They’re coming. You can hear them, their howls and war cries. You can bunk down in your bivouacs, relying on the wood and canvas to protect you, relying on the strength of your militia to fight off the invaders… But you wish you were far more confident in them than you are. Maybe you’ll be lucky. Maybe you’ll be proven wrong, and the beasts coming for your land will be fought off. But they want it. The world is not big enough for you all, and the orcs coming, flying on their wings of fire and death, want your land.
Maybe you shouldn’t have chosen to vie for a land against Flying Orcs, Commando Trolls, and Underworld Ghouls… But that’s what happens when you playing in a Small World.
Small World is a Fantasy-themes territory building game for 2-5 players. Published by Days of Wonder and designed by Phillipe Keyaerts, it serves as a sort of fantastical take on Keyaerts’ older game, Vinci.
In Small World, each player controls a specific race with a specific power. They then take turns playing their group of race tokens to claim territories. At the end of each turn, a player is awarded victory points based on the amount of territory they control.
There are a few hitches in this otherwise fairly basic-sounding gameplay, though. First comes through the unique abilities granted by each race and power, allowing players to get bonus points for certain areas, perform some unique actions, or otherwise breaks some sort of basic rule. Moreover, the territory board – as the game name suggests – is simply too small for all the players. Even the most peace-wanting player is going to have to clash with another players sooner or later. Finally, the ten turns of the game are almost always too many for a player to get through with one race; sooner or later they’re going to run out of tokens and have to start fresh with a new race and power combo.
The basic rules of the game are fairly simple. It takes two racial tokens to claim a territory, plus one extra token per piece of cardboard (such as another player’s token) that’s already there. If your territory gets conquered, one of your tokens dies (is removed from the board) and any other tokens can retreat to another territory you own. On your turn, you can try to claim as much territory as you have tokens to conquer. All in all, fairly straight-forward.
The diverse abilities granted by race and powers can get a bit more complicated, however. While the race and power banners all have icons to explain the power, the pictographs tend to be fairly unclear. So to really understand the powers, some comprehensive reading of the rules or the player aides is required. And the sheer number of races and powers (14 races and 20 powers in the base game, plus dozens more of each added by expansions) makes it fairly unlikely that anyone could memorize all of them.
Speaking of the power and race numbers, how many there are and how they are randomly combined adds a fair amount of replayability to the game. Different races and powers are put together in each game, and so play style changes for each player each time the game is played.
It’s worth pointing out that some might find some problems with the art and game design of Small World, especially in terms of some awkward choices of representation. The Amazons (the only female race in the base game) are busty and half naked. The elves are sniffing flowers and prancing, and their ability is to run away (but the clearly fairy characters aren’t supposed to be gay or anything, right?). And I’m not even going to touch on the colonization themes inherent in players wiping out the “lost tribes” that inhabit the Small World at the start of the game.
If you can get by the icky feelings that those kind of problems might cause, Small World is a lot of fun. It’s a bit silly, and can get fairly competitive, but its rules are fairly simple. On the other hand, the amount of reading required to understand and remember all the abilities of the races and powers might make gameplay run smoother if all players have a fairly good grasp of reading (not that the abilities couldn’t be explained to a player who can’t read them all themselves, but it would likely slow the game down). While I think the game works best with 3 or 4 players, the fact that a different board is used for different numbers of players to ensure that it’s always big enough, but also still too small, it works well enough with any number of the 2-5 players range.
So is it worth making sure you don’t just delve into the stereotypes and colonization that comes unbidden in the game? Of course. But is it a fun game to play, and worth adding to a collection all the same? Absolutely yes.
It’s a fun game. Like the box says, it’s a world of (s)laughter after all.