WARNING: I refer to that infernal Disney song in this review. However, as this occurs during the introduction, you're past it now.
When I first got heavily into boardgaming, I remember hunting down each and every scrap of information about every game I heard about. This insatiable appetitie led me to the podcast "Boardgames to Go." Mark Johnson puts together a great-sounding podcast, and he's been at it awhile, but I found after several failures for a game to catch on with me, he and I had WILDLY different tastes as to what made a good game. I tried stuff like "Verrater" and even though his review made it sound like this tense, intriguing game, it was to me dry as a bone and borderline broken, given to falling into degenerate gamestates.
In fact, all of his "All About.." reviews that I listened to, there were only really two that I ended up enjoying--Ra, and Vinci.
Vinci was interesting to me because it resembled all those Dudes on a Map games I loved, but used a deterministic method of combat. This was new to me at the time. Also new to me was the idea of these random combinations of civilization powers that you could spend points on for more powerful ones. I got to play Vinci, and I really enjoyed it, possibly because it was different than what I'd played before, but also at heart, it's a good, fast-playing conflict-driven game.
It was also my first exposure to what became termed as "hybrids"--games that sought to merge clean rules (something a lot of old-school Ameritrash games were missing) with conflict and player interaction (something a metric ass-load of European games were lacking.) The other I played around that same period was Eagle's Age of Mythology, I game I like more than most seem to, even though I too think that had something to do with being that "new" feeling of seeing two types of game designs merged together.
Speaking of Age of Mythology, in order to make Vinci more appealing to the gamers I tended to game with, I ended up trading for an extra copy of AoM, and made player armies for Vinci out of the pieces. You'd be surprised how much it will change your perspective of the "Euro-ness" of a game when you see a pile of plastic dudes on the board beating the snot out of each other.
At any rate, Vinci received a second edition, then went out of print for quite some time, becoming something of a cult classic. Copies of the game became hard to come by, but it didn't appear to be the type of game that was so popular that it demanded a reprint. Deserved one, sure, but lots of games deserve reprints that never get them (Can we not get a freaking reprint of DUNE already?)
Enter Days of Wonder, who allowed Vinci designer Phillippe Keyartes a chance to redesign his game, get it republished and in a high profile slot from one of the biggest hobbyist game companies. Not too shabby.
It's All About the Game...and How You Play It
Small World (2-5 players, 1-2 hours) is a game that shares the basic theme of Vinci--civilizations with varying powers and skills rise and fall over the course of the game, doing battle and conquering lands in the hopes of having the highest score at game's end. (Yeah, I know, it's a VP chase, but at least you get to kill dudes along the way. Abstractly, but still, killin'.)
Instead of each race being represented by colored player discs--or bitchin' Egyptians or Greeks as in my copy of Vinci--Small World adds a slew of races, depicted as cartoon carictatures. They're the usual fantasy archetypes of course, with Giants, Elves, Haflings, and Fairies. Furthermore, as race powers are drawn in pairs, you've got a 'characteristic' that can be matched with each race. Instead of just Halflings or Skeletons, you can have Dragonrider Halflings and Flying Skeletons...how that works, I have no idea.
These races are lined up beside the board, and on your turn you select your first race. You can either take the first available, or spend Victory Points to move down the line and choose one that's more your liking. The spent VPs go on the cards of those skipped, making them more attractive to be chosen in the future.
Bringing a civilization into play is easy. You get a number of troops equal to the numbers on both your race card and power card. One may have 4 and the other 3, giving you 7 total troops, for example. These troops are not plastic bits but are thick tiles illustrated with the same high-quality cartoonish artwork. Your new civilzation enters the board from one of the boundaries by using this simple formula:
2 + Number of cardboard bits in the space
Now, that's easy enough when you're taking over an empty territory, as it's just a matter of placing two of your character chits in that area. Boom, it's yours. But that's no fun, right? The best part is when you want to conquer enemy-owned terrain. To do that, you have to use that same formula. So if you wanted to take over an area with two enemy skeletons in it, you'd have to pay two + two for those skeletons.
When that happens, the conquered player has to put one of his defeated tokens back in the tray and takes the others back into his supply.
At the end of the turn, you score a point for each territory you own, plus bonuses for certain races for either accomplishing certain tasks due to your power, or a race having an affinity for a specific type of terrain giving more VPs, etc. Then it's your opponent's turn.
