take four regions in one turn, due to this mechanic.
AFTER you’re done conquering, you have the option of repositioning your units in your territories as you please, provided that you leave at least one unit in each spot. That means that, if your eight man army took over four spaces, you could leave one unit on three of them, and put five on the other. There are plenty of reasons to restructure your regions, and it will always depend on the context of the game; some spots will inevitably be more important to defend than others.
At the end of your turn, you will receive one victory point for every space on the board that you occupy.
Going Into Decline
Using a race for several turns almost always results in you spreading yourself thin. If you conquer, restructure your lands to one unit each, use the extra men to conquer more, and then rinse and repeat, your eight man army might end up occupying eight spaces on the board, one each. They will be really easy to kill because of their lack of defense, but they will net you a lot of points because of the area they cover.
Of course, every army reaches the point of diminishing returns, and that’s where Decline comes into play. If you feel like you’re no longer getting as much from your race as you’d like, or that they’ve outlived their usefulness, it’s time to move on and bring a new race into the picture. But first, you’ll have to go into decline.
You have to take a turn to put your race into decline. That’s all you can do on that turn, so choose wisely. A decline turn means no conquering for you. When a race goes into decline, all of their regions are reduced to one unit each, and they can no longer be controlled by their player. They’re essentially dead weight, BUT they can still be useful, because your units that are in decline still earn you points on your turn. A clever Small World player might cover a lot of land with one race, and strategically try to keep them standing after they’ve gone into decline so that they’re getting double points–points from their active race, and points from their decline units still scattered about the board.
On your next turn, you get to choose a new race/power combination. Small World isn’t a game where you’re meant to be ONE army the whole time–this game spans over ages, and new races will render old ones obsolete.
Races and Powers Galore
That brings us to one of the most important components of Small World, the races and powers. You see, with just the rules mentioned above, Small World would fare as a relatively average area control game. It would be interesting, but could get stale pretty quickly. The races and powers ensure that that will never happen.
Every race has its own special ability. These abilities either add rules of their own (like the dwarves, who get +1 VP for every “mining” region occupied), or change existing ones (like the ghouls, who can continue to operate like a normal race after going into decline). This ensures that every game will be different, because every race demands a different playstyle. The dwarves will want to go out of their way to get mining tiles, while the Ghouls can profit from going into decline on the first or second turn, essentially giving their player two active armies to play with.
Now, things would be variable enough if it were just the races that added some extra flavor, but things get even more interesting when you add the powers into the mix. When the races are revealed, they come attached with a randomly distributed ability tile. These have effects that are similar to the race powers. This means that in every Small World game, every player has two special abilities that will determine the direction that they take in the game. Because powers are randomly attached to races, this also means that you might play the same race completely differently in two games, and this is where Small World really comes into its own.
Winning the Game
I’ve already mentioned that, at the end of your turn, you calculate the number of points that your units on the board earn you. To win the game, it’s a simple matter of having the most of these points by the time the game ends. The game is limited to a certain number of rounds, so the game is less about conquering, and more about maximizing your point potential–even if a player is wiped off the board, they can just come back with another race. You’ll need to make the most of your race to win, and that doesn’t always mean attacking everybody else.
Points are hidden throughout the game, so you never have an exact count of your opponents’ scores. When the last round ends, everyone flips over their points, and whoever has the most wins. Yipee!
Let’s just get something out of the way first:
Small World is an area control game, not a war game.
I’m going to make this point clear, because I’ve seen many people refer to the game as the latter, and I just don’t see it. Why is this important? Well, you never want to have the wrong expectations about something, especially board games. I bought Small World a few years ago, before I was really into the hobby. I was looking for the modern designer game equivalent of Risk, which we played every week for two years in high school. The amount of ridiculous treaties, shows of force, backstabbing, plotting, and miraculous swings of luck in those games would merit a separate article of their own. I loved the conflict in Risk, but I recognized some of its inherent design flaws and I was seeking something that could rekindle that palpable player interaction, while being more mechanically solid. Small World was recommended over and over online as the de-facto conflict game of our time, but after playing it, I didn’t really feel the same, and the game ended up getting shelved–I didn’t play again for another good year or two.
