The Big World of Small World, Part 3: Small World Realms

(You can find my previous discussions of Small World’s many expansions here and here, my review of Small World Underground here, and Christian’s review of Small World here.)

When I interviewed Small World designer Philippe Keyaerts, one thing that I asked him was when we’d see a “map pack” for the game. He didn’t have much to say at the time, but apparently fans pleaded loudly enough, because we now have Small World Realms. Included in the box are 26 terrain tiles along with mountain, chasm and peak tiles, the Tunnels expansion previously available for free from Days of Wonder, and some miscellaneous tokens for specific scenarios. The terrain tiles are double-sided, so that one side has Small World terrain, and the other side is for Small World Underground. The tiles are just thick enough and we had no problem with the board moving during play. The list price for the material is $35, which isn’t bad. The rulebook also comes with twelve scenarios for players to try.

I wasn’t sure how to write this article. There are so many different ways that this expansion can be played that I’m cautious of how I say things, because other people may have different experiences or expectations. I think that the best approach here is just to describe some plays and then end with some final thoughts. The scenarios chosen were “Adrift”,A Game of Gods”, and “The Sword in the Cavern”. One caveat I should mention is that these were all three-player games, although one great thing about the expansion is that there are enough tiles for several of them to scale to six players. However, I already think five players drags a little, so I find the game best with three or four players.

 

I played three games in a row with friends Dave and Jon. These two are veterans of the Small World system and we always have good, close games. Since they are seasoned players, I wanted to go straight to the medium complexity scenarios and do at least one of high complexity. We began with “Adrift”. In this scenario, the board is built from a specific set of tiles (the orientations aren’t specified in the rulebook, unlike other scenarios), but with a special rule. At the beginning of your turn, you can move a piece of the board! You can take any tile from the edge of the board – by pulling, not lifting, so you can’t pull “locked” tiles – and put it anywhere else, or just rotate it and put it back. We thought this was a great way to play, as it added another level of decisions directly connected to the other game choices. We started by doing obvious things, such as moving a tile with our troops so that it was adjacent to other desirable regions. However, Jon figured out some better uses in the middle of the game, such as moving a tile of my troops so that they were easy cannon fodder for Dave, and later using a tile to “lock” Dave’s troops so that he would not be able to move them around the board without some work. I won by a single point over Jon, primarily because I went for broke in the late game and skipped the first five races to take Ransacking Amazons, as well as a bunch of Dave’s and Jon’s money.  Afterwards, we all agreed that the tiles were great and we were eager for more.

 

The next scenario we played was “A Game of Gods”. In this scenario, players are given three powers and races at random at the start of the game which they keep hidden. There is no tableau of races – when you need a new race, you pick a combo of your choice from what you have. The rules just say “each item can only be used in a single combo,” but we weren’t sure if you could use a fourth race. We agreed that you had to cycle through all of what you had but that you could go back to your initial combo as your fourth one. We found some ambiguities like this in the scenarios, particularly in situations where a Small World map used Underground‘s River rules and vice versa, but we were able to reason through how we thought things should work pretty quickly. However, the real fun of this scenario isn’t the hidden abilities, but that you build the board during play. Each player chooses a tile to add to the board to begin the game, and then on each turn a player adds any available tile of his choice to the board, until there are at least 27 regions on the board (in the case of three players). When you add a tile, you may add a mountain or chasm, and you must add a native if there are two non-mountainous land regions. This led to a bit of ambiguity as well, because some mountain regions have symbols (Crystal, Mine, Underworld, and so on). I believe these are actually there so that you still have the symbol when you cover up such a region during setup, but the question arose if you could use these special mountains to basically add extra symbols to a tile. We’re always of the thought that the rules didn’t say we couldn’t do it, so we did it.

