Philippe Keyaerts


No. of Players:
2 - 5



In the world of Harry Potter the large underground building complex of the Ministry of Magic can be entered through a simple telephone booth, but under other circumstances a small building usually will contain a comparatively small cellar. This rule is not different in the caverns below the fabled kingdom of Smallworld, and so the players who have set out to conquer the newly discovered subterranean realm of Smallworld Underground quickly will discover that space is even more restricted in these caverns as on the surface.

Indeed, Smallworld Underground builds on the well-tested rules and mechanisms of Smallworld, and the backbone of the game's structure has been implemented in Smallworld Underground on a 1-to-1 basis. Thus, the players chose combinations of races and special abilities, take the appropriate number of troop markers and start their conquest of the subterranean caverns in hope to generate victory points by possessing many regions by the end of their turn. There comes a point when a race cannot expand much further due to the limitation (and possibly loss) of its troop markers, and at that point the player is well-advised to declare the perishing of his active race. This means that the player is allowed to choose a new race at the beginning of his following turn, but he also is allowed to gather victory points from his perished race as long as it is still present on the gameboard.

During the limited number of eight to ten rounds players usually will doom two or three of their races for perishing, and thus there is a lot of conquest action each turn when each player tries to maximize his yield of victory point by enlarging the sphere of influence of his own active race. At the end of each turn each player collects victory points corresponding to the number of regions in his possession, and after the end of the final round the player with most victory points will have won the game.

While it is true that the typical DAYS OF WONDER artwork looks stunningly beautiful as ever, players would expect this new product to contain something more than simply a batch of new races and special abilities. And so, mining a bit deeper below the surface, it may be asked what new elements can be found in Smallworld Underground which actually justify the release of a whole new game.

And indeed, the underworld gameboard offers one type of terrain which cannot be found in the upper world, and this is the river Styx which splits the underground world into roughly two halves. Unless a player's race possesses a special ability which allows the permanent occupation of water regions, these river spaces cannot be permanently conquered. However, unlike the lakes and oceans which are know from the upper world, river Styx may be ferried by all players. In game terms, this means that a player on conquest may place one troop marker at one or more river spaces to cross the river or follow its course upwards or downwards to continue conquest at another point, but after all conquests were made the player must take back all troop markers from the river and distribute them into the other regions containing his troops.

On first sight this change in the landscape seems to be little more than cosmetics, but in effect the river serves as a strategic "Autobahn" (German motorways with no speed limit) which can be used by the players to initiate a quick relocation all across the gameboard. On the one hand, this makes the game a bit more unpredictable and results in a further shift towards a one-turn strategy, but on the other hand conflicts are intensified between players which would not have confronted each other before. This can be seen as a balancing trick, since now a leading player can be hampered with less effort even if his immediate neighbour shies away from this conflict.

So we have got a river. That doesn't impress you much? Then let's dig even deeper, uncovering a further layer of action which was not included in the upper lands of Smallworld!

Some specific underworld regions are assigned not one but by two nicely illustrated monster tiles at the beginning of the game, and just like the Lost Race counters from the surface world these monsters are used to counteract the advantage of being the starting player. However, despite the fact that the monsters unfortunately do not possess any special abilities, their use does not stop with the mere effect of being a placeholder, but instead they are guardians of fabled places and powerful artefacts which can be claimed by a player who successfully conquers such a region.

The game contains a total of 15 different markers for places and artefacts, and whenever a player conquers a region occupied by monsters he is entitled to randomly draw one of these markers. A fabled place must be placed at the region where it is found, and the player may use the special powers connected to this place until the region is taken from him by enemy conquest. An artefact on the other hand may be taken and used in a region of the player's choice, but here the rule applies that the artefact always must be left at the region where it was used last.

Some of these places and artefacts have been designed with a humorous wink, since players now can find a tentacular Great Old One, a fiery Balrog or a Lara Croft like ghost of a Tomb Raider. Other markers among this assortment show the Fountain of Youth, the Sword of the Killer Bunny, a stinking Troll-Sock or a Network of Metal Tubes, and all of these markers give their owners some interesting powers which they will try to use for their benefit. Mind you, these benefits are not strong enough to throw the game absolutely off balance, but nonetheless they can give a decisive edge in critical situations. So, the Tomb Raider's ghost can be sent to any region to immunize it against conquest, the owner of the Fountain of Youth receives an additional troop marker at the beginning of each turn, the Sword of the Killer Bunny allows the conquest of a region with a rebate of two troop tokens etc.

Naturally, this results in the players using their first turn to grab as many of these benefits as possible, but it's likewise foreseeable that other players will become jealous of these boons, and so a lively exchange of blows will take place on the gameboard with each player trying to capture places and artefacts from their opponents. While even the surface version of Smallworld is a very confrontational game, these new elements give an additional incentive for nasty behaviour, and so they effectively add a bit of additional playing depth both in terms of special abilities and tactical planning. In a way, this can be compared to the effect of the Smallworld - Tales and Legends expansion which introduced special conditions for every round of the basic game and also made available some special abilities through auctions. However, some of the Tales and Legends were really powerful, and here the new places and artefacts seem better balanced.

Returning to the initial question, it is difficult to answer whether the new elements really justify the release of a new product while the original Smallworld still is available. For newcomers the answer can be given that they should certainly go for the new Smallworld Underground, because the game contains some elements which were not included in its predecessor. However, for owners of Smallworld the situation is different. While it should be stated here that there is a possibility to use underground races in the open (and vice versa), a good number of races / abilities from each game needs some further adjustments or simply reproduces some element which is present in each game respectively. Furthermore, the 15 places and artefacts and their associated tokens easily could have been released as a slim, low cost Smallworld expansion, and this would have been sufficient to enjoy most of the new Underground-flavour in "basic" Smallworld as well.

However, there is one additional reason even for Smallworld owners to buy this new game, and this reason stands in direct connection with the SPIEL convention. During the show a special mini-expansion was given out for free here at the DAYS OF WONDER booth, and this expansion can be used to link both the surface and the underworld of Smallworld. So, the Smallworld Tunnels opens up six gateways between both levels, and using both three player boards the game now can be played with up to six players. A very useful giveaway if you have a playing group with this number of players!

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Copyright © 2011 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany