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Gaming Canon: Small World

There are certain games that go big, really big. They become so ubiquitous that just mentioning the name gets nods from gamers. Some may follow that nod with praise and some may follow that nod with groans. Either way, Small World is one of those games. It enters the Gaming Canon not because of its popularity, but because the attribute of game design it exemplifies is something that every gamer should experience. This, by far, is the best game that showcases variable player powers and asymmetric play.

Small World (based on Vinci) is an area control game in which players are presented with an array of randomly mixed races and special powers. These combinations also indicate how many units each player receives. As the game progresses, players will choose one of the combinations and play the units to the board. Over multiple turns the played race expands until it can no longer adequately conquer territory due to unit attrition or over-expansion. At that point, the player chooses for the race to go “into decline” and selects a new race and special power with which to continue the game.

The required experience to be gained from Small World lies in the seemingly endless combinations of racial and special powers. The way some combinations work is very powerful, while some combinations fall flat entirely. Selecting just the right combination to extend your next play is critical to success. Other games have special powers and asymmetric play, but rarely has a game shown how multiple asymmetries can be selected in the same game by the same player as part of game strategy. Learning how to select good race and special power combinations will set you up for success choosing those things in other games.

At this point you may be asking, why not Vinci? What has Small World done that eclipses that game? The answer is sheer volume.  There are no expansions for Vinci and Small World, combined with expansions, has dozens of playable races.

The other thing that Small World gets just right, much like Belfort, is the tongue-in-cheek humor attributed to each race. Playing Small World makes you take it seriously, but the animated style of the art keeps the conflict light hearted. You can trade blows with your neighbor and still go home happy.

You won’t forget playing Small World. It’s a game that demands replay, if, for anything, just to experience one more race and power combo. Indeed I will never forget my first play when Flying Elves screeched across the sky. Hopefully you’ll have that moment too.

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