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Subject: I'm conflicted. It's brilliant? It's bland? It's...Small World? rss

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Andrew
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Check out all the Get on Board game reviews at this link!

You are a sentinel on the great mount of Nazad-Dûr, having served your dwarven king faithfully these thirty years. Some activity on the horizon catches your eye, and as you strain to see what is going on, a massive hand clamps over your mouth. "Dwarven scum! Today is your day to perish!"
As you roll your eyes around, trying to see your captor, a massive skeleton steps in front of you.
"I am Alkatri!" he thunders as he shakes his scimitar under your nose. "We have claimed this mount in the name of the Flying Skeletons!"
You think of dwarven valhalla, as the skeleton king raises his sword, dropping it in a flash. It is a good day to die.
"This land shall now be called the mountain of Andol!"
Perhaps the Stout Dwarves will go into decline, with only the highest peaks bearing their memory on into eternity. 

Photo credit: MarkKaufmann

In Small World, you will manage a race imbued with special powers and determined to make its mark on the world of Small. The only catch is -- nothing is big enough to satisfy any one empire's claims, so you will find yourself repeatedly bumping arms (no pun intended) with the other players around the table. Wrestle lands from their control, earn glory, and emerge as the emperor of the land, in Small World.



The Rules...in 30 seconds
Photo credit: garion
You're trying to conquer lands which earn you gold, harnessing your race's ability and your special ability to outmaneuver your opponents. Eventually, your forces will be stretched thin and you will be forced to send your civilization into decline, picking a new civilization in the process. The winner is the player who has amassed the most gold in their conquests of the land.



What Small World promises
Photo credit: cnidius
Right from the box cover you're confronted with epic silliness, as Small World features several races crowded on top of one tiny rock. Everything in the box carries this out: from hilarious combos like Flying Magicians or Diplomatic Ogres to the beautifully-illustrated cartoons that decorate the board, tiles, and pieces of Small World. You'd expect a vaguely Risk-like experience of smashing your neighbors and exploiting the possibilities of a particularly potent combo, strategizing when to go into decline so that you can emerge with a fresh race right when your neighbors are weakest!

Good news! Most of the above is indeed in the box of Small World. There is a lot of conflict, and the deliciously simple combat system is really easy to pick up on. As your races and special powers are shuffled every game, you will always find new combinations to play with -- and if you exhaust the base set, there are plenty of expansions to give you more races, more special powers, and more fun.

Indeed, everything in the box has been tuned to play very smoothly. All of the powers/races have been balanced nicely, and though there are stronger/weaker race possibilities, the clever way that you 'purchase' races means that there's a cost to picking a stronger race, while the weak races gradually build up more and more gold on them until you're a fool to pass over them. Though the races are not samey, they're nicely balanced against one another.

Some problems with the game have been accounted for: Small World has a very strong bash-the-leader bent, but with a set number of rounds, the game won't drag on and one like some other games do (Munchkin comes to mind). The key is to bash the leader just enough, without committing too many forces to border wars, while staying weak enough that you're not a target, so that you can emerge victorious in the end. It's a delicate balancing act that can be difficult to execute.


Even the board has been carefully designed so that you're actually playing on a different map at all different player counts, which doesn't disturb the balance of the game. Nothing really feels out-of-place or un-tuned, in typical Days of Wonder fashion. Overall, this is just a really smooth, really enjoyable game. Every time I play Small World I end up having a lot of fun, which is why it's such a conflicting game for me. While I have fun every time, I also leave every game wanting just a little bit...more. Has Days of Wonder, in effect, polished away any facet of Small World that makes it unique?



The Issues
Small World does have some issues, like any board game. First of all, this is a very tactical game where it's difficult to create a long-term strategy. Because you can enter the board from any side, it's trivially easy for you to exploit the other players -- which is great -- but also means that you will also never have a secure position. I'm no stranger to conflict, but sometimes in a 5-player game you can lose your entire empire without even taking a second turn. This is frustrating and can make you feel like you're in a hopeless position.

Photo credit: red_gobbo
Secondly, despite balancing, there are some factions that are just plain better than the others, and an experienced player will immediately decline their current race so that they can grab the better one. Though there's a penalty to declining, a good player could ride some Amazons or Skeletons for three or four rounds, pulling in 15 or 16 coins per turn all the while. However, overall Days of Wonder has done a good job of making an opportunity cost to declining (the lost turn is huge, in an 8-round game), and this won't be an issue very often.

