Small World – Game of the Month Review


Small World

  


Designer: Philippe Keyaerts (2009)
Publisher: Days of Wonder
# of Players: 2-5
Play Time: 80 min
BGG Rank/Rating: #33/7.63
Category: Gamer’s Game

Small World is a game of global conquest… only in this case, the globe is a little smaller than everyone would like it to be.  Players guide a series of fantasy races through growth and decline, attempting to accumulate the most control and wealth throughout the game.  At its core, it’s a direct conflict, (very) light wargame that uses mostly deterministic combat (almost no randomness).  The game itself is extremely simple, with most of its complexity coming from the racial powers and the interaction with other players.

Small World was the May Game of the Month! for the Hypermind BoardGamers, and during that time, it saw a lot of play and had a very positive reception.  Personally, my opinion of it went through a bit of a roller coaster ride, but I’ll get into that more later in this review.    


Components and Setup 

If you haven’t heard, Small World has some seriously kick-butt components.  To start with, there are two double-sided boards.  In order to make sure that the world is always sufficiently small, every number of players has its own map.  While some have complained that the art on the boards is disappointing, they look great to me.  My only complaint would be that some of the spaces on the 3- and 5-player maps are a little small for all the cardboard that needs to fit in them, making certain symbols printed there hard to see.   

Speaking of cardboard, there are 368 tokens of varying types and sizes included with the game.  Most of them are concerned with the 14 different races, with each race having a banner and a stack of large chits.  There are also Special Power badges, lots of Victory Point Coins, Mountain tokens, and a number of other tokens related to specific racial or special powers.  In addition, there is one six-sided Reinforcement Die marked with 1, 2, and 3 diamonds on three of its sides and being blank on the other three sides.

The coolest thing about the components is actually the box insert.  Every token, banner, marker, coin, die, and board has its own special place (which is clearly defined in Appendix I of the rules).  But the most awesome thing is that there is a removable tray for all of the racial chits that are used on the board.  It’s even got a clear cover that clips into place so that they won’t get spilled all over the place!  The only downside of this advanced copmponent-storing system is that people with big, fat sausage fingers like me have a hard time actually getting stuff out of the wells sometimes.  But that’s a burden I have to bear with lots of games.

Set up is pretty simple.  You put out the appropriate board for the number of players and put a mountain token on each mountain space.  You also place out one Lost Tribe chit on each space containing a lost tribe symbol.  The Race Banners and Special Power Badges are shuffled and placed side-by-side next to the baord, and five of each are dealt out above their stacks.  Each player is given 5 VP coins and the start player is determined (technically, the player with the pointiest ears, whom you can then taunt as being a dirty, freakin’ elfblood!).  
   

Basic Gameplay  (click here for complete game rules)
 

The game itself lasts a varying number of turns depending on how many players there are, which you can keep up with using the Game Turn Track found on each board.  The goal of the game is to accululate the most Victory Point coins at the end of the last turn. 

Choosing a Race

On any turn when you do not control an active race, you will begin by selecting a new Race and Special Power combo.  Six such combos are available at all times (the 5 dealt next to the board, plus the top one on the stacks).  Taking the first combo (farthest from the stacks) is free, but you may instead choose one closer to the stack by placing one VP coin on each combo that you pass over.  

Place this combo in front of you and take a number of race chits from the tray equal to the total of the large numbers on both the Race Banner and the Special Power Badge.  These tokens will be what you use to conquer regions on the board.

Conquest

To conquer a region, you must deploy 2 race tokens plus 1 extra token per piece of cardboard in that area.  These “pieces of cardboard” include other race tokens (even Lost Tribes), Mountains, and any other power-specific marker (Encampments, Troll Lairs, and Fortresses).  For example, if you were trying to take over a mountain space containing 2 Troll race tokens and a Troll Lair, you would have to place 6 of your race tokens there (base 2 + 1 mountain + 2 Trolls + 1 Troll Lair = 6 total Race tokens). 

If your active race is new, the first region you conquer must be along the edge of the board or next to a sea.  On later turns, you may pick up as many tokens from spaces that you already control and then attack any region adjacent to one you already control.  Technically, you can even pick up all of your tokens and start over from the edge of the board if you like.

When you conquer a region containing another player’s race tokens, one of their tokens is returned to the tray (removed from play).  Any additional tokens from that region are given to that player, and they will be able to redeploy them into areas they control at the end of your turn. 

If you want to conquer a region but do not have quite enough tokens to do so (but have at least one to make the attack), you may declare the attack as your last for the round.  You then get to roll the Reinforcement Die and add the value of pips you roll to your attacking force.  If this makes you succeed, you place your tokens there as normal, but if you fail, you simply redeploy them at the end of your turn (you never lose tokens when attacking, even if you fail in your last attack).

Once conquest is over, you get to redeploy your extra forces however you like.  Leaving at least one token in each of your regions, you can move extra tokens (or tokens from unsuccessful last attacks) around to any area that you control. 

You then take one Victory Point coin for each area that you control with either your active or declined race.

Declining Your Race

At some point, your race will run out of steam.  Perhaps it has run rampant across the nations, driving before it all opposition bu
t stretching itself too thin in the process.  Or maybe you got smacked down by everyone, ran away with your tail between your legs, and have nothing left to work with.  In either case (or something in between), you may choose to put your race into Decline

At the beginning of your turn, instead of pursuing new conquests, you can decline your active race so that you can get a new one on the next turn.  To do this, you flip over your Race Banner and Special Power Badge to their declined sides.  With a few exceptions, you will no longer have access to that race’s powers, and you will no longer be able to attack with them.  You then flip a single race token in each of your controlled regions over to their declined (gray) sides and remove any extra tokens from the board (you leave only one token in each territory).

You may only have one declined race at a time, so at this time you must also remove any tokens from a previous declined race from the board and discard its Special Power Badge and place its Race Banner on the bottom of the stack.  

As during a conquest turn, you collect Victory Point coins equal to the number of areas that you control, but you will usually only control one declined race and no active race at this point. 


The 14 different Race Tokens

Race and Special Powers 

I’ve sort of glossed over what is perhaps the most important aspect of Small World, the Race and Special Powers.  Every race has both its own innate power and is paired randomly with one of the special powers as well.  These powers do all sorts of things, and I encourage you to check out the official rules to get a description of each.  Many of the powers give advantages to attack or defense, give bonus points for controlling certain kinds of regions or performing certain actions, subtly break rules, or give other interesting benefits.  The relative strength of the powers are also balanced by how many Race Tokens they grant when the Race/Power combo is chosen.  So while some powers may be inherently better than others, they will be penalized by receiving less Race Tokens.


Strategy and Tactics

Clearly, choosing the best Race and Power combos is one of the keys to the game.  First of all, you need to always look for some synergy between the powers.  It’s hard to make general recommendations about this (defensive + bonus point powers, for example), so instead I’ll give you some very specific examples.  Ghouls (which continue to attack when in decline) are really nice when paired with Wealthy (which gives you 7 VP at the end of your first turn), because you’re probably going to send the Ghouls into decline immediately.  The Ratmen (which don’t have a power at all, but get 8 Race Tokens) are great with Merchant (which gives a bonus point for every region you control but only give you 2 Race Tokens) because you have enough Tokens to make use of this incredibly potent power.  The Skeletons (which give you an extra Race Token for every two occupied regions you conquer) work well with Pillaging (which gives you an extra VP for each occupied region you conquer) because both powers are triggered from the same thing (killin’ stuff!).  There’s a lot more that I could mention, but one other thing to keep in mind is that sometimes their relative strength is situation-dependent, and that’d be way to complicated to get into here.

I also have some ideas about what kinds of race/power combos are better at different points in the game.  Specifically, I think that good offensive powers are better at the beginning of the game, because you want to have a race that will provide as many points as it can while in decline.  Then, it’s good to think more about defense when picking your second race, to delay decline as long as possible (or maybe prevent the need for a second decline altogether).  And finally, getting a bonus point power in your final race is always a good thing, because they are far better if they never have to go into decline at all (since you typically lose the bonus VP production as soon as you go into decline).

Of course, there are times when a subpar race/power combo will accumulate a significant number of VP coins because several people have bypassed it previously.  That alone may net you enough points to make taking it worthwhile.  So obviously, picking Races is a huge part of doing well in Small World.  

One other key to the game that I see as important is minimizing the number of declines you have.  In a lot of ways, a decline turn is a neutered turn.  You can’t do anything to expand your territory, you lose the benefit of your previous declined races, and most of the time your powers don’t work any more (which is especially painful when you have a bonus-point power).  In general, I’d say that it’s best to strive to have only two races in a shorter (4-5 player) game and 3 races in a longer (2-3 player) game.  Of course, sometimes the actions of other players make that impossible, but making wise choices with your Race/Power combos can help a lot.

There are also a few Races and Special Powers that break the rules for declining.  I’ve already mentioned Ghouls, but the Dwarves‘ bonus point power (for controlling mines) works when they are in decline as well.  Among the Special Powers, Spirit (which makes a race not count towards the limit of having only one declined race) and Stout (which allows a race to go into decline at the end of a Conquest turn) are both incredibly powerful.  All of these (except the Dwarves, which kind of suck because they only get 3 Race Tokens) are among the most powerful powers in the game, and can let you break the 2/3 race limit I suggested above.    

The other side of this topic therefore is how to force other players into decline.  The key it to always attack active races.  It can be tempting to want to try and destroy a particularly large or powerful declined race.  But in general, it will do far more to harm the other player if you concentrate on weakening their active race, which then forces them to send it into decline early and therefore remove the old declined race from the board as well.  Of course, don’t be afraid to attack a region containing a declined race if you need or want that area, but if your goal is to weaken a powerful player, stick to their active race.    

Another important trick when attacking is knowing when to abandon regions.  The most limited resource you have is the number of Race Tokens at your disposal, so always think about how to use them most efficiently.  In many cases, certain regions will be worth more to you than others, so don’t be afraid to abandon (pick up all tokens from a region at the start of the turn) some areas to have a better chance at controlling more valuable ones.  Since there is little or no randomness in combat, it’s pretty easy to figure out when this could be advantageous.