My selections were Underworld, Marauding, and Commando, along with Humans, Goblins, and Skeletons. I began the game by adding Underworld Farmland regions, and opening with Underworld Humans. Jon also began with a land-specific race (Wizards), and it didn’t take him long to start doing nasty things like adding a a tile with an Underworld Farmland region, but covering it up with the Crystal Mountain piece. I set myself up to go into decline just before they did, and then wiped them out pretty quickly with Marauding Goblins. This was a mistake, though, because they immediately decimated my Goblins so that I was forced to decline with Humans still all over the board, and my Berserking Skeletons weren’t very, well, berserk. I realized afterwards how much more important Marauding would have been to Skeletons – I never said I was a good Small World player! Meanwhile, Dave was being very odd about the way he was adding water to the board; in fact, he wanted his first piece to be an all-water tile, which I found suspicious. He finally used Tritons for his last race and got a pretty good haul out of them, beating Jon by two points for the victory (things weren’t going well for Jon that day). Being able to manipulate the board around the races you had in mind was pretty awesome, although you could certainly use the “build the board” idea with a race tableau, or do hidden races and powers with a different scenario. Towards the end of this game, I said to Dave that I don’t think we’ll ever use the regular boards again, and he agreed.

 

I wanted to make sure that I also tried a Small World Underground scenario with them, because the SWU-specific scenarios all require three players. We were getting a little brain-burnt after the new levels of play in the previous scenarios, so we chose the medium-complexity “The Sword in the Cavern” over the high-complexity “A Dig Too Far”. In this scenario, there is a narrow passageway in the middle where monsters guard The Sword of the Killer Rabbit (you use it to attack a terrain for 2 tokens less than usual). Meanwhile, there are Popular Places around the edges of the map but no other Relics.

Dave went first this game and went for Immortal Spiderines. Starting from a Chasm meant that he was able to get the Sword on the very first turn, and even use it on a conquest! We didn’t want to go for his throat since he was Immortal anyway, and unfortunately that meant it wasn’t long before he had pretty good control over three out of four Popular Places. I ended up decimating Jon’s first in-decline race simply because it was a better spot to attack with my Wise Will-o’-the-Wisps. I would have had a pretty good end-game situation with them in Decline, but I wasted several turns trying to knock out the dang Spiderines, which Dave ended up keeping the whole game just to see if it would work. Somehow, I barely won with 92, while Dave had 90 with his Spiderines and my initial onslaught on Jon’s forces put him just behind with 89.

We all agreed that “The Sword in the Cavern” was our least favorite scenario of the day. In my mind, Small World and Small World Underground are two separate games that we only mix on special occasions, mostly because of the different in terrain types and the difficulties that ensue. However, after repeated plays we realized just how basic the powers are in Underground, with so many of them just being ways to collect bonus coins, or rehashes of previous powers. We’ve played enough Small World that we have no problem mixing the Relics & Places with the more complex races of the original game, and if we were to play this scenario again I would just flip the tiles over and play it as a Small World scenario featuring Relics & Places. The fact that I can even do that is one of the great things about this expansion. I think the real reason we were less enthused with this scenario is that the ability for the board itself to be a decision point in “Adrift” and “A Game of Gods” was something that we just found to be incredible, and something we were immediately able to grok, since we have mastered the basics of the game.

 

However, the scenarios in this expansion certainly have options for all levels of Small World players. I intend to teach the game to a new player this weekend who became intrigued after seeing the TableTop video, and I’m sure the game won’t be any more difficult to teach using one of the low-complexity scenarios instead of the normal boards. In fact, I can’t really describe why, but I think that the terrain tiles actually look less “busy” and are easier to read at a glance than the original boards. There are also high-complexity scenarios that mix Small World and Small World Underground together using the included Tunnels expansion, and more importantly, there are all kinds of opportunities for user-generated scenarios.

I’ve called these articles “The Big World of Small World” because the world is “big” by way of having so many expansions, but these individual scenarios make the actual game world feel big in a very good way – it feels like you can begin to actually tell stories within the game’s universe, making the game much more than it was before. I’d really love to see some scenarios that carefully integrate the old expansions like Leaders of Small World, Necromancer Island or Tales & Legends, maybe even giving new uses to those extra components. For now, though, I’m more than excited to try these other new scenarios, and I’ve got half a mind to throw away the old game boards.

 

 

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