A Whole New World – Small World Underground review

As it so often goes, let’s begin with a confession. The first time I played the original Small World, I utterly utterly hated it. Chris (the splendid fellow who helps me answer questions on the Little Metal Dog Show podcast) brought a copy round for a bunch of us to play. We’d actually spent the whole day playing loads of different games while slowly working our way through a few little drinks and by the time Small World hit the table (at around 11pm) I was far from in the mood to learn a new game with a million pieces that involved thinking.

Five of us were huddled around the table as Chris attempted to explain the rules, most of which I seem to recall ignoring in a fit of “can we not just get on with it?”. Naturally I did terribly and – of course – declared it was awful and completely disregarded the game for months on end. Perhaps six months later I was coerced into a game at the local club I go to and realised that which most others already know: I am an idiot. Because Small World is actually pretty darn good.

Phillipe Keyaerts’ game of fantasy armies attempting to dominate their homelands is a masterpiece of simplicity and timing – and thankfully it’s way simpler than it initially looks. And now Days of Wonder have a follow up for us to throw ourselves into: Small World Underground.

What's in the box? Why, lots of stuff, of course!

If you’ve ever played the original, you’ll pick up Underground in no time at all. For those who’ve not played it, the idea is nice and easy to get your head around. Before the game starts, a selection of races are laid out before the players, each of which is also allocated a special power. As these are combined randomly, there are a ridiculous amount of combinations that can occur. Players select a race and power combo, take a set amount of tokens from the box and proceed to place them around the board, taking over as many little areas as possible.

Another combo is added for the next player to choose from, then they do the same thing: take their tokens and dot them around the board. And so it goes on for a couple of turns as people place their little avatars about the board taking control of areas until… the space runs out. And then the game turns supremely nasty as it actively encourages you to beat on your opposition, muscling in on their territories. Small World is mean.

But it doesn’t stop there, because once you’ve decided that your current race has outlived their usefulness, you put them into decline, flipping the tokens over on the board. You still score for them, but now you have a second race at your disposal complete with a brand new power. Time this switch right and you could end up with a massive advantage over the other players – and that’s exactly what you need.

A few of the available races' tokens. Personally I'm a fan of the Kraken.

Small World Underground takes everything from the first game and ramps it up ever so slightly. The included races and powers are a bit darker in theme and are all completely new ヨ they’re also compatible with the original game and all expansions. There are brand new maps to play on, specifically designed for two to five players, all fitting into the Underground theme. The major differences though? First of all, each board has something new for players to contend with – a river that requires crossing if you’re to expand enough to win! Only one of the races, the Kraken, can actually stay in the water, so you’ll have to consider strategies carefully.

There’s also the addition of special relics and ‘places of power’ that bestow special abilities upon the race that controls a given area. However, it’s not quite as easy as walking into a space and taking them – these spaces have monsters that need to be vanquished first. Once beaten, these powers grant some very useful boons, though they’re selected randomly at the game start and placed face down on the board so you’re never 100% sure what you may stumble across.

A few of the possible combinations available in Underground. There's fifteen races and twenty-one powers, which makes... many many combos.

Gameplay, once you get into the swing of it, is nice and simple especially if you’ve had any experience with the original game. However, even players who are new to the franchise shouldn’t have too much of a problem picking it up. The game comes complete with big help sheets that give you all of the information you’ll need about the races, powers and special relics, and as there’s only a few combinations available in a round you won’t need to refer back to it that often. Components are of the high quality that you would expect from a Days of Wonder title and production throughout is second to none.

There’s a rather large question looming above Small World Underground, however. If you already own the original version, is it worth picking Underground up? It’s a bit of a cop out, but yeah… if you’re a fan of the series, you should get on this one. If you’ve not got a copy of the first game, Underworld is definitely the one you should go for – should you dislike the Relics and Places of Power, you can always just phase them out of the game. While they’re not exactly necessary, they certainly add extra flavour to your plans for domination. Looking at it objectively, this is pretty much Small World version 1.1 – not a big enough leap for it to be called a true sequel, but certainly well worth playing. Another excellent addition to the DoW catalogue and one of the finest, nastiest games I own.

Small World Underground was designed by Phillipe Keyaerts and released by Days of Wonder in 2011. Between two and five players can vie for control, though I’ve found it best with four – games take about 60-90 minutes. It’s available now from your local game store or – of course – online for around £40 / $50. Now, Corrupt Dwarves or Royal Cultists…?

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