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Review: Smallworld Underground board game

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Box top for Small World Underground

Title: Smallworld Underground
Price: $50.00
Release Date: July 2011
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Age: 8 and up (younger players will need some help, I think)
Pros: Game plays differently every time, multiple boards and easily playable in under 2 hours.
Cons: Many similarities with Smallword and lots of special rules simultaneously in play.
Overall Score: Two thumbs up, 90/100, A-, **** out of 5

Smallworld Underground is a new game but very similar to Days of Wonder’s hit game, Smallworld. It has the same basic premise and mode of play: Gamers take control of a sequence of fantasy races, invading an uninhabited fantasy world. At first, expansion is easy, but eventually all the world is claimed, and new races come into play only by squeezing out the older races.

From two to five players can play (best with three or more), and the game comes with different boards to accommodate different numbers of players.

Days of Wonder has a solid reputation as a boardgame company with several distinct titles that form their own genre with many expansions and variant games. Much like their awesome Ticket to Ride franchise, Smallworld games are difficult to categorize, although an old Avalon Hill game, History of the World, has some similar mechanics (and is a longer, more serious game). Smallworld Underground is basically Smallworld with different races with a few additional things thrown in, anyone familiar with Smallworld will pick up the basic rules quickly.

Pick an Identity and Conquer

After a quick setup where the board is stocked with a few monsters and terrain pieces, the first player needs to pick his starting race from a random list of a half dozen available, with new choices generated as old ones are chosen. Each race also gets a random special ability tacked onto it. A player can pick the top race ‘for free’, or pay victory points to choose a race and ability combination lower in the list (as games can easily be decided by a few victory points, this is an important decision). The races come from a wide variety of standard underground creatures like dwarves, drow and mummies, as well as a few unusual choices like will o’ wisps and mudmen. Attached to a race is a random special rule. For example, “Mining” gives a race bonus victory points for occupying mines (a great power when on dwarves, that already get another bonus for mines), while “Royal” grants a queen that will help protect the race.

You add the big numbers on the Ability and Race cards to get the starting armies, which are used to conquer territory. Combat is mostly a simple, dice-less affair: The larger army wins and, except for the last conquest, you cannot attack a region unless you can commit a larger army. The last conquest is usually a desperate attack, victory determined by a die roll, the only roll in the game. At the end of the turn, the player gets victory points based on holding territory and a myriad of special rules. Each turn, the player gathers up his armies that he won’t use for holding territory (usually you just want to hold territory), and attacks again.

Eventually, the starting armies either are already holding all the territory they can or, through attrition by attacks from other players, have reduced the armies to a handful making further expansion pointless. In this case, the player can have his race go into Decline, often losing its special abilities, although still generating victory points for held territory. The turn after his race goes into decline, he picks a new race, re-invading the map board (he can even attack his old race, although usually it’s better to go after other players). After a set number of turns, the player with the highest number of vitory points wins.

Since this is a conquest game and combat is fast, a player’s turn is usually a quick affair, a minute or less. Games generally run around ten turns, so veterans of the game can easily wrap up the game in an hour, while still having a satisfying experience of playing a war game. Here’s a typical set of starting choices:

Sample list of races and powers for Small World Underground

Don’t Mind the Little Things, and It’s All Little Things

The only gamers that might be disappointed are owners of Smallworld, who are better off looking at this is as some sort of expansion. The rulebook even has a few paragraphs on integrating Smallworld Underground‘s concepts and pieces with Smallworld. As Smallworld already has five other expansions, fans aren’t likely to be much distressed at the new game being so similar.

Due to the different races, abilities and boards, Smallworld Underground offers a somewhat different game every time you play. This is good, but every race as a built in ability, and a special ability, and the board itself offers places and magic items that also confer special abilities. With five different players, each with an active race and a race in Decline, there can easily be nearly twenty different special rules in play at a time, a large quantity even if many of the rules are very tiny modifications. The game wisely comes with enough front and back printed glossy ‘cheat sheets’ of the special rules for each player. As long as each player tracks the rules for his own races, this isn’t too bad, although I think Days of Wonder’s claim of “8 and up” for this game is a bit optimistic. Most 8-year-olds will be hard pressed to read just the cheat sheets, much less internalize it for short term use (note, this is just one side):

One side of Small World Underground's cheet sheet

A Good Gamer’s Game

Although impossible to precisely define, there’s a big difference between games like Monopoly and Scrabble and the games you find in a hobby shop, and to a large extent, Smallworld Underground doesn’t bridge the gap. While easy by gamer standards, it’s just slightly too complicated to have the broad appeal of ‘traditional’ games. Still, this is a fine game, loaded with play value and having plenty of depth for veteran players, while still being a good medium for veterans to bring new players into fantasy gaming.

A video shows the game in action:

Product Page [Days of Wonder]

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