Reviewed by Frank Hamrick

SMALL WORLD (Days of Wonder, 2-5 players, ages 8 and up, 40-80 minutes; $50)


If you like “slaughter,” you should enjoy this game. If Small World is anything, it is a game of combat – but as the graphic design so ingeniously hints, it is hilarious slaughter! “It’s a world of Slaughter, after all,” the box art declares, in a spoof of the Disney song. While many gamers do not enjoy direct confrontation, this game thrives on it, but in a way that delights rather than offends.smallworld

Designed by Philippe Keyaerts, Small World is a fantasy follow-up to his Vinci game (Winter 2000 Gamers Alliance Report) and Small World, in my opinion, greatly improves his design. For one thing, Vinci seemed to be like Papa Bear or Mama Bear’s Porridge – it was either too hot or too cold! Vinci was a war-game, but not a serious one. It posed as a historical game, but really wasn’t. It was presented as a civilization game (some said it was “Civilization-light,” creating great anticipation before it’s release), but didn’t measure up to Francis Tresham’s great Civilization. Further, it had end-game problems and had a board that was just too large for three players. Despite these problems, Vinci was a 2000 Spiel des Jahres nominee, and still holds a spot in the hearts of many as one of those “near misses” – a bit too hot, or a bit too cold. Thus, Philippe Keyaerts and Days of Wonder decided to make it “just right!”

Small World has already won game designer Bruno Faidutti’s 2009 Game of the Year award. Bruno says, “There are many brain burning games, there are many zany fun games, but there are not many games that are both, and at the same time, brain burning and zany fun. Small World is one, and that’s why it’s much better than Vinci, and will be a real hit.”

I bought both Vinci and Small World, and will tell you up front, Small World is “just right” for my palette! I currently put it in the top tier of games I own and look forward to many years of enjoyment with this game. So with that bit of background, let’s examine the game and why I recommend it.

Small World is a game of fantasy creatures vying for living space on an all-too small fantasy world of mountains, swamps, forests, hills, plains, seas, and lakes. And therein lies its genius. The world is small! There’s no place to hide. Your troops will die. But never mind, there are more races in the pool and if my current race is depleted, I can grab a new one and overthrow the race that just destroyed me!

The game features 14 different fantasy races (each with a unique tribal ability) and an additional 20 “special powers” which are randomly attached to each race. The races and their special power combinations change with every game, thus making every game unique.

Further, the game comes with two double-sided game boards, offering 4 different game-boards for 2, 3, 4 or 5 player games. This is a nice touch that really makes the game shine. The two-player board, for example, has only 20 areas to conquer, while the 5-player board has 45 areas for conquest.

Each of the 14 races (plus a “Lost Tribes” race) is represented by a single “banner” (which lies in front of the owning player to identify which race(s) he controls) and a given number of cardboard tokens (called Race tokens) to represent the “troops” matching that banner. The banners, the special power badges, and the troops are printed on both sides to indicate an “active” and a “declined” side. With one exception, each player may have only one Active Race and one Declined Race on the board at a time.

In addition, there are treasure tokens (coins) in 4 denominations (1, 3, 5, 10). These tokens are earned by conquering new areas, are used to purchase new races, and are the victory points that determine the winner at the end of the game.

I found the packaging and production quality to be up to Days of Wonder’s excellent standards. The creature banners are very well made and the Special Ability Badges are uniquely designed to fit into the end of the creature badges. The boards are wonderfully done with outstanding art for the races and the boards.

The greatest storage problem (for Days of Wonder and for players) is what to do with the 186 Race tokens (I call them “Troop Tokens”) that represent the various races on the board. DoW provided a very nice plastic tray containing 15 different compartments designed to hold all the troops of each of the 14 races and the Lost Tribes tokens. The tray even comes with a lid to keep the troop tokens in place. I found this very convenient, though it has received a bit of criticism because when a compartment is only partially filled, the remaining tokens tend to slide down causing problems for those with large fingers when having to fish them out of the bottom of the compartment. I’ve found this only a small inconvenience but your experience may vary. Anyway, I thought it was a great touch to include the removable tray.

The rest of the box contains an intruded plastic holder to hold the rest of the bits (coins, various markers, banners, and one special “reinforcement” die.). I have had no problem with this tray except for the spillage of the coins if I turn the box on its side. (The troop tokens are held tight in their separate removable tray by the plastic lid covering the tray). But no such lid covers the rest of the bits and they can be thrown around if the box is turned sidewise.

Overall, I give the packaging an A+, despite the problem with the troop holding tray.

The game plays in a reasonably fast time. In fact, I have found that I can play a game of Small World during a slightly extended lunch break! If players are familiar with the game it can be played in 45 minutes. (It is rated at 40-80 minutes, and I find this about right). It doesn’t outwear its welcome. Again, in this department I find the game “just right.”

Further, I put this game in the category of “fun games” as opposed to games that are much more brain-burning or quiet. There is tons of interaction and bantering during this game but the overall feel of the game is that of light-hearted seriousness! Conflict is what the game is about, but it is of a nature that it doesn’t offend anyone’s ego if they lose or get slaughtered! (At least that’s my experience.) That makes it an unusual game. You can enjoy your bruises and beatings!