Finally, games can start to feel the same, and I think this may be my biggest issue with Small World. While things are carefully tuned to balance, you'll never really have a game that will do much different than the game before it. Skeletons will always be imposing, and the Amazons always a force to be reckoned with. And because of how the game works, you'll pretty much always do the same things with every race, even though the window dressing changes. There's not much deep strategy to be had here -- this could almost be considered more of a negotiation game than anything else.



The Gems
Photo credit: lacxox
The decision of when to go into decline and how long to hang on to your current civilization is agonizing. The decision feels so monumental -- because you essentially miss a turn when you go into decline, you'd better make sure your current race is in a good position, but also not wait too long, because that really good race that's available may not be there next round, and aaagh! The decision-making and the back-and-forth that happen when you decline are probably my favorite part of the game.

Photo credit: chezzila
But for some people, that's OK. Small World really does shine as a social experience, and I think that's why I love the game, and why I'll ultimately keep it in my collection. No, the strategy isn't incredible (Though when you are able to build on your special powers -- either by turtling in the mountains or hiding out in the seas, or using the Underworld power to hop around the map and control gem spots -- it's all very fun to orchestrate), but you will definitely remember tha players you played against. More often than not, your special powers will send you into direct conflict as you feud over that forest space that just so happens to also be a magical gem space, and you both tire yourself out only for a brand new, third civilization to come sweeping in and dislodge both of you!

Like any good area control game, victory may come from wheedling your neighbors out of attacking you -- or from hiding in a discreet corner while bigger empires duke it out around you. Small World is not a grand tactical game, but it is a game that will force you to argue with your opponents about why you shouldn't be invaded, and why they should invade HIM instead because look at how strong his position is and how many coins he's pulling in per round and how he's totally going to win. These sorts of moments are the kind that make gaming memorable, and they're some of the same reasons I love Glory to Rome, Shadows over Camelot, or Sheriff of Nottingham. Maybe I've been approaching Small World in the wrong light all this time.

Sure, it isn't perfect. Sometimes you'll find yourself totally behind with no chance of winning. Other times the game will nudge you a little bit too hard about what the smart strategy is. But no game is without its flaws, and my conclusion over Small World is that the good bits -- the weird combos and the desperate negotiation -- outweigh the luckiness of the game and the inability to plan ahead. The fact is, Small World will be memorable, even if it's not the most complex game design out there. I haven't found an area control game that's more accessible, and Small World is a well-deserved classic in my book.



Small World

Gameplay
.. Abstract -------♦--- Thematic
....... Luck -----♦----- Skill
.... Simple ---♦------- Complex (race abilities are the only complex thing to learn)
. Strategic ---------♦- Tactical
... Friendly --------♦-- Cutthroat

Other
Graphic Design/Components: 5/5
Insert: 5/5
Rules Clarity: 4/5

Overall: 4/5

tl;dr: Small World may not offer a deep, agonizingly strategic decision space, but it is loads of fun to clash with your friends on a tiny map. This game has provoked a lot of negotiation, arguments, and enjoyment every time we've played it. I'm a fan.

Check out all the Get on Board game reviews at this link!
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Les Marshall
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For those that may not know, SMALL WORLD is not the first iteration of the design concept. An older version exists by the name of VINCI. VINCI plays with up to six on a larger map that approximates Europe. It's a slightly longer game with more declines, on average than SW. Additionally, the players get two new functional abilities with each new civilization so there is typically a little more variety in each game.

I owned both games and quickly sold SW as the more shallow offering IMO. The only thing I really liked in the SW design was the variable strength of the last token which VINCI lacks and is therefore more determinative. I therefore suggest using this as a house rule.
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Jo Bartok
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Interaction leads to Immersion.
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Didn't even like VINCI, but yes it was better.
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Andrew
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Rulesjd wrote:
For those that may not know, SMALL WORLD is not the first iteration of the design concept. An older version exists by the name of VINCI. VINCI plays with up to six on a larger map that approximates Europe. It's a slightly longer game with more declines, on average than SW. Additionally, the players get two new functional abilities with each new civilization so there is typically a little more variety in each game.

I owned both games and quickly sold SW as the more shallow offering IMO. The only thing I really liked in the SW design was the variable strength of the last token which VINCI lacks and is therefore more determinative. I therefore suggest using this as a house rule.


