Thank you for checking out my tenth review. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
Because the tenth review is the first of (hopefully) many major milestones, I thought it would be appropriate to write a review for the game that I think really hooked us both into the hobby a few years ago. We had played other games before this, but I am pretty sure this was the game that sealed the deal for us both. We have many of the race/power expansions for the game, although not all, and the Tales & Legends expansion. But this post is going to focus solely upon the base game.
An Overview of Small World
Small World is a game designed by Philippe Keyaerts and is published by Days of Wonder. The box states that it can play 2-5 players and has a 40-80 minute play time.
In this game, each player will control an active race to try and conquer and hold as much territory as possible in a land that is too small for them all. Each race has a unique ability of its own, but is also paired with a random power tile that will enhance their ability to dominate or maintain control of territories. Only six races are available at any given time, with their special power for the game shown next to them. When a person purchases a race, they shift down and a new one is revealed. The first race is free, but a player can pick from any shown race by placing a coin on every race in line they skip over. Thus the trade is some of your victory points to grab the race you really want.
But conquest is only part of the game. Eventually your race will be spread too thin and the time will come for a player to put them into decline, flipping them to their inactive side where they can no longer conquer new territories nor benefit from special powers. But this will allow the player to snag a new race with their next turn to conquer more territories.
At the end of a player’s turn, they gain a coin for each territory controlled by their one active and (if they have one) their one decline race. Some powers provide extra coin bonuses that can increase that score. The game is played over a set number of rounds, determined by the player count. At the end of the game, the player with the most coins is the victor.
Setup and gameplay for 2 Players
Each player count has a different side of a board to use, so in a 2-player game you would pull out the small board and set it on the side marked for 2-players. You would place the crown round marker on the 1 space, and in a 2-player game there are a total of ten rounds. Place a mountain tile on each mountain space, and a Lost Tribe token on each space marked with the small gray square in the center.
The game itself does not play any differently with two players. The map is small enough that there will eventually be forced conflict between even the most peaceable players. The Lost Tribe tokens are often found on the most valuable locations, making it more costly to gain the desired foothold. The added rounds make it so that each player is likely to be playing their third race by the end of the game, although sometimes a player who has a really good combination and/or foothold may end up having just two.
By the time each player is on their second race, the conflict really ramps up because a player typically needs to enter on the other half of the board in order to be able to conquer more territory without having to take out their own decline races. Most races and powers in a 2-player game are solid, although there are some, like the Sorcerer, whose power is considerably weaker in a 2-player game but still worthwhile in the right situation.
The first thing you notice about this game is the wonderful artwork done by Miguel Coimbra and Cyrille Daujean. From the box, to the map, to the races themselves, it is all very aesthetically pleasing to look at. This game draws you in with the visual appearance. Even after all the plays I’ve logged with this game, I still find myself enjoying the appearance of many of the races on their tokens. The game is a colorful one to have on the table, which has the chance to draw in new players.
Speaking of boards…there are two boards, each with a second side. I love that this game uses a different board for each player count, changing the layout and the size of the territories so that it is able to scale well regardless of player count. It will always feel like a small world because you will always run into a situation where you must conquer or be conquered. This helps to ensure the game plays well no matter how many you can bring to the table.
The combat system is so, so simple which makes this a great gateway game for new players. 2 tokens to conquer an uncontrolled territory. Add one for each token on the territory, whether a mountain, a Lost Tribe, or your opponent. It makes the turns, and combat resolution, fast and painless. There is no hesitation as the attacker about which path to take. There can be no complaint as the defender about unfair dice rolls (mostly…more on that later). The problem my wife had with Risk was the dice rolling, and how the defender would win in ties. This eliminates the randomness of combat. You expect to lose tokens over the course of the game.
The decline feature is brilliant. Each race will have a finite number of tokens available when you select them, and even if you never lose one there will never be enough of them to hold the entire map. So in order to expand and get more territory, you are forced to place a race in decline and choose a different one. Your decline race is weak, only one token per territory remains, so they are likely going to be picked off one territory at a time by your opponents. So you need to have a new race that can conquer further and faster than your opponents can eat into your old territory. Most of the time you earn more by having a race in decline AND an active race than if you kept just an active one, making those first rounds especially important for deciding just when to make the move into decline. Too early and you might not have any territory left. Too late and you’ve missed opportunities to gain additional coins by having both. And, in a 2-player game, the same dilemma begins to arise around round 7-8. It makes it a great addition to a game that elevates it from solid to superior.