Above and beyond the tactical tips that I’ve mentioned above, the social component of the game cannot be ignored.  In general, the player who is attacked the least probably has the best chance of winning.  In other words, laying low is a great strategy on its own.  It’s better to acculumate a moderate number of points on a regular basis than to score a huge number of points on a few turns, because scoring up near 20 points in a turn will get you noticed.  Since VP are hidden throughout the game, players tend to base decisions on a general feeling about how well a player is doing.  If you make sudden movements, the T-Rex will attack, but keeping to yourself being quiet about how well you’re doing will keep you pretty safe.
  
And this leads me to my last recommendation, to be careful about overextending.  Since points are scored based on how much land you control, your first instinct may be to spread far and wide
as fast as you can.  I’m not saying that this is always a bad thing (especially the turn before going into decline), but in referencing some of the other tips above, it can also lead you into trouble.  Like I said, making a big splash gets you noticed by other players.  It also spreads you thin, making it easier to take your territories and increasing your casualties.  It’s generally better to consolidate your forces into more valuable areas, trying to score somewhere in the 11-14 point area at the most each turn.  More than that, and you’ll probably burn bright but soon burn out.

Before I leave the topic of strategy, let me address one thing that we and others have had a concern over: start player bias.  In general, people have tended to notice that the starting player may have an inherent advantage in the game.  To address this, I actually started to compile some data comparing start order to finish order, and this is what I found:  

  
The sample size for collecting this data was only 8 games, so of course it has no actual statistical weight.  But in general, our findings indicated that the chance of finishing last increased as you progressed later into the starting order.  A bias for winning was a little less obvious, however, since 3rd starting place appeared to have just as much chance to win as did the 1st player.  And obviously, this kind of analysis has no way to take into account player skill, which no doubt played a significant role in all of these numbers.  So take it as you will, but I’m choosing to think that while going first may be somewhat of an advantage, there are a lot of other factors that have a lot more direct impact on winning.


What I think…
 

Initially, I was a little disappointed by Small World.  In general, I was caught up in all the hype about it, especially since I’d heard so many good things about its predecessor, Vinci.  I think that the utter simplicity of the gameplay left me feeling a little hollow after my first play or two.  However, as I played a few more games, what I thought was shallow simplicity started to look a lot more like simple elegance.  All of the little factors that I mentioned above about choosing races and sending races into decline started to pop out to me.  The interaction of the social factors of the game with the variable powers and the underlying deterministic combat system all came together for me almost as a revelation somewhere around the third week of the month.  And by the end, Small World continued to surprise me with how many layers of complexity it really has. 

It’s not a perfect game, however.  Since the foundation of the game is its combat system, the fact that there is no real tension or excitement involved in it (as you might have in a system that included more randomness) can tend to make actual gameplay a little boring.  People looking for a typical light wargame will ultimately be disappointed by the fact that combat is nearly just a formality, being ruled more by simple calculations than daring gambits and swings of fate.  

As with most eurogames, Small World is more about efficiency than anything else.  Being efficient with race and power choices; being efficient with managing your active and declined races, and when to go into decline; being efficient with your race tokens as you spread out and claim territory; and even being efficient with how you interact with the other players (maybe dropping in a Jedi mind trick or two to convine them that they need to attack someone else).      

Since the social part of the game is so important, I also found that excitement about and in the game can also be pretty group dependent.  This is a very dynamic and interactive game, filled with direct conflict and meta-game discussion.  Its lack of randomness will likely turn off many diehard Ameritrashers, while its heavy interaction and conflict may offend the sensibilities of hardcore eurogamers.  But for those of us who live firmly in the space between both extremes, Small World does a great job of pulling together the best of both worlds.

      
The Verdict!

Fourteen different people in the Hypermind BoardGamers have played Small World, with their lowest rating being 5 and the highest being 9, averaging out to an 8.04 out of 10.  

Rules: Rules are incredibly simple to pick up, but play has a lot of depth to keep your attention.
Downtime: With more players, downtime may become a bit of a problem, but usually turns are very simple to play out and it’s not a big deal.
Length: We’ve played 15 games that averaged almost exactly 60 minutes and with an average of 3.5 players per game.  Unless the game is totally falling flat (which happened only once for me), the time flies by. 
Player Interaction: Tons, both in negotiation and persuasion as well as with direct conflict on the board.
Weight:  Medium
GamerChris’ Rating: Small World is a solid light conflict game with a nice theme, and overall I rate it an 8
 

22 Comments

  1. Bryan

    Nice review. I’m planning on picking this up at Gen Con (if I don’t bag a copy in this weekend’s Math Trade.)


  2. Small World was the May Game of the Month! for the Hypermind BoardGamers, and during that time, it saw a lot of play and had a very positive reception. Personally, my opinion of it went through a bit of a roller coaster ride, but I’ll get into that more later in this review.


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