Small World

Tabletop Tuesday: It's a Slaughter After All!

small world map
System Requirements:
Philippe Keyaerts

Small World is a European and American hybrid wargame, a reworking of Philippe Keyaerts own previous game, Vinci. Like a good Eurogame, the rules are streamlined and easy to follow. However, Small World is unlike typical Eurogames, which favor indirect conflict. Every turn you attack and seize territory from your enemies and thus your gain is their loss. The combat is an almost diceless system that uses an auction-like system derived from Francis Tresham's Civilization boardgame. There is also an auction system for picking your faction. There are fourteen Race banners and twenty Special Power badges; both are shuffled then interlocked to create a six Race and Special Power Combo, or a faction. The numerous permutations of Race and Special Power Combos create numerous factions making every game different. There is also two, double-sided map boards, scaling for two, three, four, and five player games to ensure that crowding occurs, which produces territory conflict.​

The combat system is as follows. ​​​​You need to commit two units (chits) of your faction, and one additional for every cardboard chit that occupies a territory. Say your Elves faction want to attack one Troll faction in a Fort on top of a Mountain. The Troll is a chit, as well as the Fort and the Mountain; making it three chits. Therefore two Elf units plus three Elf units, a total of five, are requires to conquer the territory. Making terrain into a chit, is a UI marvel. No need for charts--just count the cardboard chits. At the end of your turn, your final attack, you get to use the Reinforcement Die, a six-sided die with +1 unit, +2 units, +3 units, and three blanks. The die gives you an opportunity to take one additional territory with little resources. The Reinforcement Die is a brilliant scheme, adding tension to each turn, and yet because it only affects the acquisition of one territory, it does not overwhelm the game with chaos.

The game's best feature is the rise and decline of your factions. As you battle and hold territories, your faction will stretch thin. At this point you must choose your faction to go into decline. A declined faction no longer moves but still counts for scoring. On your following turn you will get a new faction and you get to score from both declined and active faction. You tend to go through three to four factions per game. Going through multiple factions does a few interesting things.

  • Catchup mechanism--if a player's faction is crushed, he can return next turn with a new faction.
  • Encourage alliances--since each player will often have two factions on the board, players will be fighting a multi-front war and only can defend themselves with shifting alliances.
  • Strategic element--timing when to go into decline is an art. Timing your declines and setting up for the next faction is crucial.

Small World plays great with any number of players except for two. With two players, there are no alliances and it becomes a Eurogame of point-maximizing rather than a game of diplomacy. There is a excellent softboard version of Small World for the iPad by same publisher. It is designed for only for two players but nevertheless is a great way to practice.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

I love this game

I was instantly hooked on this the first time I played it. It has a lot of what makes games like Risk fun, with things like limits on your number of units preventing people from expanding and crushing out the less lucky/skilled players too early. The powers are cleverly done and generally fun, and even if a race/power combo is completely unbalanced, the game encourages players not in the lead to cooperate and crush the owner of that combo, yet without crippling him and basically removing him from the rest of the game. That's really the best part: the decline mechanic, especially once you learn to use it, allows any player to have a chance of continuing effectively if their current strategy fails. And of course, the turn limit prevents the game from dragging on for hours as so many of these games do.

The second game in this series, Smallworld Underground, has just come out and it manages to slightly tweak the whole game without really breaking any of the basics. Love the damn thing.


This is the designers second run at the same game - as they were also responsible for designing the excellent Vinci which follows a similar theme of nations rising and declining with different combination of powers.

I think that Smallworld is the better version of the two - it's certainly more polished - so this is more a historical note then anything else.

Good idea

That's really the best part: the decline mechanic, especially once you learn to use it, allows any player to have a chance of continuing effectively if their current strategy fails.

This really is a good idea here.

RISK is hurt by the intense politics that naturally arise (using Garfield's definition of political) in a game where every action hurts one (and usually only one) of your opponents.

SmallWorld is political in the same way, but the pain is blunted because victory is divorced from play position. You can be losing irrevocably in victory points, but still be playing the game (and, in fact, you may even be in a dominant position on the current board).

It's a smart solution to at least part of the "political game" problem - that they can suck to play. Risk sucks when everyone is attacking you. Catan sucks when nobody will trade with you and you can't build anything. Monopoly sucks when when you're losing and, uh, or when you're winning or otherwise.

SmallWorld is still a political game, and the winner is still influenced by politics in ways that are frustrating if you're a serious gamer that's playing to win. However, because of clever mechanics, the politics don't spill over into ruining the game part. You still typically have interesting play options even if others try to put the squeeze on your victory points - and you still have interesting options even when you have no hope of winning.


Now you see I think Vinci is better because of the constraints it works under. Small World is more polished, sure, but I actually find the pseudo-historical sheen of the original to be more accessible. Then again, maybe it's just the fun of trying to assign "real" tribes to the power tile combos? With a blank-slate fantasy world, this isn't nearly as involving, but the new system certainly allows for much more design space.