This game is perfect in length. It plays long enough to satisfy for an evening game, yet is short enough to allow you to play another game or to replay this one. Our favorite method of playing games, which is to go best out of three, started with this game. That allows you to fill an evening with 2-3 plays of a game that never plays completely the same because the combinations available will be different every time. It sets up fast, so long as you have the tokens organized well, and tears down equally fast. That makes it an easy game to get to the table.
The randomization in this game comes from only two things: the combination of race and powers, and the dice roll for final conquests. But for this point, I’m focusing on just the first one. There are more powers than races, and in a 2-player game you won’t even see all of the races appear. The combination pairing is what gives this game such great replayability. There are combinations that are good, ones that are great, and ones that are positively dreadful. There are horrible races (Dwarves) that you will want to skip unless they happen to have a favorable power. There are combinations worth spending 3-5 of your hard-earned coins to grab. There are ones that you won’t dream of touching unless they are in the free spot and have 3-5 coins sitting on them. Half of the fun is in experimenting with the combinations to see what works and what doesn’t. The other half is in trying to decide what available combination provides the best value for the moment. This is the part of the game that has me still coming back for more years later, even after many dozens of plays.
The second piece of randomness isn’t quite as enjoyable sometimes. It makes sense, yet at the same time it doesn’t. If you don’t have enough tokens to claim a final territory, you can roll the die to basically “boost” your power for that final attack. Three sides are blank, the others have a 1, a 2, or a 3 on there. When you are the active player, you want to see those high rolls. As the defender, you love the blanks. This feature allows players to conquer areas that they normally wouldn’t be able to, which can really swing the balance at times. Yet it is a critical component to the game, which is why it gets that half star instead of none. I recently played a game where we lacked the die, and I think seven of my turns ended where my remaining tokens could do nothing but reinforce an existing area. I actually missed having the chance to see if I could do something with that final 1-2 tokens. So you will have times when you absolutely hate the die. And you will have times when you love it. But it is certain to provide moments that will stick out in your mind as you reminisce later.
I love that you can use the coins (victory points) to skip over races in the queue to nab the combination you want. However, the scoring method of coins is fiddly. Very fiddly if you have an unorganized game (which was the case when we played a demo copy of Small World Underground recently…which was how we played with no die as well). The player boards could certainly have added a scoring track around the outside to tally the score, with a handful of coins available for use to skip the races at the cost of moving backward on the track. I do appreciate that the coins also help to make the current scores a bit of a secret, but the scoring system is definitely one of my least favorite parts of the game.
While I love the random pairing of the races with powers, it should be noted that there is a very real possibility of balance issues that can lead to a runaway leader, especially in a 2-player game. Sometimes you pick wrong when you think something can work well. And then you watch as your opponent takes the race you almost chose and they completely wipe the floor with you for a few rounds. By the time you realize the grave mistake and get the new race, you are 20-30 points behind and facing a runaway leader. It happens. And when it happens to you, it really sucks. Especially when you realize very early that you are in a hole and you have to try and claw back. A few times you might get lucky and the second race you pick makes up the deficit. But most of the time it ends up falling short unless the other player makes the same mistake with their second pick. And in a 2-player game, there is no one to team up with to try and cut down their lead.
I owe so much to this game. As I mentioned, it is the game that I am fairly certain won both my wife and I over to the hobby, and thus led down the path to my eventual release of video games in exchange for replacing them with board games. It is a game that certainly would have been in a Top 10 list for both 2014 and 2015, if I would have completed a list back then. And while it did not appear in either of our Top 10 games for 2016, it is a game that I think we would both find in our Top 15. Its drop was never a result of the game getting boring or being outplayed, but rather a result of finding new favorites that just barely would rank higher than this one. It is a game that, if a forever shelf existed, would be among the first games placed there for us. It is a game we certainly need to play more often – it deserves at least a dozen plays a year – and it usually doesn’t take long to remember why we’ve loved this game for so long.
This game plays really well with two, and is perfect for your collection if there is ever the chance that you’ll need to seat up to 5 at the table.
Check out more of our reviews at the following Geeklist and be sure to let me know what you thought of this game.