[Editors note: The following is a Nemesis Review, featuring opinions from our in-house thematic-loving @futurewolfie and his ferocious opponent, the stodgy euro-loving @Farmerlenny. Make sure to read both opinions to get a better overall picture of the game!]
RISK is fairly popular among gamers who have not yet been introduced to the larger world of hobby gaming. And it makes sense: compared to the veritable montage of trivia games and Monopoly rethemes available at your local Target, RISK offers more strategic choices, more interest, and of course global domination. However, when you look closer, it doesn’t offer much depth; the winning “strategy” involves building up your armies more quickly than everyone else so as to overwhelm your opponents with an unending supply of dice to roll. Earlier versions of the game required complete global domination, thereby requiring the elimination of other players one at a time and resulting in an hours-long game. Newer versions mitigate this by offering mission cards (usually “eliminate red player” or “conquer North America”), but the basic dice-rolling and attrition mechanics are still in place.
I bring up RISK because for people unfamiliar with hobby games, this is the best comparison I can give to Small World. In RISK, you spread out your armies by conquering various regions on a board; the same is true of Small World.
However, I make these connections to decrease the intimidation factor when introducing or explaining a game to new players. Small World offers significantly greater depth and a whole lot more fun, while cleverly eliminating player elimination. Read on to find out how we feel about this game.
How It Plays
Small World contains different boards depending on the number of players. The Small World board represents a fantasy world divided into various regions, and it is intentionally cramped (hence the name of the game). At the start of the game, each player chooses one of six available race/power combinations (there are fourteen races and twenty special powers that rotate through the game), receives tokens for that race, and begins conquering regions on the board. Conquering is simple: to conquer a region, you must use two of your race tokens plus one token to match each token currently in the region you want to conquer. For example, if you wish to invade an Orc-controlled region that currently has three Orc tokens, you must use five of your race tokens, two tokens as the base price plus one for each Orc token. Other tokens may add to this defense, such as mountains, fortresses, or caves, depending on race and special powers, but the basic rule is the same: each additional defending token requires one additional attacking token.
The defender loses one of his or her defeated tokens, but can redistribute the surviving tokens at the end of the current player’s turn.
Players may continue invading until they run out of tokens. If they have at least one spare token, they may attempt to invade a region they would otherwise not have the power to invade by rolling a die. This is a special die with three blank sides and a one, two, and three. Players may roll this die if necessary on their last invasion add the result to their token total. If their total is high enough, they can invade the region as if they had enough tokens; if not, they can redistribute the extra tokens back to their controlled regions.
At the end of their turn, players score points for each region they occupy, plus any additional points scored by racial abilities and special powers.
But here’s the real genius of the game: if your race has become too spread out, decimated by opponents, or has gotten stuck in a poor position, you can abandon that race. You can no longer expand and conquer with that race, but you still score points for regions it occupies. Then on your next turn, you choose a new race with it’s own powers and start invading the world again.
Racial abilities and special powers offer a variety of bonuses, such as extra points for controlling certain regions, bonuses to your attack in certain regions, and a whole slew of unique and fun options. The catch is you have to choose from an ordered list, and you have to pay one coin (coins also serve as victory points at the end of the game) to pass up a race/power combo you don’t want. When you take a power that has been passed up, you get to keep all the coins other players have paid to pass it.
The winner is the player with the highest number of points after a set number of turns (depending on the number of players).
This game is brilliant. Brilliant, I say! While many games I love have elements at which I sigh and wish worked a bit better (without any great ideas as to how to do so), Small World hits every corner and curve perfectly. Allow me to discuss three particular categories: theme, game mechanics, and production value.
1. Theme. It’s no secret that I like my games to come with a lot of flavor. While Small World is more Euro than Ameritrash, it comes with a colorful and eccentric theme filled with understated humor. Each game tells an epic tale of the rise and fall of various races vying for control of a world that is just too small for everyone to fit. While many humorous games rely on flavor text to get the joke across, Small World does it with very few words. In fact, the only printed words in the game itself are the names of the races and special powers. But when these combine in zany ways, it sparks the imagination. Sometimes the names are just funny; sometimes the combinations cause laughter. Heroic Ratmen. Commando Elves. Flying Trolls. The stories that unravel as these unlikely races conquer each other and are then abandoned to fate are often humorous as well, and it adds a level of enjoyment to an already deep and satisfying game.
2. Game mechanics. The mechanics of the game are straightforward and refined. No constant rolling of dice, no hoping that fate does not conspire against you. The rules are simple. No complicated math, no intricate statistics.
You can invade where you choose, and where you choose to invade, you succeed. But since you pick up all your forces at the beginning of the turn and do not refresh them, you must choose carefully. You can spread yourself thin to score more points, but that leaves you vulnerable. You can conquer enemies, but that prevents you from spreading farther. You can skirt enemies in favor of regions that benefit you, but that may leave your opponents scoring more points than you’d like.
