A Small World Review, Long Overdue…

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011 | Board Games, Reviews

…in which I talk about a board game I’ve been playing for months, and has been on the market for years.

So, it was over a year ago that I began to be interested in the game Small World, on the impersonal recommendation of such internet celebrity as Wil Wheaton. And while I was convinced that I would almost definitely enjoy the game, I was shy on cash, and – as always – shy on players, so I was hesitant to make the investment. As it turned out, before I had the funds to buy the full game, a version was released for the iPad for (at the time) only $5. To me, that’s an agreeable preview, and according to all reviews, it was an exact port of the original. And then came GenCon.

No Small World, just Little People
No Small World, just Little People

At GenCon I finally had the opportunity to buy Small World for a vastly discounted price, due to a dent in the box no worse than I would likely do the first time I took it to our bi-weekly hangout. Having played the iPad version a few times prior to GenCon, I was in no remarkable hurry to break open the new copy and start playing, so it wasn’t until I made it back to Texas that we really gave it a go.

I apologize in advance for the lack of photos in this review. I realize a lot of the concepts would be much easier to understand with visual aides. I will attempt to facilitate this in future reviews.

The Concept:

The idea behind Small World is pretty much exactly as described in the title, you live in a very small world. The problem is that it’s not a very happy world and you’re not alone. It is not a world of laughter a, world of fun. Instead, it’s a world of slaughter, a world of war. Within this world are several races of fantastical beings ranging from halflings to trolls to ratmen. Each of these races is hellbent on spreading their empire as far and wide as possible. This would be of no challenge if there weren’t so many other races vying to do the same in such a small world. Your goal, as the player in all o this, is to see that your empires (yes, you can have more than one) are as powerful and widespread as possible.

The Setup:

The game comes with two, double sided game boards, each side designed for a different number of players ranging from 2 – 5. I found it interesting that rather than having one game board for however many players, you have a completely different board every time you add a player. The boards are each similar, but slightly more spacious as you add more players. It maintains the same level of crowding, regardless of whether you have two players or five. In some ways, it feels like a bit of component overkill to have effectively four game boards, but they fold up nicely and it definitely makes the game more balanced and challenging regardless of how many players you’ve got.

The next major component is the race and power tiles. Every empire is comprised of two tiles randomly combined. The two tiles combining makes for as much variety in the empires as possible, making it so that each game is distinctly different, even beyond the random race selection. At the start of the game six random races and six random powers are drawn and combined to make the selection pool.

Everything else that remains are chits to represent everything and anything under the sun on the game board. This game has more chits in it than I’ve seen in a long time: race chits, terrain chits, victory chits, defense chits, dragon chits, chit chat chits (I made up that last one). The one clear advantage that the iPad version has over the original is that all the chits are digital, so there’s nothing to manage or clean up. Fortunately, with all of these components, the box is very well designed and organized to hold everything neatly.

The Play:

Each player, in turn, has one primary goal: to collect the most victory points and triumph over their opponents. During the first turn, each player selects a race/power combination from the selection pool and collects the total forces as indicated by the two tiles, collectively. Forces are then rolled out, starting from the edge of the board and moving inward. Each territory on the board is captured by placing a number of your army chits upon it. This number starts and two, and increases by every chit already present on the territory. Is there a mountain on it? Add a chit. Is there a indigenous race there? Add a chit. Are there opposing forces there? Add that many chits. Did I mention this game has a lot of chits?

At the end of each assault, a player may redeploy their forces, shoring up defenses in valuable lands and evening out their numbers as needed. Once everything is said and done, the player receives a number of “victory points” equal to the number of territories they control. In future turns, a player has two options. The first is to mount another assault on the world, trying to spread their influence even further and increase their victory point claims. This is done by collecting all excess army chits and beginning the attacks again, starting from occupied territories.

The second option, however, is to abandon your race and send them into decline. This is done by removing all but one chit from each territory and flipping the remaining chits face down. In the future, the player will still receive victory points for a race in decline, but they are far easier for opponents to wipe off the board.  After sending a race into decline, the next turn plays out just like the first turn, by selecting a new race/power combination and starting an initial assault on the edge of the board.

Play continues for a predesignated number of rounds, determined by the number of players. This is actually one of the mechanics I really appreciate because it means that each game has a terminal point. Everyone can see the end of the game coming and there’s no question as to how much longer the game will go on. Every game runs about the same 90 minutes or so because it has a clearly defined ending.

Overall Opinion:

One of the things I really like about Small World is how approachable it is. Yes, when you open the box it looks overwhelming with so many bits and pieces, but players quickly become aware that the pieces are easily marked and have specific limited usage. So while the game looks complex out of the box, the simplicity of it shows through after about two turns.

And while the strategy of placement and movement is a key element, I think the most challenging and crucial decision in the game is when to give up on an empire. The decision to decline and empire should not be taken lightly. It is difficult, sometimes, to judge the perfect time to send your current race into decline, but if you wait too long, you may pay for it in the victory points.

I’ve since played the game with several different groups of people, all with different familiarity to board games, and it’s been a hit with all of them. Small World has proven itself to be fun, challenging, and yet approachable to all players. And like the best board games, win or loose, it’s always fun.

Expansions:

There’s a common problem with expansions in that they frequently add new aspects of the game that strive to introduce new mechanics but ultimately they mostly add unnecessary and unwanted complexity. The majority of the Small World expansions are not faulted with this because all they do is expand the game with additional races and powers. Grand Dames, Cursed, and Be Not Afraid… all fall into this category. Each is a collection of race and power tiles that were selected from player submissions and each adds breadth to the game without adding undue complexity. Necromancer’s Island on the other hand, adds the mechanics for an additional player – a player who plays in a completely different way than the rest.

Necromancer’s Island brings a vaguely cooperative essence to the game by giving all of the other players a common enemy in the necromancer. While the players still have the same goal in mind, they also must watch out for the necromancer who benefits from the conflict between all of the other players and can win before the game would normally end. I’ve not yet played with Necromancer’s Island but I’m quite keen to do so.

I never gave Tales and Legends a second glance because it’s simply a deck of cards that add a sort of “world effect” to the game. I’ve seen the “world rules” mechanic used in plenty of games and have never really been a fan.

Recently, I was made aware of the new Small World: Underground which is less of an expansion and more of a reinvention of the game. I’ve read up on it a bit and for the most part, it’s exactly what Small World is, only with additional mechanics. The Days of Wonder site is clear to mention that all previous races and powers are compatible with Underground but beyond that, it is a complete, standalone game. There are additional systems in play as well including “relics” and “places of power,” so it’s at least got some originality to it, but I can’t see a real reason to pick it up since I already have the original.

Final Thoughts:

So it is my solid opinion that Small World is a fantastic gaming investment, and at $38 it’s got a great dollar-to-fun potential. My only regrets are that I bought it years after it released and I don’t play it nearly as often as I’d like. It is what I feel is a staple to any good game closet and should not be overlooked. And next time, if there is a next time, I promise to have more photos.

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