The Small World Underground Review
Some people says that this world is a small world. This kind of phrase usually said when people meet others in different place or situation, or when we’re connected to others via others. A friend of friends or a colleague of colleagues and so on. Network, a web of relationship that intertwined each other which driven by fate or decisions. In this game, God created the world small, with of course, big problems. Now what kind of small and what kind of big? It’s small because sharing is not an option, and big because conflict lead us to war against each other. This game is a stand alone sequel from the famous game Small World from the same game designer, Phillip Keyaerts and Publisher, Days of Wonder.
I chose Small World Underground instead the original Small World for this review because Underground was my first official game of Small World, which led to series of play with it. But I am gonna explain the differences between the original and the Underground for comparison.
1. The Theme
The theme of the game is about land conquest with different special races and different various abilities. Each player will choose one of the available races and the ability attached to them and conquest the land to gain points at the end of his turn. Small World Underground has the same theme like the original game, the only difference is just in Underground, like the title says it, the map is on underground, with underground river and volcanoes, muddy fields, mines, mushroom fields and crystal mines.
2. The Artworks
The artworks, undeniably are awesome. The cartoon illustrations of the characters, detailed maps which brought contrast and crisp look of the game. You won’t be disappointed with this one from artwork aspect and in my opinion and personal taste, i prefer this one compare with the original one way better. The original one is kinda bit standard and light on the eyes with lighter tones while Underground is really in the opposite with darker tones (being mostly black as the majority color) but full of contrast collision with other colors. For most of the character illustrations, this one has managed to fully grasp the general audience interest. Who doesn’t like fantasy characters with funny and cute illustrations? Even girls like those, and when girls like it, how could you not like it, boys? It’s battle alright, but cute ones. Maybe you can even pick your favorite races by only judging the illustrations. So, this game is a plus for the artworks alone. And guess what, the artist is Miguel Coimbra, the man behind the wonder arts of 7 Wonders.
3. The Game Components
Now, what component lies for this kind of game? Well, this game use tiles instead of tokens or minis.Lot of tiles. Let start with the map. A beautiful map mounted in board (double sided). Wait, you’re not only get 1 board, but 2 boards. Wait, 2 boards? Yes 2 boards, one for 4-5 players game and smaller one for 2-3 players game. The reason, well for compatibility I guess. A good thing, for this easily create perfect game without hurdling with fiddly setup to adjust the game balance. 15 race banners, also in double sided, active and decline version. 179 race tiles (compiled from the 15 races). 21 special power badges also in double sided. There are also lots of game pieces like mountain tiles, popular place tiles, relics and other special tiles. 106 Victory coin tiles in 1/3/5/10 denominations, a 6 sided wooden reinforcement die and round marker tile, great quality print rulebook and 6 summary sheets (5 sheets for players and one for the whole group).
The tiles are perfectly made, with distinguished colors for different races to make them easier to be recognized on the board. A good and innovative idea with the badges and banners, which are in perfectly attachable shape between those two. A great component game indeed and to add more, the game comes with an insert tray to contain all the components (which are hundreds of tiles) in a neat and organized way. It even has plastic cover on top of it, to make sure the tiles don’t go spilling all over the place. But it doesn’t end here, the insert tray also has double function as an easy display rack for the tiles during game play. So you need to get the tray out and you’re ready to play. Every time you need race tiles, you can easily pick those from the tray (easy to find also). What a convenience, right?
4. The Game Play
Though by the theme presentation of the game, it directs you to assume it’s somewhat has an Ameritrash smell but I must say it’s not, not even close. It is an Euro game and using Tile Placement and Area Control mechanics as it’s core. The goal of the game, like most Euros, is Victory Points, which called Victory Coins. The player with most Victory Coins by the end of the game win the game. So, how you collect all the coins? The game last for several turns / rounds (call whatever you like) depending the number of players. During these turns, players take turns to deploy their selected race into the map and conquer regions with their previous selected race. The last reqion to conquer can be reinforced with 1 reinforcement die. Once a player deploy all his available race tiles, he can allocate his tile distribution (leaving at least 1 tile in a region is possible) and then he score some Victory Coins based on how many regions he control at that time plus other bonus based on his race special ability and advantage. The Victory Coins are kept hidden / secret, other players don’t know how many coins a player has. After that his turn ends and next player moves.
The play of the tiles are simple, to conquer a region (empty regions), normally using 2 race tiles (check the region types and the race ability and advantage, sometimes there are modifiers for this). In other cases, if there is another tile (enemy race tile, mountain, monster / neutral unit) in the selected region, a player needs 2 tiles and plus the same equal amount of available tiles in that region to conquer it. For example, if there are 2 neutral unit tiles in a region that a player want’s to conquer, he need to place his 4 race tiles instead of 2 tiles.
Sometimes during the game, a player may have a specific consideration or condition to decline his selected race, This means, he pass his turn (conquering regions) and remove all his race tiles except one tile in each controlling region. The rest of the tiles are flipped out as an in decline sign same with his race banner and badge. After that, he score normally based on his controlled regions (please note that while in decline most of the abilities and advantages are not active). In the next turn, that player can choose a new race available by paying the cost of Victory Coins. The amount of cost are different based on the position of the races drawn. What I mean by position is, in the beginning of a game, there are 6 visible races opened on the table. The rest are still closed. To achieve one of the races, player must pay coins, with the bottom level is free, and 1 coin for each level above. In the beginning of the game, each player will be given 5 coins to purchase his first race. This 5 coins can get you the most top of the race by spending all of the 5 coins, so the races available still a balance, though generally often considered as a luck element of the draw and timing.
A player can have 1 in decline and 1 active race during the game (unless stated otherwise). If he wants to acquire new race, he must remove his in decline race first, before getting new one.
5. The Replay Value
This game is very interesting, fun, highly interactive, direct confrontation yet simple. The Underground version though very similar like the base game (from game play point of view), it has different races and special abilities from the base game. But all of these races can be combined, mix or replaced between these two games. So you can play the races from the base game in Underground version or vice versa. This open the games to a wide range of selection, which you can combine, mix and match all the races and abilities. From this, players can feel new races and abilities interaction, new kind of combos and other stuff. The game is supposed to be played quick, around 60-90 minutes. But, sometimes players interaction prolong the game much longer.
Not satisfied by the various different races and abilities? Underground version gives you new elements and components like Popular Place and Relics which can be brought into play by conquering regions with neutral units. Popular Place and Relics are drawn random and can be activated by a player that own them (these new elements change the game play quite a bit. You can add more fun and variants from the expansions. Event cards, new special race that allows 6 players game and also others.There is new expansion (Tunnel) which can connect the 2 maps from the base game and the Underground version (so now you can play 2 maps in one game), or the latest expansion of Small World Realms, which players can assembly puzzle maps in different scenarios. So I would say the game has high replay value and to add more of it, each game has different feel by playing with different groups.
My Thought of The Game
At first I don’t like Small World (base game), had tried the iOS game apps and didn’t like it very much. Maybe it’s mostly because the apps interface. But, when my friend brought The Underground version to the table, I gave it a try and instantly interested. This led into another several plays and like the game. I had great time playing this with my group and they’re hilarious. We let table talk in our plays and this might be the key to outstanding and fun experiences of the game. And yes, we usually makes this 60-90 minutes game into 120 minutes game only because the table talk. Worth having in your collection, and the reason I don’t have this jewel is because most of my friends in my gaming group has already own it.
*) some of the images are courtesy of BGG Users