The decline mechanic is so excellent. Not only does it do away with player elimination, but it adds a whole new level of strategy. If you get stuck, you can abandon your race for a new and better one; but sometimes you abandon your race at its pinnacle to maximize your points. And sometimes you just pick a new race because it looks fun and interesting to use. This keeps things interesting and keeps everyone in the game the whole time. I’ve seen a well-timed abandoning flip the course of the entire game as the new race decimates the leader and bursts a losing player ahead.
Most important, your choices matter. You win and lose the game by your choices. Sure, there’s an element of luck in the (rare) dice rolls and the powers that are available at a given time, but these don’t make or break a good strategy.
Small World is probably not the most accessible game, though. While the invasion mechanics are straightforward, there are a lot of powers, and while it’s not totally necessary to know exactly what the other players have as well as your own, it certainly helps. In addition, the heavy emphasis on strategy may be too intimidating. Fortunately, this is mitigated a bit by the scoring of the game; it’s not a great strategy to try and wipe out the other players, and in fact it is better to target the most powerful player to even out the scores. This, in addition to the decline mechanic, can allow newbies to get a grasp on the game without being massively overpowered. Still, choose your audience wisely.
Something else I’ve noticed about Small World, at least in games I’m involved in, is something not written into the rules. I’ve found that almost as important as strategic allocation of your tokens is a sort of meta-level negotiation. You have to convince the other players to attack someone else and not you; you have to make yourself appear non-threatening, or they will go for you. Getting your hands on an awesome race/power combo can be exciting, but it can backfire as it makes you a target. Pointing out your opponents’ strengths while minimizing your weaknesses is a key part of the game, making it richly interactive beyond the fact that you have to invade the other players.
Oh, and it actually does play down to two players, which isn’t quite as interesting as playing with three to five, but it works and is enjoyable.
3. Production value. In classic Days of Wonder fashion, Small World is excellently produced. The art is spot on—not cartoonish, but stylistic and exaggerated, fitting the theme perfectly. Colors are bright and pleasant to look at, the overall design is solid, and all the tokens are illustrated nicely. In-decline races are clearly distinct from their active versions, although the desaturated tones make different in-decline races less distinguishable from each other; you may have to look carefully to make sure you score all your points.
The biggest complaint about Small World might be the iconology representing the powers. While I found that after a single playthrough I could look at the icons and remember the powers associated, others have had trouble interpreting them, which is understandable. While there are a few standard icons (the +1 defense, the +1 coin, the -1 required tokens, the (-) no invasion allowed), the specifics of their implementation aren’t always clear. Fortunately, helpful player aids are included—one for each player—with clear descriptions of each race and power. Unfortunately, these aids are enormous and not exactly something you can keep in front of you. I’ve found it works best if I jump in and remind players of each power with a quick summary.
The rulebook is nicely organized and well edited. It provides a clearly marked read-through of the basic mechanics, so it’s easy to look up something quickly. And in addition to the player aids with power descriptions, the rulebook contains even more detailed descriptions of powers that clarify power interactions when they might be confusing. A question hasn’t yet come up that has not been clearly answered in the rulebook, so well done there, Days of Wonder.
Oh, and the included storage trays are very nice, especially the removable token tray to keep the tokens from each race organized and separated.
In conclusion . . . Small World is great. It presents a clean, tightly refined system with a great theme in a beautiful package and remains a consistent favorite at my gaming table.
@Futurewolfie already wrote his tome in praise of Small World, and since he did a nice job hitting on the game’s high points, I’ll keep my remarks brief. (Only when I say it, I actually mean it.)
I like Small World quite a bit. Not as much as @Futurewolfie, mind you, but quite a bit. The components are great, the game is sleek, and all in all it provides a fun gaming experience.
I like that Small World is in many ways a “war” game, but it doesn’t feel like a war game. I have a low tolerance for direct player conflict of the kind that requires one person to lose severely for another to win (see: Risk, Monopoly, etc.), and while there can be conflict of the kind that @Futurewolfie describes above, it doesn’t really get out of hand. Can you have a grudge match against a single player? Absolutely. Will you win? Probably not.
Where Small World loses me a bit is in the game’s length. I’ve seen a three-player game get played in an hour, but this is more the exception than the rule. Add more players (or even just one more), and ninety minutes to two hours is more what you’re looking at. (Then again, this is just my experience, and most games I’ve played have included at least one newbie: take what I say with a grain of salt.) The ideal length for Small World, in my opinion, would be an hour. Much longer than that, and I’m itching to play something else.
Still, Small World is a nice game in an attractive package, though I don’t like the token tray—I suffer from fat-finger syndrome—and the player aids are almost too big to be useful. It’s not very newbie friendly, but it’s also not rocket science; it looks much more intimidating than it is, and the fantasy in the game is not like something from Fantasy Flight: your wife won’t feel like she needs to shower to get rid of the geek vibes once the game is over. It provides interesting and meaningful choices, though for me, it’s not as satisfying as other games in its time bracket, say, Power Grid, El Grande, or Puerto Rico. So if Small World can finish before its meatier cousins, I’m all for it. Otherwise, while I still enjoy playing, I start to pine for weightier fare.
Want another opinion? Check out The Board Game Family’s Small World review.