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Published on May 28th, 2015 | by Justified Croak

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Small World Review

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Average play time per game: 40-80 minutes

Suitable for ages: 8+

Number of players: 2-5

Mechanics: Area Control

Never has a board game been so aptly represented by its tag line “It’s a world of S-Laughter after all”. Small World is a colourful little classic from Days of Wonder which will have you causing extinction and committing genocide in no time – all in the name of those shiny, shiny victory points.

Small World is an area control game with an awesome twist. Players pick one of a possible 14 well established fantasy races and 20 special abilities which are drawn together randomly to form varied combinations. Using these combos players conquer as many regions as possible on a stunning, illustrated board for a set number of rounds. After one turn of players hoarding territory and smashing faces, the game takes a very interesting twist. Players may choose to put their race in to “decline” at the cost of missing one turn, to restart with another race. In most cases players lose control of their declining race but still score for holding territory with that race. Players gain a fresh army of new minions to commence their murderous shenanigans at maximum efficiency. Whilst this provides players with an ever present dilemma – to decline, or not to decline, this curious little mechanic keeps Small World brimming with momentum right to the final turn, when victory points are totalled to find the winner.

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Setup:

Firstly Small World contains two double sided game boards, allowing for a different board dependent on the number of players. Each board is numbered in the top right hand corner indicated the number of players the board is designed for.

Small world also comes with one of the finest box designs I have seen. The box includes a unit token tray and plenty of space for all other components. What’s even nicer is the rule book contains a diagram showing you how to most efficiently store your components. Perhaps I have just shamed myself as one of the nerdiest gamers you’ll find but I know I’m not the only one who appreciates this kind of stuff! Back me up? Please??

Once all components are popped out of their punchboards and organised correctly in the storage tray (please, it’s good for the soul) lay out the appropriate board in the centre of the table.

Place the game turn marker on the turn track at the side of the board. This tracks the progress of the game and dictates how many rounds are played, which will vary from board to board – the larger boards having more rounds.

Shuffle all the race banners and lay 5 out, face up in a single column. The remaining banners go face up in a stack below these, so that 6 races are visible.

Shuffle all special power badges and place one to the left of each race, slot the power and race tokens together for a snug fit. Place the remaining stack of abilities to the left of the race stack.

Place a lost tribe token on each region marked with the corresponding symbol noted in the rule book under set up. Lost tribes represent Long-forgotten civilizations and just help to provide a challenge for players in the first few turns.

Put a mountain token on each region of the map featuring a mountain. While this is not entirely necessary, it can be helpful in reminding players that these regions are a greater challenge to conquer at a glance.

Each player is allocated 5 victory tokens to start. These will act as the in-game currency when purchasing races but are also tallied at game end to find the winner.

Each player receives a double sided quick reference sheet, with turn order, each race and ability explained, and a small key for any miscellaneous icons that pop up on the board.

Finally, a first player must be chosen. Small World suggests the player with the pointiest ears goes first. If you play with a regular group I’d suggest mixing this up a bit. We shuffle the race cards and deal one. The first player is the one who shares the closest bond with the drawn race (hairiest feet for hobbits, biggest beard for dwarves, who’s the most dead inside from a deep lack of self-fulfilment for zombies etc.).

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Gameplay:

This game plays easy. On turn one a player will have a choice of 6 race/ability combos. This includes the race and ability on top of the draw stack. Players get to purchase one of these races to start. To do so, they must place one victory token on each race banner above the one they have chosen. If a player selects a race with one or more victory tokens on it, that player receives those tokens when they purchase that race.

Once a race has been selected and paid for, that player moves both race and ability token to their play area. They then receive an amount of race troop tokens (one type per race) varying in total dependant on they combination of race and ability (marked clearly on each token). Whilst troops may have varied abilities, all troop tokens are of the same power so that means no tracking wounds or calculating armour class. Hurrah!

When you have received your troops, you’re ready launch into an inspiring speech then sprinkle them on the game board. Then cackle. For the players’ first conquest they must enter the board from one of the edges (unless a race or ability is declared to be able to do otherwise).

To conquer a region a player requires 2 troop tokens as standard. For each feature (mountains, fortress, encampment etc.) an invading player requires one extra troop token. Each lost tribe or race token (whether your opponent’s, or one of your own declined race troops) also requires one extra troop each.

If any race tokens in a conquered region belong to another player then one defeated troop token is returned to the storage tray and the rest are taken back in hand. Any tokens returned to the player may be redeployed in their remaining regions at the end of the current players turn. Alternatively, If troops are returned to the player’s hand between his turns then he may redeploy at the start of his next turn as if in the first round of the game.

