Saturday, March 30, 2013

Gateway Strategy: Smallworld (2-5+ players)

"It doesn't matter how many players or how old they are, Small World delivers a fun, fast-paced game every time and is a cornerstone of our collection."

Small World is a tile-based strategy game for 2-5 players ages 8 and up. Rules are simple, play is fast and it is as fun for two players as it is for five. When combined with the Small World: Underground stand-alone expansion and the Tunnels expansion (found in Small World: Realms) you can play with up to 6 players. Small World is also available on iPad (2-player only).

What is a Gateway Game?

Gateway games are ideal for introducing non-gamers to the hobby. Gateway games help retrain player's minds away from roll-the-dice-move-the-piece classics like Sorry and Monopoly and opens them to new possibilities. They're also perfect for introducing gaming to kids.

Co-Op and Partial Co-Op games also make excellent gateway games.


Fortified Tritons start with 9 tiles,
while the Diplomatic Amazons have 11
Small World is a strategy game where players take over territory to gain victory points. Instead of using complicated bonus calculation, charts or hands full of dice, SW uses a simple tile-counting mechanic to resolve combat. Players receive a number of tiles based on the race/special ability combo they choose. To take over an empty space on the map, the player simply places 2 tiles in that space. That's it.

If the space has one or more objects in it (a mountain, enemy tiles, etc), the player must place an additional tile for every object in the space; for example, a space with a mountain and an enemy tile in it would take 2 + 1 + 1 = 4 of the player's tiles to conquer. On following turns, players leave a single tile in each of their conquered territories, then use their remaining tiles to conquer new spaces, spreading out across the map. You gain 1 victory point for each territory you control at the end of each of your turns. The catch? After a few rounds, players will find themselves low on tiles and unable to conquer new territory. That's where the fun starts.

The Ratmen are In-Decline, while the
Gypsies and Wizards are still active.
When you run short on tiles and can't conquer any more territory, or when you find it strategically beneficial, you can put your race "In-Decline" by skipping your attack, leaving only one tile in each of your spaces, then flipping those tiles to the dull-gray side. These tiles cannot attack (unless you are playing the Ghouls, who continue to attack, even in decline). On your following turn, you select a fresh race and start taking over territories just like you did with the first race. You collect victory points from the territories of your new race and your In-Decline race as well. Deciding when to put your active race into decline is a key to any game of Small World.


Players start their turn by picking one of six race/special ability combinations that are determined randomly before each game. This is the secret to SW's replayability. You may have Flying Skeletons and Mounted Giants in one game, then Underground Skeletons and Fortified Giants in the next. The basic game comes with 14 races and 20 special abilities which allows for scores of potential combinations.

Another bit of brilliance by the SW developers involves the boards. No, that's not a typo. SW comes with two double-sided boards (one small and one large). The small board provides play space for either two or three players depending on which side you use. The larger is for four or five player games. Providing four boards is the secret to SW being as fun for two players as it is for five. The boards also force different strategies. For example, the tritons' special ability allows them to take over any territory that boarders the lake or ocean for one less tile, allowing them to cut a swath across the smallest board, while special abilities like flying are more beneficial on the larger boards.

On The Table

Set up takes 2-3 minutes. The first game or two will take longer as players learn the special abilities and racial powers; there are handy cheat-sheets to help. Also, once you learn a power, the graphics on each of the races and special ability tiles are designed as a reminder. Once players are familiar with the powers, turns are fast and a 2-player game can be finished in 15-20 minutes. Replayability feels limitless, though expansions add new races and abilities that bring noticeable freshness after your 30th or 40th game.

Final Verdict

Small World is one of those rare games that delivers what it advertises: fun for 2-5 players, ages 8+. I've played with my 9-year-old nephew, and friends in their 50's. I play 2-player games with my wife and 5 player on game nights. It doesn't matter how many players or how old they are, Small World delivers a fun, fast-paced game every time and is a cornerstone of our collection.

Other Links

Wil Wheton's Hilarious Small World TableTop Episode

A few notes on the Wil's game:
The Giants are not played correctly in the first round.
The Ghouls do not get to attack in the round they go into decline
(unless they have the Stout special ability)


Please remember to support your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) whenever possible. Many FLGSs have demo copies of their most popular games. They may also have game nights, tournaments and open demonstrations as well.

Live in the San Diego, California area? Visit my favorite FLGS: Game Empire. You can also check out gaming organizations like the San Diego Board Games Group, the College Area Board Games Group, and Geek Girls of San Diego.

Living in the Owensboro, Kentucky area? Check out my new favorite area store: Big Bang

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