Review: Small World

The name Small World is very fitting for this humorous, yet competitive, board game, where players constantly jockey for control of territory on a map that is quite literally too small to fit all of the world's potential inhabitants.  Read on for our full review: Just the Facts: Players: 2-5 Playing Time: 40-80 minutes Age: 8 to Adult Publisher: Days of Wonder MSRP: $50.00 Release: 2009 [xrr rating=4.5/5] The Gameplay: In Small World, players assume control of a fantasy race (Elves, Dwarves, Giants, etc.).  The goal is to simply take control over portions of the map and hold your ground.  At the end of the game, the player who has held the most area for the longest amount of time will have the most amount of points, and will win.  Points are calculated at the end of each player's turn, and one point is awarded for each territory they hold, so turns typically consist of the active player conquering as many new areas as possible to increase the number of points they receive.  With a limited number of turns (8-10 depending on how many players are at the table), it is important to score big points every turn, so expect a lot of action!  Take a look at the board for a better understanding of the map and how territories line up against each other:

The process for conquering new areas of the map is extremely simple.  The only basic rules regarding this part of the game is that on your first turn, you must start on the edge of the map, and from that point, can only move on to spots adjacent from where you currently have members of your race deployed. When a play picks their race, they are given a set number of tokens to represent the people of that race.  To take over an unoccupied territory, you must commit two of your people to that spot.  If a territory has an opposing player's race on it, you can beat them by simply outnumbering  them.  You only have a set number of tokens to use each turn though, so don't commit too many to one spot.  Mountain spots require an additional race token to conquer, but you then benefit from their defense if someone attempts to take this spot from you, so it is possible to form a strategic plan as to what spaces you want to target first. Although the basic rules to this game are simple, each race and special power give the player a unique advantage and ability to bend a rule, meaning the real strategy comes into play in the selection and management of your race.  To start the game, six races are revealed, along with a randomly selected special power to accompany them.  The races are kept lined-up in a stack, and as they are chosen, a new one is revealed at the bottom, with the remaining races sliding up to fill the open spot.  The catch is that for every race a player passes up as they move down the stack to select their desired race, they must place 1 victory point token on each passed-up race.  This means that the less-desirable choices will begin to build up a dowry, potentially leaving later player with a great opportunity to score some quick points. The final twist to this game is that at any point, players can opt to skip their turn, and instead select a brand new race.  This is referred to as entering your race into decline, and the benefit is that you can now collect points from both your active and in-decline races.  The downside is that the in-decline race is reduced to sitting ducks, with only 1 defender one each tile, and no ability to expand further.  If a player can expand quickly, and then immediately switch races, they will be in a great position.  Don't get too sentimental, though.  If you are too attached to your race, you'll be left in the dust. The Contents:
  • 2 Double-sided Boards
  • 367 Cardboard Markers, Coins, and Tokens
  • 1 Die
  • 1 Rules Booklet
  • 6 Player Reference Sheets

The game pieces in Small World are both numerous and beautiful.  They offer pretty much everything I would look for in a game:  European style board for flush seams where the board folds out, thick cardboard for tokens and counters, and overall high-quality printing.  367 may seem like a staggering number of small pieces, but Days of Wonder includes a fantastic removable tray that allows you to keep all of the race tokens neatly sorted while out on the table, and also speeds set up and clean up times.

You cannot discuss the contents of Small World without mentioning the art, though.  The illustrations of each race successfully tread the thin line between beauty and hilarity.  When you are haphazardly combining fantasy races and special powers, you cannot take yourself too seriously, and the game does a good job of poking fun at itself.  Take the Wizard for example, with his "Magick for Dummies" book clutched tightly in hand, or the Dwarf spilling ale onto his comically outstretched tongue.

The impressive art also gives this game my #1 most desirable trait, in that its visual appeal draws in new players, who will then stick around to appreciate the gameplay.  I'll say this in every review: a game is only worth your time if you can actually get other people to play it with you!    Luckily, you won't have any trouble filling seats at a table with Small World set up. The only problem I had with the game contents was that a similar container was not also included for the money coin tokens.  Call me spoiled, but compared to the beautiful race token tray, players are left with a choice between a large disheveled pile of coins, or keeping the full game box at the table and playing the coins from the storage cut-outs. One word of caution as well: if you purchase this game, make sure you put your components away according to the diagram in the back of the instruction manual!  When I first got the game, I decided to punch out all of the pieces and store them away so that I would be ready to play once I had people over.  I did this before reading the manual, and had to dump out all of the pieces to start over once I found out I had put them all in the wrong place.

Our Thoughts: The first thing that strikes me about Small World is that it is incredibly easy for new players to pick up the rules.  This is not a game such as Axis & Allies where you can control units of wildly varying stats, and have to roll a massive number of dice to determine the outcome of a battle.  In Small World, the mechanic of "I have more troops than you" works perfectly.  The bar for entry is set low, yet the opportunity for strategic decision-making is definitely there in the process of selecting a race and conquering the right territories.  To put it in short:  Small World is a game that everyone from the casual to the hardcore will enjoy, while keeping luck to a minimum and allowing the best player to win. Another nice touch to this game that I did not mention in the contents section is the inclusion of separate maps for different amounts of players.  There are two different boards, and each is double-sided.  The whole concept behind Small World is that the world is crowded, so having a variable size world for a varying amount of players is absolutely necessary.  When discussing board games, comments such as "oh, this game works best with 3 or 4 players, don't even try it with 5" are often made, and I take this as false advertising.  Why advertise you can handle a certain number of players if it would break the game?  Luckily, you will not encounter this problem at all with Small World. To sum things up, this game deserves a spot on your shelf.  I feel extremely confident in recommending Small World because Days of Wonder has proved that this is a game they want to support.  Coming up in mid-July, they will be re-printing the first two expansion packs to this game, "Grand Dames" and "Cursed", for a mere $10 each.  These expansions are not overflowing with content, but they also don't add radical new rules to your game either, and I feel that is a positive.  Being that they are smaller expansions, they are offered for a fraction of the price, and allow you to extend the life of your game without breaking the bank.  I got a sneak peek at the latest expansion, "Tales and Legends", set to be released for the first time on July 14th, so be sure to check back for a follow-up review on this new addition to the Small World family. Where to Buy: Small World is available online direct from Days of Wonder for $50, or you can purchase it at your neighborhood’s fine local game store. Disclaimer: The Modern Day Pirates were provided a complimentary review sample of this game.

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If it involves cards or dice, he'll play it. Matt covers games of all types, and also enjoys writing about technology & gadgets.

6 Responses to “Review: Small World”

  1. Poochie Wochie August 10, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    “To put it in short: Small World is a game that everyone…”

    short! I see what you did there.

    • Slimduck87 January 14, 2012 at 10:44 am #

      It’s a poor and blatant ripoff of “VINCI – The Fall and Rise of Civilizations” imo.. Play that instead, much better balanced and entertaining game mechanics

      • Matt January 15, 2012 at 8:36 am #

        I cannot disagree with you more Slimduck. Vinci and Small World were both designed by the same man, who agrees that Small World is the real version. Vinci is filled with problems, starting with the fact that it is actually less balanced than Small World! There are overpowered combinations in Vinci and rules that were changed to make Small World a more competitive game. Vinci also has a poor map design that does not suit all player counts, takes too long to play, and from a style point when compared to Small World, Vinci is downright ugly.


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