Review: Small World – Large Strategy, Tiny Space
Small World was one of this year’s Meeple’s Choice Awards, and with good reason. Small World, similar to Days of Wonder’s other juggernaut – Ticket to Ride, combines simple rules with a focus on strategy to create a game that’s easy to learn, but provides a challenge each time.
The Basics. Small World begins as a relatively peaceful land, complete with forests, hills, farms, swamps, and mountains. There are even pockets of a small declining civilization already present. But, with such a fertile world, its only a matter of time before other civilizations on the rise start to stake their claim. In fact, that’s turn one.
In Small World, each player gets to choose from a selection of fantasy-style races. Elves, trolls, ghouls, and giants are all available to play. And, each one has its own benefit. Giants, for example, like to attack from mountain strongholds, so any space next to a mountain they control is more vulnerable.
But it doesn’t stop there, each race is also paired with a random special ability. Those abilities may give bonus points, allow the player to attack more easily, or break other rules. So, one game you may get the Maurading Orcs, and the next might see the Wealthy Orcs. This simple addition completely randomizes the game and makes it a different play each time.
Once you’ve chosen your race (from a random selection of five race/power combos), you start invading Small World. Each player, in turn, starts to accumulate territory. There are no dice (usually), so it’s a simple matter of dedicating enough troops to take over a given territory. Attacking other players causes them to lose one of their race tokens, but they retain the rest to play the following turn.
However, after three or so turns, your army will either be spread too thin to keep attacking, or you’ll have lost some troops and your civilization lacks the vibrancy it once had. At that point, you may choose to have your race go into decline. Next turn, you pick a new one and start again. Your declined race just sits there and waits to be taken over, but your new race can continue the fight.
Each turn, you gain a number of points equal to how many territories are controlled by your active and declined races. These simple rules, however, give rise to a good amount of challenge. Each player must try to get as much territory as he can. Sometimes it’s worth it to attack an opponent with more points, even if you have to dedicate more troops, because that will prevent them from earning that point on their turn (or make it more difficult for them to earn it). Sometimes, it’s better to take the low hanging fruit and just get points for yourself.
Components: 5 of 5. Each race is represented by a different token. All are on sturdy stock and do not easily bend or warp. The same can be said for the race and power displays. The artwork for each race, and for the board, is phenominal. It is displayed with just the right amount of lighthearted fantasy for what is essentially an aggressive area control game. Best yet, the game comes with two double-sided boards – one side each for 2, 3, 4, or 5 players. In that way, each amount of players has just the right amount of space for there to be continued confrontation.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. Since you win by committing more troops, the luck factor is extremely low. Most of the time, you are trying to use your race and power to their full advantage. Some luck is involved with the race/power combos. There are a few especially advantageous combinations that synergize well, but for the most part they are all roughly equal, if very different. The race/powers aren’t so much luck as necessary randomization.
Mechanics: 5 of 5. The game is solid and fluid. Each turn, you gather up your forces and attack. There is very little down time because there are no “attack” or “defense” rolls. There is just the march across the board using a sufficient number of troops. Despite its simplicity, the game really opens up a whole world of possibilities.
Replayability: 4.5 of 5. This game is always going to be an area control game – but that’s not really the reason to play. The fun is in looking at the different combinations of races and powers and bringing them to their most effective use. It’s in smashing other races and watching in horror as your own races are attacked. And that feels new and different each game because of the randomization fo power and race.
Spite: 2.5 of 5. As an area control game, there is a definite element of spite. You attack your opponents. Sometimes, its best to concentrate on the person presumably in the lead (points are kept face down after they are earned so it’s easy to lose track). Sometimes, its better to pick off the easy prey as it will net you more points. On the plus side, there is not much hate when people get attacked in this game. After all, you can always select a new race and enter the game powerfully again.
Overall: 4.5 of 5. Small World is a delight to play. At my weekly gaming sessions, there are always a few requests for Small World and it hits the table often. Part of the reason Small World is so fun is that it combines the strategy inherent in many area control games (Risk, El Grande), but nearly eliminates the ability to get boxed in or marginalized. I highly recommend Small World to any gaming collection.