Small World Review

Small World (2009)

You can find our accessibility teardown of Small World here.

I’m a huge fan of the Civilization games. Or at least, I’m a huge fan in theory.   You probably wouldn’t have guessed it by how much I hated the vanilla game of Civilization V.  That though was only because it was a betrayal greater in scale than Pearl Harbour.  Seriously, if the Hague had jurisdiction over video games, Jon Shafer would have been on trial for war crimes.  We’re not here to talk about Jon Shafer though.  But seriously, he is the devil in a man suit.

Civilization has always had a problem in the way it has presented the rise and fall of empires –  for the most part, they only rise.   Your dynastic legacy has a span of several millennia whereas the lifespan of the average great empire is around two and a half centuries.  It’s not like you’re unique in this, either – the enemies you make and the alliances you forge in the first century of your reign will be the ones you encounter in the last century.   It creates an impression of cold stasis – you’re not a great agent in a changing world, you’re some undying aberration pottering around in a sandbox.  It is not game destroying, but it totally undermines the implementation of theme.

This is true of most civilization builder games, and of most games in which actions are mediated through the bureaucratic inertia of global scope.  Small World is one of a handful of games where they take the rise and the fall into account.

Small world box

I apologise for the fact this song is in your head now

Now, to be fair – it’s a stretch to call Small World a civilization builder.  It’s a stretch to even call it a war-game.   If anything, it’s a worker placement game with an edge.  It’s also a game that takes the transience of historical relevance into account and that’s one of the things that makes it interesting.    Within Small World, each player is competing for victory points, using the landscape of a fantasy realm as the battleground.    It genuinely is a small world, so small that that it isn’t possible to easily share it between multiple players.   Right away, we see something neat in the way Small World handles scaling of player numbers – it comes with four different maps – one each for two, three, four and five players.  This is the board for four players:

Four player map

It doesn’t look that small to me

And this is the one for two:

Two player map

Oh, that’s better

This is an unusually specific concession to the logistics of play-groups.   It doesn’t just pitch itself as a game that works for between two and five players – it gives every player-count its own uniquely balanced environment.   This is of vital importance, as the central conceit of the game is that conflict is inevitable as a consequence of territorial necessity.  As such, you’re never trying to make do with a game that only begrudgingly permits you to play at your preferred player count.

Each player takes control of a race, and their job is to occupy the combination of territories that award the greatest number of victory points per turn.   In order to claim territories, battle must be done – each section of the map requires two units to claim, plus an additional unit for every token there already.  We have a limited number of these available every turn, and we must spend them wisely to claim the maximum advantage.  Small World, for all its bloodlust, is fundamentally a game about the distribution of limited economic assets.

Tokens on the map

Virgin territory, ripe for plunder.

Various lost tribes are scattered around the map, creating an initial gradient of difficulty.  They’ll increase the cost of conquest until they are destroyed, which happens when their territory is claimed away from them.   This allocation of troops to claim area is incredibly simple, entirely deterministic, and the core of the Small World game loop.  It’s very ‘Risk’ like, which by itself should give you a fair indication of whether or not you’re likely to enjoy it.

Some sections of the map have additional features to define them, and the races we choose will interact with these features in different ways.  Consider this farmland, for example:

Magic field

It’s a magic field. Did you hear about the magic tractor? It turned into a field.

Humans gain an extra victory point for each farm tile they occupy, so would gain two victory points at the end of every turn where they occupy the square.  As such, the value proposition of each tile shifts depending on the disposition of your forces.  That tile, with its magic symbol on it, is also of extra value to wizards – it’ll likely be a key focal point of aggression if either race are in play.  If both are in play, a clever third player might be able to take advantage of that by focusing their attention on less contentious territory.   The value of each location on the board is dependent on the factions, and on the logistics of conquest.

Every turn we get a certain number of units to spend, and we spend them either claiming new territory or reinforcing what we have previously claimed.  The thing that turns this simple act of passive-aggressive token allocation into something more interesting is the races themselves.  See, you get a thick stack of races to randomly choose from, but you also get stack of special powers.

Combinations

That’s profiling.

