Nov 072014

Small World detail
Small World is a boardgame for 2-5 players that is remarkable for it’s simplicity. One mechanic, really that’s all there is, but it is presented in so many variations, all logical, that the game feels complicated and rich even though you can explain it to a new player just by dropping tiles on the board.

Just to be clear, this simplicity is a good thing.

It is a war game, or at least it looks like one, and it has some of the war game trappings: accumulation of territory, perimeter defense, using terrain to enhance your fighting capabilities. But war games are difficult, with lots of pieces and lots of rules and lots of … war gaming. This is not like that. Not at all.

Small World was designed by Philippe Keyaerts and was first published by Days of Wonder. It won Games magazine’s Game of the Year in 2010 and has been the source of several expansions and sequels. Meaning, we already know it is a pretty good game, or at least a famous one. Not that this is surprising, it seems that everything Days of Wonder puts out does pretty well.


Small WorldThe premise is as simple: select a race from the a list of fantasy beings (dwarves, elves, giants, skeletons, etc) and then use them to conquer the world.

Each race is a set of tiles which you drop onto spaces on the map in order to claim the space. Races have special abilities which provide variety. Some races have more tiles than others. The Rat Men have more tiles than anyone, but that is their special ability, they are otherwise mundane in all respects (albeit a bit icky if you have a rat phobia).

Like other war games, the game takes place on a map of the world. Multiple maps actually, the game includes several maps to support different numbers of players, a smaller map for two players, larger maps for more.

It is not just the number of maps that make the game unique. It is the size of the spaces on the board; there aren’t very many. Even the largest board – for five players – only has about 50 spaces. Unlike other war games, there is no room to maneuver. You are cheek-to-jowl with your neighbors, all the time. Thus the title. “Small World”. The map may be big but the spatial relationships are tiny and cramped.

Fighting, More or Less

You don’t really move your pieces on the board. You place them. And there they stay; although you can re-place pieces if you have more than one in a space. Do you want to “conquer” a space? Drop two of your tiles on it. Does it already contain tiles? Drop more of your own to compensate. Tiles that you conquer in this manner are removed from the game.

Pick up a pile of your pieces. Then put them down again, in new spaces, in enough numbers to overcome whatever is in the space already. That’s it, that’s the whole mechanic.

There is a die, but you only use it once per turn. Rolling the die yields 0-to-3 virtual tiles which count towards overcoming the tiles already in the space. Half of the faces on the die are blank, so don’t expect a lot of help from the die.

Each time you lose a tile, the potential influence of that race diminishes; each race has only a finite number of tiles. Eventually the race is lessened to the point where it is no longer viable, and you choose to let the race “go into decline”.

Races which are in decline continue to hold whatever spaces they control but no longer may expand or redeploy. They just slowly wither away as other races come into prominence and conquer their spaces.

You earn victory points for each space you control. So control as many as you can. Just don’t expect it to last.

Races and Powers

Each race has a unique ability: Tritons, for instance, may conquer spaces adjacent to water for one less tile than usual. This ability is permanent and stays with the race from game to game.

There are also “Powers”, special abilities which are randomly applied to each race as it enters the game. The combinations of racial ability and power will differ not only during the game, but from one game to the next, enhancing replayability.

Races come in the form of heavy cardboard cards that describe the race and its special ability. Powers do too, and the two types of cards are formed in such a way that they nest together for visual simplicity.

Small World races and powers

Pillaging Ghouls. Diplomat Skeletons. Many, many combinations

Some of the combinations are more useful than others. To compensate, five race/power combinations are drawn at once. A player may select any of the five. Whenever one is selected, it is replaced in the display so that the next player will have five from which to choose as well.

For examples, in the image above the Diplomat power allows the owner to designate one other player who may not attack the Diplomat for one turn. The Pillaging player gets a bonus victory point whenever she eliminates another tile. The Spirit player gets an advantage when the attached race goes into decline. And so on.

Timing is Everything

Many Powers and racial abilities grant bonus victory points depending on the types of spaces they control or how they conquered the space. A couple of Powers provide bonus victory points just for having the Power.

And like every game that has victory points, only the points matter. Not the spaces you control. Not the longest-lasting, most dominant race. Only the victory points.

And this is where the game is uniquely delicious. Choosing your race and Power is critical, but so is deciding when to let it go. Putting a race into decline takes your entire turn. Your race loses its Power too; the impact on your victory point income for that turn can be immense.

Small World two-player game board
The Elves and Amazons are active, the Tritons and Giants are in decline
Note: this is the two-player game board.

Even more, your next turn you will be starting with a fresh race and Power. While you are still scoring points from whatever spaces your declining race holds. If any. The available list of races and powers has an impact on this decision, as does the state of the other players. Are they going into decline this turn too? Will you be able to get the race/Power combo you want or will someone else be able to beat you to it?

The risk/reward calculations involved in deciding precisely when to go into decline are often the difference in winning or losing. So important! So painful! So delicious!

Bits and Pieces

Like everything Days of Wonder does, the Small World production values are outstanding. There are no plastic bits, everything is cardboard, but it is heavy cardboard, fully printed in four colors, that looks nice and feels solid.

Check out the inside of the box: a place for everything. There is even a detachable sub-box to contain the race tiles; someone will get to be (have to be?) the “race banker” and how convenient it is with this specifically-tailored tray that even comes with its own plastic cover to prevent the potential of a splattery tile disaster.

Small World inside the box

There is no comparing the care and design that went into this with the standard board game. There just isn’t. Most companies simply throw the pieces into a big space, maybe they give you a bunch of ziploc bags. No one else does the details like Days of Wonder.


But none of that design and care matters if the game isn’t fun. No worries there, the simplicity of the premise combined with the delicacy of timing makes an unusually entertaining game.

Yes, you have to go after each other right away; this is not a build-your-own-position-in-isolation game. But sometimes you need some of that head-to-head red meat in your gaming diet, and besides, it feels less painful in Small World since everything is so fun and brightly-colored.

Even if you are getting pounded, big reversals are possible. And if you can’t, hey, the game is small. It ends in 10 turns. You’ll be out of your hopeless situation and restarting a new game (hopefully, the wiser for your mistakes) in less than an hour.

How bad can it get in an hour?

Even the two-player version works. Many games claim to be viable in two-players but come up short: Small World delivers. There is one downside to the two-player game though. If one player takes a dominant early lead, it is fairly easy to maintain that lead. The lack of additional players limits the big turnaround potential.

It makes an excellent gateway game for your non-boardgaming friends in that it can be explained in minutes and finishes so quickly. There will be time for a second game (and a very high probability that you’ll be requested to play that second game).

Small World will not just sit in your gaming closet and look cute. You’ll have it out regularly. A definite winner.

  • My Gamer Girl rates this game as a Play, and she would Buy it too if she didn’t have it already
  • I agree. Buy it and Play it

All thumbs up. The only think lacking here is more thumbs because every one we have would be pointed up for this game. Way up.

Small World. Fun World.

🙂 😀 🙂

  2 Responses to “Game Review: Small World”

Comments (2)
  1. We bought that a few months ago and haven’t gotten around to playing it – I should really dust it off this weekend and do so…

  2. Great game, very entertaining to play.

    This is one of those games that has the right balance of luck vs strategy (or whatever the phrase is), to make it viable and fun, for both newbies and veterans.

What do you think?

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