There are plenty of games out there where you have to conquer the world -- but how many involve giving up and starting over as part of the path to victory? Small World, from Days of Wonder, beautifully expands on a Risk-type setting to create many options for victory in a world where there just isn't enough room for all the races. The goal of Small World is to earn the most victory points by the last round of play. At the start, players select a race and special power combination. There are 14 races and 20 special powers, and they are combined randomly and laid out in six rows. Each race has its own unique ability (for example, Dwarves get a bonus victory point for occupying a mine, Tritons need one less token to attack a coastal area), each special power is unique (Flying lets you attack anywhere, while Heroic lets you make two areas immune to enemy attacks and abilities), and adding the numbers on the race and power tell you how many tokens you get. You have to put a victory point token on each race-special power above the one you select, so the top one is free but picking the one on the fifth row will cost you four victory points (which other players get when selecting one of those race-special powers). Then it's on to combat!

Combat is pretty simple. Your first attack has to be from the edge of the board or adjacent to a coast. It takes two tokens to conquer a terriroty, plus one token for each Encampment, Troll Lair, Fortress, and Mountain in a territory, plus one token for each enemy token. If you defeat an enemy, the minimum number of your tokens used for the conquest are put in the territory, while one opponent token that was there is discarded, while the rest (if any) get moved to their other territories at the end of the turn. You can make more attacks, as long as you have the tokens to do them, to any territory adjacent to one you control. As your final conquest, you can try for a conquest you normally couldn't make by rolling a special six-sided die (with three blank sides, and a 1, 2, and 3 on the other sided) and subtracting the result from what you'd need to conquer. You then get to move your tokens onto any territories you control, you score a victory point for each territory you control (plus possible points from your race and/or special power), and then it's the next person's turn.

But you don't get new tokens (unless that's your race's special power), so sooner or later you'll want to start over -- and you can! Instead of attacking, you can send your race into decline: Each territory you hold goes down to one token, you lose any race and special power abilities, and you score one point per territory; you also discard any tokens from a previous in-decline race if you had one. (A few races and special powers operate while in decline, but very few.) On your next turn, you pick a new race and special power combo, and you re-enter the fray!

Small World is a very impressive game. There's a terrific combination of randomness and skill that keeps any one strategy or one combination from always providing victory; and the limited die-rolling adds a small element of chance that won't make or break a strategy. There's a nice sense of humor to the game, from the flower-sniffing Elves to the Hobbits' warning sign, and the mix of races and special powers makes for a funny game: One game featured Diplomat Skeletons, Alchemist Trolls, and Seafaring Ratmen. Knowing when to go into decline can be the key to victory (or defeat), as can being willing to pay more for a certain race-special power combo. And the board (has to be said) is a small world after all, with a fairly limited number of territories resulting in fierce combat and fairly quick games.

Small World is a great blend of strategy and chance, humor and planning, and it's a place worth checking out -- and conquering.

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch

No comments: