March 15, 2012

Board Game Review: Small World

Small World (Days of Wonder/Philippe Keyaerts, 2009)
2-5 players / 8 + / 60-90 Minutes

It was an empire to be feared!  A civilization to be envied!  A people to stay away from!  The great tribe of fortified trolls grew to legendary status.  Carving out a glorious realm, they stamped their footprint upon the land with ominous lairs and massive fortresses.  Only the foolish and desperate dared attack such formidable defenses.  The prestige and honor garnered by such accomplishments would resound throughout the rather smallish world.  Alas, it was not meant to be for eternity.  Stretched thin, even this mighty nation could no longer exert their authority.  Yet even though in somber decline, this once proud people's influence would be felt in their former haunts for many years to come.  Lo, instead, it was time for the rise of the...

...seafaring dwarves?

What You Get:

Appearance-wise, Small World should appeal very much to both the gaming and the casual crowd.  While there are no plastic miniatures to be found, there is a lot of extremely sturdy cardboard, all simple, colorful, and attractive.  These pieces are bright, the artwork is vibrant, and the rulebook is breezy.  There are two boards, both double-sided, each face used for a different number of players.  The coins (slash victory points) come in five denominations.  Various other tokens will denote "armies" and defensive impediments such as mountains, fortresses, and dragons, etc.  The last cardboard pieces to note, the heart of the game, are a set of banners identifying the many races available to choose from and another stack of badges to identify rule-breaking powers.  The race banners and power badges are cut so as to pair neatly together as each come up randomly for selection.  The artwork is light and humorous.  While decidedly on the whimsical side, it nonetheless thematically portrays many a familiar fantasy fare without being overly "geeky."  Everything is standard Euro business, but with a delightful panache.  A couple of final notes.  One, there is a very lightweight, wooden die with 1, 2, 3, or no pips on its faces.  And two, the box insert is extremely helpful and well-designed with even a plastic tray (and lid!) to keep all the race tokens organized and in place.  The tray's compartments are a bit small, however, for adult fingers.  But as I game mostly with my kids, it's not a problem - I just make them fish out the pieces!

Cardboard bits galore!
The Quick Rundown:

Like so many other civilizations in history, your goal in Small World is to earn the most victory points; all couched in terms of "conquer thy neighbor."  At the start of the game, 5 race banners and 5 power badges are randomly drawn from their separate decks and then matched together in order.  The player with the pointiest ears obviously goes first and can choose one of the 5 race/power combos on the table to begin.  However, there is one catch.  The first available race is free, but if you see a better race/power combo up the line, you have to pay one coin for each race you skip to avoid a guilt trip.  Those are placed on the people you just stiffed and will go to their eventual owner upon selection.  The banners/badges also specify the number of tokens of that race you receive; these are your "troops" which you'll send forth to subdue this world that is too small.  Warfare is simple math.  An empty region takes two of your race tokens to conquer, plus one more for each additional piece of cardboard occupying it.  Those impediments could be in the form of another player's tokens, or some other defensive obstruction such as mountains or encampments.  After all, everyone knows how stubborn cardboard can be.

Now, as is true of all war games not dealing with Napoleon, you're not just conquering territory for the sake of conquering territory.  No, instead, you want to capture regions that will score you points.  While occupying any old space will indeed earn you one victory point, your race's special ability and unique power will give you even more by going after certain areas or attacking in particular ways.  Each new turn, you'll pick up all of your tokens, less one per territory already owned, and spread the love again as best you can.  With so many race and defensive tokens lying about, the board will very soon be more crowded then my laundry room and you'll be out of men.  "Now what," you ask.  In that case, as has so inconveniently befallen many a great civilization, you will put your empire into decline and choose a new race/power combo to begin anew.  This mechanic was no doubt borrowed from Gibbon's "Cyclical History" thesis, which can apply to many other things such as politics, global warming, and dental hygiene.

