Small World: Strategy Guide
You’ve probably heard the familiar proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Unfortunately, in Small World there are no fences. Races are at each other’s throats, using their special powers to gain the most real estate possible. As the game box’s catchphrase states, “It’s a world of slaughter, after all!” Don’t be a victim of the massacre and read on…
Small World isn’t like other combat-oriented board games, where you build up your resources, aggressively expand your empire and then hold onto everything you’ve got until the end of the game to earn the most victory points possible. Yes, you want as many victory points (coins) as possible from your conquering races; however, you can’t win with a single empire in Small World. You’ll need two or three races throughout the game to maximize your earning potential and score more victory points than your opponents by game’s end.
Remember, you can have one active race and one race in decline on the board. (The Spirit special power allows you to have two races in decline, but that rarely comes up so let’s not complicate the matter.) The longer you have both an active race and in-decline race working for you, the greater your chance of winning: having two races earning you points is almost always better than one race earning you points. Look to gain anywhere from eight to 12 victory points per turn once you have both races working in tandem; if you aren’t earning that much, think about going into decline again to improve your board position. Keep in mind, though, when you decline a race, you lose its special abilities in most cases, which will make them easier prey for other players, and you will lose an already-in-decline race if you decline again.
The key to mastering Small World is to know when to place your race in decline, which likely ends its hold on the board, but paves the way for your control of another race to renew your conquests. Unless you first-pick the Ghouls, whose race ability allows you to control them as if they were active even though they’re in decline and should go in decline on the second turn, you’ll want to spend two or three turns with your first race. Strategy in Small World depends a great deal on the race/power combos, but, in general, you have two choices in the beginning of the game: expand to as many regions as quickly as you can or advance slowly and defensively.
With a race like the Amazons or the Ratmen expanding as quickly as possible can reap rewards throughout the course of the game. The more regions you take, the more points you collect. So long as you don’t fear enemy races counterattacking and destroying your gains, this is the best strategy. Unfortunately, good players won’t let this happen, and when you expand as far as possible you spread yourself thin. One token in each region is easy for your opponents to retake, so your initial gains may be lost quickly. Still, if you can expand far and wide, it may take several turns for your empire to fall, and you earn points for all those regions you hold during that time.
With defensive-minded races or in a hotly contested game where players are constantly looking to dismantle your empire, a slow, well-defended advance is usually the better option. Races like the Trolls and Halflings offer built-in defense, making them difficult to remove without serious expenditures on your opponent’s part. Mountain regions prove added protection, and stacking three or more tokens on a region will also deter most opponents. Due to the effort involved in removing heavily defended areas, most opponents will go elsewhere, thus leaving your region on the board longer and earning you more points over the whole game.
For your second race, you want a race with staying power. You don’t want to decline that second race too quickly or you’ll destroy the first race in decline when you take your third race. A strong second race might have a good combat ability, such as the Elves’ ability to recover tokens in battle or the Sorcerers’ ability to transform an enemy’s single token into another Sorcerer, a large amount of tokens, such as the Ratmen or a good race/power combo, or strong defensive measures, such as the Halflings’ holes-in-the-ground or the Trolls’ lairs. It’s possible to ride a strong second race to the end of the game, if you’re earning enough with your combined races each turn, or you get far enough into the game to pick up that third race when your first race has been wiped to near-extinction or extinction.
Of course, you must consider what your opponents are plotting too. Based on your board position and your active race’s race/power combo, plan your attacks on enemy territories based on several factors. If an opponent has a weak declined race (generally, four or less regions), don’t worry about them unless you are in a two-player game; attack another player to limit their real estate. If your opponent has a strong declined race, study his active race and react accordingly. Let’s say your opponent’s active race has an offensive power like Dragon Master or Mounted, it’s better to wait for them to spread out thin before counterattacking with a new race of your own. If your opponent’s active race has a defensive power like Diplomat or Heroic, go after the opponent’s declined race and limit his scoring that way. Hopefully, if you hammer away enough, your opponent will be forced to decline again to improve his scoring position and give up his potent defensive power. If your opponent’s active race has a scoring power, such as Alchemist or Merchant, go after the active race immediately to limit the scoring opportunities. Punish them enough and you’ll force them into decline, destroying their previously declined race as well.
Small World is definitely a game of seizing opportunities. Many opportunities come from the moves you make with board position; however, the opportunities all start with the race/power combinations you choose. Take a look at how we’ve ordered the races according to the best opening, mid-game, and end-game choices. Many of these races perform well in other times of the game, especially depending on the special power matched up with the race, but this is a good rule of thumb for when to pick them up:
Ghouls. Unlike their name might suggest, these undead are anything but “deadbeats.” Take them early and often. They are the best opening race because of their special ability to work as an “active race” even in decline. If you pick them, go into decline on turn two and you’ll effectively have two active races on turn three.