It is often said that this is a great follow-up game if you’re looking for a Risk replacement. Small World is nothing like Risk, and if you expect it to be, you’ll be disappointed.
…It’s a shame that it happened that way, because when I came back to Small World, I was able to see it for what it was, not for what it wasn’t, and what it is is a delightful, unpredictable area control game with solid player interaction. While conflict as at the heart of Small World, that’s not really the point of it. The point of Small World is getting as many points as possible, which is determined by the space you occupy, not by the enemies you destroy. In other words, conflict feels like a means to an end, rather than a full-blown objective. In fact, you can win a game and never end up fighting anybody if you have a good enough setup that people don’t bother to attack. This kind of scenario is exceptionally rare, but it can happen; if you have the right race/power combo, you might just pull it off.
Ah, the races and powers. Let’s talk about that. The race/power combinations are what make Small World worth playing. I said it earlier, and I’ll say it again–Small World would not be a very interesting game without this mechanic. But it DOES have this mechanic, and the game is great because of it. I love the races and powers because it makes every game a unique challenge. Rather than a game of conflict and conquest, I kind of see Small World as a puzzle. In every game, I’m dealt different pieces, and I have to find the right way to put them together to get the most benefit out of them.
Now, this kind of praise coming from me isn’t entirely original. This is something I said about Castles of Burgundy, a game that couldn’t be more different than Small World. The difference, however, between this and Castles is the high player interaction. In Small World, you’re not trying to conquer the world, you’re building a puzzle that everyone else is trying to tear down. It’s a new challenge every game trying to figure out how to make your race/power work with not only yourself, but in relation to the other players on the board. You basically have to figure out how to maximize your own score while minimizing your enemy’s. Because every player is given a different set of tools each game to do this, it’s fun seeing everyone try to figure out what the best path to victory will be.
Another thing I enjoy about Small World is the sheer absurdity of the situations you’ll find yourself in. At its core, Small World could be called an abstract game. It has this extravagant theme, but the theme doesn’t do much except provide aesthetic enjoyment…but boy, that sure can go a long way.
Every game of Small World plays out like a story, and thanks to the whimsical art, silly theme, and absurd race/power combinations, it’s a delight to see this story play out. I mean, in what other branch of fiction, board game or not, are you going to run into Flying Ratmen fighting Seafaring Wizards? If you know of that book, I’d be interested in reading about it. What about the Diplomat Orcs forcing an alliance with the Commando Amazons? Ever seen Merchant Ghouls try to defend themselves form Bivouacking Tritons? The scenarios that Small World sets up are ridiculous, and in the best way. Small World is clearly a game that’s meant to be played with levity; sure, there’s good depth of strategy, but you’ll be missing out if you only focus on that and don’t allow yourself to ease up and enjoy the entertaining ride.
Overall, I really enjoy the new challenge that each game of Small World brings to the table. Once I realized what Small World is, and stopped caring about what it isn’t, Small World quickly proved to me that it’s a game worth playing. It’s fairly easy to learn, it’s easy to teach, it’s fun to play, and it’s not excessively long nor short. It nails conflict in a tasteful way and strongly innovates with its creative race/power system. I daresay there’s a reason why Small World is well-known in the world of tabletop gaming.
Are there any problems?
Of course, like any game, Small World isn’t immune to criticism, and there are certainly some things to look at. Despite some flaws, the positives of Small World highly outweigh the negatives. Let’s take a look anyway.
Small World, unfortunately, doesn’t give you a whole lot to do during other players’ turns. And by “not a whole lot,” I mean “absolutely jack-diddly nothing.” This isn’t exactly shocking, because, y’know, it IS a board game, but be prepared to pull out a book if you’re playing with somebody who has analysis paralysis. This isn’t so much of a problem in a game with two to three players, but once you hit four or five, you might be waiting for a long time while players agonize over their move. This “problem” highly depends on the nature of your group, so just keep it in mind while you think about your group’s tastes.
The bullying/kingmaking problem is almost an inevitability in any conflict game. If you give players freedom to attack other players, there’s always the possibility of somebody being unfairly singled out, or being set up to win by other players. This problem is highly mitigated by objective-driven conflict games, which arguably is a classification that could apply to Small World, given that it’s really about getting more money/VPs, not fighting other players.
Nonetheless, it CAN happen, so be prepared for it. This is a bit of a subjective problem, as some people enjoy this aspect of conflict. I argue that it can be fun playing with emotional players who will compromise strategy to lash back at you out of revenge, because that creates an entirely new game unto its own. However, that’s definitely not for everyone.
Small World makes it easy to gang up on another player, or for losing players to have the final say in who ends up winning. There aren’t really any rules as to who can attack who, so once again, know your group before you buy.
One of these things is better than the other
Some might say that Small World has some balance issues. I don’t know if I would say that, but it’s worth mentioning. Putting it simply, some race/power combos are just better than others. As I’ve mentioned, these combos are randomly generated, so you never know what you’re going to get. The race/power combos are lined up in a queue, and as one gets taken, the others are bumped up and a new one from the pile takes its place. It’s entirely possible for an unexpectedly powerful combination to pop up at just the right time that completely shuts down one of the races on the board.
This is still very subjective. The other argument would be that Small World gives players plenty of ways to deal with this, and that poor player choices trump the luck of the draw when it comes to losses. Ultimately, every single race/power combo has something unique to offer, and if somebody ends up with something that’s overpowered, the onus is on the other players to stop them from going too far with it. This can lead to the bullying problem above in excess, but acts as a natural equalizer if applied in the right amount. We’ll talk a bit more about balance in the, you guessed it, “balance” section of this review.
That being said, most games of Small World can be finished within that one to two hour mark. It’s also important to note that, like any other game, it will go on for longer depending on how many players you have. A five player game will inevitably stretch on for longer than a two player one. There is some sort of built-in balance to account for this–the more players you have, the less rounds you’ll ultimately play. It’s not a perfect system, but it does well to prevent crowded games from stretching on for an eternity.
Overall, Small World is in the “sweet spot” for me when it comes to game times. Anything less than 45 minutes is fantastic, but often doesn’t feel rich enough to feel like you really flexed your strategic muscles as much as you wanted, while 2.5-3+ hour games can go on for too long, or simply be harder to bring to your table if other players don’t want to commit. Small World can fill up a good hour or two, and you can walk away feeling satisfied with the depth of your experience.
I will say that Small World is extremely easy to teach. The rules are really quite simple; it’s just a matter of conquering, and knowing how decline works. Actually playing the game is easy as pie, and after the game was explained to me the correct way, I remember having that “ohhhhhhhhhhh” feeling, where everything just clicks and makes sense.
The hardest part of teaching Small World is just keeping track of all the races and special abilities. Fortunately, a lot of this is “need to know” information, so you don’t have to teach it all at once (in fact, doing otherwise would be a direct violation of Rule #6 on our board game teaching guide). You can teach the races and powers that pop up as they come, and it won’t take long for the game to make sense to new players.
Earlier, I compared Small World to Risk. Risk, love it or hate it, is an solid example of the type of excellent player interaction that can come from conflict. There’s an entirely separate game from the one that’s played on the table–who’s allied with who? Who’s being manipulated? How am I going to play the other players to have them do my bidding? Despite Risk’s outdated and luck-heavy mechanics, THAT is what kept us coming to the table every single week. When games can tap into that meta-level of interaction, it can become an amazing experience.
In my comparison with Risk, I also mentioned how Small World is almost nothing like it. I still stand by my statement. However, the one similarity it has with Risk, and the one thing that always draws this tired comparison, is that Small World has player conflict in it. Given that conflict is hardly the object of the game , I would argue that Small World‘s conflict component is extremely watered down compared to heavier conflict games, but still there.
