Monday, October 27, 2014

Board Game Review: Smallworld (2009)


What do you get when over a dozen fantasy races want to inhabit the same land? A lot of conquest and a pretty fun board game published by Days of Wonder (Ticket to Ride, Memoir '44). I played this game for the first time this past Friday, and enjoyed it enough that I picked it up for myself the next day. I've played it about five times now with different numbers of players and I hope you find this review/overview informative.


First off, here's a bit of an overview of game mechanics.

  1. Your goal is to collect as much gold as you can in the allotted turns (10 for 2-3 player, 9 for 4-player, and 8 for 5-player).
  2. The more regions you occupy the more gold you get. You collect at the end of every turn.
  3. Every race has an ability, and an additional special power that may increase strength, gold, etc.(powers are assigned randomly).
  4. A general pattern of turns looks like this: Purchase a race, conquer as much as possible, send the race into decline, still collecting from their lands, and pick a new race. Continue until the end of the turns and count your gold piles.
While both the layout of the map regions and the idea of conquering land may resemble Risk, the gameplay is so vastly different that the comparison can't be made. For instance landmass is only one way to collect gold (points). Orcs get extra gold from conquering occupied regions, and humans get extra from occupying farmland. Additionally, only six races are available at one time, and with special powers being randomized, all strategy is made on the fly depending on what's available.

The randomization may be my favorite part of the game. As someone who has never been a big fan of set strategies (they may win, but they aren't as much fun) Smallworld's constant stream of race/power combos (flying Dwarves, diplomat Ratmen, etc.) makes for distinct gameplay every time. Every game I played had different reasons for one person's success and another's failure, with many games being decided by a few gold pieces. Additionally, there are two double sided maps to make the game functional for 2-5 players. There aren't too many games that are really fun with just two, but Erin and I really got into it since it can be a very aggressive game. I think it's a very solid title and I would be interested to try one of their expansions or the iOS Smallworld 2 version (for when I can't find peeps to play with). 

As far as critiques, I will say that luck plays a slightly larger role than I would like. Most race/power combos have ways to counter them, but as a newbie to the game there did seem to be some overpowered combos. These weren't super common, but they generally involved the races that get large numbers for attacks like the Amazons and the Ratmen. In addition to this, the dwarves seem to be good in very specific cases but otherwise aren't a very solid choice. These thoughts may change with experience, but these were the conclusions Erin and I came to after several matches.

Some final points:
  • My numeric rating would be an 8.0/10 (keep in mind I am not as experienced as some board game enthusiasts)
  • Board Game Geek has it listed as a 7.45 and it is currently #91 on the board game list (top 11 in family games)
  • You can find it online for $30-$40 and a local shop could have it priced up to $50 (I bought mine from my local and paid $50 after tax)
  • There are a lot of small cardboard pieces so be careful with pets/kids
  • The iOS version of Smallworld 2 is $9.99
  • The mid-game photo is from a 2-player match

-Peter