Review I posted on Board Game Geek.
I recently picked up the board game Small World. It caught my eye while I was window shopping at Games of Berkeley; upon getting home I immediately began reading reviews here. It seemed to be right up my alley, and it fit a niche in my game cabinet that wasn’t being filled: that of a fun simple war game—or as they say on BGG an “Area Control Game.”
A Bit About Your Reviewer
I always find reviews more helpful when I have an idea who the person is, so let me first tell you what kind of gamer I am: besides classic games like scrabble and backgammon, I own Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Settlers of Catan and a number of various simple fun card games like Chrononauts and Give Me the Brain. I’ve also played a number of other board games, CCGs and RPGs.
When it comes to modern board/card games, I tend to like fun fast games with rules that can be explained easily, but strategy that takes a bit to unveil. I also prefer games with good themes and a nice visual design: I have a hard time playing ugly looking games–sue me I’m an artist. As such, I do lean towards euro games but I’m not stuck on them.
Anyway now that you get an idea of what kind of gamer I am, I’ll get onto the review…
Style & Theme (A)
I love the theme and the style of the illustrations. I mean sure it ain’t fine art, but it’s got that goofy fantasy thing down perfect. It’s the sort of game that you lay out and everyone leans in to look at the pieces, which is great for enticing new people to play. I mean what other game can you play something that is both hilarious and deadly? “Attack Heroic Ghouls! Attack! Oh noz! Commando Halflings have sprung up like gophers in our backyard!”
Certainly the layers of illustration can sometimes get so dense that it’s hard to grok the state of the board at a glance—even the die gets lost—but personally I’m fine with that tradeoff.
Components – (A)
Fantastic! The multiple boards is brilliant. The pieces are built of the most thick durable cardboard I’ve ever encountered in a game—I wish the Settlers of Catan pieces were this thick. The box organizer has it’s flaws but it does a decent job, except for the coins which always fall about.
My main gripe is the player reference cards: I mean really did they need to make it the size of a record album? Who has that sort of room on their gaming table? 4×6 would have been perfect, but even letter size would have been an improvement.
What I like
I love how well the game manages to feel vibrant and dynamic without resorting to cards or rolling dice every 5 seconds. The only random elements being the combination of races/powers and reinforcement die that is only rolled on your final conquest. With the exception of a few races (I’m looking at you Dwarves) the game is pretty balanced too. As a result, you feel that you are matching wits with other players rather than battling the game itself.
It scales well too with the multiple boards, and even plays well as a two player game. Not as well mind you as it becomes a bit of a tennis match, but still it’s fun.
The random combination of races/powers also makes for great replayablity. Though to be honest this is a gimmick since once you run through it a few times the races get a tad stale. Of course, there are the expansions which add more races/combos; however, the best games are replayable without expansions because they reveal new depths of strategy every time you play and/or they have a timeless quality to them which makes them fun every time.
The decline mechanic is great. It’s the lynchpin of the game: going into decline on the wrong round can make or break you, and it also really gives life to the game. As players place their races into decline and send new active races to stomp across the board, you really feel that there is a story being played out.
What I don’t like
If there is a history to the world of Small World it is in the Lost Tribes, yet sadly they serve as nothing more than lifeless road bumps at the start of the game. Their very presence almost demands that they be used for something in the game.
Others have obviously felt the desire to pump life into the Lost Tribes and have suggested variants that use them (see Let’s Pimp the Lost Tribes), and I’ve crafted a game variant myself I call Savage Tribes. These ideas also serve add a little spice to the beginning of the game—especially to the 2 player game.
What I really don’t like
Where the story (and game) of Small World really falls flat is the end. After a set number of turns the game is over. That’s it. Done. Count your chips. Ok Player A won. Meh.
It’s like you’re deep in a grips of a rich lively book and find some idiot tore out almost the entire last chapter—all except for the very last page. There’s no climatic victory, no feel of triumph, it just ends and someone is the winner. Not to mention the fact that there is nothing fun about counting coins. Hell, most players never even bothered to count their coins until the end.
Half of this problem lies in the hidden Victory Points (which really should have been called Conquest Coins or something more fitting with the theme). Sure hiding the totals reduces “bash the leader” and kill’em all griefers, but I’m not so certain that’s an issue really since bashing and kill’em actually fits the theme of the game. As I mentioned above, the game is fairly well balanced. You get a sense that there is a lot of back and forth with one player in the lead and then another; however, with the points hidden that fun horse race tension is absent.
Some of the best games also give the players some control over the end game: In Dominion, players can choose to take drain a third card stack to hasten the end of the game. In Ticket to Ride, a player can play lots of easy routes to get rid of cars or save up to use their last cars on a long route for more points. However, there is no such mechanic in Small World—it just ends.
Conclusion (B- with the possibility of extra credit to bring it up to an B+)
There is so much I love about this game, but the end game really kills it for me. During the game, I’m excited and deeply engulfed, and then the last turn hits like a wall constructed of Magical Drywall of Boring (make a saving throw against ennui).
The next time we play, I’m planning on writing scores down on paper for all to see, scrapping the turns, and playing to 100 points: once a player reaches 100 points there is one last round of the game with the player who got 100 points getting the final turn. That last turn will surely be a massive leader bash festival, but that’s loads more interesting than “Ok everyone last turn.”
If that (or another variant) savages the end game then I’ll be overjoyed and I’ll likely rush out and pick up the expansions. If, however, I can’t find a way to make the end anything better than a dull exercise of remedial addition, than Small World will likely end up in the BGG Marketplace.