If Small World is a lighter, condensed version of conflict games, then the player interaction that comes with it is a lighter, condensed version as well. There can be alliances in Small World, but they won’t be as dramatic or impacting as they are in Diplomacy. Players can betray each other, but it won’t sting as hard as when you stab your friend in the back with your 50 man army in Risk. In the end of the day, all the interactive elements of a conflict heavy game are there in Small World, but like the game itself, they feel a bit lighter than you’d usually find in a war game. That is again because Small World is not first and foremost a war game. That being said, you’ll get much more player interaction out of Small World than you will with many other designer games, so this one may be appetizing if you’re into that.
How much strategy is involved? Is there a sense of variety and balance? Does the game play well no matter how many players there are? How long does it take to play?
However, before we get into all of that, it’s important to note that the object of the game is to get coins (a synonym for victory points). It’s not about conflict, it’s not about defending, it’s not even about covering more space than everybody. It’s about getting the most coins through any means possible. For most races, this will mean expanding, taking land, and knocking down enemies so you have more space, the usual. However, that won’t always be your best course of action, and that’s where Small World gets very strategic and satisfying.
It would be impossible to cover the full scope of strategic potential in this game, due to the hundreds of combinations of races and powers. Instead, I’ll focus on just how different each game can be depending on your combination, and how recognizing its strengths and weaknesses will be the key to victory.
Case Study: The Elves, and How to Deal With Them
Let’s take a look at the Elves. Although much more frolickey in nature, these Elves take a cue from Tolkien’s playbook; they’re immortal, and as such, their power allows them to return in full force to the board on the next turn even after being wiped out by enemies (normally, defeated units return to the game box, leaving you less to play with next turn).
So, if Elves always come back to the board, how are you supposed to deal with them? What’s the point in attacking them if they’re just going to come back? Indeed, the Elves look really powerful on paper, but just like everything else in this game, they have a weakness. Turns out, one of the best ways to deal with Elves is to just leave them alone.
Elves have no kind of point bonus or special conquering ability. They can’t conquer certain regions with less numbers, and they don’t get any points for any special type of terrain. This means that, if they’re spread out completely thin, they’re not really capable of earning more points than other races that are in the same position, and those races will probably get to that point quicker (from attack abilities) or earn more of a profit from them (point bonus abilities). Elves, then, are most effective when they’re being attacked, because it causes players to waste resources fighting an enemy that will respawn. If the Elves are in conflict with another player, they can also be extremely punishing as they consistently return in greater numbers to mow you down. That’s why it’s effective not to fight them—it’s a losing battle.
The Elves have nothing to gain by going on the offensive, because they’re getting less land for more effort, and they will want to be spread out as much as possible. If they’re not being attacked, then their only option is to thin themselves out, and they aren’t any better at doing that than other races are, who might have more bonuses in play.
Ultimately, the Elves can win games by luring players into wasting time and energy to fight them—when left alone, they stagnate while everyone else progresses.
Enter the Merchant Elves
After several games of Small World, we thought that we had figured out the “elf problem.” They got one or two wins, but weren’t so dangerous once we learned how to deal with them. While I failed to address special powers in the scenario above, most of them, when attached to Elves, still leave them vulnerable to the aforementioned strategy.
You think you’ve got it all figured out, when the game throws you a curveball. This is what I love about Small World. I ended up getting the Merchant Elves in one game, and the strategy to bring them down was vastly different than with any other Elf combination.
See, the Merchant ability allows you to collect double points for every region you occupy—this is huge. The “catch” with the Merchants is that they only give you a measly two extra units (your total unit count is determined by the numbers given on both your race and power tile), and that the benefits are directly proportional to the land you occupy. Normally, with a Merchant race, spreading yourself thin will give you plenty of territory, only to leave you weak and open to be slaughtered next round. After you permanently lose a bunch of units from being attacked, you can’t expand nearly as much as you did the turn before, and your merchant ability will soon turn useless. This is exacerbated by the low unit account that the Merchant affords.
These problems are nonexistent when paired with the Elves—they can keep coming back, and players aren’t incentivized to attack them because they’ll just return! Points galore!
We eventually found out that, on the contrary to normal, swiftly attacking the Merchant Elves is the best way to make them useless. The Merchant ability is really only powerful with a decent amount of territory. At just one or two regions, it’s not anything special. Sure, they can come back alive, but if they have to constantly recapture non-empty or otherwise crowded territories, they won’t be expanding out very quickly. The trick is to beat them down, and not leave empty spaces lying around. When they constantly have to retake crowded spaces, they won’t be able to spread far in any given turn.
This is just one example out of many of how differently each and every game can play out. In one game, you stand to gain nothing from attacking the Elves, while in another, you have to make it your utmost priority to prevent them from a runaway win. Now, imagine this not only applying to one race, but to every race! Each and every game demands that you adapt to find the best way to deal with the race/power combinations that are floating around.
The other major strategic part of this game, aside from the race/power combinations, is the decline mechanic. Knowing when to put your race into decline is a critical component to victory. Going into decline sucks, because you have to burn a whole turn to do it. This can be very, very painful. However, going into decline serves a purpose—to prevent you from going into diminishing returns. The point of Small World is to get the most out of each and every race, and then to ditch them when they’ve worn out their usefulness. Waiting to go into decline even just a turn or two too late can rob you of a boatload of points you would have otherwise earned. If you feel like you could start earning more points than what you’re earning in the moment, it’s time to decline.
It’s also important to consider that you still earn points from races in decline—even though you can’t control them anymore, they will earn you points so long as they’re still sitting on the board. This means that going into decline is not only a choice of avoiding diminishing returns, but also of tactically positioning your units to maximize their effectiveness. Take the Trolls, for example. Their ability allows them to place a “Troll’s Lair” on a region they possess, which adds a permanent defense point to the region, which remains even in decline. A troll player who moves up to the mountains could plop those defenses down, go into decline, and just leave them there. It would take four enemy units to overtake each of those regions, making it hardly worth the effort for opposing players. Leaving your declined units there, instead of wide open in the middle of the board would most likely provide a greater payoff.
Oh, but did I mention that any race with the Dragon Master ability could make mincemeat out of those declined mountain trolls? The Dragon Master can take a single space every turn using only one unit, making it a great counter to heavily defended spots. Like I said, there is a counter to everything in Small World, and the race/power combinations will always keep you guessing.
Ultimately, I did not find the strategic and tactical variety to be lacking at all in Small World. There is just so much that you can do that it will give you a fun challenge to tackle time and time again. The game definitely hits the right notes here—incredibly varied with strategic options, yet simple and easy to digest. I’m not complaining.
Small World, all things considered, has very little luck, and this is one of its major strengths. I can think of only two areas where luck is present:
There is a certain degree of luck in the race and power combos that come out. Some of them are simply more powerful than others. However, as is the case with many luck-based mechanics, the question everyone should ask is, “is this too lucky,” or “am I just bad at mitigating this?” For anyone who’s had an issue with overpowered races, the answer might be a little bit of both.
When a particularly powerful combo comes out (which is highly contextual, depending on the game), it’s the prerogative of the other players to ensure that it doesn’t do too much damage. If both players just sit idly by while somebody grabs the best combo in the game, then they have no case to complain when that person inevitably runs off with it. This is essential in Small World—understanding your enemies’ powers is just as important as understanding your own. I didn’t find myself bothered by this, but I also have never felt like one race is particularly overpowered.
The Reinforcement Die:
Okay, there is ONE die in the game that I haven’t mentioned, and it’s the reinforcement die.
When you’re conquering, you might find yourself in a position where you have an “extra” unit left to keep on fighting, but he’s not enough to take one of the remaining adjacent spaces, you can make a bargain and roll the reinforcement die. With this die, you can roll a 1, 2, or 3 to add that many imaginary units to your final conquest. If you roll enough to take the region, then you can move your last unit in. If not, you lose that unit until the next round.
