A few readers have recommended the game Small World, which won GAMES Magazine’s Game of the Year award in 2010. It’s from Days of Wonder, the manufacturer of the Ticket to Ride series (which I often recommend), and the game itself is a remake of an earlier game (that I’ve never played) called Vinci. Small World has been a big hit so far, as it’s a short game once you know the rules, pretty easy to pick up, and offers slightly different game play each time.
I’ve seen and heard Small World described as similar to or influenced by Dungeons & Dragons because Small World involves selecting various races, including orcs, halflings, and elves, familiar to anyone who’s played fantasy role-playing games. It’s incorrect for two reasons. One is that anyone who’s seen Lord of the Rings knows about orcs and elves. But more importantly, the fantasy aspect to the races is almost completely irrelevant to gameplay – you’re not pretending to be any of these things, but are instead using these races to try to capture spaces on the map.
The game comes with two double-sided boards, giving maps for two, three, four, and five player games, and as the name implies, there’s not a whole lot of room on any of these maps. There’s a stack of twelve races and sixteen skills which are combined into random pairs at the start of each game, after which each player selects one race-skill combination and uses it to start to take over territories on the board. Each race-skill combo brings a fixed number of race tokens, which are then used to take and hold those territories. At the end of a player’s turn, he earns one victory point for every map space he occupies, as well as various bonus points depending on his race and skill at that time.
The big twist in Small World is that you aren’t going to have enough tokens to take over many spaces, and while you need to expand to keep accumulating points, at some point you’ll become overstretched and will need to push that race-skill set into “decline”, giving up one turn of potential moves and gains for the right on the following turn to pick a new race-skill combo, acquire a stack of new tokens, and wreak havoc somewhere else on the map while still grabbing a few points for the civilization you just put into decline before those spaces are captured by others.
Each race has a special benefit attached to it, some simple (Ratmen start with two more tokens than any other race; Humans get an extra point for every farmland territory occupied) and some complex (Trolls get to place “lairs” on their spaces, making them harder to capture, and the lairs last even when the civilization is in decline). The skills* work similarly, such as awarding bonus points for occupying certain spaces, allowing moves that might otherwise be prohibited, or allowing a player to go into decline on a turn where he’s already made moves, thus saving a turn that would otherwise be lost.
*We played this as a three-player game, but haven’t tried it with just two players yet. There’s one skill that looks to me like it’ll cause trouble in a two-player game: the Diplomatic skill, where a player can declare that an opponent whom he hasn’t attacked this turn may not attack him on the next turn. With two players, that means one can force peace as long as he doesn’t attack the other one. I’m not sure if that makes him invincible, but it would seem to create a substantial imbalance.
The fact that players receive points for occupying territories temporarily rather than receiving points at game’s end makes the game play different from most of the other games we’ve tried in that there’s a clear benefit to doing something that you know is likely to be undone quickly by your opponents. For example, in one game we played, I had Pillaging (skill) Orcs (race), giving me two bonus points every time I conquered an opponents’ region, so my ideal strategy was to abandon regions I already had, taking those tokens to take over new ones, gaining 3 points for each new region instead of 1 point for a region I already held.
Each race/skill combination brings its own strategic implications, and some are going to be more desirable than others (there’s a payment system similar to that in other games, where passed-over combinations start to accumulate victory points to make them more attractive). There’s also a lot of interaction between previous moves and your choices going forward, because a civilization you’ve already put into decline is removed from the board if you put a second one into decline (with one or two exceptions), leaving you with a quick cost/benefit analysis to estimate when you’re considering whether you can wring one more turn out of the race-skill combo you’re using.
After our first game, where we screwed up several rules (almost inevitable when we play a game for the first time), we found we could get through a three-player game, which lasts ten rounds, in 20-30 minutes. Setup only takes five minutes or so, as you shuffle the races and skills and place a handful of tokens on the map, then placing about 20 other items on the side of the board for when certain races are drawn. The game is brightly colored and the drawings of races have a slightly silly bent, although one flaw we found was that when tokens are flipped over to show that that civilization is in decline, the grayed-out images of races all tended to look alike, making tallying points after each turn a little trickier.
I hesitated on Small World because I saw and heard the Dungeons & Dragons references and, since I never got into D&D or other role-playing games, didn’t think it would appeal to me. However, with no real significance to the use of dwarves or sorcerors or ghouls, there’s no fantasy aspect to Small World – just think of each race as a set of tokens conferring some specific benefit to you and you won’t have to spend the game worrying about your street cred. It’s one of the best “family strategy” games I’ve seen – below the hardcore strategy level of Puerto Rico and Agricola, smarter than Thurn und Taxis, comparable to one of our all-time favorites, Stone Age – without feeling dumb or luck-driven, and the ability to rip through a few games in an evening makes it better for a casual game night than the two-hour commitment of those complex strategy titles.