As the game progresses, you'll find yourself either spread out too far or having suffered too many casualties, making the expansion of your race difficult. That's when you'll have to make the hard choice and put the race in Decline, deactivating their special powers and leaving them just sort of helpless on the map. They'll still score, but they'll be easy pickings for your enemies.
Never fear though, as putting a race in decline allows you to draft a new one from the display, with a fresh surge of troops, a new combination of powers, and a few vendettas to settle.
You go back and forth like this for 10 turns. Then tally up the VPs, and the player who used their race(s) to score the most, wins. Simple.
I'm Alive, I Got the Silver...
I've said it before and I'll say it again--Days of Wonder does *not* mess around when it comes to gorgeous productions. They make some of the nicest-looking games in the business, and Small World does not disappoint in that regard.
There was some grumbling when players found out the game would be using cardboard tokens instead of plastic miniatures (seems like I wasn't the only one who had that craving, eh?) but fact is, there are so many different races in the base game that getting that many plastic bits in there, with that many sculpts and in that quantity, would have made the game a lot more expensive...and then we're dealing with howling about price. I think they made the right choice.
I won't lie, the art isn't going to be to everyone's taste. It's well done, but on the exaggerated cartoon side. I don't mind it personally as I think it does add a little much-needed humor to the game, but I can see that not being everyone's cup of tea.
Probably my favorite part, and a HUGE improvement over Vinci, is the different player boards. Vinci didn't officially support two players, and the map was really too large to get a quality game in with three...just not enough competition, Vinci did not scale all that well. With Small World, the number of players determies which of the included double-sided board you use. The 2-player map is a tight, narrow board where you will definitely be coming to blows if you want to win, whereas the other boards continue to scale larger but keep that tightly-designed conflict space.
The insert is nice, with a place to put everything in the base game. This is something that Days of Wonder continues to do well, even though for some companies it seems to be a lost art. I don't know about you, but it does get a little old opening a box to find a folded piece of cardboard with a place to dump all your bits in like a dog's breakfast. The insert for Small World is top notch.
That's Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man
I like Small World a lot, even though to be honest I miss some of the rules from Vinci. In an attempt to make a nice, family-friendly conflict game that appeals to a larger market, they did away with certain things, like the cohesion rule (which forced you to keep your race "connected", or risk having the disconnected troops removed from the board) and the "no VPs for mountains" rule. The cohesion thing gave the game more of a "this is your civilization" flavor, as you'd watch your race come onto the board from the north like an invading horde, watch them take land, and eventually enter their twilight, dying off. Now, your guys don't need to form a cohesive whole, so it feels a little more like random dudes running around smashing stuff, and eventually they run out of steam. The difference is slight, but it's important.
With mountains, now they're no-brainers. They used to just offer defensive positions and good launching points for attacks, but now they're defensive *and* grant VPs every turn.
I do like the die you can roll on your last conquest for the turn--it gives you a chance to receive a surprise bonus and milk one more territory for the turn. It's a nice but small dose of randomness that gives the game some exciting moments at the end of each player's turn.
I can see why they made the changes they did, and I think that this game occupies a very sweet spot in terms of a game that features conflict and conquest but plays in a shorter period of time and has rules digestable enough for the general family to play. In that regard, this fits exactly in Days of Wonders' wheelhouse.
Thematic gamers are probably going to find the play dry on occasion, especially in the two-player game. With no wheeling and dealing, whining and wheedling, the deterministic combat is going to leave both players running a bit of a max/min engine. That can still be fun, but the excitement ramps up the more players there are on the board. Then you've got the extra chaos and conflict, and the "perfect" moves are harder to predict when Bob decides he's got a grudge on against you.
There are several expansions out there. Some just introduce new powers and races. My brother just picked up Tales and Legends this past weekend, which includes lots of event cards that affect the game from turn to turn. There's the Necromancer's Island one that introduces a thematic scenario with all players versus the Necromancer/Ghoul player. I hope to get that played soon so I can offer some opinions on that. I think expansions like that will give the game a nice story-driven injection. Last but not least is the Be Not Afraid expansion that includes and updated tray for storage of all the expansion races as well as several new races to play.
All in all, this is a solid effort from Days of Wonder. Even though I miss the extra rules from Vinci, I'll probably be reaching for Small World instead when that opportunity arises. It's not going to replace our favorite Dudes on a Map games by any means, but for a conflict-driven filler, or a game to bust out on family night, it's a surefire winner.