So, for example, if you have one unit left in your conquest, and you want to try to conquer an adjacent space that would require three, rolling a 2 or higher on the reinforcement die would get you in. 50% of the faces are blank, so you’re already taking a hefty chance by even rolling the die.
I wasn’t bothered by this die. Sometimes, sometimes, a player can get lucky and get +3 for a region they should have never been able to take, but these kinds of upsets happen so infrequently that I couldn’t really be bothered by it. That being said, I sometimes question how necessary the reinforcement die is. I kind of like it, because it’s fun yearnin’ for that last conquest, but if you’re easily bothered by luck, I feel like you could remove this component entirely and not miss a beat.
The most obvious contender for imbalance would be the race/power combos. I think Days of Wonder did an amazing job here, because I have not found one race/power combo to be game breaking or excessively imbalanced. For a game that offers such dynamic variety every time, along with the random matchup process for powers/races, this is a pretty impressive feat. Are some combos better than others? I would say absolutely. However, I don’t think there’s a single combo that stands out as being too powerful.
Take the Merchant Elves that I mentioned above. On paper, this combination is unbeatable. You can’t die, and you get double points? Sign me up! However, all it would take to swiftly shut down Merchant Elves would be to crowd them in, or launch a coordinated player strike against them. You wouldn’t be able to stop them completely, but you could impede their progress enough as to render them inferior.
When people complain about one certain combo dominating the game, sometimes I just wonder if they weren’t creative enough to deal with it. That’s the fun of Small World, it’s being presented with these unique challenges, and figuring out ways to overcome them, because the game almost always gives you a means to do so. If you don’t play your cards right, or get stomped on by other players, it’s easy to feel like there was nothing else you could have done, but that’s usually just not true.
In other words, Small World is well-balanced, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t feel tremendously unfair at times. If you’ve got moxie enough to deal with that, then you should have no problems here.
Also, the predetermined number of rounds decreases as more players are added. This is a clever mechanism, because most games suffer from a highly increased length when players are added. By decreasing the total round count, it ensures that the extra time added from multiple players is evened out by the shorter overall length. That being said, Small World still takes a lot longer with four or five players. The shortening of the game helps, but you’ll probably be sitting through a lot of players pondering quietly.
As far as how the game plays, it’s pretty good with every player count. As usual, the two–player game deserves some commentary on its own (more on that in a second). The three-player game is…hmm. It is certainly fun to play, but I’ve found that conflict games often suffer with three people because every single player basically has to be equally opposed against each other–a slight preference towards attacking one player might make them feel singled out or bullied. This really depends on your group; if you all like to see blood in your games, this will be a non-issue. Nonetheless, I think three players is usually a less desirable option than four when it comes to conflict.
The four and five-player games are mostly the same, and this is where the game really shines. The mechanics that the game was based around–such as limited space, tactical decline, and forced conflict, all get substantial treatment on the big boards. Small World scales better than most in the fact that it has intentional design decisions to accommodate for every count, instead of a “one size fits all treatment,” but it ultimately still feels like a game that’s truly meant to be played with four or five players.
Regarding the two-player game, it’s pretty good. It’s better than most designer game two-player variants, but still not quite as good as the bigger version with more players. This game is nice, because you know you’re playing on a board that’s engineered for two players. The two player game doesn’t feel like an afterthought that’s tacked on just for the sake of it, nor does it rely on a gimmick in order to force it to work, such as many games that use the “dummy player” mechanic. In that sense, the two-player game is great.
Unfortunately, the mechanics that make the game a lot of fun don’t get to shine as much in the two-player game. First off, despite the small board, it’s pretty easy to stay out of conflict for a sizable portion of the game. It’s generally more profitable to take empty territories, and when there are only two players, it can be easy to just stay on opposite sides of the board. Conflict will happen eventually, but not nearly as soon as it would in a larger game. This also trivializes the idea of going into decline. Trivializes might be too harsh a word, but it definitely downplays the importance of decline when you’re able to persist for so long without needing to do it. In many two player games I’ve played, both players have gone into decline only once. Small World is still great with two players, but it doesn’t deliver quite the same experience.
