About two years ago, a friend of mine bought a new game just released by Days of Wonder (of Ticket to Ride and Memoir ’44 fame, among others) called Smallworld. It was yet another global conquest game with armies battling across a many-regioned map, in the same vein as Risk or Axis & Allies, and I steeled myself for three or four hours of counting troops and rolling dice and wondered vaguely why companies keep releasing these wargame clones.
I haven’t played Risk or Axis & Allies since, because I’ve been too busy playing Smallworld.
With its colorful fantasy world, its generous sense of humor, and especially its fast-paced, dynamic gameplay, Smallworld revitalizes the notion of the conquest game, shifting alliances and advantages repeatedly in its (relatively short) playing time and providing a dramatically different experience each time you play. A few of its distinguishing features:
- Your troops consist of 14 races and 20 special powers, each conferring a distinct advantage in-game, and all randomly shuffled together to create novel combinations that open up new possibilities with every game. Over the course of the game you will have an opportunity to unleash several of these patchwork soldiers on the beleaguered map.
- Rather than constantly generating (and counting out) new troops, you bid on the random combinations that appear, and make do with the limited number of soldiers you get. This adds two exciting elements to the gameplay: first, the delight of stealing a coveted creation from under your opponents’ noses; and second, the difficult strategic decision of whether to push on with a civilization declining in power and resources, or to sacrifice a turn in abandoning an old race and purchasing another.
- The game does not encourage holding onto a chosen area and pushing back and forth against a few borders, as most conquest games do; instead, armies sweep dramatically across the board, abandoning some regions and invading others, before making way for a new army to try its luck on a different section of the map altogether.
- There are almost no dice, which raises the pace and makes Smallworld a game of strategy much more than chance.
Days of Wonder has periodically released minor expansions to Smallworld, most of which introduce additional races and special powers. (Eureka carries the expansions Cursed!, Grand Dames, Be Not Afraid and Tales & Legends.) But this month saw the introduction of the first full-fledged spin-off, Smallworld Underground, with a large new cast of characters, new maps and a cunning twist on the rules.
Smallworld Underground is a fully independent game, so a new player can begin with Underground alone, but is also fully compatible with the original. It also adds the game-changing element of Places of Power and Righteous Relics – secret bonuses scattered across the board that confer major advantages to the players who can hold onto them. This added tactical component is a considerable and devious change for veteran Smallworld players, without being unduly complicated for those trying the game for the first time.
Smallworld is a superb find for those who like shorter (roughly an hour and a half) strategy games, conquest games in general, or fans of fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons or Magic the Gathering. Stop by Eureka to check out the brand-new Smallworld Underground, the classic Smallworld, or any of the various Smallworld expansions.