Small World is meant to be a reworking of Vinci, but not having played the game before, I won’t comment on that aspect. In Small World by Days of Wonder, the players control a variety of fantasy civilisations, growing them and gaining with their victories before finally abandoning them for a stronger, newer, more vital civilisation. It’s a ton of fun, with some great production values that offers immense replay value.
Appearance: Small World is one of the most lavishly produced games that I have seen. With 16 different civilisations, each requiring their own set of counters and 2 double-sided game boards, Small World comes chock full of counters, items and fun. An interesting (and useful) addition is the removable counter tray for the civilisation counters and the pre-set locations for the inserts. The rulebook even has a recommended set-up for the civilisations and counter pieces, which makes things easy to set-up and pull from during the game and makes this one of the few board games whose insert actually made sense. Both counter card stock and artwork is of the highest quality (so long as you enjoy that type of art) and leaves nothing to complain about. Even the player aids are both useful and well designed.
My biggest complaint lies in the removable counter tray. During gameplay, as civilisations grew and fell, counters would occasionally drop; lying flat in the bottom of the tray. Once that happened, it became a problem actually getting the counter pieces out again because they were designed to keep the counter relatively snugly. Admittedly, I’m not sure how else they could have designed the tray (well, without involving springs) but it is an annoying feature.
Rules / Ease of Learning: The rules in Small World are quite easy to learn. Players begin the game choosing from one civilisation. Since each civilisation has its racial ability and a special power (randomised through a series of special tiles); each game is going to be different. Once chosen, players will receive a specific number of population tokens (a number that is dictated by the race and special power) to begin the game with. They then begin conquering locations on the board.
Conquering is a very simple matter – each new space costs 2 tokens plus any modifiers on the space plus any population tokens. Generally speaking, it ends up costing 3 tokens normally to take over a new location, though careful placement can pump up this number to 5.
Once that is complete, player score and gameplay moves onto the next turn. An interesting point of the game is that the first player does not change at all during the game – there doesn’t seem to be a need for this.
While the general rules are pretty easy to learn, because the game has a ton of special powers and racial abilities, it might take a little while for a new player to get comfortable. The extremely useful player aid is a great help here, as well as the fact that each game finishes quite fast.
Gameplay: So what’s the gameplay really like? The special power and racial combinations will definitely draw a chuckle at times (Berserk Dwarves and Pillaging Halflings come to mind) in Small World and gameplay balance is very good as well. Certain combinations (e.g. Sorcerers and Flying) that seem to be particularly powerful at first can be quickly countered by other players which ensures that no single race/power combination is over-powering. In addition, combinations that seem to be underpowered can often be exploited to great potential (Underworld Skeletons were a great hit!).
Strategic and tactical decisions occur quite regularly – from developing a single, powerful starting race and ‘turtling’ them to gain a constant stream of points even after retirement to which location to enter the board from. Even the choices of the races and when to retire your race is very important, with players often caught on the horns of when to cut their losses and run. This is particularly important towards the last few rounds when not retiring a race can leave a player severely outnumbered and out powered as new races surge onto the board in the final round. However, if you’re gaining a good slew of victory points, it might be worth holding on ‘just a little longer’.
Small World is not a game where you can play alone; and there might be some problems for game groups that dislike high levels of direct interaction. It’s a Small World out there and sooner or later, players will be forced to attack competing civilisations and harm other players.
Gameplay on each of the four game boards provided varies widely. A three player board feels extremely crowded, even in the beginning rounds, while the five player game board becomes more strategic as players can avoid interaction for a while due to the sheer size and number of provinces to take over.
That is perhaps the most important part of Small World – the huge replay value. With racial and special power combinations that vary each turn, and with forced interaction (but good mechanical balance), the game is definitely going to have a high replay value. Add the cartoonish design and easy rules, and you could introduce this to most beginners and guarantee a good time.
Conclusion: Small World is a definite winner from Days of Wonder. If you’re looking for a board game that is easy to learn, has a lot of replay value and just looks good, you won’t be disappointed. Just make sure that those you introduce it to understand that this is an aggressive game of conquests, and be ready to play a second round so that players have a better ‘feel’ for the game.