Small World Review - No I'm Not Singing The Song!

I think if you know anything about board games you're going to know what Small World is. It appears in many gateway games lists and is regarded as one of the all time staple games for a collection. But I don't see it played that often any more and I used to own it myself actually before eventually selling it off - I overloaded it with expansions and as a result it didn't hit the table often enough.

I never actually did a review on it either and at the very least it deserves one, particularly as a new small expansion has come out for it - "Rivers", which I'll do a separate review on shortly after this. Small World only barely made my Top 75 before and is still at the lower end of the last Top 100 so it will be interesting to see if Rivers can bump it up. I've always considered it a good game, but never a great one. What holds it back for me?

Designer: Philippe Keyaerts
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Age: 8+
Players: 2-5
Time: 45-90 minutes
RRP: £39.99

From Board Game Geek

In Small World, players vie for conquest and control of a world that is simply too small to accommodate them all.
Designed by Philippe Keyaerts as a fantasy follow-up to his award-winning VinciSmall World is inhabited by a zany cast of characters such as dwarves, wizards, amazons, giants, orcs, and even humans, who use their troops to occupy territory and conquer adjacent lands in order to push the other races off the face of the earth.
Picking the right combination from the 14 different fantasy races and 20 unique special powers, players rush to expand their empires - often at the expense of weaker neighbours. Yet they must also know when to push their own over-extended civilisation into decline and ride a new one to victory!
On each turn, you either use the multiple tiles of your chosen race (type of creatures) to occupy adjacent (normally) territories - possibly defeating weaker enemy races along the way, or you give up on your race letting it go "into decline". A race in decline is designated by flipping the tiles over to their black-and-white side.
At the end of your turn, you score one point (coin) for each territory your races occupy. You may have one active race and one race in decline on the board at the same time. Your occupation total can vary depend on the special abilities of your race and the territories they occupy. After the final round, the player with the most coins wins.


Days of Wonder are always top notch in their production quality, it's no secret and again no different here. A ton of tokens for all the races and abilities with colourful, vibrant artwork litter this box with a nice storage solution to hold them all. I only wish they included some way to distinguish which spot each race went into because you can only tell based by # of tokens and it's trial and error every time you put the game away. Also this insert is designed solely to hold this base set of Small World, which is a pain if you're going to expand this with more races (Spoiler alert, you can actually fit all of the Rivers expansion in this insert which is worth a point in itself for the rating).

On top of that you have a board with a nice map on it for every different player count from 2 to 5. Very few games do this and it's all there to ensure that Small World scales well no matter how many you play with in terms of map balance. All in all whatever the price tag is, you always get what you pay for and then some with a Days of Wonder game. My only small beef is the money not being double sided, but more on that later.


Small World will look like a "Fantasy Risk", but there's one key difference. The combat is deterministic, which means that as long as you have the required amount of forces to win a combat, you will win, e.g. you need 3 tokens to take over an enemy region with 2 tokens. There's no rolling of a die except for potentially a final conquest where you don't have enough tokens and are going for it. Therefore the luck element is kept to a minimum unlike a normal game of Risk. This will please many gamers I'm sure, but there's a downside. Deterministic combat isn't that exciting because there's no chance of failure. Small World definitely feels like a standard Euro game - there's not a huge amount of tension or excitement, the fun comes from exploiting combos and tactical play.

The crux of Small World is exploiting opportunities where you can and making the best use of particular combinations of races/abilities as they present themselves. Choosing the right moment to put your race into decline and essentially "skip a turn" is also key as bad timing will result in a big tempo hit to your point scoring. Be prepared to get stuck into each other though, you can't play Small World without getting in someones face eventually. Players that get off to an early lead need to be stomped down so unless you have a chance to surpass their scoring over time, you need to go on the offensive.

This can lead to some degree of being "picked" on at times, but the game is short enough so that this doesn't sting as much as it could.


The only thing that stops Small World being a gateway game for me is the array of abilities and races present. Some are easier to understand than others and every turn you've got 6 combinations showing, which means 12 different things to look up on this large reference chart. For a typical gamer you're left with no ambiguity after checking this, but for a brand new gamer, I can see that being a little overwhelming on top of the likelihood that they're going to lose their first game badly against someone who knows what they are doing.

Give it a couple of games though and they'll pick it up, so I'd call Small World a "next-step" game instead. And it won't take you too long to get through those games either. 90 minutes should be the longest a game should take and that's with 4-5 players including new/slow ones. But 2-3 players who know the system - you're talking a nice, quick 60 minute affair or less.

In the base game there's a good amount of variety for races and abilities, but if that's not enough there's many mini-expansions to collect for more variety, however be warned that doing so will result in a removal of the insert and maybe future potential storage issues.


Small World is regarded as a staple gateway game to have in ones collection. I'm a bit more on the fence about it. Small World is a decent game overall, it looks the business, scales well for all player counts and is a simple game to learn. However if this is to be classed as a gateway game it's at the higher end for definite. The rules may be easy, but constantly having to check what each race and ability does on a separate reference chart when you have 6 of each available all the time can get overwhelming for new players, not to mention it drags the time length out.

Once you're comfortable though, Small World progresses quite quickly at normal player counts and generates a few laughs. Despite the variety in races it can get a little repetitive, but there is a wealth of expansions to add to the mix if you choose, just be wary of storage issues. It lacks enough excitement and tension to make it a great game, but it's solid and will appeal to fantasy fans.


BROKEN RATING - 7 Races In Decline


You prefer deterministic combat over rolling dice.

You like having a variety of races and abilities to combo with.

You want a game that can scale well for those without analysis paralysis issues.


You're expecting a gateway experience for anyone who's never seen games before.

You want something more akin to a war game experience.

You don't want to have to expand it out to get the full benefit.