Straight to the point – A light-hearted game with surprising depth, only slightly marred by niggly rule problems.
OK everybody, sing along with me!
“It’s a Small World after a” – WHOAHWHOAHWHOAH! Stop the music! Any more and we risk getting sued by the little mousey fella with the big ears and squeaky voice.
Fortunately, Small World isn’t about annoyingly catchy tunes and rosy-faced cherubs singing (unless you pick the halfings, I guess). A winner of numerous awards, including the Golden Geek and The Meeple’s Choice, Small World is a game of world domination – players use a mixture of races and powers to take over territory, and subjugate their fellow players in a effort to make some coin!
To start the game, players shuffle the stack of race and power cards into a random order, then lay out five of each in order. Each race and power will have a unique ability; Dwarves for example score bonus coins when you hold mines, whilst the power “Stout” allows you to go into decline at the end of your turn instead of the beginning (more on this later).
The cards are cut in such a way that each power card slots into the side of each race card; in this way, each race is assigned a random power, giving you all manner of combinations including Seafaring Amazons and Commando Wizards to name but a few. Due to this, each game is unique. The unfortunate side effect is that some combinations can be very strong.
If you’re the unlucky one in the turn order, you can get lumped with a pants race/power combo and just get slapped around the board all game. Also, some of the cards are just plain confusing; I’ve played this game numerous times, and still struggle to remember how the Sorcerers work.
Speaking of the board – this is divided into a selection of regions, which each assigned a terrain type, like Swamp, Forest or Water; this is important depending on your race/power combo. Some regions, such as the mountains and grasslands will have tokens on them, making them harder to conquer.
Another clever twist is that for each player number, there’s a different board, with more regions on the four and five player maps. This is a clear case of play-testing and careful design, good indicators of quality.
To conquer a region, the player first looks at the two large numbers printed on their race card and power card, then adds them up; this is the number of ’race tokens’ they receive. These race tokens are then used to conquer regions; generally, this is two tokens, plus one for every token already in the region you are trying to take. So if your opponent has left 2 Human tokens in the region you’ve got your eye on, it’ll take 4 of your Tritons to take it.
At the end of each turn, the players have a chance to redeploy their tokens to any of the regions they’ve already own, even abandoning those they don’t feel they can defend. The player then scores coins for every region they control, plus bonuses based on their race/power combo. The player with the most coins at the end of eight turns is the winner!
What adds tactical depth to this game is the ability to take your race into decline. Eventually, each player will find their number of tokens declining (you lose one every time an opponent conquers one of your regions), or are spread too thinly to effectively form a defence during your opponents’ turns. Choosing to go into decline has to happen at the beginning of your turn. The player removes all but one token from each region they control, and flips the remainder over (the backs are all a kind of ’washed out’ version of the artwork on the fronts), along with flipping the associated race/power combo cards. The player still scores for this race, but it no longer has any powers or bonuses, and is far easier for opponents to wail on.
So what’s the benefit? At the start of your next turn, you get the chance to pick a brand new race/power combo, and start returning the favour! Knowing when to go into decline and when to keep going is key to winning Small World. This can be tricky for new players; the rules are simple to learn, but this element of game play can only really be gained from experience, making it not entirely a friendly experience for a brand new player coming into a game of experienced Small Worlders. But persevere, because this game is a cracker!
The artwork of Small World is unique to say the least! A mash-up of high fantasy and comic book stylings, with rich, deep colour palettes make the game look sumptuous. High grade card stock rounds off a game that speaks of quality, which isn’t surprising when one of the publishers is Days of Wonder!
So there you go! A light-hearted and quirky 2 to 5 player game of domination. Despite some small rule niggles and potentially overpowered combinations, Small World is an absolute must for the casual gamer and the hardcore alike.