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Reviews - Small World
 
by Lee Valentine


Small World coverSmall World
Published by Days of Wonder
Designed by Philippe Keyaerts
2-5 players
$50.00

This game is featured in the OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide 2009

Small World ("SW" hereinafter) is the newest boardgame release from Days of Wonder ("DoW"). It is one part wargame, one part resource management game, and a dash of CCG-style mechanics thrown in, all with a fantasy-based world domination theme pasted on top. The goal is to amass victory points by controlling regions on a fantasy world map. The game is played for eight to ten turns, depending on the number of players. SW reinvents a 1999 game (Vinci) by the same designer, Philippe Keyaerts, but it does so in a way which simplifies the game, adds a bit more chaos, controls game length, and adds enormously to the production value.

Overview
SW is a strategic-level game featuring a map of a small fantasy world. Unlike other world domination games that I have played, here the units aren't monochromatic cubes or the like. SW 's units feature thick, full-color tiles showing the 14 different fantasy races who are fighting to control a very Small World. Thematically, the publisher claims that on this tiny (presumably flat) world, races are fighting for space to live, and end up pushing competitors off the edge of the world - figuratively, not literally. This is a pure area control game, not a shoving match, and there is never a means to push enemy races off the edge of the map.

Small World races & powersThe 14 races include common fantasy tropes like dwarves and elves, but also include more rarified races like tritons and ghouls. Each race has small square tiles to be placed on the board as units, and each also comes with a much larger tile that includes a graphical mnemonic aid for that race's particular features and game-altering powers.

In addition to the 14 race tiles ("banners"), there are 20 Special Power or descriptor tiles ("badges"). These descriptors include traits like "Hill", "Spirit", "Berserk", "Pillaging", and "Seafaring". The descriptors are designed to be placed next to the race banners, thus creating 280 different possible race and power combinations, including amusing ones like Hill Tritons, Mounted Giants (those poor horses!), and Pillaging Halflings. Like the racial banners, the Special Power badges feature graphics to remind players of a distinct power or powers the individual Special Power badge grants to the race it is associated with.

Game Rules
At the beginning of the game the Racial banners and Special Power badges are randomized and situated next to each other to form two associated "decks". Then five race/power combinations are dealt out face up in a column. A sixth race/power combination is visible on top of the two "decks", which are at the bottom of the column of race and power combos.

Players do not immediately each start the game with one race as you might expect. Instead, at the start of each player's first turn, he chooses a race/power combo from those visible on the table. If he chooses the first pair (those at the top of the column), it is free to him. If, however, he chooses one of the other combos, he must put one of the five victory point tokens he starts the game with on top of each race/power combo in the column above the one he selects. The column gap (if any) is closed up, and a new race/power combination is dealt off the top of the Race and Special Power "decks" to the fifth position in the column. In this way, six new race/power combos are usually available to players throughout the game. The victory points placed on passed-over combos during this selection process continue to amass until they are eventually awarded to someone who actually chooses to play a less desirable combination.

Upon taking a race/power combo you are allotted a certain number of Race tiles to use as unit tokens for the remainder of the game. How many you get is determined by the Race and Special Power banners you chose. At the corner of each banner is a number, and the sum of the Race and Special Power numbers tell you how many starting race tokens you get to conquer the Small World. For example Merchant (2) Dwarves (3) get five tokens, while Flying (5) Ratmen (8) get 13 starting tokens. Races have a total maximum number of tokens that vary by race, based on the number of tokens that Days of Wonder included in the box. So, it is possible that a certain race/power combo may allot you with all the dwarf tokens that came in the box, while another one may leave you with some leftovers. You do not have ready access to any leftover race tokens during the game unless a Special Power or Racial Power tells you otherwise. This starting token allotment is often all you have for the whole game, and your race will probably start to die off quickly. In this way, SW is not like Risk or other area control games where you have a deep bin of generic tokens that you continue to amass over the course of the game.