Overall, Small World plays well at every count, but by far the best at four or five players.
Look and Feel
Is the game aesthetically pleasing? Are the components made out of quality material, or do they feel cheap? Is the rulebook well-designed and easy to read? How well is theme integrated into the game?
Overall, I think Small World’s visuals are downright fantastic, if not a little overbearing. Though it’s nice to look at, “busy” is a good word to describe Small World’s board. The regions are randomly shaped and arranged haphazardly, breaking into hard lines and placing contrasting colors next to each other. Icons are strewn all about the board, requiring player knowledge to decipher them. There are plenty of details all over these tiles, like the little boats on the sea, and you sometimes have to remind yourself that their only purpose is aesthetic. I wouldn’t mind if Days of Wonder toned things down a little bit with Small World’s board, but then, subtle isn’t really this game’s style. In any case, it’s hard to complain about high quality artwork.
For better or for worse, Small World comes with a manufactured insert. I tend to like custom inserts so long as I don’t have expansionary content, but there are also people out there who don’t feel the same way. In any case, it keeps everything together pretty well. It also comes with a removable tray for all the race tokens, which is extremely useful. Overall, Small World’s packaging quality is pretty nice.
Some concepts are just easier to explain in words than others, and I feel like the conquering mechanic of Small World is one of those things. I mean, it’s not like it’s very complicated. It’s really not. You can be taught the game, and it immediately comes off as fairly simple and easy to comprehend. It’s just, for whatever reason, it’s kind of a huge pain to learn Small World from the book.
I feel like some of the issues could have been mitigated if the structure of teaching was a little better. The “conquering” section is where things get messy in Small World’s rulebook, and it’s because that section is all over the place. The game has its own section for “first turn,” and explains how to enter onto the board, and then almost all of the rules of conquest, but not quite all of them. And then it has a separate “all other turns” section where it explains the rest of what you do. You’ll reach the conquest section, and it basically says “all the rules are the same except for this and this.” It gets even more confusing when it talks about the “first conquest,” which is in the “first turn” section, but can indeed be a part of other turns if you choose to withdraw all your troops. Both the structuring of the explanation, as well as the confusing name “first conquest” made this a concept that was annoying to learn.
I think Small World’s rules would have benefitted greatly from a simpler, more coherent structure. Don’t break the explanation into “first turn vs. other turns,” just break down the overall concepts and include a caveat in each one that ___ mechanics will only work on ___ turns. Maybe I’m just crazy, but I personally feel like it would have been a less confusing approach.
Overall, Small World is a game that can be learned from the book, but I would recommend watching a video of it in action before you jump in.
That being said, the theme, even if it is “tacked on,” adds a LOT to the game, and, in my opinion, makes the game a lot more enjoyable. The idea that there are all these absurd fantasy races trying to exist, and then seeing them wipe each other out, adds a sense of adventure and storytelling into mechanics that would otherwise feel bland, if not still strategic. Trying to imagine just why dragon-mounted Ratmen would try to descend upon a mountainous fortress populated that’s by Amazons is beyond me, but hell if it’s not fun to think about when you’re playing.
In all likelihood, you could strip the game of its theme and still end up with the same game, but if you did, it just wouldn’t be as exciting, so in that respect, I think Small World does a good job with its theme.
Is it a game you can play over and over? Are there expansions available for the game, and if so, are they necessary? Does the amount of the content in the box justify the price?
Introducing variable effects that are different each game isn’t a new concept. Take Cosmic Encounter, for instance. In Cosmic, a space conquest game, each player assumes an alien race that breaks or modifies a single game rule, which helps to make every game feel different. Small World is unique because it takes this one step further by adding the powers in addition to the races. I love that you can have a race that is played one specific way, but then it gets a power that completely changes their ideal strategy.
The fact that races and powers are distributed randomly to ALL players basically seals the deal in terms of Small World’s longevity. It’s enough if you yourself have to play a different approach every game, but with everybody on the table getting a vastly different combination every time you play, every game tells a different story. I don’t anticipate getting bored of Small World any time soon.
