Game Buzz: Small World Underground

In 2009, Days of Wonder came out with one the biggest hit they’ve produced since Ticket to Ride in 2004 – Small World, a reworking of Philippe Keyaerts’ 1999 Vinci.  Since then, we’ve gotten six official expansions, adding new races, new powers, and new mechanics.  The game has been very popular, and DoW seems very committed to supporting it.

Small World Underground - image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Now, in 2011, DoW is bringing us the first sequel for the game – Small World Underground.  The game is for 2-5 players ages 8 and up, and takes around an hour to play.  SWU brings you 15 new races and 21 new powers, as well as a new underground setting for the game.  In addition, you get some special “places of power” that can give you special benefits.  It’s a standalone game, but apparently can be combined with other Small World stuff.  My first thoughts are that this seems more like a money grab than anything.  However, I do like Small World, so I’m willing to give it a look.

As with the base game, SWU comes with two double-sided boards, with a different side for each combination of players.  There are 15 racial banners, with 179 racial tokens (14 of these are Monsters, which are not a controllable race).  There are 21 power badges.  I’ll run through the races and powers later in the post.  There are 106 coins in denominations of 1, 3, 5, and 10.  Also, there’s a special reinforcement die and a game turn marker.  There are also some unique game tokens that are new for this game: one volcano, 9 black mountains, 9 popular places, 6 righteous relics, one Great Ancient (aka Cthulhu), one Balrog, one Tomb-Raider’s Ghost, one Queen, 8 Mushroom Armors, 4 Vengeance Markers, 7 Silver Hammers, and one Bag-of-Many-Things.

Game - image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Setup in Underground is similar to the base game.  There’s a turn track to show that you have a limited amunt of time (8-10 turns, depending on the number of players).  Racial banners and power badges are shuffled, and five of each are drawn and placed into a column, paired with each other.  The remainder are stacked next to the last one drawn, face up.  Black Mountains take the place of normal Mountain tokens, and are placed on the Black Mountain spaces.  Monster tokens take the place of lost tribes, with two placed on each space of the board that show a Monster space.  Monsters protect sites that contain either a Popular Place or a Righteous Relic.  PP and RR tokens are shuffled together, and as many as there are occupied Monster spaces are drawn.  Each player starts with 5 coins.

The player who has most recently visited a cave goes first (I really need to do a rant on stupid start player mechanics sometime).  On your first turn, the first thing you will do is choose a race and special power.  From the column created in setup, you can either take the first one for free, or pay one coin per pairing that you skip.  This means that you could pay up to five coins to take the pairing on top of the stack.  You’ll add the numbers shown on the power and the race to find out how many tokens you get.  Once you have your new race, you can start conquering some regions.  You must start at the edge of the board.  To conquer a region, you place two tokens in the region, plus one more for every piece of cardboard also in the space.  You may then move to an adjacent space, and so on until you run out of tokens.  This game adds a river, which only costs one to conquer.  However, you can’t stay there – you have to remove your token after your turn.  This is so you can cross from one half of the board to another.  There are also Abysmal Chasms, marked with a kind of DO NOT ENTER sign.  You can’t enter them, you can’t conquer them, you just have to go around.

If you conquer a region with Monster tokens, you draw the top tile from the Popular Places/Righteous Relic pile.  It goes into the region you just conquered.  These don’t necessarily add to the defense of the space.  In fact, assume they don’t unless you are told otherwise.

If you defeat another player’s pieces, you remove one from the game and give the rest back to them.  Those pieces are then available to be placed on that player’s next turn.  Popular Places and Righteous Relics stay in place when the owner of the region leaves.

If you don’t have enough pieces to conquer a region (your final conquest), you can roll the reinforcement die.  This roll can add 0-3 more hypothetical troops to your attack.  If successful, you conquer the tile.  If not, your tokens can be redeployed with the rest.  You can move any tokens you have on the board to any region on the board controlled by your race.  If you completely abandon a region, it is no longer yours.  River regions are emptied at this point.  Now you score one coin per occupied region you control.

In subsequent turns, you can either decide to keep conquering, or to put your race into decline.  To keep conquering, leave one token in each of your regions and charge through more regions.  If you go into decline, remove all but one racial token from each of your regions, and flip all the remaining tokens to their “in decline” side.  If you already had a race in decline, those tokens get removed.  When you go into decline, that’s all you get to do in a turn.  You still score at the end of the turn, and at the start of the next turn, you get to choose a new race/power combination.

After the last turn, the player with the most points wins.

