By August 26, 2009

Smallworld board game first impressions review

I love board games. Love love love them. I grew up playing Parcheesi, backgammon, chess, and the “usual” family games at my house growing up. It was a big deal in my life when I beat my father at chess for the first time.

I have tried to keep gaming since, and I always have a soft spot for board games. There is something special about sitting around a table with your buddies and rolling some dice and moving tiny pieces around. The amount of smack talk that occurs always makes me laugh. I never knew so much about Stilt’s mother until we started playing board games together (love you buddy).

So, I was anxious to try out Smallworld, a board game designed by Philippe Keyaerts and published by Days of Wonder. Days of Wonder makes a lot of bad ass games board games, I am particularly fond of their game Ticket to Ride. The premise of the game is simple: control up to two races at a time (usually) to take over as much territory of Smallworld as possible. You earn one coin (usually) for every territory you hold at the end of a turn. Whomever has the most coins wins. The game combats staleness and default strategies by pairing race cards (humans, orcs, ratmen) with special abilities (merchant, flying, stout). The game designer Keyaerts seems to have put a lot of thought into play balance. True, there are some races and abilities that are more useful than others. Dragonmaster Ratmen are a brutal pair, for example. Hard to take “wealthy dwarves” over a ton of angry rodents and a pet dragon.
They may be nerds, but they’re my nerds.

Game play is fast. You start each round by gathering up “spare” forces into your hand. You can put them anywhere you already have at least one of the same race deployed. Combat occurs between (usually) adjacent territories. If you have more dudes than the defending territory plus modifiers, you win (usually). There is no die rolling like in Axis and Allies or Risk, where that one lone defender can stave off a horde of attackers. This may please you or piss you off depending on your personality. I don’t really care, and after playing a few games I understood why there is no inherit unit quality value. In battle, a halfling is worth just as much as a skeleton. This might seem odd if you’re used to playing games with varying units. However, Smallworld simplifies the actual combat down as much as possible so you can concentrate more on strategy and diplomacy.

The game has a well-designed tipping point between when your armies are consolidated and strong at first and then when they become too spread out to be effective. At first, all of your armies come in on the same spot. Your wealthy sorcerers are on a roll, smashing the crap out of everyone and grabbing territory. Two turns later, the same guy you curbstomped as his new flying tritons in one spot and are rampaging up your backside (Stilt’s mom joke here).

So what do you do? Sprint out and grab as much territory as you can before being overrun? Or do you play it defensively and try to present a less attractive target than the other players? Smallworld has a lot of strategy to it that isn’t obvious at first blush. And I won’t even go into the strategic points to going into — or staying out of — decline.
Lots of different pieces, but don’t let that deter younger players or folks new to gaming.

Smallworld is a kooky game on many levels. Regardless of my friends liked it or not, they all said the game was very different from anything else we’ve played. And trust me, we’ve played a lot of games. One thing that is weird about the game is that it has a lot of specialized pieces, which would usually categorize it as an “American” style game. On the other hand, the game play is simple and can be easily learned by anyone eight years or older, according to the box. The simple rules belie a strategic element that can be enjoyed by older players, which is a typical “Euro” game attribute. So what kind of game is Smallworld? Euro? American? Euro-American? Ameruropean? It’s like nothing else I’ve really played, and so far I like it.

The box says ages eight and up, but I’d say ten year olds who like fantasy books and are good at other strategic games like Chess or real time strategy games could swing Smallworld. Compared to other (still awesome) games like Race to the Galaxy or Dominion the gameplay is basic enough to be enjoyable for a wide age and experience range.

The last thing I want to comment on is how poorly the rules are laid out. There is a two-sided “cheat sheet” and a rule book. The rule book has about 75% of the information you need to play the game. The cheat sheet has about 50%. Neither source has all the information necessary to teach you how to play the game, and the rules don’t have enough examples. This led to frustration during play — particularly from me, sorry guys — as we changed our understanding of the rules as we ran through multiple games. This is somewhat normal when learning a new game. There are “oh, that’s what they meant” moments, and any time you have a bunch of hardcore gamers in a room they will try to break the game somehow and generate rules questions.

Unfortunately, Smallworld lacked the obvious explanations that led to complex logical discussions during a match. For example, there are little cave symbols on the board. There is a special ability called “underworld,” which grants you a bonus to attack territories adjacent to a cave. It also allows you to “treat all caves as adjacent” and has a symbol of two caves connected by an arrow. However, the rules never explicitly listed what the two caves symbol meant, and no real gameplay example of “treat all caves as adjacent.”

We allowed any race to travel from one cave to the next during the first few games we played. At one point someone said, “shouldn’t that only apply to Underworld?” and we launched into an unneccessarily long discussion about the logistics of leading a bunch of bipedal fish through a system of tunnels. The rule book never explicitly stated what the cave icon meant, nor did it ever explicitly state you couldn’t travel there. Aside from some deep-rooted understanding of the Mines of Moria, how was a new player to know to treat a cave icon different from a mine icon? Both are underground? If anything, the mine icon should allow for travel, since, you know, folks dug that shit on purpose. Anyway, we sorted it out but having more examples and clearer descriptions of the symbols would have been nice.

Smallworld is still new at my house, and it certainly hasn’t gotten as much use as some of the other new-ish titles like Dominion. However, it seems to be an enjoyable game that has a broader reach than the more “experienced” games we’ve been playing lately. Unlike totally simplistic games like Black Sheep, Smallworld can captivate veteran players, too.

Smallworld is available from your local game / comic book store for about $50 plus tax, or online for anywhere from 10% – 20% less. I bought mine from Tanga for $36 shipped, so if you are patient you might be able to score a deal. I would feel comfortable paying full retail for this game if you have a family or frequently play with a gaming group that has a varied skill range. I took a chance on the game, and the near $20 price difference between and retail made a big difference to me.

So far, recommended.

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1 Comment on "Smallworld board game first impressions review"

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  1. Ed says:

    This is a game I give enthusiastic thumbs up to. Some of the rules we were confused on (but I think in the end we understood it pretty well), the main two points of confusion are below –

    1) If Underworld is the only people who can travel through caverns (they are, I have confirmed this through their forum)

    2) If you have to leave the troops you attack with in the place you attack (you do)

    These two points of confusion (since we played it the wrong way initially) completely changed the game. The correct way to play it made the game a lot better.

    This is probably one of my favourite new games, I have ordered it for my house. The only problem will be if the simplicity of it will eventually cause me to grow bored of it. But for right now, I also view it as an enthusiatic yes to playing.