After you take your starting race and their tokens, you immediately start conquering regions on the board. Regions include forests, hills, swamps, farmland, mountains, seas, or lakes, with the water areas generally being off-limits to any race without the "Seafaring" Special Power. Mountains start the game with special mountain tokens in them, and also at the start of the game, some regions start out with Lost Tribe tokens in them. Lost Tribes are the cannon fodder of SW, representing an ancient race in decline, who can no longer mount successful attacks on anyone; they merely exist to defend their ancient lands. For the most part, conquests are non-random. You count up the number of cardboard markers and tokens of all kinds (including mountains, race or Lost Tribe tokens, and structure markers that some power combos let you construct). Then you add two to that sum. That tells you how many of your own race tokens you have to commit to take over the region. For example if there is a mountain marker (1) and three elf tokens (3), you add 2 to that, and you will need 6 orc tokens (or whatever race you're playing) to conquer the region.

Small World board sectionWhen a region is conquered, the committed forces move in, and all the old race tokens or any Lost Tribe tokens on that region are removed from the board. Lost Tribe tokens are just returned to the box, but if your opponent had his race tokens in that region, only one is returned to the box and destroyed, while the rest are returned to your opponent at the end of the current player's turn for redeployment to other regions he controls. In this way, race tokens are constantly whittled away with the remainder being amassed elsewhere on the board.

At the end of your turn of conquests you can redeploy your forces, moving your race tokens from one area you control to another, provided that you leave at least one race token in each region you control. At the start of your next turn, you gather as many of your race tokens as you want to from the board (even if that means you abandon previously conquered regions) to make fresh conquests.

Over time a race can become effectively unplayable, or at least undesirable, once too many of their starting number have been removed from play. Thankfully, the game has an innovative mechanic that lets you retire an older race to acquire a new one. This is called putting a race "Into Decline". Instead of conquering on a turn, you declare that you are going Into Decline. You flip over your race tokens on the board to their back sides, which are grayed out pictures of your race instead of full color. Then you get to keep only one token in each region that you control, with all the extras being retired to the game box. On your next turn, you pick a new race and you start making conquests with your new race instead of your In Decline race. Your In Decline race does not aid you in making these new conquests, and you need not make your new race's conquests adjacent to your In Decline race. Typically your race In Decline can never attack again and often loses all of its special powers. You can go Into Decline multiple times during the game, but you only get to keep two total races: one Active one and one In Decline. As you put a new race Into Decline, your old In Decline race is stripped from the board.

You win the game by amassing Victory coins. At the end of your turn, you score one victory point coin for each region you control with your Active and In Decline races, plus any point modifiers that may be associated with your race/power combo. All your victory points are kept secret throughout the game, leaving doubts in the minds of anyone without a perfect memory as to who is exactly in the lead at any one time. This allows for blame shifting and diplomacy over the course of the game to get people to team up on a perceived scoring leader even if he isn't the actual front runner.

There is one minor element of luck in the game. A single die roll is allowed once on your last conquest of the turn, which makes it easier to take over a region you otherwise have insufficient forces to conquer. With the exception of certain Special Powers, this roll happens at most once per player turn. 50% of the die's faces are blank (meaning it offers no help half the time), but the other 50% of the time the die roll reduces the number of Race tokens needed to make a conquest (down to a minimum of one Race token that must be used to enter the conquered Region). This can occasionally help to unseat an opponent from a key territory. Since the die roll grants you no extra actual troops to hold on to the newly conquered Region, using the die too often during the game will tend to spread your troops a bit thin, making you vulnerable to counter-attack. Thus the die helps to make occasional modifications to control over the map, but it does not provide a means to make sweeping changes in the game. This keeps the focus of the game squarely on player skill, while periodically injecting a thrilling Vegas-style moment of play.

The real guts of the game are the Racial Powers and Special Powers. Winning or losing often comes down to determining which combo is right for the current situation, and more importantly, realizing that before everyone else does. The race/power combos remind me very strongly of card combinations that are commonly found in most CCGs. Some powers are simple like the "Forest" badge which gives +1 Victory coin for each forest region you control. Other powers are more complex - like the "Sorcerers" race, which allows you to convert members of your enemy's race into Sorcerers, with a paragraph of restrictions and requirements surrounding this process.

