Board Game Review : Small World

I know Small World, by Days of Wonder has probably been reviewed a thousand times already but I thought I’d toss in my own two cents on it. As this has already been reviewed on Giant Fire Breathing Robot (where I contribute) by the other board game writer, GeekInsight, I thought I’d use my own blog to publish my review.

Small World’s epic battlefield (Image courtesy of DaysOfWonder.com)

I’d heard of Small World many times when it was released but I had never had a solid opportunity to play it. None of my friends had it and the cartoony box cover turned me off a bit so I never quite fell into my normal research cycle for a game.  However, during PAX 2009, here in Seattle, Days of Wonder had a room open where one could stop by and try out all of their games. I’d been a huge fan of Memoir ’44, and there was space open for a game of Small World so I thought “Why not?”. Little did I know, I’d be in for an amazing experience that had me wanting more. In fact, I sat at the same spot for three more games and played it a total of six times during that initial PAX weekend.

What had me playing the game near continuously? For me, it was the sheer variety in gameplay, the almost zero luck gameplay and in time, the bright and colourful world.  While I won’t go into all of the game’s rules, let’s break each of these main draws down and explain why these make such an interesting game.

Let’s start with the bright and vibrant art in the world. The board is very brightly colored with light green grasslands, golden-yellow farmlands. white mountains, and blue seas. (gloomy swamps too but the others definitely brighten up even the gloomiest of swamps). When you look at the board in the above image, everything just stands out. It’s actually cheerful to look at. It screams, “This is a game” to anyone walking by. The individual race tokens are also very vibrant and well illustrated. And I say this, despite not really liking some of the tokens (The Skeletons are wearing cowboy hats people….Cowboy hats!), it’s an attractive game overall.

Great token illustrations! But Boo on the Cowboy skeletons!

Let’s talk about variety in the game. One of the game’s two sources of luck come in the form of the mixture between the game’s 14 different races and 20 different powers. Each of the powers and races offers a different ability, whether it be extra coins for a terrain type, better attack values or other interesting abilities that benefit the player. The Power/ Race combinations essentially are giving each player two different abilities. It’s these abilities that make each players turn unique. For the most part, these combinations are relatively balanced though there are some combinations that can get extremely good given the right situations (I’m looking at you Underground Sorcerers!). There’s lots of variability in the game and I don’t think I’ve ever used the same race/power combination in any of my games. With expansions adding in an additional 10 races and 10 powers, the game just grows by leaps and bounds in terms of new options to explore.

Lastly, the mostly luckless mechanics does introduce a small amount of Analysis Paralysis but since scores are hidden the game does not grind to a halt. There are really only two elements of luck in the game. The Race/Power combinations originate from a shuffled stack of tiles. This sometimes gives better combinations to some players but this is balanced by the fact that you may have to pay out a number of points to get a better combination. The second element of luck in the game is the reinforcement die that you roll for your last combat. It introduces a small amount of randomness and a bit of a thrill in getting in that last attack.

Personally, I like the low amount of luck in this game. Games like Risk feel like bigger luck fests than they should so it’s nice to try a conquest style game that does not have any luck at all. It makes the choices you make more meaningful as you can’t be thwarted by an unlucky roll.

For those who WANT luck in this game, there’s an excellent expansion called Tales and Legends, which adds a deck of cards that trigger all sorts of events each turn. These events sometimes have a small effect on gameplay and sometimes an extremely large one (woe be to those who are forced to go into decline when they did not want to!) , so playing with rapidly changing conditions creates a very different game where your plans can be foiled at any time.

The game plays in about 1-2 hours depending on the other player’s familiarity with the game and the number of players. This feels just about right for me and fits into that niche of 90 minute games. A great thing about the gameplay is that you’ll end the game feeling that your choices had a direct influence on your score. There’s also not too much downtime between players (although 5 player games pushes the upper boundary for me on downtime).

The game also has a bunch of smaller expansions which add new races, add the event deck mentioned above, or in a very recent expansion, allow you to create your own board via tiles. The variety this game offers is endless. I recently acquired the Small World: Underground stand-alone/ expansion so I’ll have a report on that once I’ve gotten enough plays in. This set is fully compatible with the original set but has races/powers that are definitely on the more complex side. I’d definitely advise starting with the base game to get your bearings.

Overall, I love playing Small World. I’ve gotten about 20 or so games in and each one has been very enjoyable. I’ve introduced other new players to the game and they’ve enjoyed it as well though it’s definitely not for everyone like Settlers of Catan is.

Overall, I rate this game a 9/10.

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