So, let’s look at all of the new races in this game, with the base number of tokens in parentheses:

  • Cultists (5) – Place Cthulhu in the first region you conquer, making that region immune to attack.  You can conquer every surrounding region for one token less.  You can move Cthulhu at the beginning of each turn.
  • Drow (4) – When scoring, you get one extra bonus point per region you occupy that doesn’t share a border with any other race (including your in decline races and Monsters).
  • Flames (4) – Place the Volcano in one of the Abysmal Chasm spaces that is marked with a Volcano symbol.  All adjacent regions, plus any that can be continually linked to the Volcano by your Flames, can be conquered as if they were empty (only two tokens).
  • Gnomes (6) – Other players can’t use their special powers to conquer regions occupied by your Gnomes.
  • Iron Dwarves and their Silver Hammers (7) – During redeployment, you get one Silver Hammer token per mine region you occupy.  These are essentially extra tokens you can use when conquering regions, though you have to remove them from the board before you score, so they’re not available for defense.  This means you need to leave at least one Dwarf in a region for it to count for you.
  • Kraken (5) – You can leave your tokens in the river after your turn and score them as you would a region.
  • Liches (7) – This one has an In Decline power.  If someone conquers a region containing your In Decline lich, they must give you a coin.  If they have no coins, they can’t conquer the region.
  • Lizardmen (7) – These can pass through the river without using a token to conquer it.  You can conquer it if you wish, you just can’t leave any tokens there.
  • Mudmen (5) – During redeployment, you get one additional Mudman per Mudpool region you occupy.
  • Mummies (10) – You get a lot of Mummies, but since they apparently trip over themselves a lot, you have to use one more Mummy than usual when conquering a region.
  • Ogres (5) – Ogres are the opposite of Mummies.  You get to conquer with one less ogre than usual (though you still need at least one).
  • Shadow Mimes (7) – When you pick the Shadow Mimes, you can immediately swap its special power with any of the other 5 visible powers.  You don’t get any coins sitting on the combo.
  • Shrooms (5) – Each Mushroom Forest you occupy at the end of your turn is worth a bonus point.  Because, hey, who doesn’t want to camp out in a field of shrooms?
  • Spiderines (7) – Any regions bordering a chasm is considered to be adjacent to regions you already occupy.  You can also enter the board next to a chasm.
  • Will-o’-Wisps (6) – You can use the reinforcement die before conquering a Mystic Crystal region, or any region adjacent to one.  So, you might use fewer tokens than you would normally, or you might use the normal amount.  No matter what, you must conquer it if you can.

Now, for the special powers:

  • Adventurous (5) – Each region containing a Popular Place that you occupy at the end of a turn gets you a bonus point.
  • Fisher (4) – You get a point for each PAIR of regions you occupy that border the river.  The river itself is excluded (sorry Kraken).
  • Flocking (5) – You get two bonus points if, at the end of your turn, all of your regions form one single set of adjacent regions.
  • Frightened (4) – You get a bonus point for each region you occupy with at least three race tokens at the end of your turn.
  • Immortal (4) – When conquered, you keep your tokens and deploy them during the current player’s redeployment phase.
  • Magic (5) – Use the Bag-of-Many-Things to duplicate the power of one Righteous Relic per turn.  It’s your decision.  The Bag can’t be stolen, so if someone takes the region where you have the bag, you get it back.
  • Martyr (4) – Get one coin any time one of your regions is conquered.
  • Mining (4) – Get one coin for every Mining region you occupy at the end of your turn.
  • Muddy (3) – Get one coin for every Muddy region you occupy at the end of your turn (I really want to have the Muddy Mudmen sometime,  if only because I want to say that I’m the Muddy Mudmen).
  • Mystic (4) – Get one coin for every Mystic Crystal region you occupy at the end of your turn.
  • Quarreling (3) – This is kind of the opposite of Flocking.  You get one point per separate set of regions you occupy at the end of your turn.
  • Reborn (5) – Another In Decline power.  Once your Reborn race is in decline, you may (at the start of your turn) replace one to two tokens in separate regions with tokens of the active race taken from the tray.
  • Royal (5) – At the end of your turn, place the queen in one of the regions controlled by your Royal race.  That region is immune.  The queen doesn’t move once you go into decline, and the region in question stays immune.
  • Shield (3) – For each Mushroom Forest you occupy at the end of your conquest phase, you get one Mushroom Armor token, which you can then place in any region to beef up its defense.  It stays on the board as long as you have your Shield race out.
  • Stone (4) – Get one coin for every Black Mountain region you occupy at the end of your turn.
  • Thieving (4) – Take one coin from each player with at least one active race token bordering Thief regions.
  • Tomb (5) – Another In Decline power.  All of your Tombs stay on the board when you go into decline, and may be redeployed one last time before scoring that turn.  If conquered, you may redeploy any you have left as long as you still have Tombs on the board.
  • Vampire (5) – Once per turn per opponent, Vampires can conquer an adjacent region with only one token by substituting a race token from the tray for the one on the board.  You get to ignore land features like Mountains this way, as well as protections like the Mushroom Armor, though Gnomes are safe.
  • Vanishing (5) – When these go into decline, they are removed from the board, collecting two coins instead of one for each region abandoned.
  • Vengeful (4) – If a player attacks you, give them a Vengeance token.  You can then use one fewer token to conquer them (still must use at least one).  At the end of your turn, you take all Vengeance tokens back.
  • Wise (4) – At the end of any turn where your Wise race is in decline, collect two bonus coins.

