Ramblings of an Engineer

It is a Smallworld after all.


With my Ivory Tower of Priestesses standing strong on my now only remaining claimed territory, my position for the end of times never belt better. All I had to do is withstand the next few rounds, and claim my reward, but dark winds blew as a new race appeared from the edge. Once they planted their disgusting footprint on the blood soaked battlegrounds, out of sheer terror, all I could do is pray to the Gods for mercy of a quick death. No soul would withstand the Ratmen and their might Dragon!

It did not take long for the filth to reach the edge of my Ivory Tower. A thousand Ratmen could never conquer these fortifications, but their unrivalled talents as Dragon Trainers makes a single puny Ratman capable of genocide only comparable to the Death Star. Once the march began, all I could do is shed my precious tears as my lovely priestesses with their elegant white hair get slaughtered like a pig. If only I had more territories between me and that filth, then I could have claimed my righteous victory, but unfortunately, this is a small world.


As a big fan of strategic domination games such as Risk, Stratego, Game of Thrones, and Civilization (the last two are much more complicated and aren’t strictly games about domination), I was finally able to play Smallworld. For those of you unfamiliar, which sadly is more than is acceptable, Smallworld is all about simple math, streamline combat, hysterical race combinations, and on a darker note, systematic genocide in an extremely small fantastical world.  We will get to that one later.

The core of the game is all about claiming territories in order to collect gold which at the end of the game determines the winner. How you go about this is where the strategy comes in to play. So as compared to Risk, Smallworld is not about world domination, but rather is about carefully planning and using the limited units provided to you to optimize and maintain your territorial control which after the end of each turn produces that precious gold you are collecting.

Conquering of territories is done by using the selected race units provided to you. Each territory has a base value of 2, but for every additional token on the territory, the value is increased by one. These tokens could be anything from a mountain, to a troll lair, to your opponents units. So in order to conquer said territory, you must have the equivalent amount of unit tokens as the total value of the territory (2 + every token currently on the territory). So what arithmetic is involved is very simple and straightforward.  You just have to beat the tokens plus 2. If you can do that you have successfully conquered that piece of land.


So knowing that battling is so streamlined and no luck is involved, where is the fun? The fun comes from the selection of which race you want to use for your conquest. Smallworld is filled with fantasy races from Humans, Elves, Trolls, Skeletons, and so on. Each race has a different racial trait that either helps in the conquest phase or adds gold to treasure pile. Also, some races will give you more unit tokens than other which will natural hinder or improve your ability to claim territory. But the true twist to which race to select is the additional trait that is randomized. These traits are independent of the race, and they all add improvements to your race and as well as units to your race.

There are always six races and six additional traits that are associated with each race to select. So the real strategy is selecting the right combination at the right time to maximum your gold collection, but there is a catch when choosing a race combination. For each race you pass up, starting from the bottom of the line, you must place 1 gold on that race. So not only are you sacrificing your hard-earned gold to get a race and trait you want, but you are potentially giving that gold to one of your opponents if they so happen to choose that race you thought was not worth your time.  That balance between getting a combination you want and rewarding others for selecting a race can alter the outcome, especially if the race sits there for the whole game.


Now, for those that haven’t played Smallworld, you may be wondering if there is a mechanic for choosing more than one race. Well, this is actually a critical aspect of the game. So to give a simple answer, yes, but the answer is never that simple. You can never actively control more than 1 race at a time. What I mean by actively is that only 1 race can be capable of conquering territory. Eventually, that race won’t have enough units left to conquer, remember it takes a total of at least 2 to claim an empty territory. So you are going to have to abandon that race, or as the game calls, go into decline.

Going into decline takes a full turn and now renders your units as inactive. Luckily though, those inactive units on the board stay on the board and collect gold for territories they have claimed. They just can’t do anything else. Now, once you have a race go into decline or voluntary extinction as I see it, you are allowed then to pick a new race combination, and start the turn with a new fresh set of unit tokens as you lay waste to your opponents.


That’s the general gameplay, but hopefully you see where the fun comes from in Smallworld. It is very heavily scaled towards the strategy side over the luck. Actually the only luck involved is the race combinations, and the ‘last conquest’ phase which involves a dice and hoping that you can overcome a territory with insufficient units. That’s a small detail. While Smallworld does allow you to control your own outcome, removing potential game-altering shifts does take away from the enjoyment of spontaneity that other games can provide and are often remembered most. As for being a strategic domination game, it does cleverly avert the norm of eliminating players. Unlike Risk, Monopoly, and other more traditional, classical games, the mechanics of Smallworld allows players to participate during the whole game. So you lose all of your Dwarfs. It’s okay, go into decline and select a new race.

Perhaps the most glaring problem for an overall solid board game is that there is not interact between players. You can literally play your turn, walk away from the table for 10 minutes and wait for your turn, and then come back and play because while you missed your opponent’s turns, their turns don’t require you for anything. This is especially problematic for larger games because even trying to develop a strategy for your next turn is meaningless because the current condition of the game will drastically change before you can conquer again. On a 3-person game, this is less of an issue because the game progresses faster and waiting period between turns is short.

Overall, Smallworld is a more fun and enjoyable version of Risk that removes the luck and knocking out of players by streamlining battles and the use of multiple races. It is also significantly shorter. Once you get over the overwhelming amount of information at the beginning, the gameplay is simple, quick, and most importantly fun. Repeat playing is where the true fun begins because you are more comfortable with the mechanics, and also you are better aware of beginning, middle, and end strategies as well as familiar with the races and traits. So go out there with your underground Tridents or Stout ghouls and conquer this small world.


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