(image by MarkKaufmann @ BGG)
Sometimes a game comes along that seems like it should be right up my alley but ultimately falls flat. I’m a sucker for a fantasy theme and I really enjoyed my single play of A History of the World (the game that inspired the game Small Word is based on) so I thought that Small World would be a no-brainer. Sadly that has not been the case.
Small World is all about taking control of the land with various fantasy races. As you hold territory you earn points and whoever has the most points at the end wins. You have all your standard fantasy fare with elves, dwarves, giants, sorcerers, undead and many others. What makes Small World tick is that each race is also assigned a random attribute like flying, wealthy and spirit. Some combos are clearly going to be better than others and a good chunk of the game is deciding which powers you think you can best leverage.
The game takes place over several rounds. To start the game players select their new army and bringing them out on the map. Several race/attribute combos are laid out in order. You can take the bottom-most combo for free or you can work your way up the list by dropping a victory point on each race you skip over. This means the weakest races will filter towards the bottom but will also collect points that go into the coffers of whoever picks that combo. After you pick your race you bring them in on the edge of the map and start claiming territory. To take an area you need two tokens plus one per piece of cardboard on the map; cardboard is typically enemy units or terrain features. Enemies lose one unit and the rest are forced to retreat if possible. At the end of your turn you may redistribute your units however you want, most likely fortifying areas you need to hold or think will be attacked. At the end of your turn you earn points for each territory held.
Instead of activating your current army you may instead put them into decline. That turn you do nothing but score points, but on your next turn you get to select a new race/attribute combo to bring into the game. Your old army may no longer be activated but they will continue to earn points so long as they are on the board. Putting your army into decline is almost inevitable as you have a limited number of units and will likely lose some during combat. Eventually you’ll reach the max potential for one race, see a combo you can leverage nicely and will want to grab it to try and earn you even more points. Knowing when to time this switch is central to success in Small World.
The game comes with several player boards, each designed for a specific number of players. It’s a much better solution than just removing regions from a map or playing on a map size that is less than ideal for the number of players you have. The maps seem fairly well balanced and makes playing with a wide range of players feasible. I also really like the different races and powers. As the combos are different each game you get a ton of variety and it is fun to try and figure out which combo will be most beneficial to you and when to bring them into play.
Unfortunately the game just doesn’t do much for me. I really enjoy the artwork but the board is far too cluttered. Regions can be a little hard to distinguish and all of the cardboard pieces blend in. It’s even more tricky when a nation goes into decline as they flip to the grayed-out side of their chits which are even more difficult to find on the map and distinguish from each other. Even more offending is that the player reference included with the game is not only not useful but detrimental to play. They tried to summarize all of the races and attributes but they left out highly crucial rules on some of them which can have a major impact on play. Toss out those player aides as they will cause much more harm than good.
(image by lacxox @ BGG)
I also find the game just isn’t all that exciting. Generally you’ll go through two or three races and the key is knowing when to make that switch. There are a very limited number of turns in the game and going into decline takes your entire turn so by the end I always feel like I haven’t done much. Combat is deterministic which by itself isn’t bad but combined with the limited number of turns and and limited mobility on the map I find that my turns often almost play themselves. The real decision-making comes in figuring out when to decline and which race/attribute combo you think you can best exploit. Everything else is just a little too straightforward.
When all is said and done I find Small World to not be very satisfying. A single match can easily be played within an hour so there is certainly be something to be said for the ease of play. I think it would be perfectly for a younger or less gaming-oriented crowd but for a group of serious gamers I really think Small World has little to offer. The fantasy theme is great, artwork is fantastic (if not a little busy) and the rules are easy to teach. I just feel like there aren’t many interesting decisions to be made and the deterministic nature of combat can lead to lots of analysis paralysis which goes counter to the goal of a fast-playing game. Small World is not a bad game by any means, it just isn’t for me.