The Righteous Relics:

  • The Flying Doormat – Once per turn, you can conquer any region, including one not adjacent to your region.  The Flying Carpet moves to that region.
  • Froggy’s Ring – At the end of your turn, place the Ring in a region, then collect a coin from each race that borders it.
  • The Stinky Troll’s Socks – Once per turn, you can use this to conquer a region as if it were empty.
  • The Scepter of Avarice – Before you score, place the Scepter in a region to double the number of points from that region.  It won’t double coins taken from other players.
  • The Shiny Orb – This is pretty much a once per turn object that mimics the Vampire power: use a bonus token from the tray to replace a single token of an opponent.  The Shiny Orb looks suspiciously like the Holy Hand Grenade.
  • The Sword of the Killer Rabbit – And any doubts I had about the Shiny Orb are gone.  They love Monty Python at DoW.  Anyway, this allows you two use two less tokens than normal to conquer a region once per turn.

And the Popular Places:

  • The Altar of Souls – At the end of your turn, you can discard one in decline token to receive three coins in return.
  • The Crypt of the Tomb-Raider – At the end of your turn, place the Tomb-Raider’s ghost in one region to make it immune (not the space containing the Crypt).
  • The Diamond Fields – At the end of your turn, get one coin for the region containing the Diamond Fields, plus one coin for every region matching the same terrain type.
  • The Fountain of Youth – At the start of your turn, you get a bonus race token.
  • The Great Brass Pipe – All regions of the same terrain type as the one containing the Great Brass Pipe are considered to be adjacent.
  • The Keep on the Motherland – This is worth a bonus coin at the end of your turn, and if augments your defense by one.
  • The Mine of the Lost Dwarf – This give you two coins at the end of your turn.  The Scepter of Avarice has no effect here.
  • Stonehedge – Draw a Special Power at random.  This Special Power will go to anyone who occupies Stonehedge for the rest of the game.
  • The Wickedest Pentacle – You can immediately send a Balrog into a neighboring region.  The Balrog causes the occupant to lose two tokens (instead of just one), and conquers the region, which now scores no points for anyone.  On subsequent turns, it goes into another neighboring region.

Whew.  This has gotten to be a long post.  But I really wanted to look at all this stuff.  I really like Small World – my biggest problem with it, though, is storage.  The tray that came with the game was just awful, especially for someone with big fingers like me.  I got rid of it for a Plano box, which works a bit better, but it still not ideal.  As such, I often spend most of my time trying to fish little pieces out, which frustrates me.  I’m not one who likes to use the word “fiddly” – in fact, I hate that word almost more than any other word that gamers have come up with to complain about a game – but this game definitely has a lot of little pieces to keep track of.

That being said, I really like to play.  I like seeing the combinations of powers and races that come out, and finding out how they work together.  I like that you really have to play your own game, and try to deal with people getting in your way.  I also like the mechanic of going into decline.  There’s a nice strategy element there as you have to know when the best time to give up on one race to move to another.  The game feels like it’s just the right length, and while I’d often really like to do more, I am happy it doesn’t go longer.

So, am I looking forward to Underground?  On one hand, it seems redundant.  It’s basically the same game with new characters and a few new mechanics.  But overall, it’s probably not necessary.  On the other hand…actually, there is only one hand.  Heck yeah, I’m looking forward to playing this game!  New races, new powers, new strategies to explore with the Popular Places and Righteous Relics, and new board obstacles in the River and Abysmal Chasms.  I’m sure the game will have its detractors, but I think it will be a great addition to the ironically ever-expanding Small World universe.

Thanks for reading!  And thanks for sticking with me this far…this was a big ‘un!



  1. I am also really looking forward to this. Like yourself, I first saw it as a money grab, but then I started to realize how interested I was in it and how much I actually was looking forward to it. So I”ll be picking it up. And with those relics and popular places it does seem like they’re adding a little more (like TtR: Europe did with tunnels and ferries).

    I didn’t read everything that came with it as I’ll wait for actually getting the game and seeing for myself. but that you for the post! You have only fueled my excitement for this game.

    • I like looking at the powers and racial abilities beforehand and trying to imagine how they’ll work together. I’m still always surprised when I actually see the result.

      Good point about TTR: Europe. I think this game will be a different enough experience that fans of the original will be happy, while still being accessible to newbies. Thanks for the reply!

    • No, I haven’t. I’m keeping my eye out, however…maybe someone in my group will pick it up at GenCon. The board does seem to be a little crowded, but it is a small world after all.

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