Reviewed by Andrew Zimmerman Jones
Small World is a game where various fantasy races get to fight over a world that’s just too small for them all to coexist. The intriguing gameplay mechanic ultimately drives your races into decline, forcing you to select new races to sweep in and take their place. The victor is the one with the most Victory Points at the end of the game.
Each Race has special powers which are randomly chosen each game, resulting in a total of 280 different possible Race & Special Power combinations, from Swamp Giants to Dragon Master Skeletons to Seafaring Dwarves. (Or, in another permutation, Dragon Master Giants, Seafaring Skeletons, and Swamp Dwarves.)
The set-up can be a bit overwhelming when you first open the game, but once you’ve played it once, it’s a quick, fun game for the whole family. One nice feature is that there’s nothing hidden about the game, so this is excellent for introducing younger players to gaming. Though the recommended age is 8+, my precocious 6-year-old son and I have played this game multiple times. He often has questions about the way certain powers work, so the game lasts longer than an hour, but it’s loads of fun.
Now that I’ve sung its praises, though, let’s get to the most tedious part of this game: opening the box. Here’s everything you are faced with upon that moment:
- 1 Rulebook (available for download)
- 2 double-sided game boards
- 6 Player summary sheets
- 1 custom 6-sided die
- Storage tray to sort all the various pieces below fairly conveniently
- A number of cardboard sheets (I forget how many) with assorted cardboard tokens that must be popped out before the first game play:
- 14 Fantasy Race banners (one for each Race below) + 1 blank banner
- 168 Race tokens:
- 15 Amazons
- 8 Dwarves
- 11 Elves
- 10 Ghouls
- 13 Ratmen
- 20 Skeletons
- 18 Sorcerers
- 11 Tritons
- 11 Giants
- 11 Halflings
- 10 Humans
- 10 Orcs
- 10 Trolls
- 10 Wizards
- 18 Lost Tribe tokens
- 20 Unique Special Power badges + 1 blank badge
- 10 Troll Lairs
- 6 Fortresses
- 9 Mountains
- 5 Encampments
- 2 Holes-in-the-ground
- 2 Heroes
- 1 Dragon
- 109 Victory coins (denominations of 1, 3, 5, & 10)
- 1 Game Turn marker
As you can imagine, opening this game takes some time before you’re even ready to begin playing. You will find yourself immensely pleased with the Days of Wonder folks for providing the Storage Tray (and including directions in the rulebook on how to organize your pieces). One of my other favorite games, Betrayal at House on the Hill (Amazon), also comes with a dizzying array of cardboard pop-out pieces, but in the version of the game I have there’s not even an attempt to provide storage assistance, making it a nightmare to keep track of all the parts, only a handful of which are used in any given play session!
Not so with Small World! The Storage Tray is a godsend, making an otherwise-unwieldy game into something that’s sleek and ready to go in minutes (once you’ve popped out all the pieces, that is).
There are four different boards, depending on the total number of players, representing worlds of various sizes, filled with Regions of even more various sizes. Every player begins the game with 5 Victory Points, in the form of little coin tokens. You gain additional Victory Points throughout the game based on the number of Regions you control at the end of your turns (with some bonus Victory Points gained due to various Special Powers and Race bonuses).
Race banners and Special Power badges are dealt out in a line along the side of the board, revealing 6 combinations. The top combination is free, although going down the line to select another combination costs you Victory Points. Still, starting the game out with Dragon Master Ratmen may be well worth the cost of a few Victory Points right at the outset.
Once you have your Race, you begin a conquest of the Regions. If a Region is empty, it takes 2 of your Race tokens to claim it. If there are tokens (either from another player or the “Lost Tribe” tokens that start the game in some realms) on the Region already, you need to have additional tokens to take care of them, on a one-for-one basis. Certain other features – such as Encampments, Mountains, Troll Lairs, Fortresses, etc. – also increase the number of tokens it takes to claim a Region.
As you lose battles, you also begin to lose tokens, and after a few rounds you find your Race dwindling to the point that you just can’t really gain any new ground. At this point, you can declare that your Race is going into Decline. You flip the tokens over and select a new Race on your next turn. You continue to get Victory Points for the realms that your declining Race occupies, but they can’t go on to claim new territory.
This sounds like a lot to keep track of – and, frankly, it is – but the Summary Sheets provided with the game clearly lay out the Special Powers and Race bonuses that you’re using, and the fundamental mechanic of the game is so straightforward that it’s just a matter of counting up what’s sitting on a territory to figure out what you need to claim it. As I mentioned, my 6-year-old son has little problem following the game, as long as he has some help with the reading.
The length of the game is set at a certain number of turns. It’s 10 turns for 2 or 3 players, 9 turns for 4 players, and 8 turns for 5 players. There are 2 double-sided boards, so each number of players also gets a different game board, so the game is well balanced for any size.
The only game I can really compare this to is Risk: Godstorm (Amazon), which I own but have only played a couple of times. In this liberal permutation on the classic Risk game, you’re controlling ancient civilizations and their deities. Your dead armies are banished to the land of the dead, and you have the option to bring them back from the underworld in order to help swell your ranks. While that game is perfectly enjoyable to me, my wife didn’t particularly enjoy it and it’s still a bit too complex for my son.
On the other hand, we all enjoy Small World, and it’s quickly become one of our favorite family board games. The initial set-up is time consuming the first time you play, but has proven to be well worth it. The game also have a number of expansions, and I’m looking forward to ordering some of those to see how they expand the fun of the gameplay.
Small World expansions:
- Days of Wonder’s Official Small World page
- Small World Underground (Days of Wonder, Amazon)
- Tales and Legends expansion (Days of Wonder, Amazon)
- Be Not Afraid… mini-expansion (Days of Wonder, Amazon)
- Grand Dames of Small World mini-expansion (Days of Wonder, Amazon)
- Cursed! mini-expansion (Days of Wonder, Amazon)
- Small World Tunnels mini-expansion (requires Small World and Small World Underground)
Other Game Reviews:
- Dragon Dominoes in Looney Lab’s Seven Dragons (card tiling game)
- ScrumBrawl: Fantasy Sports Goodness (board game)
- Steampunk Spotlight: Kings of Air and Steam (upcoming board game)
- New Treasures: The Legend of Drizzt (board game)
Disclaimer: A copy of this game was provided by the publisher at no charge for review purposes.
Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest and received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Science Fiction/Fantasy Competition. In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Gate magazine, Andrew is the About.com Physics Guide and author of String Theory For Dummies. You can follow his exploits on Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+.