In this Small World review, Board Crazy takes a look at the area control game from Days Of Wonder that was designed by Philippe Keyaerts. In Small World, players fight for control over different regions of the board while accumulating coins. Keep reading to see what we thought of Small World!
D reviews Small World
(Author’s note: this review is meant to accompany our gameplay video and will not go in-depth on the game’s rules. If you’re interested in learning how the game is played, please watch the video. It’s not bad.)
Of all the board games I’ve played in my life, Small World might be the only one that I would prefer to play as a digital game. It’s a fun game and comes with that Days of Wonder Seal of Quality that few other publishers can compete with, but good lord the components. I like to think I have a pretty high tolerance for games that require a lot of cleanup, but the number of pieces included in Small World does not feel as proportional to the game’s playtime as any other game I’ve played that comes with so many little bits and bobs to keep track of. It doesn’t ruin the game by any means, but yeah, a version where a computer is responsible for managing the pieces sounds really nice.
I feel kind of bad leading with that criticism, especially just one week after praising the makers of Ex Libris for going the extra mile with their production choices. The general clutter of Small World is the result of no expense being spared in the publication of the game. Every playable race in the game comes with a specific number of cardboard tokens featuring matching artwork. Some of the races or classes come with abilities that require additional, unique cardboard tokens of their own. There are also the forgotten tribes and mountains that populate the board at the start of the game which, of course, are represented by cardboard tokens. But, I call it clutter because that’s what it all feels like. This is a situation where the game probably would have been better off if certain components had been simplified a bit, sacrificing some uniqueness for a more manageable experience. Maybe I’m less tolerant of this than I thought, but having to keep track of which section of the tray each piece goes back into felt like it took as much concentration as coming up with a sound strategy for victory.
Now that that’s all out of the way, though, let me talk about what I do like about Small World, which is mostly everything else. As I mentioned previously, the game is well-made, as all Days of Wonder products tend to be. I’m ever the fan of vibrant art, so the colorful game boards are a major plus in my book. And yes, I said boards, plural, as the game comes with not one, but two double-sided boards for different player counts. This adds another level to the game’s already pretty high replayability, if you’re able to corral different numbers of players together.
The game also moves pretty quickly, considering how much there can be to keep track of at any given time. The simplified “battle” system, if you can call it that, helps in this regard. The bigger army always wins, with the possible of exception of the die roll on the last move. I like nice, in-depth combat rules, but they weren’t necessary in Small World, and I’m glad they kept it simple. The standout mechanic though, is of course the random race/class combinations. There are tons of possible combinations, which means you can keep playing Small World for a long time without feeling like you’ve seen it all before. And keeping an eye out for a killer combo is a bit of fun every time a new one is revealed.
The scoring at the end is also really enjoyable. Point tokens are all kept face down, so while you can kind of keep track of how well everyone is doing, you won’t know for sure who has won until the very end. This is both a good way to keep players from feeling dejected and a good source of tension and drama, as you never know what point value will be revealed next. Overall, Small World is a good family game filled with nice touches that is held back ever-so-slightly by what I could only describe as excessive ambition. Still, I’ll give it a recommendation, as the good definitely outweighs the bad.
D’s Rating: Three and One-Half Stars out of Five.
Will reviews Small World
In 2017, Small World is old and played out for many gamers, and yet, Days of Wonder continues to publish new expansions for it to this day. After playing Small World recently, the reason why these new expansions are still being made became readily apparent – this game holds up. In its eight years of existence, Small World has become time-tested and beloved, and for good reason. The intuitive rules, area control gameplay, and fantasy theme still work well, and most importantly, the game is really fun.
Components-wise, Small World is pretty impressive. Each box contains multiple boards (for different player counts) and a load of different tiles and pieces. All of the cardboard is rugged enough, especially with the Race Banners and Special Power Badges. All total, there are hundreds of components and they all work, both practically and thematically. Speaking of theme, I know that a lot of gamers complain that Small World is merely a reskinning of Vinci, and while they might be right, that complaint doesn’t really matter. The fantasy theme definitely works for this game, and the artwork is very eye-catching.
Not only that, this game is easy to learn and endlessly entertaining as well. Basically, the goal of Small World is to claim as many territories on the board while also targeting specific locations (mountains, caves, etc.) that may earn you extra coins (victory points) because of racial bonuses. There’s a bit more to it than that, but once you grasp that simple premise, playing Small World at a high level becomes rather effortless. To me, that straightforward approach is a major plus, but I know that there are some gamers who might be turned off by it. Also, there’s a good deal of randomness in regards to which races and special powers appear and when. That could be problematic if a really powerful combination comes out early that leaves the other players scrambling to keep up with whoever claims it. In other words, this game might have been inspired by Euro games, but a Euro game it is not.