The biggest bang for your buck is Small World: Underground. Underground is not only an expansion, but a standalone version of the same game, packed with different races and a couple of new or different rules. You can either buy Underground to double the scope of your Small World experience, or you can just buy it instead of the main game, as it’s designed to be playable on its own. Underground is stacked with new powers and races. I’ve only played the original game and I’m already floored with how replayable the game is from the races and powers that are already included; I can’t even imagine how different it’d be every time with double that amount.
There is one other “big” expansion for Small World called Realms. Small World Realms doesn’t add races or powers. Instead, this box comes with a modular board, allowing you to break free from the static boards included in the main game. Though there are stipulations about how you should build maps for optimal gameplay, there’s nothing stopping you from breaking those rules and making the craziest map you could think of. As if the races and powers weren’t enough, even the board changes every game when you have Realms.
Finally, there are ten mini expansions for Small World. Some of these, like Leaders and Tunnels add simple gameplay mechanics, while many others give you a few more races and powers to work with. Because there are so many of them, I won’t cover them all here, but it suffices to say that, if you are a fan of Small World, the game is going to last you a long, long time should you choose to invest in expansionary content.
To make a long story short, there’s a reason why Small World is well loved among many gamers. It’s a well-executed idea that’s bolstered by great aesthetics, highly variable gameplay, and a non-intimidating ruleset.
Small World often draws comparisons as being “the next step up” from more casual conflict games like Risk, and those kind of comparisons cheapen the game if you harbor them. I say that because Small World excels at being its own game, and should be commended for bringing unique, innovative mechanics to a genre that’s already tried and true. It’s not a replacement to some other game that’s tangentially similar, it’s Small World. It merges area control with conflict to great effect, and still ends up feeling like an original idea.
Small World is a different game every single time due to its race/power combination mechanic, which gives players not only one, but two special abilities that allows them to blaze their own path of glory differently than everybody else on the board. If not for the inspired creativity of the race/power combinations, Small World would be a forgettable game. However, the game does have the race/power combinations, and that elevates the game from being something “okay” to being a game that’s worthwhile and replayable.
The game isn’t perfect—certain groups will enjoy it more than others, depending on how those players interact with each other. Players can be bullied and “picked on” even if there’s no tactical reason to do so, and there’s not a lot built into the game that would help you come back from a coordinated strike from multiple players. Kingmaking can also find its way into games, as the actions of one player can often be the difference between a winner and a loser.
However, these issues certainly aren’t enough to keep me from enjoying the game. Small World, because of its accessibility is a great “medium” game. It’s not so heavy that it will take four hours to play, but it’s also not so light that it only leaves you wanting more. It’s a nice healthy dose of fun board game action, and it’s well complimented by great visual design and creative mechanics. If all of this sounds appealing to you, do yourself a favor and go pick it up…just don’t start singing the song.
YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- You love area control games
- You’re looking for a “lite” conflict game
- If you enjoy whimsical fantasy themes
- You like to solve new challenges every time you play a game
- If you like being able to interact with, form alliances with, or otherwise viciously betray your fellow players
- You like it when games feel different every time you play
- You were ever that kid who wrote novels about Dragon Master Ratmen fighting Flying Ghouls
YOU WON’T LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- You’re expecting this to be strictly a conflict game, a la Risk…
- …or if you’re expecting it to not have very much conflict
- You have a strong preference towards thinky Euros over American games
- You desire a strong sense of consistency across game sessions
- You prefer elegant and simple visual design
- You ever made fun of that kid who writes novels about Dragon Master Ratmen fighting Flying Ghouls
About the Author
Zach is an avid tabletop gamer, and he created Board Game Resource out of his love for the hobby, and his desire to see more people come into it. When he's not writing for or managing BGR, Zach might be hanging out with cats, hiking a mountain, spending time with his lovely wife, or writing about video game stuff for Insert Gamer. Zach has also enjoys creating digital character art. You can check out his (long neglected) gallery here, or follow him on Instagram at @artworkbyzach!