Much like its predecessor, Small World Underground is an area control game with the primary goal to expand your chosen race as far across the map as possible.
“Isn’t that just the same as Small World?” I hear you say. Whilst the core mechanics are inherited, Small World Underground manages to feel distinct by featuring: new races, new territories, new race abilities, new game concepts (like chasing down relics) and also…it’s underground.
Firstly, it is worth noting that whilst Small World: Underground is a stand-alone game, Days of Wonder do recommend that you are familiar with Small World prior to playing Underground. Whilst I can see the benefits of having existing knowledge of how to play Small World, I don’t feel that it is necessary. You can still enjoy and master the game without having experienced the original.
Underground features 15 new races and 21 new race powers. If you’re like me and love variety, then this is the game for you. Every time you play Underground, the races will feel and behave completely differently, and the combinations of races and abilities is one of the most entertaining aspects of the game. Who can’t resist a giggle at the thought of an Immortal Gnome?
Each turn of Underground consists of three simple stages: conquer, redeploy and score.
After you have acquired a race and ability, you will be allocated a number of race tokens. With these tokens, you will enter the world and claim new territories. The basic premise is that it costs two race tokens to claim an empty territory, plus an additional race token for every defensive unit in a territory. The more places you conquer, the more enemy units you displace and vice versa.
Other than being based in a subterranean world, Underground also features new territories like rivers, popular places and relics. These new features add brilliant fresh dynamics to the game, especially the relics.
To acquire relics, cool new monsters need to be defeated before they can be claimed. Having some monsters to defeat adds a nice change from the static ‘Lost tribes’ featured in the original Small World.
If you manage to acquire a territory containing a relic, you get a cool effect to use each turn. So now you not only get race bonuses and abilities, but also relic effects too.
After your conquest, you can rearrange your troops to better defend certain territories which might be vulnerable to future attacks. Generally, you leave one troop in each territory to maintain your presence and redeploy the excess troops.
Finally, you add together all the territories you have acquired and consider any bonuses you receive. The total of these territories and bonuses is your score for that turn. Like in the original game, if a race has reached its peak and cannot expand any further, you have the option to put it into decline. Putting a race into decline is a really clever mechanic which enables you to experience multiple races and abilities in the course of a single game.
The overall winner of the game is the player who has accumulated the most points after the final turn.
To summarise the gameplay, Small World Underground is quick and light-hearted without compromising player choices and strategy. It scales brilliantly with different player boards for two to five players; the more players the more territories to conquer.
Still a Small World?
I have spent most of this review comparing Underground to the original Small World and it is simply because the core mechanic of: conquer, redeploy and score, is the same in both. However, I hope that I have also highlighted that this IS a standalone game and a good one at that.
Every new addition to the game not only adds variety but also ups the player interaction and conflict; now certain territories are actually worth conquering (something I felt was sometimes amiss with the original). Underground has certainly succeeded in making the Small World universe a little bigger.
Final Thoughts on Small World Underground
Days of Wonder have a great reputation for producing exceptional games and they have succeeded yet again. The component artwork is beautiful and the components themselves are of a high-quality, thanks to linen-textured cardboard. The game not only looks great, but is also incredibly affordable.
If you’re like me and want to bolster your original Small World with new races and abilities, then adding this to your collection is a no-brainer. Underground has everything that I loved about the original game, plus all of the new stuff to add more depth.
I loved the original concept and I love everything that they have added to this stand-alone, therefore I actually prefer this one to the original. Is there space for both games in your collection? DEFINITELY.