E for Everyone:

The box's recommended age rating is spot on this time.  No question.  The rules are straight-forward.  Game play is simple.  The entire premise is so well formulated and accessible that young kids can grasp the fundamentals and play with little problem.  Yet, the unique abilities of each race and power combination afford the experienced gamer the opportunity to develop a bit of strategy.  Sure, it's not overly complex or extremely deep, but it is chess-like, your decisions do matter, and luck plays very little of a role.  Small World hits a sweet spot between making you think, yet not requiring in-depth analysis or fiddliness.  It's actually a very accommodating situation for parents to teach beginner's strategy to their children.  My own kids can compete on relatively equal footing with me.
The wizards need 5 tokens to defeat the
2 dwarves defending the mountain - just enough!
The variability of the racial and power combinations is Small World's greatest strength.  I mean really, a game about taking over cardboard tokens with 1 extra cardboard token, ad nauseum, would quickly get old.  Instead, you'll need to leverage the particular traits of race/powers as they become available.  When some one selects a combination, it is replaced by another random pair from the stacks.  This mechanic leads to a great deal of replayability, not to mention some ironic pairings such as stout elves, flying humans, heroic ratmen, and commando halflings.  All of these traits provide different bonuses.  You might earn more points by owning specific terrain, or be able to attack with less tokens under certain conditions, or build better defenses, to name but a few.

Some gamers may balk at the direct confrontation; but again, your race's characteristics and special powers will encourage you to go after specific land targets or situations, not necessarily individual players.  This means that the belligerency is not as personalized.  Sure, there are times you'll want to target another to check his growing empire; but by the time you do, he's already earned his points for those lands, therefore it's not a central strategy.  So unless you just want to be a jerk or you like ocean views, you're not going to conquer any old territory willy-nilly.  Instead, you're going to take advantage of your race's particular capabilities and invade areas that will maximize your points in doing so.  The most efficient engine will win; there's very little room for any meta-game.  Also, despite the contentious nature, there is no player elimination.  First off, you will generally loose only one race token each time another player takes over one of your territories.  Anyone else so ingloriously evicted you simply redeploy to other territories after the current player's turn.  Second of all, if you do become too weak (and you will eventually, by design) you simply put that floundering race in decline and grab another.

The race tokens.

The spite factor is also softened by the humorous feel of the game's design and illustrations.  A variety of familiar, and not-so-familiar, fantasy creatures are artfully rendered to appeal to non-geeks.  At the same time, they're not so irreverently done so as to be completely offensive to what fans of Lord of the Rings have come to know and love.  It's difficult to get too upset when those prancing elves, ale-swilling dwarves, and cowboy skeletons march through your lands.  Besides, you can just liberate them again with your bikini-clad amazons or your sorcerers that look like Vincent Price.

Some combos make sense (top).
Others? Eh, not so much (bottom)!
Small World does include one wee element of chance.  On the final invasion of each turn, you often lack the required +1 number of tokens needed to conquer a territory.  In that case, you may roll the reinforcement die and add the number of pips to your leftover tokens.  If the two together are enough to successfully invade, then you get that space at a bargain rate.  Individual turns are relatively quick, although there will be some downtime in 4-5 player games.  A full game will go no more than 8-10 rounds, providing a nice end-goal that is in sight.  Overall, our own sessions run a tad over an hour with five players.  It also scales very well between 2-5 people because of the different board configurations and the fact that victory points are kept hidden.  However, we tend to prefer the chaos generated by 3 or more.  There are several small expansions to this base game, plus a very recent Small World Underground release that can be played alone or in conjunction with the original game.  So if you're really into that, you can keep adding variety until your heart's content or your wallet's empty.

Okay, I'll Shut-Up Now:

Personally, I rate Small World a 9 on the BoardGameGeek scale (Excellent game. Always want to play it.).  It is light, easy to learn, fun to play, pretty to look at, changes every time, and provides a variety of useful choices - which all adds up to an extremely accessible title that kids, casual gamers, and hobby enthusiasts can all enjoy together.

1 comment:

  1. I love this game, although I haven't tried any of the expansions yet. Can't wait for my local boardgame get together tomorrow night. Great review as always, thanks!