Posted by: gschloesser | August 31, 2011

Small World

Design by:  Philippe Keyaerts
Published by:  Days of Wonder
2 – 5 Players, 1 ½ – 2 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

NOTE:  This review first appeared on the Boardgame News site

Nearly a decade ago, defunct publisher Euro Games released Vinci, a fabulous game of conquest and the rise and fall of civilizations.  Designed by Frenchman Philippe Keyaerts, the game included several clever innovations, and proved quite popular in gaming circles.  While there were complaints of ambiguous rules, public victory points, and its duration, it was – and still is – considered by many to be a wonderful example of a “Civilization-light” design.

Keyaerts’ creation was so original and memorable, that it just couldn’t be left alone.  Days of Wonder has released Small World, a revised and re-themed version of the game which has satisfied much of the critics’ complaints, including significantly reducing the time required to play.   The new version is now set in a fantasy world literally overflowing with a wide variety of different races, including dwarves, elves, trolls, giants, sorcerers, tritons and more.  The small world in which they live and seek to expand is simply too small to allow all of them to survive and live comfortably, so the only result is conflict in a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mode.

In order to keep things confined and force conflict, the game includes two double-sided boards, with the appropriate one being used based on the number of players.  The board graphically depicts numerous territories with various types of terrain.  Initially, native “Lost Tribes” inhabit many areas, but their fate is already sealed, as the more advanced races will soon relegate them to the dustbin of history.

Players will decide which race they will initially guide by a mechanism that, to my knowledge, was pioneered in Vinci.  The race plaques are mixed, with six being revealed in a row.  Likewise, ability plaques are also mixed, and one placed beside each of the revealed race plaques.  When a player selects a race, he may take the bottom race and corresponding ability plaque for free.  If he desires one further along in the row, however, he must place one victory point token onto each race / ability combination he passes over.  Thus, if he desires a particular race / ability combination that is further along in the row, it will cost him victory points to obtain it.  If an opponent subsequently opts to take a race that has victory point tokens on it, he also secures those victory points.  This is a VERY clever mechanism that gives players much to consider, and eventually makes less attractive races more appealing.

When a player first begins a race, he must begin in one of the territories along the edge of the board, and can expand from there.  A player takes all of the race’s counters (as listed on the race and ability plaques) and begins expanding.  Each territory requires two counters plus one for each enemy unit or “cardboard” feature currently in it.  Cardboard features are generally mountains (represented by cardboard mountain tokens), but can also be troll lairs, Halfling holes, etc., which are placed via the special powers of specific races.  For example, to conquer a mountain territory that contains one Lost Tribe token, you will need to place four units into the area (2 + 1 for the Lost Tribe + 1 for the mountain).  There are no dice to roll in combat; it is a simple matter of mathematics.

A player can continue to expand into adjacent areas as long as he desires or, most commonly, until he depletes his supply of tokens.  If a player is one, two or three tokens short of conquering a territory, he may roll a special die and hope to get the additional units necessary.  This is an addition to the system that was not present in Vinci, and, frankly, I’m not terribly fond of it as it adds an unnecessary random element to the proceedings.  Still, it is not a game-breaker for me, and the game can certainly be played without using this element.

Once a player finishes his expansion, he earns one victory point for each territory his race occupies, plus any bonuses granted by the race and/or its special ability.  Some races and/or abilities earn bonuses for occupying certain territories, which will generally drive a player’s expansion efforts and strategies.  Unlike Vinci, victory points are received as tokens, which allow players to keep their amounts secret.  Thus, only the most astute players will be able to track who is the actual leader.

On subsequent turns, the player has a choice to continue expanding with his current race, or place them into decline.  This is one of the major decisions in the game, and often proves pivotal.  If a player chooses to continue to expand, he picks up all of the counters of his existing race, leaving behind one in each territory he wishes to maintain control.  He then continues to expand as described above, once again earning victory points at the end of his turn.  If he opts to place the race into decline, he leaves one inverted unit in each territory he controls, and discards the remaining counter and ability plaque of that race.  That race is done expanding, but will continue to earn victory points as long as remnants of that race remain on the board.  So, on the turn a player places a race into decline, it will not expand, but he will earn victory points as normal.  A player may have, at most, one active race and one in decline.  On the next turn, the player will choose a new race and ability as described above, and begin expanding with the new race, but will earn victory points for both his active and declining race.

