Most people would agree that the Euro-game movement has done a lot of good things for game design, but there always seemed to be a gap in the realm of simple attack-your-neighbor's-territory games. A couple war-themed games have utilized Euro-style simplicity (Mare Nostrum and Wallenstein both to great effect), but those lack the purity of something like Risk.
Of course, opinions of Risk among the hobby-gaming community tend to be pretty derisive, and that's somewhat understandable. It's as likely to be six hours long as it is two, and it only really gets interesting with it's meta-game, forming alliances and so forth. So if any genre needed a good Euro-izing, it is the simple war-themed game.
1999's Vinci was a game attempt at this kind of design, and it certainly has its fans. Of course, it's out of print now, so that's not a great option. Thankfully, Small World has moved in and filled that void very well. Philip Keayarts has sanded away a lot of the rough edges to his original design, lightened it up considerably, and made one of the best combat-based Euro game of all time.
Players take the roles of various fantasy races (Elves, Giants, etc.), each with their own special power. Those powers are then paired with another special power, and players get a stack of race tokens, and conquers territory from their neighbors. After a couple turns of this, your race is spread a little thin. At that point, it's time to toss that race out and get a new one. Conquering and holding territories nets you points, and after a set number of turns, the highest score wins the game.
This is a multi-player conflict game for people who never cared that much for multi-player conflict games. It takes the basic premise of grabbing territory from your neighbor and Euro-izes it, making a game that is fairly unique from other games on the market today.
The best thing the game has going for it is variety. The different races all have their own strengths and weaknesses. They may score points based on certain types of territory they hold, they may have an advantage in combat, or there may just be a lot of them. The races are paired with the speical powers randomly, and then they come out at different points in the game, affecting the costs. The different powers all have a certain thematic feels, which is nice when the rules are as abstracted as they are.
The "combat," as it is, is ridiculously straightforward. Essentially, you just pay the proper amount of race tokens, and you get the territory. In general, I'm no big fan of non-random combat (I'm looking at you, Endeavor), but it doesn't really bother me here. The powers assure that there will be a lot of change from player to player, in terms of advantages to be pressed. The board is always just a bit too tight for all the players, so you will rub shoulders early and often. The non-random combat does it's share to ensure that the game keeps moving. You don't get those epic dice-throwing contests that random combat can sometimes bring about.
The downside of this is that the combat has almost no tension to speak of. You don't get those great battles, where a few troops hold off an invading horde. There's little sense of drama and that makes the game feel far less epic. However, I wonder if that wasn't intentional. The powers are designed with a eye towards balance, as are all the races. To take the random out of battle was probably an attempt to make the game more tactical and less goofy.
Don't misunderstand me, I actually love Small World. It fills a niche that I like to have, a game of confrontation and warfare where people won't leave with new grudges to nurse. And the different races and powers create a game that will have different tactics every time. While most conflict games will be heavy on alliances and turtling, this one pulls a Nexus Ops and encourages attacking. Granted, a group certainly could play with lots of alliances, but that's clearly not the way it was designed. This particular form of confrontation makes this a superb family game, and in that realm I give it a very high recommendation.
Small World deserves special mention for its scaling. The game has a different map for every number of players (a small double-sided board for 2 or 3, and a big one for 4 or 5). As a rule, the game is best with more players, but the different boards ensure the game is always tight and cramped regardless of how many people are playing.
And the boards are, by the way, gorgeous. They pop with rich colors that are illustrated with an eye for detail. The race tokens have a similarly colorful look, and the whole game is one of the nicest-looking presentations Days of Wonder has done, even by their lofty standards. The overall effect of the tokens on the map is a bit garish, but I much prefer this to the washed out palette of something like El Grande. Also included are several player aids, which do an excellent job of explaining each of the different powers and races, as well as all aspects of the game. They aren't very compact, but they are certainly useful.
There are two expansions out for Small World, The Grand Dames of Small World and Cursed! These add new races and powers, which range in quality from the awesome (Goblins) to the borderline useless (White Ladies). I wouldn't call them essential, but if you like Small World, they are worth tracking down, if they ever get reprinted.
Overall, Small World is a great game, if you know what you are getting. It lacks the tension and drama of a bigger more epic conflict game, but it makes up for that by having tons of variety, and some very interesting tactical choices. The game creates a very family-friendly conflict game that can be played with most non-gamers, and that plays fast. If that's the sort of game you are looking for, definitely pick this one up. It is the best Days of Wonder has done so far.
San Il Defanso is a member of Fortress: Ameritrash.