Multi-Player Play
One nice feature of the game is that it readily handles anywhere from two to five players. In many strategic wargames, two-player play is often little more than multi-player solitaire for parts of the game, with wide spaces between the players preventing fighting for much of the game. To keep the Small World small regardless of the number of players, DoW has included two double-sided boards, for a total of four boards, which are individually customized to seat a specific number of players. This is a great innovation and will keep the game lively regardless of the number of players, even though strategic decisions are still likely to be most difficult in four- or five-player play.

While DoW advertises a 40-80 minute play time, our first four-player game lasted an estimated 2 hours and 15 minutes. We could have cut this play time down a fair bit with more experience, and the game would have flown by in two-player play. Still, the power combos in the game can add a bit of analysis paralysis and research time for players who haven't memorized all the powers in the rulebook. Nevertheless, I believe that experienced players may be able to play within the estimated time range.

Packaging & Components
Small World contains hundreds of tokens, markers, and other components. When I buy a game like this I typically have two choices: I let all the components mix together and have a frustrating setup time, or I go out and buy tons of tiny gripseal bags (these are never included in games in sufficient quantity), re-bag the components, and then find out they no longer fit in the box. Days of Wonder gave me a third option: a storage system that is largely functional. There is a game tray with many open wells and compartments that are held in place by the boards and the box cover. There is also a removable tray with a lid and 14 wells to contain the race tokens. There are even instructions included on how to pack the box. While I haven't tried to transport the game yet, I have tested its suitability for side storage by turning it on its side and giving it a little shake - nothing fell out of place.

Small World componentsThe only downsides to the packaging are with the race token tray. It is designed to store the tokens on their sides rather than face up, and there are no side labels included for the tray. Without referring to a chart or peeking carefully, it's hard to know which race is which once they are in the tray. Another hassle during play is that once you start returning tokens to the tray they sometimes fall flat instead of standing upright, occasionally forcing you to pry them out of tight wells with your fingernails or a toothpick. Those hassles are non-trivial, but I gave the packaging high marks because each game in my collection spends much more time being stored than it does being played, and I think this packaging is a cut above most in the industry.

The art on this product is really top notch. Artist Miguel Coimbra created a wide variety of clever images, all with a very fanciful and occasionally silly bent. There is a dwarf on the cover blowing a snot bubble from his nose, and skeletons wear cowboy hats and boots. The map looks more like art and less like a standard game board because regions aren't always carbon copies of each other. Some mountains have caves in the side, while another is clearly a dormant volcano. The color palette is vibrant and wonderful on the faces of the counters. My only complaint about the art is that the backs of the race tokens showing their In Decline side are so desaturated that you have to study the board occasionally to differentiate one Declined race from another.

There are a variety of large play aids that come with SW. These are like some of the graphics on the Racial banners and Power badges, in that they are nice mnemonic aids most of the time. Sometimes, however, they were just plain misleading. For example, the play aid merely says that Ghouls keep all their tokens on the board when they go Into Decline, and this leaves out the huge piece of information that the Ghouls can continue to attack while they are In Decline.

For my gaming group, I developed little power cards that combined the info from the FAQ and the rulebook, as I felt the powers quick reference wasn't a good replacement for memorizing or referencing about four pages of the rulebook. This, again, made it feel like a CCG, where I typically am expected to memorize a fair bit of text and recall it based primarily on a card name and some graphics. Thankfully, there are only 20 Special Powers badges and 14 Racial banners, so this is doable, particularly since many abilities are very simple.

While the counters and boards included in the game are absolutely great, I downgraded the components grade for inadequate player aids. Even the turn reference leaves out the fact that you still score victory points on turns where you go Into Decline, a major detail.

Rules Complexity & Clarity
SW has a sleek, simple, core engine that keeps the game moving. As such, it potentially has appeal to hobby gamers of all ages. SW may not be suitable as a gateway game like the DoW hit Ticket to Ride. This is because several of the Racial Powers and Special Powers require substantial familiarity with the rulebook to be appropriately played. While this material is fairly easy to learn by consulting the rulebook, memorizing a paragraph of special game text to play a Race may not appeal to non-gamers. In contrast, Magic or Pokemon players will not think twice about memorizing a few sentences per Race & Power combo.