Once a region is conquered, the invading troops remain within its borders. Players are given a chance to redeploy later in the turn. Players may continue to conquer until all troops are on the board. On the final conquest attempt a player may roll the reinforcement die. A player selects which region to invade and then rolls the die, providing the player with an additional 0-3 troops to conquer with. If the player has a total troop count from his tokens and any reinforcements that is high enough to conquer the region, then they may do so. Their turn ends thereafter.

Players have the option of redeploying troops at the end of their turn, moving them from one region to another that is occupied by that player’s active race. There must be at least one troop token left in a region to allow a player to score for that region.

With a player’s turn complete, the round is scored. Each region with a race token owned by that player earns one victory point (often more considering race/ability modifiers). Players also score one victory point for each region controlled by their declined race (modifiers do not apply to races in decline unless stated otherwise on the tokens). The player then receives the appropriate points in tokens to hoard or spend as they see fit.

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Decline mechanic:

This for me is the awesome part that allows Small World to stand out from its competitors. Whilst a player may continue to play their starting race, it’s often more advantageous to buy a new one and flip the old one into decline.

Eventually a race will deplete through the conquests of other players or merely over-extend, and then it’s time to decline. The player declares the race they are declining and passes on that turn. However he still scores for each region he controls during his missed turn. At the start of their next turn the player buys a new race from those available, remembering to place a victory token on each race above in the column.

The old race token is flipped on to its front and remains in front of the player. Any abilities that still apply to the race after decline are indicated on the back of the token. The ability marker is usually discarded unless an ability remains on the back of the token, in which case a player keeps that too.

Each declined troop token on the board, if any remain, is also flipped over but remains on the region. Only 1 token for each region remains, any in excess of 1 are returned to the storage tray.

Each player may only have one race in decline at a time unless stated otherwise on the race or ability card. If a player already has a race in decline, then the previous declined race is discarded. The race token is returned to the bottom of the stack while all troops are returned to the storage box. The same occurs when the last troop token of a declined race is conquered.

When a new race is purchased the player continues the same way they did on their first turn. They must still start their conquering from an edge of the board.

End of Game:

Once the turn marker reaches its final spot on the turn tracker this indicates the final round. Each player plays one more turn and then victory tokens are tallied and totals compared to discover who is the greatest eradicator of cute fantasy races. I’m never sure how good a thing that is.

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My opinion:

Yes. I’d be happy to leave it there but without playing the game yourself you may not be as keen so let me try to convince you. This decline mechanic is wonderful. I’d thought it unique until I did some research and it seems Small World is just a rehash of designer Philippe Keyaert’s Vinci from 1999. I watched a few videos and it seems that while its a recycled mechanic, it’s certainly been refined and is a little fresher. There’s a lot of game mechanics being ripped off out there but I’m fine with that so long as the experience for the gamer is improved. Just believe me when I say Small World is an improvement on Vinci… for reasons.

Declining adds this constant conflict in the gamer which just works so well. Yes your commando dwarves are raking in a tidy 10 points each turn but those pesky berserk elves are nibbling at your troops each turn and you like the look of those flying ratmen, which became available last turn. Secondly, it serves to keep the pace up. As soon as you feel like you’re a little stretched or lacking option, trade your race in for something a little more fresh and jump back on the board swinging.

Generally speaking the game feels fairly balanced. Inevitably there will be the odd combo that feels a little broken, but in games with 3+ players this is usually identified early on and the other players will put aside their differences to screw that player. The balance is thus restored.

For the money, it’s so playable – Plenty of combos, several different boards, plenty of expansions with new races, new boards, new game types and more. This has pride of place in my collection at the moment, but it earned it. Fun, fast, easy to learn, silly and endless guilt free murder. That to me is what gaming is all about.

PS. I don’t want to repeat myself too much here but seriously, google the inside of the box, it’s a thing of beauty. Putting Small World away is almost therapeutic. Everything has its own space. Every space is labelled in the rule book. Everything fits. Everything is logical. Everything is good and all is well. There is even an expansion that has a new tray to hold extra tokens from the other expansions. I think Days of Wonder care you guys, I feel loved! Judge me if you must but it makes me happy, so a tip of the hat to the box team at Days of Wonder. Good job I say!

 

Justified Croak

Justified Croak loves nothing more than books, miniatures, board games, RPG supplements and clever Ikea storage that helps me cope with all of the above.

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