Amazons. For the offensive opening strategy of expanding as quickly as possible, the Amazons carry a huge attack force with them. The four bonus Amazonians only apply on the attack—you lose them during redeployment—which means you’re vulnerable to counterattack, but with the Amazons it’s about taking as much territory as possible knowing that some of it will disappear quickly. The Amazons are also a very effective mid-game race.
Ratmen. Sheer numbers—two more tokens than any other race—give the Ratmen a combat advantage during any part of the game. Highly effective in the mid-game too, the Ratmen can function similarly to the Amazons early when they conquer everything in sight. Because of the high number of tokens, they can also play defense by advancing slowly and stacking tokens against enemy counterattacks.
Trolls. If you’re looking for a defensive start, you’ll love the Trolls. They might not cover as much ground as Amazons or Ratmen, but their lairs grant a defensive bonus to each conquered region. Once you reach five or six regions, hunker down and announce your decline. Troll lairs stick around even in decline, which gives Trolls a tremendous advantage to sticking around even with only a single token on each decline region.
Giants. Much like the Tritons, the Giants’ combat ability keeps them around a long time in the game. Begin on a mountain, then attack out from that mountain for a bonus toward conquering the surrounding regions. Reach out to another mountain and you can begin new conquests at bargain rates. Because Giants love mountains, it also helps on defense when it’s counterattack time. The Giants are also an effective second race.
Tritons. Any combat ability that makes seizing regions easier will keep a race in the game longer. The Tritons may be limited to coastal areas, but there are enough that finding water-friendly regions is generally easy on any Small World map. Start at a strategically sound coastal area and trace an attacking path through as many regions connected to water as you can. The Tritons are also an effective second race.
Elves. The Elves are a fearsome force: opponents just can’t get rid of them. All Elves eliminated by opponents return to your hand for the next turn’s attack, which means they bounce back better than any other race. They might not gain as much territory as other races, but they will stick around for a long time and earn you points.
Sorcerers. Perhaps the most annoying race, Sorcerers can turn a single opposing token into another Sorcerer, thereby claiming a new region and adding a new Sorcerer to their midst. Even better, this ability can be used against each opponent each turn, so in a multiplayer game where you border on many opponents, this is a devastating strategy.
Skeletons. These undead grow from the bones of fallen foes: for every two occupied regions you conquer in a turn, you gain a new Skeleton. Depending on the circumstances, it can equal or surpass the abilities of the Elves and Sorcerers. Because the Skeletons’ ability relies on taking territories, don’t hold back. Defense isn’t what they do best.
Halflings. The first two regions the Halflings play in gain holes-in-the-ground. These holes are invulnerable to attack and special abilities; perfect defense against invading hordes or insufferable abilities like Dragon Master and Sorcerers. Use the holes to set up an impenetrable barricade against an aggressive enemy and advance in the opposite direction.
Orcs. All the coin-collecting abilities help at any point in the game, but really come in handy near the end. The Orcs’ ability to gain an additional coin for each conquered region gives you a quick injection of coins, doubling your victory points if you can continue to take over regions. Sitting around on defense doesn’t help you, so go out with a blaze of glory and seize everything you can.
Humans. You collect one bonus coin for farmlands you control. Not an ideal ability, but good for extra points at game’s end or if you can tag team with a special power that grants you easy access to farmlands.
Wizards. You collect one bonus coin for each magic source you control. Not an ideal ability, but good for extra points at game’s end or if you can tag team with a special power that grants you easy access to magic sources.
Dwarves. The worst race in the game, you do collect one bonus coin for each mine you control. Unlike the Humans and Wizards, Dwarves give you this ability even in decline. However, and this is a big however, Dwarves only start with three tokens. The low tokens cripple them in almost all situations, except late in the game if you can seize several mines.
Stout. If you have the opportunity to take this power with your opening race, don’t hesitate. Stout enables you to decline without skipping a turn, and gaining a whole extra turn is priceless in Small World. During the mid-game and late-game, it’s useful too; however, since you likely won’t want to decline right away in the mid-game or you may run out of time in the late-game, opening with it is best.
Dragon Master. The best combat ability offers you advantages at any point in the game, though early and mid-game take advantage of Dragon Master the most. Smash your opponent’s toughest region with just a single token and/or use the Dragon Master token as a defensive barricade to block an opponent’s counterattack. Consider snatching this up no matter the race attached.
Commando. The ability to conquer any region at one less is incredibly powerful at any stage of the game, though probably best combined with an offensively minded race at the start. It’s better than Berserk because you know what you’re getting in combat, but it only offers a four-token boost to your race.
Berserk. You gain a die roll to your attack, which can mean a big boost of troops or nothing, making Berserk a strong, if unpredictable, combat ability. It can help you spread out early if you combo it with a high-token race; a low-token race won’t take advantage of its combat power.
Wealthy. Seven extra victory points is nothing to sneeze at. It doesn’t give you any combat bonuses and only offers four tokens for your race. Still, if you plan on declining your race early, you can grab the coins for Wealthy and keep them in the bank when your race checks out for something better.
Mounted. While not as dominating as the other combat abilities above it, Mounted can be a great boon for Humans and any high-token race near hills and farms. It’s probably best for early expansion, but don’t discount it during mid- or late-game when you need to pick up several regions in one fell swoop.
Seafaring. An innocent enough looking power, don’t underestimate its effect on a starting race. Seafaring opens up the normally off-limits water spaces, and once you expand into them, you’ll be untouchable there for the rest of the game. Extra victory points each turn if you can expand to enough of the water spaces to make it worthwhile.
Diplomat. Maybe the best multiplayer ability, Diplomat shines during the mid-game when you want to maintain board position. Attack one race while declaring another adjacent opponent cannot attack you. In two player, you can attack the declined race and then declare that your opponent’s active race cannot attack you. Simply brutal in many cases!
Alchemist. You don’t want to decline early with this power, so skip it for an opening race. Instead, cash in with two extra coins per turn with a strong second race that hangs around a long time. It can be helpful late, but only if you have several turns to work with it.
Bivouacking. Similar to the Trolls’ lair ability, this increases each of your region’s defense by one, up to a maximum of five regions. Great for a defensive mid-game position, though, unlike the Troll lairs, these encampments disappear when you go into decline. Its five-token race bonus is nice too.
Fortified. The fortifications not only strengthen your defensive position, but hand you an extra coin per turn. It’s buff during the mid-game, especially combined with a strong defensive race like the Elves, Halflings, or Trolls. It’s important to note that the fortification’s coin bonus goes away when you decline but the defensive bonus stays.
Merchant. Combined with high-token races like Amazons and Ratmen, this power is tremendous. Combined with low-token races, it’s not. Merchant will also make you a prime target for counterattack, so it’s best to use with a race that can play defense and hold regions.
Spirit. This unique power allows you to have two races in decline. Although you can take it early and decline that race immediately, Spirit is stronger if you take it with your second race (opting for a better combat ability with your first race), play that race as long as possible, then decline for a third race without losing your first race.
Heroic. Fairly useless early when you want to decline quickly and late when you don’t have to worry about defense as much, Heroic works well in the mid-game when you have good board position and want to hold it. Combine it with Halflings and you have an impenetrable defense: four regions that cannot be attacked or influenced by special abilities!
Underworld. Really great at any time, Underworld is almost like Flying but with an attack bonus. Early on you can expand in multiple directions, making it difficult for a single opponent to eliminate your race, but late you can snipe opponents better regions, especially the ones earning bonus gold.
Flying. A solid ability at any stage of the game, Flying works very well when combined with late-game scoring races as you can zip them from choice region to choice region. If Flying comes up during the mid-game, consider tapping into it to hit your enemies where they are least prepared.
Pillaging. Other than offering your race five units, this power doesn’t aid you in combat, but it does provide a bonus coin for each conquered region. If you think the race Pillaging is teamed with can raid lots of regions, it’s a great pick-up, even mid-game, and if you get Pillaging Orcs, look out!
Forest. Weak at the start when you want to decline quickly, though can be effective mid-game if you can play defense and hold the forests for extra points. Generally, it’s best near the end of the game when you can grab the higher point areas and don’t have to worry about counterattacks as much.
Hill. Weak at the start when you want to decline quickly, though can be effective mid-game if you can play defense and hold the hills for extra points. Generally, it’s best near the end of the game when you can grab the higher point areas and don’t have to worry about counterattacks as much.
Swamp. Weak at the start when you want to decline quickly, though can be effective mid-game if you can play defense and hold the swamps for extra points. Generally, it’s best near the end of the game when you can grab the higher point areas and don’t have to worry about counterattacks as much.
MAXIMIZING SMALL WORLD
No race or power stands alone. In Small World, it’s the combination of race and powers that makes for the best strategy at each point in the game. For example, Commando Amazons creates an offensive juggernaut, while Fortified Trolls merges the two into a defensive powerhouse. Berserk Skeletons will scare up a lot of territory; Heroic Skeletons not so much. Even Dragon Master Dwarves can work, though Merchant Dwarves, with their whopping five tokens, falls flat in any situation.
With 20 special powers and 14 races in the original Small World, each game brings new possibilities. Recognizing those possibilities and seizing the moment are vital to winning. After all, it might be a small world, but you have big ambitions…