Depending upon the number of players, the game is played to completion in 8 – 10 turns, and the player with the greatest accumulation of victory point tokens rules Small World and wins the game.  All of my games have taken less than two hours to complete.  That’s really just about perfect, as this shaves off about an hour or so from our games of Vinci.

I have always been a big fan of Vinci, and have played it well over a dozen times.  I was a bit worried that in an attempt to simplify and shorten the game, this new version would strip much of what I liked about the original design.  While some elements have been removed, they were mostly features that weren’t vital and, truth-be-told, unnecessarily complicated the game.  For example, the former rule prohibiting adjacency between an active and declining nation have been removed, as has the terrain benefits of attacking from mountains or defending forests.   While this may add a bit of depth, I can certainly live without them.

One of the joys of Small World is the variety of race and ability combinations that can randomly be formed.  Each race has a unique power or benefit, as does each ability.  In total, there are fourteen different races and twenty different abilities, so the possible combinations are quite numerous.  The random pairing of these can create some very intriguing options and powers, all of which will generally cause a player to pursue certain goals and objectives.  Many of these give incentives to occupy certain territories, or bonuses in combat.  Certain combinations can also be quite humorous, or even terrifying.  The thought of Merchant Ghouls never fails to evoke a chuckle—”Come into my shop and let me eat you!” – while the mere sight of Flying Giants is sure to invoke stark terror.

Component wise, the game is filled with cardboard, with some nice artwork on the race counters and related tokens.  The board is certainly more artistic than the bland, abstract design of Vinci, but it is also more cluttered, making it more difficult to discern the territories and counters.  One other complaint is that, when inverted, the race counters all have a gray wash, which makes it difficult to discern the difference between the tokens.  While I generally find wooden cubes more convenient and attractive, due to the various races, cardboard counters appears to have been the only realistic option in this new version.

Vinci or Small World – which do I prefer?  The jury is still out, but after initial reluctance to sway my loyalties from the revered Vinci, I now find myself leaning towards Small World.  It maintains nearly all the flavor and features of the original, and is easier to teach and understand, and plays faster.  I do prefer the realistic feel of the original as opposed to the fantasy setting of Small World, but overall, I must admit that I now prefer the new version.  My biggest gripe with the game is its name, which inevitably causes someone to sing that sappy “It’s a Small World” song, causing it to get stuck in my mind for the remainder of the evening.  Fortunately, the game is excellent, and well worth enduring that horror!


  1. Small World is fun. Be prepared for a lot of maintenance, as there are dozens of tiles flying on and off the board every round. It is deliberately claustrophobic–which is fantastic–but in the tightest of moments it slithers out of its theme and feels like an abstract painted in a blizzard of colors. It’s a sensory assault. (7/10)

  2. Small World is in my Top Three favorite games. I really enjoy every aspect of this game. Turns involve tough tactical decisions, and the game has a good level of complexity without bogging down. I think the mechanic of choosing new races and deciding when to “decline” are ingenious. It also has excellent length, art, and expansions. Fun fantasy theme doesn’t hurt either.

  3. I have so much trouble coming back to Small World because making sense of the busy, busy board hurts my eyes and my brain. If I stare at it long enough, it looks like someone busted a pinata open over the tabletop. :-) This plays to one of my weaknesses.

  4. I really liked Vinci so I think Small World is an excellent refinement of the system. I was split between the two when Small World came out (2009). By now (2013) it is obvious that Small World is the better game. This is one of my top 10 games of all time. 9/10
    The expansions and extras add new things all of the time but the base game is solid enough that most will not need the additional stuff.

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