Review: 'Small World Realms' Keeps A Modern Classic Fresh

"Small World Realms" is an expansion that can be used with the original "Small World" or its 2011 follow-up "Small World Underground" (or both sets combined). If you haven't played "Small World" before, stop reading this review right now and go play it. If you're skeptical, you can read my original review of "Small World," one of the first I ever wrote. Since that time, and 50+ other games reviewed, "Small World" has grown to become one of my favorites.

"Small World Realms" uses the same basic rules as the games it expands, but offers up plenty of gameplay twists to keep things fresh.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2-6

Playing Time: 45+ minutes

Age: 12 to adult

Publisher: Days of Wonder

MSRP: $35.00

Release: July 3rd, 2012

The Gameplay:

"Small World Realms" is essentially a "make your own 'Small World' map" kit in a box. Using a set of modular tiles, players can create whatever sort of map they want. Of course, the rulebook includes pre-determined maps to play on. Each of these also comes with a set of special rules that make gameplay on that specific map more interesting.

A few examples of "Small World Realms" tiles arranged in a map

A good example of this is the scenario "I've Been to the Mountaintop," which has players set up a chain of island mountains. Each of the islands has a new terrain type at its center, the peak, which acts as a double-mountain. The twist is that a stash of four victory point coins are placed on every peak, and players who occupy those territories can slowly drain the stash into their coffers.

Similarly, in the "The Rusted Throne" scenario, a new Popular Place (first introduced in"Small World Underground") is placed on a mountain peak at the map's center. Whomever controls the Rusted Throne can take victory points away from opponents close to the throne. Getting onto the throne is no easy task though, as it is surrounded by both a moat and a ring of mountain spaces.

Starting setup for "The Rusted Throne"

There are also a variety of scenarios that combine the "Small World" and "Small World Underground" locales, something high on fans' wishlists.  In "Night and Day," two separate maps are created, and players switch between using races on the "Small World" and "Underground" maps. The twist comes when players from one map invade the other and start earning double points.

There are twelve total scenarios, plus a guide on how to create your own. It's also worth noting that many of these scenarios expand the "Small World" player count from five to six players.

The Components:

  • 48 Geomorphic Two-sided Terrain Tiles:

    • 26 Geomorphic Hex-shaped Terrain tiles featuring 3 Regions each
    • 12 Mountain tiles
    • 6 Chasms
    • 4 Peaks

  • 12 Tunnels
  • 10 Victory Coin Mines
  • 8 Miscellaneous Tokens (Rusted Throne, etc.)
  • 6 River Border Markers
  • 1 Game Turn Track
  • 1 Rules booklet with 12 Scenarios

Everything the comes in the "Small World Realms" box

The biggest question players will want answered is "how is the playing surface?""Small World" is usually played on a board, but "Realms" uses interlocking tiles. In the games I played leading up to this review, the tiles were a non-issue. There wasn't a single instance of the tiles getting nudged and scattering the layout. They aren't necessarily "puzzle piece" interlocking, but their unique shape manages to hold everything together.

As for production quality, you get what you expect with "Small World," and what you get is good. Cardboard quality is good on all accounts and the artwork uses touched-up versions of the "Small World" tile images. Using "Small World Underground" images on the opposite side of each tile is a nice touch.

Another nice touch is that Days of Wonders reprinted the "Tunnels" free expansion tokens and included them in the box. Tunnels are used to track entry and exit points between two different boards, typically used for linking"Small World" to "Small World Underground."

The rule book is a thick, glossy, full-color guide to the twelve scenarios of "Small World Realms," but by cramming eight languages into one printing, it's so thick that you may need to do a bit of flipping around to find the info you're looking for. It also means that rules for setting up the board according to the player count are explained through a color and symbol system, but this is never explained in words in the beginning of the book. It's a fairly intuitive system, but if you're in a rush during your first game, you could miss these instructions and wind up using the pictured full 6-player setup by accident.

The instructions for setting up the first "Small World Realms" scenario, customizeable form 2-6 players according to the color-coded chart.

Final Thoughts:

This game is pure fan service. "Small World" has already had several expansions and a spin-off standalone sequel, but "Small World Realms" offers something unique even for fans that already have every product in the series.

You might recall that Days of Wonder tried to introduce variety to "Small World" a few years back with the "Tales & Legends" deck of cards. That offered a variety of different ways to play,  including auctions (a mechanic I am not personally a fan of) for special bonuses, and randomized rules twists that were revealed only a turn or two in advance.

I wasn't huge of how "Tales & Legends" tweaked the game, but Days of Wonder went back to the drawing board with "Realms." The scenario-based approach is perfect. All of the rules twists are explained up front and they usually play well with to the uniquely-designed shape of their accompanying map.

The only stumbling point for "Small World Realms" is when certain races and powers can combine to throw off a scenario's balance. This is not a fatal flaw because the race selection stack is supposed to balance these sorts of things out, but still, some combos push the limits of that self-balancing mechanic.

The best example I can give is of the "Go East" scenario, where players must start on the left side of the board, cross a river, and conquer the double-point spaces on the right edge of the board. In one game "Go East," Heroic Halflings hit the table, used their special ability to enter the right side of the board, and combined with the Heroic ability were able to put four double-point spaces on lockdown for the entire game.

In light of this, I would recommend gauging what sort of experience your players are looking to have. "Small World Realms" provides some pretty wacky situations that I feel any long-term "Small World" fan would enjoy. It's very rare that I advocate house rules, but if you want to keep the competition tight, I would recommend thinning your race and power stacks of anything the group decides is overpowered. If you just want to play a wacky game of "Small World," leave them all in.

From a recommendation standpoint, I wouldn't hesitate to suggest "Small World Realms" to any "Small World" fan. It's the same game that players love, just kicked up a notch. Considering the price and the included instructions for building custom maps and scenarios, players are getting a lot for their money.

"Small World Realms" is not a must-buy expansion because "Small World" is a great game in its own right; it didn't need to be fixed. It's also not likely to convert someone who didn't like "Small World" into a fan. The bottom line is that if you love classic "Small World" but feel you've begun to tire on the game, "Small World Realms" is exactly what you need.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided a complimentary review sample of this game.