Year Published: 2014
Designer: Scott Almes
Publisher: Gamelyn Games
Playtime: 30 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: A ginormous experience in a tiny box.
I have to admit, micro-games usually aren’t my favorites. I like complexity and depth. I like pieces. Boxes that are bursting at the seams with components just waiting to be cut, punched, and unwrapped make me happy; inserts spilling with cards, baggies ripping open from the sheer number of miniatures they contain, and dice stacked to the brim. Ooohhh yeeeaaah…that’s the stuff.
Even so, Tiny Epic Kingdoms from Gamelyn Games was a must-back for me when I saw the Kickstarter nearly a year ago, becoming one of the first campaigns I invested in and one which still surpasses most of the efforts I’ve backed since in terms of its professionalism, attention to backer-input, and great stretch goals. It was so good, in fact, I included it in our Kickstarter Advice series here to highlight some of the things I think it did extraordinarily well that new project creators should take into account for their own boardgame crowd-funding endeavors. And I have to say, I’m glad I did back this one because after having it for a few months now I think it’s a great little game, and it even recently saved me from having to lug more unwieldy titles around on a cruise. It hits a good playtime point, plays just as well with 2 as it does with 5, and really does give you a good, light 4x experience that doesn’t require 30 minutes just for setup.
The first game in what has become a series from Scott Almes and Gamelyn Games, Tiny Epic Kingdoms is a fantasy 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) strategy game for 2-5 players. Incorporating elements of worker placement, action selection, and resource management, players each take on the role of a unique race looking to expand its populations, acquire territory, build a magnificent tower, and unlock higher tiers of magic. Whenever one player recruits their 7th meeple, researches their 5th level of magic, or reaches the 6th tier of the tower card, they trigger the end-game which results in the current round getting played out, and then everyone tallying their points to determine a winner.
The game’s advertised playtime of 30 minutes is completely fair, though you can probably expect some games to stretch to the 45 minute mark. The rulebook is concise and well-written with good diagrams where necessary, and the mechanics are intuitive enough players shouldn’t find much of a need to go back through the book for clarifications after reading it. Players start the game by choosing or receiving a faction card that contains their special abilities and resource tracker, as well as a territory card which acts as their kingdom’s starting point. The base game comes with 8 double-sided territory cards and 13 different faction cards, and if you can find the deluxe edition or its components you’ll get an extra 2 factions and another territory card(some extra, custom dice as well). Additionally, each player takes 2 meeples from their pool of 7 and places them in one of their starting territory’s regions, and chooses a total of 6 total resources split between mana(green star), food(corn), and ore(red stone). Those elements combined give the game a great deal of randomization (read: replayability), and lots of strategies to master.
Setup is completed by giving each player their custom combat dice(base game has 2 to share), placing their research token(small book) at the very bottom of their faction’s research track, and then stacking their tower tokens at the bottom of the tower card, and the 5 shields to the side of the action card. Then it’s tiny epic time!(note: the above screenshot shows the research token on the first research level. If you’re just starting the game it would be off the board at 0.)
Play proceeds over a series of turns which contain 5 steps each. First, the action card is cleared if all 5 shields have been placed. Then, the current player selects an action. All players must either take the selected action or, if they’re not the current player, may collect resources instead. Afterwards players check to see whether one of the end-game conditions has been met by one of the players, and if not then the active player token passes clockwise.
The meat of the game happens during the action selection phase. Here, the active player chooses from the following options:
1) Patrol– move 1 meeple into an adjacent region on the same territory card. A meeple can’t be moved into a region containing 2 meeples belonging to another player.
2) Quest– move 1 meeple from the edge of one territory card to a region along the outside of another territory card. A meeple can’t be moved into a region containing 2 meeples belonging to another player.
3) Build– Spend a number of ore equal to the next step of the tower level to advance to that level.
4) Research– Advance their faction’s magic level by 1 by paying mana equal to the new magic level.
5) Expand– Add a new meeple to a region they already control, paying a food cost equal to their new total number of meeples in play.
6) Trade– Discard any number of one resource for an equivalent amount of another resource type.
The active player must always take the action selected, but other players may opt to gather resources instead and for each region occupied by one of their meeples collect a resource of that type. Food is gained from plains, ore from mountains, and mana from forests.
Tiny Epic Kingdoms wouldn’t be much of a 4X game without some tiny military pwnage. If two players’ meeples end up in the same region, a war will result. Each player takes a war dice and secretly decides how many resources from their pool they’re going to dedicate to the war effort, spending 1 mana to gain 2 warfare strength, or 1 ore to gain 1, up to a max of 11. Players then reveal their dice at the same time, and the one showing the lower number gets their meeple hacked into tiny epic bits(also known as getting placed back into their meeple pool). Ties go to the defender, and both players must spend the resources allocated regardless of whether they won or lost. It’s also possible for both players to negotiate a truce and play nice; if both players reveal a flag symbol on the combat dice then they form an alliance and share the benefits of the region.
