2-5. Best with 2-4
40-90 minutes (with five players)
Days of Wonder (Mystery Express, Ticket to Ride, Five Tribes)
Area Control, Variable Player Powers
YOU KNOW, SMALLVILLE HAS NO SPACES
Disclaimer: The game is called Small World, but really should be Smallworld. I know better, but still constantly type Smallworld.
When I think about games from my childhood, Risk easily stands out as one of the most memorable; I used to participate in Saturday night Risk nights in college to try to recapture some of that magic. However, the game has not aged well, and I believe people like the idea of Risk – the area control, the confrontation, the temporarily alliances - more than the actual game itself. For me, two particular problems stand out – the tendency for extremely long games and the randomness of the dice. I have seen armies of six soldiers defeat armies of twenty or more because of how the dice were rolled, which often extends the gameplay since the game is not making forward progress. Fortunately, I came across Small World several years ago, which reproduces all of the feelings of Risk without any of the drawbacks.
Small World is an area control game with a different board for each player configuration, allowing it to scale well from two to five players. The world is too small for everyone to inhabit, so players must fight for coveted territories since controlling these territories earns victory points. The game lasts a variable number of rounds depending on player count; each player has one turn per round, so the game proceeds toward a finite conclusion, unlike Risk. The game also adds a mostly deterministic combat system that ensures that players will accomplish most of what they intend in a single turn.
In Small World, there are fourteen race types that are combined randomly with twenty special powers. Stacks of both components are formed and the top five of each set are revealed, forming six pairs (including the top of both stacks). Players will either choose the topmost combination and retrieve any coins on it or pay one coin for each combination they wish to skip, placing these coins on the skipped combinations. Since coins are victory points, players must balance choosing a non-ideal faction with overpaying for the best choice. Races and powers have numbers on them indicating how many units are taken when that faction is chosen; additionally, races and powers each have unique abilities that will provide combat bonuses, defensive abilities, additional VP or other powerful effects. Which factions come out when is one of the few opportunities for randomness in Small World.
Players begin by choosing an entry point on the map to begin conquering territories; unless otherwise specified, players must then exclusively conquer regions to which they are currently adjacent, like Risk. Depending on the terrain, the number of defenders present and the race/power combination, it will take a variable but deterministic number of units for the conquest. The units used for this conquest will remain in place until the end of turn, where units may be freely rearranged (unless otherwise specified). Players will score points for each region they control, in addition to any other bonuses supplied by their race/power; for example, the Humans scores additional points on farmland while the Forest special power scores additional points on forests.
When your units on a territory are defeated in combat, all but one of those units goes back to your hand for end of turn redeployment while the last unit dies permanently; if this is your only unit, nothing goes back to your hand. Eventually, you will run out of units, or be spread so thin that you lack additional units for attacking, since one unit must remain in a territory in order to control it (though you may choose to abandon any territories at the start of your turn). At the start of your turn, you may go into decline, in which you stop using your current combination; at the start of your next turn, you will pick a new combination and begin conquering, again entering from the outside. Knowing when to go into decline in critical, as units in decline still score victory points, but if you already had a race in decline, those units are removed from the board.
I am normally not a fan of determinism, but it was the perfect choice for combat. Small World provides a consistent formula for determining how many units are required to conquer a territory, which removes the frustration of Risk when bad rolls ruin your entire turn. There are still opportunities for uncertainty, as the final conquest includes a roll that has a 50% chance of supplying additional units for that conquest only. There is also a Berserk special power which adds the combat roll to every conquest. Additionally, the order in which races and special powers are revealed is unknown; sometimes the bottom of the stack will reveal the perfect combination for your circumstance. For these reasons, the game cannot be solved entirely with a brute force search, and that keeps the game interesting.
Strategically, Small World provides a lot of considerations. There are times when it is obvious that you want to go directly after an opponent (Orcs); there are times when you will want to remain on a different side of the board and avoid confrontation (Merchant). Depending on the race and power combinations of you and your opponents, as well as the state of the board, it may make more sense to attack their decline units rather than their active units, although there are times when the opposite is true. If you have a large in decline population, you may want to consider taking a defensive oriented combination (Heroic) and creating a choke point that is impenetrable. At the end of each turn, redeployment must be considered carefully to keep opponents away from vital regions of the board
I greatly appreciate the diversity of the races and special powers. There are several offensive minded races such as Amazons, Skeletons or Ratmen that are used for situations when you need to conquer a lot of territories. There are some very powerful races such as the Elves whose units are never removed from the game after a defeat; however, there may be converted into Sorcerers if they are the only unit on a terrain. Trolls have extra defensive abilities, but they may also be turned in Sorcerers or defeated by the Dragon Master token. Halflings and the Heroic Special power provide resistances to the Sorcerer, Dragon Master and other abilities. Small World is full of combos, counters and counter-counters that really enhances the overall experience of the game. The game smartly adjusts the number of units received from each race and special power to balance all abilities; for example, the Merchant special power can provide an extreme number of coins (two per territory) but only provides two units above the race amount. The breath and diversity of these abilities also increases the replayability of the game.
Small World provides a different map for each player count, and that allows the game to scale extremely well. The two-player experience is very tense since you know that your opponent is competing directly against you and the board is small enough that choke points are easy to create. The five-player experience is also enjoyable as everyone is attacking everyone else and temporary alliances are inevitable, although it can lead to some bad analysis paralysis which lengthens the game. With three or more players, there is even a special power, Diplomat, that requires a player to form a temporary alliance with the owner should the owner choose to activate it. These mechanisms create a high level of player interaction that makes the game very enjoyable.
As for the game’s flaws, the lack of public scoring both helps and hurts Small World. It is theoretically possible to keep track of everyone’s score through memory, as the amount of coins spent and earned each turn is public knowledge. However, the scoring tokens are placed face down so that the total score is unknown, making the true winner uncertain until the end, although players may have a feeling as the game progresses. As a result, it can be frustrating if players do not go after the leader unless their geographic positions prohibit it. At the same time, this adds excitement to see who won, particularly if the game is close. I’ve seen a lot of discussion on hidden/memory vs public scoring and I haven’t decided how I feel about with regards to Small World, but it is an issue with the game for many people.
The game may have some smaller issues as well, depending on the player count. With two players, it is possible that the first combination is much better than all other options which might create a first player advantage. I can recall beating the AI on my ipad with only my first selection, never going into decline. The second player will have to play perfectly to overcome this, going into decline at the correct moments and choosing the best counter, which the AI was not able to do. With more than two players, if player B selects the correct counter to player A but focuses on player C instead, C will be at a disadvantage. While these types of scenarios are true of most games, since Small World focuses so heavily on combos and counters, the effect of a bad player is a bit more pronounced. However, the problems aren’t so large that the game is unenjoyable.
Days of Wonder continues to support Small World several years after its initial release and there have been many expansions that have added additional races and special powers. There are other editions that add new maps or other mechanisms, but I prefer the game in its pure form. I have never gotten tired of this game because of the variety of special powers. I no longer have any inclination to play Risk, even for nostalgic value, because Small World is so much better. The game definitely earned a place on my 10x10 challenge; if you would like to try it, consider purchasing the digital version as it is a great introduction to the game.