Pairs well with: A fair-well shot every time someone you love kills your brethren.
Brutus scale: 9/10 daggers in the back. It’s like the Ides of March out there.
Smallworld is played on a mythical map where different and diverse races work towards annihilating one another. This seems morbidly like our own sad world (bar the absence of victory points) but actually it’s rather cheery. During the game a number of races are randomly selected through the art of shuffling, with random characteristic pairings. Each player will start off with selecting a race: it is your job to pick the best combination of race and characteristic, both of which supply you with some kind of delicious special abilities (more points here, easier stuff to do there, deathless and invasive ghouls… you know the drill). This means you shouldn’t pick Dwarves and then blame the game for having weak racial balance (you know who you are, gamers!) as it very much depends on the race/characteristic combination. Each race then sweeps onto the board starting at the edges, and generally takes over territories, killing anything in its path.
Although this game appears to have a massively high Brutus Scale rating bestowed for the ability and even encouragement it gives the players to try to ruin each other’s games, strategies, and lives, it is in fact still great fun. Super-awesome slaughter-themed fun. In fact, there is not really any easy way to play the game without cheerily stabbing your closest friends in the back on your campaign to achieve more victory points than everyone else. Once each player has a race on the board it is nigh-on impossible to sit in a little corner and avoid any conflict. Furthermore, the drive to kill is even exacerbated by some races and some characteristics. For instance, Skeletons gain another unit each round for every unit that they have killed. Remember what we said about picking the best combo? Skeletons paired with the characteristic ‘berserk’ or something similar (more berserk = more death to the enemies) means that your race can more or less act as the apocalypse.
During a turn you place your race units (sometimes called tokens) over regions you wish to hold – the more regions you hold at the end of your turn the more victory points you generate. This balance fluctuates depending how many units are killed, where you move, and how many races you are currently controlling. A player may only have one ‘active’ race. What does that even mean you ask? You’re allowed one extremely fit race which darts around the board like a sleek and well-oiled warrior, and one obese one, which stays where you left it like a sad sack of low-scoring potatoes. In times of peril you may sacrifice the obese guys because they’re slower and delicious.
Wouldn’t that be interesting? But no, sorry, we were lying. Your ‘active’ race actually means one that is currently in the height of its reign! Moving, conquering, presumably producing great works of art and literature. (None of this is featured in the game, we’ll just assume they all have hobbies and jobs as well. A turn is an entire year, you know!)
Like a few others that we’ve reviewed recently, Small World is a great ‘gateway’ game, and it played such a role for Lizzy and Briony many years ago. One of the main things that really stands out to a new board gamer is the complete and utter lack of loyalty that you have to your own damn races. There you are, learning the rules and picturing the scenes that will unfold: you picture yourself welcoming a race of optimistic and bright-eyed creatures into your embrace and send them off on their journey, to occupy lands and build a legacy that will truly stand the test of time. Their victories will be your victories, their losses will be your losses, and together you will see the game through to the end.
As soon as your race looks like it’s peaked, has spread itself as far as you’re willing or able to take it, or even that it’s just occupied enough land that you don’t want to have to worry about it anymore, then you effectively abandon it and move on. You put the race into ‘decline’. If you decline your race then in your next turn you can pick a new race and characteristic combination (for god’s sake pick the best one. No, put the Elves down. Try again). Your declined race stays on the board for now, which means they still generate victory points at the end of your turn, but aren’t able to defend themselves or move any more, which essentially makes them Skeleton fodder.
At first, sending your own race into decline is a pretty difficult thing to bring yourself to do. Not just because you have a soft spot for those adorable Flying Tritons, but because it feels like you’re royally screwing yourself over, points-wise. Going into decline is the only thing you can do on that turn, which means you may not end up with many territories to get points from since you’re not able to grab anywhere new. Even worse, most of the special characteristics that your race is paired with will tend to go away as soon as that race goes into decline, including any delicious bonus points that you were getting.
As such, a lot of the game becomes a lesson in investing in your own future. Sacrificing points now in favour of more points in the future? Madness! It’s also, as above, about picking some really good race / trait combinations to match your goals. But, possibly the most important of all, the game is about trickery and deceit. Another aspect of the game that really stands out to the newbie is the fact that after victory points are given out they all immediately become secret. This is really important in a game of Small World not just to create a bit of suspense at the end but for tactics during the entire game. You need to make a really big deal about how few points you’re getting, how bad your turns have been, and how really, really, important it is that everyone joins together to attack the person who you say is winning. Because you don’t just want to be gaining victory points, you want to be taking them from whoever’s doing the best. And you don’t just want to be spreading across the map, you want to be doing so while still tricking everyone into thinking that you’re no competition and should be left alone. This is what is termed in Smallworld and other games as ‘the Lizzy manoeuvre.’ Briony’s tactics on the other hand tend to be ‘take the thing with the most units, use all of the units, get a lot of points, repeat’. For this manoeuvre the Amazons are excellent, but still scantily-clad.
After so many rounds* the game ends, and the person with the most victory points wins. Simple, honest fun, without the honesty. It’s fast paced, full of dramatic changes, and gets you riled up over a fantasy world. To keep the game ever more interesting Days of Wonder have brought out 734 expansions for the original game** as well as the Smallworld2 app which smoothly transports the game to phone and tablet and passes many a boring train or bus journey whether solo or with friends. One of the good things about the expansions is they’re not utter bollocks, which is a trap a lot of great games fall into. In fact, a lot of the expansions are generated by fan-based designs and ideas for new races and characteristics, meaning that the board game geeks get a say in what the game should include.
Days of Wonder never responded to our suggestions however. Probably because it was a giant llama with laser eyes that became angry at the sight of tangerines instead of an attractive breasty ice-witch. WE LIKE WHAT WE LIKE DAMMIT.
*It varies depending on the number of players.
**In reality it’s about 6. But boy does it feel like 734 when you have so many race tiles and not enough room to store them.