In addition to the normal resource-generating regions, territory cards may also include a ruins or a capital city. If a player’s meeple enters a ruins area it must be laid on its side to indicate it’s exploring the ruins, and in order to leave the ruins it must use an extra turn to “stand up” before it can leave. In exchange, the owning player may collect 1 of any resource of their choosing whenever they gather resources. Capital city regions offer victory points instead of resources, generating its owner 2 victory points at the end of the game, or 1 apiece of there are 2 meeples present.
If victory conditions are met and all shields have been placed at the end of a round, then players add up victory points to see who wins: 1 for each meeple, 1 for each magic level, the number of VP displayed on their current tower level, plus any bonus points from capital cities.
There is a lot of game in this little box, and it’s all fairly well balanced. None of the three victory triggers is much more easily achieved or nets substantially more victory points when compared to the effort put towards it vs. others, and at least some attention to each is necessary to stand any real chance at winning. That said, you’ll probably find tower building the go-to option for many players because you’re able to effectively make progressing up the tower chart more expensive, and therefore less efficient, for anyone trying to do it after you. In addition to deciding how to amass victory points, players must also strategize and adapt based on the order actions are selected each round, all while keeping an eye on which actions opponents need and possibly disrupting their plans by using certain actions ahead of others.
The strategic possibilities and choices offered by Tiny Epic Kingdoms grow even further when faction abilities are taken into account. Each faction’s research levels are unique, and proficient players will come up with strategies during each game that play to the strengths those special abilities give. For example, Dwarves end up potentially collecting ore faster than other races, and make each other player have to pay one additional ore to advance the level of their tower if the Dwarf player is one step ahead of them on the tower card. A viable strategy I’ve found with them using just those 2 abilities is to research up to them quickly, and then to make sure I stay one level ahead of everyone else on the tower track to make them use extra resources if they want to gain tower levels; at the same time, I end up amassing ore which I use to supply my armies for war. Learning the various ability synergies and developing strategies with a 4X game’s factions is part of any good 4X experience, and it’s certainly present here.
Of the four 4X elements, I’d say the game is weakest in its presentation of the eXplore mechanic. If you play without variants there’s really no exploration at all; the entire world is essentially revealed at the start of the game, and although there’s “exploration” of ruins regions I wouldn’t really count that as fulfilling that branch of the genre. The game does come with tokens, however, that allow for multiple variants whereby the tokens are placed face-down in various regions, and may impart either good or bad consequences to the first player to send their meeples to that area. It’s an easy mechanic to add to the game, and I’d recommend always playing with one of the variants after your first play of the normal game.
Like most titles with worker placement elements, the game also usually ends just about the time I’m really starting to see my strategies blossom. It’s one of the only aspects of the genre that sometimes irks me, and while some games allow for a small degree of “turtling”, in most cases you’re going to see the last round hit right about the time your carefully planned engine is about to come alive. TEK is no different, and players should be mindful of the fast-approaching victory trigger lest they try and plan something that is going to take too long to develop.
As far as components go, Gamelyn Games has done a top-notch job here. The box is of great thickness and quality, the cards are all a nice, heavy cardstock with linen finish, and the colors on the meeples and various resource tokens are vivid. Having each tracking token shaped differently is a great touch, though most of the people I play with have a hard time figuring out that the research tracking marker is supposed to be an open book when they first see it. The cartoon-style art is also nice to look at, and makes for a nice, light but solid theme to go along with the light gameplay.
Part of me wishes I would have bought in on Meeple Source’s campaign to get custom meeples for every race. I think you’ll agree they look amazing! However, the price tag of over $100 for 112 pieces was too hard for me to swallow, and there is no way they would have fit into the box. That, to me, would defeat the purpose of the game. And what is the purpose of the game? See my thoughts below:
COG Takeaway: If you’re looking for a big civilization or empire-building experience and think you’re going to get the full shebang in this little box for $20, then you should stick to your favorite 1.5 hour+, full-board titles in the genre. However, if you enjoy strategy games with worker placement and resource management elements and have less than an hour to fill, Tiny Epic Kingdoms is your game. It’s not going to give you the full empire-building satisfaction of longer, more involved 4X or strategy titles, but it’s not really meant to. It’s meant to be portable and lighter while still involving the described mechanics and wrapping them in meaningful, and surprisingly plentiful, strategic decisions. At that the game succeeds wonderfully, and it’s sure to remain one of my go-to travel and filler games for a long time.
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