I’m as susceptible to the cult of the new as any other gamer, but once in a while, I reach back into the mists of time and acquire a title that, although being a bit long in the tooth by boardgame standards, is new to me (we have to keep those long tails on board game sales going if we want to see expansions, right?). I received my copy of Small World as a birthday present from my wife and daughter earlier this year. We’ve played it a few times since then, (both one-on-one games with my wife as well as a simplified version with my daughter), but the other night’s five-player game was the first time playing with a larger group.
This past Friday was the regularly-scheduled game night with the guys. However, a bad storm and downed power lines quickly put the kibosh on those plans. Since Nick still had power at his house, my wife and I regrouped and headed over to his house along with our friend Mike for an impromptu sleepover for our daughter with Nick and Heidi’s children, and a game night for the grownups. After getting our daughter settled in, we decided to give Small World a try.
Small World is the 30,000-foot view of the rise and fall of a series of different civilizations playing out at light speed. It’s a fairly light, primarily tactical game that plays at a brisk pace — which is ironic considering the vast amount of time that playing the game represents. Each player chooses a race from a diverse collection of fantasy and fairy-tale (and possibly nightmare) creatures that they guide in their attempts to spread out and conquer the world and the other races, scoring victory points based on the number of regions under their control. It’s an area-control game at its heart, but there are a few twists.
First, not only does each race have its own unique power, but each race is also paired with a special ability that grants an additional power. The race and ability cards are two different physical components that are randomly combined, meaning that any combination is possible. Some combinations are powerful than others, and repeated play will help players distinguish the standouts from the less-than-stellar options. The second twist comes from the tragic reality every one of the races in Small World is destined not for prosperity and happiness, but for downfall and demise. Faced with this realization, it is up to the player to decide when to leave their current race behind in the dustbin of history and choose a new race to lead — until the cycle repeats with this new race. Timing this is crucial, as placing your race in decline comes at a steep price: sacrificing your entire turn. The one saving grace is that your newly “in-decline” race continues to score victory points through the course of the game until they face extinction at the hands of other players, or by you choosing to place a second race in decline.
Small World hits the sweet-spot for what I’m currently looking for in a boardgame: a light to mid-weight game that involves a decent level of strategy and thinking, but which is accessible enough to quickly teach new players and to finish a game in a reasonable amount of time. Conquests are a simple matter of counting how many enemy tokens currently occupy a region and bringing an equal or greater number of your own tokens to bear. Deterministic conquests are an interesting design choice to me given that in real life, vicissitudes of fate often conspire in such a way as to make combat anything but deterministic. However, I think it’s one that fits well with the overall design of the game: core rules that are relatively simple and straightforward, with the real meat of the game being analyzing the various race-special power combos that come up and deciding which ones to choose and how best to use them.
For three out of the five payers, this was their first game of Small World. Although there were several errors over the course of the game, everyone had a firm understanding of how to play by the end of the first turn. We cycled through every race and most of the special abilities by the end of the game. The standout combo of the night was the Flying Sorcerers. It’s a powerful combination, to be sure, that increases with player count. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from four of the players about how over-powered and game-breaking this particular combo was. We did eventually figure out how to counter it, which really wouldn’t have been difficult to do much earlier, if we had just taken a moment to stop and think about it. But by then it was too late in the game; Heidi emerged as the victor with 114 points, due in no small part to her legion of Flying Sorcerers. As for myself, I came away with a grand total of 60 points… placing me firmly in last place. Most importantly though, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the game, which was peppered with much friendly banter throughout.
Small World exemplifies the kind of game that has become Days of Wonder’s trademark: a solid title that is straightforward to learn and play thanks to its uncomplicated rules, but which nevertheless manages to achieve a good level of depth and replayability, accompanied by solid, but not overly flashy or expensive physical components. It is this combination of accessibility and depth that, again, much like several of Days of Wonder’s other titles, makes it both a perfect gateway game as well as something that can hold the attention of veteran gamers. Ticket to Ride may be Days of Wonder’s most well-known game, but Small World is probably their best.