Small World: Brilliant? Bland? I’m conflicted

By Andrew Joyce


In Small World, you will manage a race imbued with special powers and determined to make its mark on the world of Small. The only catch is — nothing is big enough to satisfy any one empire’s claims, so you will find yourself repeatedly bumping elbows with the other players around the table. Wrestle lands from their control, earn glory, and emerge as the emperor of the land, in Small World.

You are a sentinel on the great mount of Nazad-Dûr, having served your dwarven king faithfully these thirty years. Some activity on the horizon catches your eye, and as you strain to see what is going on, a massive hand clamps over your mouth. “Dwarven scum! Today is your day to perish!”

“I am Alkatri!” the massive skeleton shouts, as he shakes his scimitar under your nose.

“We have claimed this mount in the name of the Flying Skeletons!”

Perhaps the Stout Dwarves will go into decline, with only the highest peaks bearing their memory on into eternity.

Photo Credit: Mark Kaufmann

Right from the box cover you’re confronted with epic silliness, as Small World features several races crowded on top of one tiny rock. Everything in the box carries this out: from hilarious combos like Flying Magicians or Diplomatic Ogres to the beautifully-illustrated cartoons that decorate the board, tiles, and pieces of Small World. You’d expect a vaguely Risk-like experience of smashing your neighbors and exploiting the possibilities of a particularly potent combo, strategizing when to go into decline so that you can emerge with a fresh race right when your neighbors are weakest!

Good news! Most of the above is indeed in the box of Small World. There is a lot of conflict, and the deliciously simple combat system is really easy to pick up on. As your races and special powers are shuffled every game, you will always find new combinations to play with — and if you exhaust the base set, there are plenty of expansions to give you more races, more special powers, and more fun.

Photo Credit: Geert VG

Indeed, everything in the box has been tuned to play very smoothly. All of the powers/races have been balanced nicely, and though there are stronger/weaker race possibilities, the clever way that you ‘purchase’ races means that there’s a cost to picking a stronger race, while the weak races gradually build up more and more gold on them until you’re a fool to pass over them. Though the races are not samey, they’re nicely balanced against one another.

Some problems with the game have been accounted for: Small World has a very strong bash-the-leader bent, but with a set number of rounds, the game won’t drag on and one like some other games do (Munchkin comes to mind). The key is to bash the leader just enough, without committing too many forces to border wars, while staying weak enough that you’re not a target, so that you can emerge victorious in the end. It’s a delicate balancing act that can be difficult to execute.

Photo Credit: Rafal Szczepkowski

Even the board has been carefully designed so that you’re actually playing on a different map at all different player counts, which doesn’t disturb the balance of the game. Nothing really feels out-of-place or un-tuned, in typical Days of Wonder fashion. Overall, this is just a really smooth, really enjoyable game. Every time I play Small World I end up having a lot of fun, which is why it’s such a conflicting game for me. While I have fun every time, I also leave every game wanting just a little bit…more. Has Days of Wonder, in effect, polished away any facet of Small World that makes it unique?

The Tragic

Small World does have some issues, like any board game. First of all, this is a very tactical game where it’s difficult to create a long-term strategy. Because you can enter the board from any side, it’s trivially easy for you to exploit the other players — which is great — but also means that you will also never have a secure position. I’m no stranger to conflict, but sometimes in a 5-player game you can lose your entire empire without even taking a second turn. This is frustrating and can make you feel like you’re in a hopeless position.

Photo Credit: Gregory Duff

Secondly, despite balancing, there are some factions that are just plain better than the others, and an experienced player will immediately decline their current race so that they can grab the better one. Though there’s a penalty to declining, a good player could ride some Amazons or Skeletons for three or four rounds, pulling in 15 or 16 coins per turn all the while. However, overall Days of Wonder has done a good job of making an opportunity cost to declining (the lost turn is huge, in an 8-round game), and this won’t be an issue very often.

Finally, games can start to feel the same, and I think this may be my biggest issue with Small World. While things are carefully tuned to balance, you’ll never really have a game that will do much different than the game before it. Skeletons will always be imposing, and the Amazons always a force to be reckoned with. And because of how the game works, you’ll pretty much always do the same things with every race, even though the window dressing changes. There’s not much deep strategy to be had here — this could almost be considered more of a negotiation game than anything else.

The Magic

But for some people, that’s OK. Small World really does shine as a social experience, and I think that’s why I love the game, and why I’ll ultimately keep it in my collection. No, the strategy isn’t incredible (Though when you are able to build on your special powers — either by turtling in the mountains or hiding out in the seas, or using the Underworld power to hop around the map and control gem spots — it’s all very fun to orchestrate), but you will definitely remember the players you played against. More often than not, your special powers will send you into direct conflict as you feud over that forest space that just so happens to also be a magical gem space, and you both tire yourself out only for a brand new, third civilization to come sweeping in and dislodge both of you!

Photo Credit: Mateusz Sztrąf

The decision of when to go into decline and how long to hang on to your current civilization is agonizing. The decision feels so monumental — because you essentially miss a turn when you go into decline, you’d better make sure your current race is in a good position, but also not wait too long, because that really good race that’s available may not be there next round, and aaagh! The decision-making and the back-and-forth that happen when you decline are probably my favorite part of the game.

Like any good area control game, victory may come from wheedling your neighbors out of attacking you — or from hiding in a discreet corner while bigger empires duke it out around you. Small World is not a grand tactical game, but it is a game that will force you to argue with your opponents about why you shouldn’t be invaded, and why they should invade HIM instead because look at how strong his position is and how many coins he’s pulling in per round and how he’s totally going to win. These sorts of moments are the kind that make gaming memorable.

Sure, it isn’t perfect. Sometimes you’ll find yourself totally behind with no chance of winning. Other times the game will nudge you a little bit too hard about what the smart strategy is. But no game is without its flaws, and in Small World, the good bits — the weird combos and the desperate negotiation — outweigh the luckiness of the game and the inability to plan ahead.

The fact is, Small World will be memorable, even if it’s not the most complex game design out there. I haven’t found an area control game that’s more accessible, and Small World is a well-deserved classic in my book.

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