To start, first, the 14 races are randomly shuffled and five are dealt out to the side of the board in a single column, face-up. The remaining 9 races are stacked below the five face-up races, with the top race in that stack being the sixth race in the column. These six races are available to the players at the beginning of the game. As these races are taken, the races in the sixth stack gradually become available for selection. Each race will be randomly matched with one of the 22 “Special Power” badges. Thus, each race will have its own native ability plus an additional randomly selected special power. Finally, the board is pre-loaded with mountain markers (placed in all mountain regions) and a number of “Lost Tribes” markers that represent remnants of long lost civilizations. They offer tacit resistance when attacked.smallworldboard

Rather than go into detail with the rules (you can read them online) I will briefly summarize them. On a turn a player will

1) Select a new race & its special power combo if he doesn’t already have an active race on the board. If he takes this action he will then…
a. Pay for his race – available races are arranged in a column of 6 races. The top race being free, and each succeeding race & special power combo below the top race costing an additional coin. Thus, the 6th race would cost 5 coins to choose.
b. Take the banner & special power combo, place it in front of him, and select a given number of troop tokens representing that race to deploy on the game board. The number of troops available will vary depending on the race selected and the special power attached to that race. Generally a player will get from 6-15 troop tokens.
c. Deploy the troop tokens through a series of conquests. There are special rules for conquering, but the conflict is actually very simple. However, you are limited to the number of troops in your hand. For example, if you have 10 troops to deploy and it takes 5 troops to conquer the first region/area, you now only have 5 troops left to deploy into any adjacent area. Troops already used to conquer one region remain in that region and may not be used in further conquests that turn. Conquests begin from off the board to a region either bordering a board edge or a region bordering a sea area. Once the first region is conquered, troop counters/markers still not yet used this turn may be used to attack into any adjacent area. Conquest is simple. A player conquers a region by placing into that region as many troops as required to conquer the region: 2 troops for the area, plus one troop for each piece of cardboard in the area! (Cardboard pieces may include mountains, Lost Tribe markers, enemy troop units, fortresses, encampments, and troll lairs. Each such marker in a region requires one additional troop token to conquer it.) Conquered units are removed from the region and are returned to the owning player who may be allowed to redeploy some or all of them at the end of the current players turn, depending on the powers of the conquered units.
d. After you have run out of troops to deploy, you may then rearrange (redeploy) your troops to any region you now control.
e. The player then scores one victory point for each region on the board where he now has units (troop/race tokens). He may receive bonus points for certain regions depending on the ability of his race or the special power assigned to his race.
f. He receives one coin for each victory point earned.

2) If a player already has an active race on the board when he begins his turn he has two options. He may…

a. Continue to use that active race to further expand
If he takes this option, he removes from the board as many troop markers of his currently active race as desired and uses them to further expand into other adjacent areas. At the end of his turn he once more will count up his victory points and take exactly that many coins into his treasury. Instead of continuing to expand his currently active race he may…

b. Put that race into decline. A player will do this because he has only so many units to use and once he has expanded as far as possible, his race can no longer expand. At that point (and possibly before) it will be wise to put the race into decline so that the player can select a new race with more troops to further conquer areas. When a player chooses to put a race into decline he simply flips over his race banner & special power combo, and then flips over each troop counter on the board to its “declined” side. He may take no further action that turn and may NOT make a conquering action on the turn he declines a race.

A player may only have one declined race at a time on the board (unless he has a special power allowing him to have more). Thus, when he declines a race he must remove all the tokens of any other declined race he has on the board.

After declining his race and removing any other declined race, he then counts the number of regions occupied by one or more of his declined races and gains victory point coins for them. (Yes, declined races do count for victory points as long as they are on the board, and in some cases their power may allow them to expand even in decline or it may give them some special ability even when declined. But generally an in-declined race can only remain static, scoring victory points as long as it still occupies a region.

c. On the turn after a player declines an active race he may once more select a new race from the available race column, pay for it if need be, and begin new conquests with it.

3) Thus the game continues to a set number of turns (depending on the number of players). After the last turn is played, players count up their victory coins. The player with the most points wins.

Thus, the game moves along quickly with races entering the game, hanging around for 1 to 3 or 4 turns and then going into decline. The key is to have as many occupied regions as possible at the end of your turn, so as to score as many victory points as possible. If you hold on to a race too long, it will become a detriment. However, you can also put one into decline too soon. You must always keep an eye on what race/special power combos are in the “Available” column and what other players are doing. Right timing is very important as well as wise decision-making in choosing a race and special power combo.

I have found the game to have staying power simply because no two games will ever play the same. The many different combinations and the order in which they will appear make the game ever changing and interesting. Each game is a totally new experience. And word is that there will be expansions with more races and powers coming!

I highly recommend Small World and consider it among my better games. It is simple to play and teach, not too hard for newcomers, yet can be very challenging for those who enjoy brain-burning games. Further, even non-gaming wives and girl-friends might find it interesting! The fantasy theme keeps it a bit “zany,” as Faidutti commented, but the decisions that have to constantly be made keep it just serious enough to please a wide cross-section of gamers. It truly is a game of laughing slaughter! – – – – – – – – – Frank Hamrick



Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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