You shuffle one, then you shuffle the other, and then you press the two of them together into a neat selection of ethnic diversity.  Races and powers come together to create the subtle and potentially hilarious intersections of special traits that make the game worth playing.  Every game of Small World genuinely has its own energy, because the combinations matter, but so too does the order in which they become available.   Some powers are especially dominant in the early game, and lose their effectiveness as time goes by.  Some are more subtle, and require you to pick them at just the right time .  They’re clever plays for a wise player, but can end up losing you the game if you miss your moment.   Other powers are just so good that you’ll make yourself a target for everyone around the table.  Some powers compensate for racial weaknesses, others double-down on racial advantages.  This is undoubtedly my favourite thing about Small World.

Race choices

‘Oh, because I’m a skeleton I have to be wealthy? That’s racism’

Look, you can be berserk Halflings, raging violently across the countryside in an orgy of blood of devastation.  You can be alchemist wizards, gaining extra victory points for each source of magic they control, whilst also generating passive income through transmutation.  Or you can be… wealthy skeletons!   You can rule as these evil undead beasts, presumably with top hats and monocles, turning their defeated foes into new units.  Some of the combinations are just funny – diplomatic ghouls, or flying elves, or dragon-master rat-men.

Each of the races has a number in the bottom right, and each of the powers has one in the bottom left.  You add these together, and that gives you your unit allocation.  You’ll get nine alchemist wizards, if you want them.  Or eleven underworld amazons.  But first you have to buy them.  Each player begins with five victory points, and can spend them to purchase their first race.  The top most one is free, but to buy each successive race you must place a victory point coin on the ones above it.  Whoever later claims that race gets the money that was allocated.  Over time, the value proposition changes – as the context of play shifts, and the value of victory points grows, you might want to go for a weaker combination just for the free money.  Not all combinations are created equal, and the distribution of coins over time has as much to do with the viability of a combination as the powers themselves.

Let’s say we grab the berserk halflings.  They’re not so much with the ‘I’ll carry you, Mister Frodo’.  They’re more, ‘Frodo!  What is best in life?’, and ‘To crush your enemies – see them driven before you and to hear the lamentation of their women, Sam!’.   If they had been in Lord of the Rings, the Scouring of the Shire would have been a much more interesting section of the book, and the trip to Mordor would have looked like Hit Girl’s hallway shootout from Kick Ass (NSFW).

The berserk power allows halflings to roll a die to add between zero and three potential ‘reinforcements’ to an assault on a region.  Every race can do this for their final conquest, but berserkers get to do it for every single one.  They count as invisible, one-use allies that change the mathematics of conquest.  Halflings also get to allocate a ‘hole in the ground’ to the first two regions they claim – this prevents anyone else capturing the region.

Halfling fury

Unleash HELL

We have ten of these vicious little buggers to begin with, and our first task is to allocate the units to conquer territory.  Most of the time we need to begin from the edge of the map and work our way inwards, but halflings can begin their conquest anywhere.  They just burst up from the soil like psychotic killer moles bent on domination.   When they’ve been purchased, a new option is revealed at the bottom of the offering.

Diplomatic ghouls

All we want to do is eat your brains.

We begin then by picking up a stack of our units and picking a territory from which to begin our assault.  We pick somewhere that a lost tribe already occupies, which means we need two units for the base conquest, plus another for the marker already there.  We need three units, usually, to make this attack.  But, since we’re berserk we roll the reinforcement die first.  We roll a two, meaning that we can claim this terrain tile with one single unit.  The reinforcement die is the only thing in the game that adds the spice of uncertainty to the way the game plays out.  It’s a bit like if Chess had a dice you could roll that occasionally allowed the King to explode, killing everything around him.   In my mind I call that Galaxy Note 7 Chess.

Berserking halflings

Today is a good day for someone else to die!

You can see why berserk halflings are a great combination I’m sure – they can rampage wildly around the map, occupying territories for greatly reduced cost.   To be fair, you’ll only get reinforcements half of the time – but that can be enough.  Or overkill, really.  We’ll always need a single unit to take control, but sometimes that’s all we need as we spread throughout the map.

Halfling attacks

The Hobbit, if it were directed by Quentin Tarantino

Once we’ve performed our initial conquest, we then get to reallocate troops – we can pull them back from regions they control, and redeploy them into a more defensive position.  We always need a unit to claim a territory, but attacks are usually only against adjacent areas.  There are parts of the map more likely to be a war front than others.  Since we have two holes in the ground, we can take advantage of this phase to shore up our front line against attack from other players. In this way, we’re trading off our positional flexibility for the next round – units, generally speaking, can only attack in adjacent areas but a single unit is a fragile thing.  It’s a tempting target for later aggression.

