Fourteen races struggle for control of an area too small to contain them in Small World from Days of Wonder, a modified version of designer Philippe Keyaert’s own Vinci. In addition to their own natural abilities, each race also has a special power that will aid them in their conquest until their inevitable slide into decline. These races can be controlled by up to five players, with appropriately-sized boards provided for each arrangement. There is no reading required to play the game… once everyone knows what all of the various powers do; younger players may have difficulty in that respect.
Gameplay begins with the start player selecting one of the six available race/power combinations from the line-up, which will reveal a new race as the empty space is filled. The top-most race is free to select, and a player must spend a point per skipped race for every one beneath that; the spent point remains on the skipped race(s) until that race is finally selected, awarding the accumulated points as a bonus. This procedure is followed any time a player does not control an active race on their turn. When a race is purchased, the player receives a number of tokens defined by the specific race/power combination.
Once a player has an active race (either by purchasing one or controlling one on his last turn) it’s time to conquer. Ignoring special abilities, it requires two tokens to conquer a region, plus one additional token for every piece of cardboard already on the region, whether that cardboard is enemy tokens, mountains, or some sort of structure. The player can make one final conquest attempt if they’re up to three tokens short, but it requires a fortunate roll on the Reinforcement Die (three blank sides and then results of one, two, and three). An occupied region that is conquered forfeits one token (as well as any structures) and the rest (if any) are returned to the player controlling that race to be replaced at the end of the turn. Once a player is out of tokens they can redistribute his forces among that race’s territories for defensive purposes, then they score one point for each region occupied by one of their races. Point totals are secret, so keep track of who’s racking up large totals.
Each turn a player begins with an active race, they have a choice to make: 1) pull up from the board as many tokens as they wish and continue conquering, or 2) send that race into decline. Declining a race removes every token from the board save one per region and usually forfeits that race’s special power. Declining is also the only action a player may make that turn, and only each player may only control one declined race at a time; declining a second race removes the older one from the map entirely. Careful timing of declines is a key strategy to succeeding in Small World, as each game only consists of a small number of turns (from eight to ten, depending on number of players).
What makes Small World an interesting game is the abilities of each race and the combination of those abilities with the special powers. Some powers allow you to conquer a specific type of region (or in one case, all regions) for one token less, provide bonus points for controlling specific types of regions (or for all controlled regions), or construct defenses that make your regions harder to conquer… plus a few that are tough to categorize. While some combinations may seem more powerful than others, an experienced group of players can (should) recognize these and take measures to contain them.
Unlike other territory-conquest games, Small World uses no dice to determine outcomes (except as outlined above, and that can be avoided). Without that randomness, strategy plays a much larger role in Small World‘s game play. This is always a plus in my book, and Small World is one of my favorite games of 2009 thus far. It plays quick and there isn’t a lot of downtime between your turns as long as everyone else knows what they’re doing. As an added bonus, Days of Wonder has produced an incredible box insert that supposedly allows you to store the game vertically as well as horizontally; in practice this doesn’t quite work as advertised, but the removable token tray is amazing. More game companies should pay this much attention to their packaging.