TABLE GAMES REVIEW: SMALL WORLD

Small World at first glance looks like a fantasy re-skin of RISK. It’s got a map, a dice, and stacks of tokens. It’ll be another turgid, stats driven evening of pushing anonymous stacks round a map, throwing dice, swearing at statistically impossible failures, being boxed into a corner, dying, losing, and crying. But Small World isn’t like that. Small world is a story machine.

For me great board games are all about letting the story shine through. When I am playing I want to know why; if I’m just pushing wooden blobs around an abstract map and rolling die to see if my blobs remain whilst your blobs are removed then the game is a failure. It’s nothing more than a mathematical exercise. A dead thing.

Dice, cards, maps, rules – these are all just props. Tiny hooks to drag the story out of our fleshy minds.  Rules set the boundaries of the game’s reality, the pieces help you visualise the world but neither of these are the game. The game is the story of what unfolds whilst you play. Small World nurtures stories, dropping delicious narrative chunks into greedy players’ mouths.

The first thing Small World gets right is the rules. Everyone gets a two sided rule summary which clearly lets everyone know their options. Options are important. Good games rely on everyone knowing what their options are and making players choose between their options. Your choices in Small World are simple. Two side summary simple. Pick a race, take the associated stack of tokens and start claiming land. Once you run out of tokens (claiming already claimed or difficult terrain takes more tokens) you can make one more desperate grab at a region using the dice. Then reorganise your tokens to prepare for the next player’s onslaught. You score based on lands you hold and any modifiers that your race/traits gives you.

Ah, the race/trait combinations. The glittering engine that powers the machine. Each race has an associated power and different associated trait. Race based powers are fixed but the traits are shuffled and randomised each game. Maybe you’ll end up with berserk halflings rampaging across the map scoring a string of against-the-odds victories, sea-fairing ghouls swelling out of the sea to devour the lands of the living, or flying amazons striking terror from above. Each combination is a tiny tale, more strands for the legends unfolding in front of you. A saga of war and what comes after.

It’s in this what-comes-after that Small World reveals its final twist and the part that turns it from a good game to a great one. Once you’ve stretched your army to the limit or suffered a series of defeats, you may nominate to forego your turn and instead put your army into decline. They turn their swords to ploughs and can conquer no more. You keep scoring points for lands already held but they become vulnerable and easily conquered. And next turn you can pluck a brand new race from the options available and re-enter the fray. There’s no downtime. No-one is ever beaten into an unwinnable state. Crushed under the expensive golden boots of merchant orcs? Simply retire your underground sorcerers and fight back with a brand new side.

A map filled with war, each side bristling with flavour (seriously, commando halflings!). Nations rising and falling. Tribes returning to avenge the fallen. With dragons.

If I had to level a criticism at Small World it would be that in trying to keep the individual components clear and readable there’s occasionally a degree of abstraction that means a quick dive into the rule book is needed. This is rare and as everyone has an excellent summary of the rules in front of them, pausing is kept to a minimum.

Small World is a board game which chronicles the rise and fall of empires. Simple and elegant rules with bright and colourful components give life to an epic in an evening.  Play time is no more than 3 hours even with 5 novice players.  It is an excellent game which deserves your money, your time, and your love. Choose your side, make your move, a new chapter is beginning. The story machine whirs into life once more.

Score: 5/5

GS Blogger: Tom T

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