Since I keep referring to the “Races” and “Special Powers”, I should probably give my two cents on those. To start, I really love the variety of races and powers included in Small World, and the sheer amount of combinations of the two is astonishing and results in a high level of replayability. If you’re not too familiar with this game, getting to know the individual races and their strengths / weaknesses is a truly satisfying experience. For instance, Orcs earn bonus coins for each region they conquer that isn’t empty, and if they were paired with the Pillaging power, then they would earn additional coins for conquering those non-empty territories. That’s a pretty potent combination to use for the first time, but one that would rank in the middle of race / power potency. This leads me to my main issue with Small World – some of the races and special powers are way more useful than others. This means that some combinations, like Stout Ghouls, are entirely stronger than other combinations, like Forest Dwarves. Balance is a major part of any board game, and it’s safe to say that Small World “can” fall short in this regard. I say “can” because there’s no guarantee that over-powered combinations will occur in your game, but it’s a possibility, so keep that in mind.
It’s time to put this review “in decline” since I don’t have much more to say about Small World that hasn’t already been said over its eight years of existence. Since I just said it, I should point out that putting races “in decline” and then drafting new ones is a really solid mechanic that separates Small World from the area-control-game pack. So that’s it – this game is highly enjoyable and definitely easy to learn. Sure, there’s a degree of randomness and imbalance to the gameplay that can put a damper on some sessions, but the level of those negatives changes from one game to the next. Small World may be old, but its addictive qualities and simple approach have allowed it to hold up over time.
I give Small World a: B
Graham reviews Small World
It feels a little weird reviewing Small World, considering it released almost 10 years ago. Everything that could be said has been said, and so much has changed in the board gaming community that it seems a little irrelevant. Still, Small World holds up pretty well. It is a little chaotic, but the gameplay is fun, the rules are simple, and the race and power combos are awesome.
The artwork and mechanics are are noticeably ‘Days of Wonder’, and that’s a good thing because I think DoW does a great job creating enjoyable games. And just like other DoW games, Small World’s rules are easy to understand. The rulebook doesn’t cover every scenario, but there is enough information online to find out everything you need to know. An example that comes to mind is the Trolls’ special ability that allows you to place a Troll Lair once per turn. Now, the declined side of the race card indicates the power remains even if the Trolls go into decline, but does this just mean they get to keep the +1 bonus from the already existing lairs, or do they get to keep placing lairs while in decline? I think the community agrees that you shouldn’t be allowed to place lairs while in decline, but there does seem to be some conflicting explanations in the rulebook. I imagine learning the game when it first released was probably not a simple as it is now, but overall, the rulebook does a good job at keeping the explanations quick and simple.
The gameplay in Small World is really exciting. There are two main aspects of the gameplay: the moving/attacking phase and the decline phase. After you’ve chosen a race, you can place your armies on the board and try to conquer regions. The more regions you conquer, the more gold you get at the end of your turn. You need two armies to capture an empty region, and then 1 extra army for each enemy defender, mountain, fortress, troll lair, or encampment. This creates a balance between keeping your armies strong so your opponents can’t conquer you and conquering more spaces to collect more gold. The next aspect of Small World is choosing to put your race into decline. If you choose to enter into decline, this means you are done utilizing your race and want to start over with a new one. When you enter into decline, you flip your race card and all of your armies on the board to their other side, collect gold from your controlled territories, and then at the beginning of your next turn, choose a new race and start the process over again. Going into decline is risky and kind of nerve-wracking, since you lose a whole turn and cannot conquer new territories and possibly collect more gold. Typically, you want to go into decline if your race is really weak or if there is a particularly good race and power combo available. Overall, the gameplay has a healthy amount of decisions that you have to weigh, which makes for a great strategy game.
With that said, Small World’s gameplay can be slightly chaotic. This is probably because of all of the different components involved with the race and power combinations. Each race comes with a set of unique army tokens, and some of the races come with special tokens like troll lairs or encampments. On top of that, a lot of these pieces get moved around each turn, so it gets a little crazy with so many moving parts. However, I do feel that these parts are somewhat necessary. One of the best aspects of Small World, if not the best one, is the race and power combinations. And since there’s probably not a better way to represent all of the armies and special abilities, you’ll live to deal with all of the moving components.
Speaking of race and power combos, they are fantastic because of how they interact with each other. For example, fortified trolls would be a really powerful combination to have because your power (Fortification) allows you to place fortresses in your controlled territories. These fortresses give a you +1 to defense and an extra gold. Also, the trolls allow you to place a troll lair on each region you own that also give you a +1 to defense. All these defense bonuses allow you to keep your armies smaller and more spread out. So when a good combination comes up, you have to weigh the pros and cons of going into decline to snag the new combo. Small World also does an admirable job balancing the the race and combo selections. At all times, there are six different combos that you can choose from. These are drawn at random, and their position on the race track is determined by the order in which they were drawn. If you select a combination that is not in 1st position, you must place a gold on all of the other banners in front of it. So if you take the combination in the 3rd position, then you must place gold pieces on the the banners in the 1st and 2nd positions. Then, if someone were to select a combo in the 1st or 2nd positions, they would get to collect the gold on the race they choose. This is a clever way to coerce players to select a weaker race/power combination and another example of the thoughtful design of Small World.
Overall, I think Small World is a lot of fun, and I can see why it has received so much praise over the years. I still feel a little strange reviewing a game like this because it is hard to understand what this game meant for the community when it originally released. I guess the fact that I had a good time playing it and desire to play it again shows that this game has held up well over almost a decade. I give Small World 1 thumb up.
Small World Game Review – Board Crazy’s Ratings