My single strongest complaint with the game comes from the clarity of the special powers in the rulebook and on the player aids that come with the game. Days of Wonder specializes in making beautiful, simple rulebooks. Unfortunately, most Days of Wonder rulebooks that I own leave out some key information on how to play. Small World is no exception, and this results in a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) file on the internet which DoW doesn't even link to from their product page. Most commonly asked questions are immediately obvious from perusing the rulebook, but sometimes the answers just aren't in the rules, or what's there is misleading. The FAQ for the game is available on the Days of Wonder message boards, and while it answers some questions, it will raise a few eyebrows with some potentially counter-intuitive rulings. Without the FAQ, you'll probably have to house rule some things around the edges of the game.

Conclusions
The game play of SW keeps everyone in the action until the bitter end. Even if you are behind on the scoring, that fact is largely hidden from everyone. The ability to choose a new race at the drop of a hat really gives everyone a chance to have significant impact on the board. There is a high level of "Oh, yeah? Take that!" Payback and revenge are key elements of the game. Unlike Risk or more dice heavy games, there weren't a lot of real emotional highs or lows. I played Pandemic immediately before Small World, and the former had a lot higher group thrills factor, even though everyone really liked SW. SW's minimized randomness makes it a tense match of wits, with players trying to manipulate the developing chaos of an ever-changing map. While Pandemic feels like a good horserace, Small World is emotionally like a game of Texas Hold 'Em: tense, competitive, and engaging.

What tells me this game is a keeper is that I had fun sitting around thinking about the power combos for hours. SW comes with one blank Special Power badge and one blank Racial Banner, to let you come up with your own creations. At the time of this writing, DoW even has a contest to design your own powers to be included in an upcoming expansion. Unlike a CCG, since these elements sit on the table and don't really have to be shuffled in the same way that a playing card does, this game really encourages homebrew creativity for the artistically savvy among us.

Playing Small World makes me think about it for days after, like watching a good action movie. While it doesn't have the highs and lows I have come to expect from other war games, it also doesn't have the frustration of being in fourth place in Risk and wishing someone would put you out of your misery. Regardless of the actual game length, it feels pretty fast-paced most of the time. It has the vibe of a light, chaotic game, but it is clearly possible to do better by mapping out a flexible strategy and taking good advantage of the race/power combos that best fit the situation. I think Small World is among the most memorable and unique war games I have played. I am not a big fan of most war games, but I am eager to play it again, and I strongly recommend it.

For Retailers
SW is really a "must have" in a game store in 2009. It's almost guaranteed to get a nomination for an Origins award. I am not convinced that it will remain evergreen like DoW's flagship Ticket to Ride game, but this game will sell. At $50.00 it is more affordable than many games with this number and quality of components.

I think that Small World's resource management and CCG-like elements will give it a far broader appeal than most traditional wargames. The core rules of play can be picked up fairly quickly by most experienced gamers. That, combined with some unique mechanics and fantastic production values, will make the game a gem to demo if you have the spare table space for it. Even leaving the game setup in a display will generate instant sales. Because the box cover is eye catching and features a variety of delightfully cartoonish fantasy characters, it will advertise itself when displayed face out to the consumer.

As I mentioned, Days of Wonder made the brilliant decision to launch the game with a do-it-yourself power and race contest. The prize is a free trip to the Essen gaming event in Europe. This will keep alpha gamers playtesting their inventions for weeks to come, and they will bring their friends on board. Advertise this contest in your store if you have open gaming space, and your customers will demo it for you.

Lee's Ratings

Overall: A- (potentially a B+ or B for rules lawyers and gamers with analysis paralysis)
Playability: A
Packaging: A-
Components: B+ (fantastic production values with sub-optimal play aids)
Rules Clarity: B
Rules Complexity: Medium (simple rules with some powers to memorize from the rulebook)
Retailer Salability: A- (compared to other high priced board games)

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