Review: Small World: Sky Islands

Designer: Philippe Keyaerts, T. Alex Davis
Artist: Philippe Keyaerts, T. Alex Davis
Publisher: Days of Wonder (Asmodee)
Category: Area control
Players: 3-6
Price: $34.99 Amazon.com

Small World: Sky Islands is an expansion for the popular game Small World. Without changing the core of the original game, Sky Islands adds new content that provides players with new challenges and strategic choices.

Review

I love Small World. It’s a modern-day classic. Over the years, I have tried several of its expansions, and have mostly enjoyed the things they’ve added. Small World: Sky Islands takes the game to the clouds, adding a secondary “sky islands” board that is used in conjunction with the base game’s board. With seven new races and seven new abilities, there is a great deal of content in the box.

 

Since this review is focused on an expansion, I won’t be covering how to play the base game. If you haven’t played the original Small World, then 1) you should, and 2) there are many great text and video reviews available online to give you a sense of how it works.

With that said, Small World: Sky Islands accommodates three to six players. Because the additional board adds extra spaces, players should use the base game board for one player less than they have (e.g. the two-player board should be used in a three-player game). Two spaces on the standard board are chosen to connect to the sky islands, and tokens are placed to indicate these connections.

Normally, players may only access the sky islands through one of these spaces, so they can be hot commodities. If a player manages to control all of one island with a single race (either active or in decline), they receive an extra victory coin, and this bonus may be earned multiple times per turn.

The additional board is a nice touch, but as you’d expect, the main pull of this expansion comes from the new races and abilities. With dozens of new combo possibilities, they alter the game in clever, strategy-bending ways. Some of my favorites include:

SCAVENGERS: When Scavengers conquer an in-decline region, instead of discarding the existing race tokens, the tokens remain there and add to the Scavengers’ defense. (They also continue to score for their owner, as normal.)

STORM GIANTS: This race’s first conquest may be in the Sky Islands (most races must start on the ground). Each turn, the Storm Giants receive two lightning bolt tokens, which may be used to conquer any mountain region, regardless of how many enemies are there.

ZEPPELINED: This ability allows its owner to attempt up to five “zeppelined conquests” per turn. For each such conquest, she rolls the die, adding any pips to her existing tokens (much like the base game’s “Berserk” ability). If she rolls a blank, however, the zeppelin crashes, removing one existing enemy unit, one Zeppelined unit still in hand, and setting the space on fire for a full turn. A space on fire cannot be conquered or affected by special powers.

HAGGLING: The Haggling player receives five “Trade Pact” tokens, which may be freely distributed to opponents. If an opponent with one or more Trade Pacts conquers a region owned by the Haggling player, she must give him as many coins as she has Trade Pacts. If she does not attack the Haggling player on her turn, she instead receives this many coins from him.


The new races and abilities in Sky Islands are clever, but some demand a higher level of strategy than those from the original Small World. None of them are brain-burning by any means, but their usefulness may not be immediately obvious. For example, the Escargots’ racial ability is that they score at the beginning of the turn, not the end, meaning they earn nothing during their first round. It took my group almost an entire game of wondering why anyone would want that power to figure out that they score twice on the turn they go into decline: once at the start, per their race ability, and again, normally, when they lose their power due to decline. Likewise, there are several powers that incentivize players to abandon regions, something that has always been allowed, but players just don’t often do.

The sky islands board puts a twist on Small World‘s geography, though I’m not sure that it offers enough new strategic choices to be necessary. The potential for bonus points in the floating isles makes for a bit of extra conflict and interaction, but at the end of the day, it’s pretty much just a cosmetic difference, a change of scenery with a slight rules tweak. It would have been nice if it had more in-game effects. I can take or leave the secondary board; if nothing else, I suppose it’s fun to change things up a bit.

I think Sky Islands will be a good fit for experienced Small World players, those who are well-versed in the game’s tactics and wanting a fresh challenge. New players might have some trouble understanding the nuances of some of the added abilities, so I recommend holding off on this expansion until everyone has their feet wet. If Small World is a staple of your game night rotation, the new possibilities of Sky Islands may be just what you’re looking for. On the other hand, if Small World is more of a once-in-a-while kind of game, this may be one to pass on.

A review copy of Small World: Sky Islands was provided by Asmodee.

The Bottom Line

Sky Islands is a good expansion for Small World. The powers and abilities provide fun new challenges, but the additional board adds little to the experience.

 

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