I've not tried Vinci, but that does sound nice -- more abilities to exploit. I also wonder if the historical theme might appeal to me more.
 
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Craig Groff-Folsom
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In terms of variety, most of the expansions address this issue. The expansions that add more races and special powers make it so you don't always see the same races and powers each game. The Realms expansion provides a way to play variable boards instead of always having the same layout. Obviously it doesn't change the base game only experience, though. There are some people who might say "this $50 game is getting repetitive, let me sink some more money into it", while there are others who won't even entertain the thought.
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Andrew
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While this is likely true (I'll probably end up picking some of them up), I'm also a big fan of a game that's complete without an expansion. I also think Small World has enough in the box to last at least 20-30 plays.
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Darin Bolyard
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And with a color printer, some spare cardboard, and a steady hand [for cutting], there are lots of great customs available here at the Geek to increase your mileage even more.
 
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Alex Martinez
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Sometimes, simplicity is a selling point.

This is a game that straddles the line between accessibility and depth, and I think it does so admirably. It's not the greatest game, but it's a game I can teach to non-gamers easily, and that is fun to play as a gamer. I also think it's relative simplicity is its greatest strength.

So the original review sort of equates my feelings, but my feelings aren't mixed. I see it as a solid starter game with enough depth to reward replays.
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Juha Helin
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aaj94 wrote:
I also think Small World has enough in the box to last at least 20-30 plays.


Interesting. We had 10 games and gave up. First was funny and ok. Second had practically no variation to the first and third was already terrible repetition. Last seven games we tried to get some variation with some really twisted moves but still it was the same as before. If the first time 'hey this is fun' could only last beyond the first game, but no.

It is also very prone to analysis paralysis if someone in the group tend to do that and then the games can really drag on and on...
 
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Darin Bolyard
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tico wrote:
It is also very prone to analysis paralysis if someone in the group tend to do that and then the games can really drag on and on...

This↑ can be said of any game, and is a statement about the player in question rather than the game itself. I played a 3-player game of Splendor that went on for about an hour zombie! But let me tell you, it had nothing to do with the game. And if I had only played that game with the player in question, I probably would have never played it again.
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Alex Martinez
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dbolyard wrote:
tico wrote:
It is also very prone to analysis paralysis if someone in the group tend to do that and then the games can really drag on and on...

This↑ can be said of any game, and is a statement about the player in question rather than the game itself. I played a 3-player game of Splendor that went on for about an hour zombie! But let me tell you, it had nothing to do with the game. And if I had only played that game with the player in question, I probably would have never played it again.


With rare exception, analysis paralysis is almost always a product of the player, not the game. Some games make it easier to do than others, but every player I know who does this, does this regardless of the game. I no longer blame games for this particular problem.
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Nicholas P.
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Wow you NAILED the essence of Small World. How fun the light negotiations happening every turn can be is entirely dependent on the players you play with, which explains why the game is so divisive. This is why I don't like the relics system of Underground. It creates focal points of combat when players should be hitting each other from all angles.
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Sala Skan
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Given that you think this doesn't have much strategic depth, what area conquering game that can be played with the same amount of players has more depth? (Not more complex rules, since this doesn't make a game deeper, see chess)
 
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Andrew
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Sala, I haven't found one yet. That's why I've kept SmallWorld around so long. For a lighter look, Vye: The Card Game of Capture and Control is really good -- still haven't found one that gives me that hour, hour and a half area control slugfest.
 
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Olympos, but the same designer, is much better in my opinion. Other area control games I like are A Study in Emerald 2nd. Edition and Mission: Red Planet.
 
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Darin Bolyard
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In your world, I have another name. You must learn to know me by it. That was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.
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I tried to like Mission: Red Planet, but there's more long term stuff going on with the increasing values. Small World keeps it simple and focuses on the conflict among the races. And you get immediate rewards in Small World. You can plunk dudes on the map in Mission: Red Planet and then watch someone swoop in and take an area from under you, leaving you with nothing for your efforts.
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Andrew
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I had Mission Red Planet and traded it away. I didn't like how the first round was essentially total luck on whether you grabbed a 1 or a 3 territory -- and the movement/soldier cards didn't really give you enough to mitigate that. One game I played a guy lucked out onto 4 three territories and held onto them to run away with the game.

Olympos looks worth checking out, thanks!
 
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Taylor Kowbel
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Very late to this party, but if you can spare the expense (unfortunately not many can) Cthulhu wars is short but very deep area control game.
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