Redeployment

Fall back!

With that, the turn is over.  We get a victory point for each area we claimed, and then the next player begins their turn.  This works exactly the same way, except they choose a different race and as such will need to adopt a different strategy.  They’ll also need to work around the territory we have claimed, or try to bulldozer their way through it.  That’s why we need to redeploy our troops into a defensive posture – to a rampaging enemy, a lone unit is equivalent of a hungry cartoon rabbit looking at a dog and seeing a delicious roast chicken.

Bulldozering is exactly what player two decide to do.  This small world isn’t big enough for two people, even when one of those people are half-sized.  They buy up the Underworld Amazons, and reveal in the process ‘bivouacking sorcerers’.  Yeah, this isn’t a game that takes itself too seriously.

Amazons

Our arrows will blot out the sky!

Amazons gain a considerable numerical advantage – they get four extra units they can use for attacking, but not for redeployment.  Underworld amazons also conquer cavern areas at a reduced cost.  They can also treat any cavern areas as adjacent.  So, they’re fast, furious and flexible.  And, in that spirit, they decide to go to town on those halflings.   They launch their first attack at one stack on the edge of the map – they’d need five to conquer the region usually, but it’s a cavern so they can do it with four.  Boom, just like that the Halfling player loses a fair chunk of their army.

Amazons attack

Then we shall fight in the sha… aaaaargh

Next, they move on to the northeast  – this time, they need the full five to take out the stack.  Remember, they start off with eleven units, which is already a lot.  And they have four they can only use for attacking.  They have troops to spare, in other words.

Amazon attack 2

God help me, they were only nineteen.

And then they launch an attack to the southeast, claiming a third territory from the halflings.  It’s blitzkrieg.  It’s shock and awe. It’s a world of laughter.  It’s a world of tears.

Amazon third attack

You can have the ring!  GOD DAMN.

They can’t attack any other halfling region, because they contain the hole in the ground defensive structures.  So they strike out instead to the north. They need three units to conquer the area, and since it’s the last conquest they get to use the reinforcement die.  Rolling a three, they take it handily with a single unit. Four of their allocated troops are for attacking only, so their positions look less impenetrable once those are taken back into account.  Redeployment still makes them tough to shift though.

They only get four victory points for this brutal assault, but they accomplished something far more valuable – they cut the heart out of the halfling player.  Halflings went from ten units to two in a single turn.   That, as we used to say in the hood, is a ‘complete and utter bother’.   The halfling player is basically out of the game, so instead of playing on with these useless hobbits, they make use of Small World’s next innovative feature – they choose to go into decline.  Here’s where the shifting value proposition of powers and races becomes the key defining element of the tempo of play – you’re not stuck with the race you selected.   This takes a comparatively workaday unit deployment system and makes it bananas.

Decline is a costly process that uses up an entire turn – you wipe all but one of your units from every controlled territory.  You flip over their tile, and your race marker, and you score the territories.  But they now stay on the map earning you points until they’re cleared off.  In return, you get to pick a brand new race and begin your assault anew.   They’re just passive victory point income from now on – impotent but important.  As I said, this is one of the few games that models the rise and fall of an empire.  When it falls, it broods away on its past glory.  When it rises, it injects a brand new dollop of vicious aggression into the game, right where it needs it.  The momentum of play bleeds away quickly as territories are conquered and units defeated – the decline mechanic ensures that the game never descends into ponderous siege warfare, or with fortified entrenchments staring steely-eyed across the battleground at each other.

Play continues in this manner until the last turn is reached, at which point the player with the most victory points is declared the winner and ruler of this small world.  This is a game with a fixed duration – you need to make each turn matter.

Small World is brimming over with innovation and attention to detail.  It’s marked by a generosity of design that gives the game combinatorial novelty – there are a touch under three hundred possible combinations of power and race, and even a blank for each that allows you to make your own.    Look at all these races:

Races

So much choice!

And look at all these powers:

Powers

So many powers!

These aren’t just symmetrical variations.  Sure, there are ‘gain one extra victory point for each farm’ and ‘gain one extra victory point for each hill’ races and powers, but the majority are more interesting.    If you play the ghouls, you go into decline and still treat them like an active race.  If you place something with a spirit power, you can have two races in decline at once– basically they become ghosts haunting the landscape until exorcised by blood.   Sorcerers can convert a lone unit of an enemy into another sorcerer.  Diplomats can pick a player with which they’re not currently hostile and enforce a peace treaty.    It creates a rich variety that genuinely influences and informs play style.   And it does it all with a cheerful sense of fun.

It’s an aggressively pleasant game, and one that is one that can be introduced without serious worry to even novices – the game is fun, but not complex.  The mechanics are clear and unambiguous.  The style is comic, but not wacky.  It’s a very safe pair of hands.

But, in that safety comes the game’s key weakness.  Fundamentally, you’re not doing anything very interesting.   The best games present you with dilemmas – they give you choices.  They make you think about what you’re doing, and whether it’s a wise decision.  Small World doesn’t have much of that, because it is fundamentally a game of predictable determinism.  If you need five units to conquer a region, you’ll conquer it if you spend five units there.    The core mechanic of the game, which is the acquisition and scoring of territories, is lacking in any real game weight.   It’s a game that doesn’t really seem sure what it wants to be – it’s worker placement, but within a context of competition. It’s a war-game, but without much in the way of battle doctrine.  It’s economic, but without meaningful engine building.   It’s all very nice and all, but it falls far short of generating real enthusiasm.

There are flashes of a more interesting game in here though.  The giant race for example introduces an element of territory control that is far more interesting than the base mechanics.  Sorcerers add a strategic cost to redeployment.   Amazons put a huge momentum behind the conquest phase.  These races genuinely do change the way the game feels and plays, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.    Memoir ’44 proves that you can have a simple rule-set and still permit for interesting, engaging battles.  Small World doesn’t have enough in its design to encourage you to invest much thought in your turns.

What Small World does give you though is a gaming experience that is thoroughly polished.  There aren’t any rough-edges in this box – the game design shines.  The production values are excellent, and the consideration of the logistics of play are top notch.   It seems like a consciously constructed and meticulously engineered gaming artefact.  And that perhaps is the key thing that keeps it from greatness.  It just feels a little soul-less.  It’s fun, sure, but nothing more than that.  It’s a Small World, after all.

 


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  • Tom Lansdale

    Smallworld is lovely for all the reasons you’ve mentioned, but I would agree that it is ultimately a little soulless and all merges into one after a few games.

    One bit of friction I don’t think you mentioned is that you can have very uneven turns in this game. The rhythm of the game is something like this:

    Turn 1: Pick a race, go on the warpath.
    Turn 2: Continue your warpath but run out of steam.
    Turn 3: Go into decline.
    Turn 4: Pick a new race, go on the warpath.

    Unfortunately, “Turn 3” is very boring for you. You’re just turning your tokens over and scoring, making no other decisions or actions for that round. Worse – because you might go into decline earlier or later than your opponents, it’s very likely that you’ll be going into decline while your opponents are on the rise.

    This is all part of the rich texture of the game, but it DOES mean that you’re essentially sitting out for 5-10 minutes at a time, from the end of your last “interesting” turn til the start of your next, a couple of impactful and time-consuming rounds may be played out by your opponents.

    • That’s an excellent point – It *might* be something I mentioned in the teardown (I don’t remember – I wrote this about three months ago!) but you’re absolutely right that going into decline is *boring*. For all the fun you’ll get in the next turn, it tends to be something you want to avoid. It’s a bit like that joke about the classics – ‘books everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read’. Nobody wants to go into decline, but everyone wants to have been in decline. And it’s entirely possible by the time you finally get your new troops on the board the situation has changed to the point that you can’t have as much fun as you expected.

      • Tom Lansdale

        Indeed, part of the key strategy of the game is knowing when to cut your losses but more importantly, when to cut your victories for longer-term gain. The optimal scoring position is to have a race in decline that is (through design or happenstance) not getting cleared up by the other players, while also having an active race maximising its scoring on the board. So a lot of the skill element is in picking the right race at the right time so that 3 or 4 turns down the road, it’s sitting there in decline, scoring a solid 5-10 points a turn.

        This is very, very hard, and very out of your control, and involves making both bets that won’t mature for several turns and also being satisfied with consistent, modest victories over splashy board-sweeping campaigns of blood and glory. So although I totally respect all the subtle systems and opportunities to manipulate your opponents’ long-term plans, it ultimately feels like a bit of a crapshoot.

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