Small World is an epic battle royal of tiny proportions. Players take turns picking different races with unique modifiers to battle for a world that’s “just not big enough for the both of us”. Up to 5 players can join in the melee, and the game is hugely different depending on numbers, which is just one of many great qualities that make up the game of Small World.
How it Plays
The Small World premise is very basic: Players start by choosing a race (one of six shown, replacing it when one is removed), collect their race tokens, then enter the map from any edge and start their conquest. Each location on the map can be attacked by any adjacent spot and takes 2 race tokens + 1 race token per anything on that location to claim it. Once you run out of tokens with which to fight, you redistribute them on your territories for defense and collect money for what you own. End the prescribed rounds for the game with the most money, and you win.
Small World turns are less basic: Every race has a different power; Skeletons get an extra guy for every two they kill, Dwarves gain money from mines, and Giants attack’s are stronger from the mountains (a type of terrain), but these are merely a few of the races. On top of that, attached to every race is a randomly shuffled power, like the ability to fly (attack anywhere from anywhere), money for killing occupied spaces, or the ability to control an indestructible dragon. Combine these powers with the right races to make some very powerful combinations. Shuffle the stack of races and powers before each game and you end up ensuring that it rarely plays the same way twice.
Another hard to grasp mechanic of the game is “going into decline”. Decline is when you abandon one race to choose another. The abandoned race doesn’t instantly disappear, though, they stay on the board collecting money as an undefensive, unplayable race. This usually costs you a turn to do but allows you to come back on the board with a whole new set of tokens. Going into decline when forced to so by losing all your guys is an obvious action, but doing it when no one expects you to can allow for some impressive power plays.
The Extra Effort
In addition to the number of combinations you can have with the powers and races, Small World has a few things in it that show the extra level of commitment the designers had. Most games have one board played on for all games you play, Small World has four. The game has a board for 2, 3, 4, and 5 player games separately. This ensures that it really is a small world regardless of how many or few players are in the game.
The rules of Small World are worth noting. With all the different combinations you can end up with some questions on the legitimacy of a play someone else makes. So far, through many playthroughs, I have yet to fail to find the answer to one of my questions, of which I have had many. It’s rare to find game rules that don’t leave you a little more confused after you look up an answer, and I run into that less than average in Small World.
The Underwhelming (With the Luck Vs. Strategy Part)
Small World isn’t faultless; For every great combination of powers, there is a worthless combo as well. Since the combinations are random, it’s possible to get completely outplayed due to the choices available to you. I believe strongly that there is always an angle you can find if you look hard enough, but that is much harder the fewer players there are. In a four to five player game, there are so many things that change between rounds that it is hard for one player to dominate; anyone getting too strong usually gets taken down by the collective. In a two person game, however, a player with Berserk Amazons (a ton of attacking tokens with a huge bonus to attack) can make it impossible for most race combinations to reenter the map.
It’s not uncommon for a game to be weaker in a certain player combination versus another, but it is only fair to mention that I believe Small World shines in its 3-5 player variants.
The strategy aspect of Small World is capitalizing on the mistakes of your opponents. Since you make money by expanding your realm of control, and the more you own the less defense you have, it becomes a balancing act of survival and capitalism. Knowing when to expand, where to expand, when to attack, and when to retreat are important to winning Small World, but knowing when to spread out, which races work best when the board is empty/full, and how to go into decline while still maximizing profit, is what separates the players from the professionals.
Everything written so far about Small World is the base game, which is what I own and play. The expansions for Small World are not necessary to produce a fun and rewarding game night, but I feel like mentioning them, because they are fun, and can make a new experience for someone who already loves to play this game. The expansions are mostly the same, but that’s okay because they all add what you will end up loving about Small World… combinations. By adding new race tokens, new powers, and, in one case, leaders for you race, the expansions allow you to discover those new, clever, and unstoppable combinations. Being cheap and simple to include make these expansions easy to suggest.
Small World is anything but…small. It has a ton of combinations, multiple boards, and a lot of variations between games. Whether that’s from the tokens or the number of people you’re playing with. There is enough strategy in the game to make it competitive while still allowing for any player to get in on the action.
Player interaction isn’t just big in Small World, it’s the game. You will find yourself getting mad at friends for teaming up on you, then going out of your way to attack them when they’re weak two turns later.
It’s worth giving this game a playtest the next time you drop by your local game store, I just recommend you do it with a group rather than 1 on 1.