Brant Guillory, 29 September 2022
Gamelyn Games has started producing an entire series of compact games designed to cram maximum gameplay into minimum packaging. The entire “tiny epic” series of games comes in boxes about the size of a VHS tape (kids, look it up) and feature colorful, if simple, components.
The compact 4X game is part of series of Kickstarter all-stars, and packs a ton of options into a small box. But is the juice worth the squeeze?
These are mostly small cardstock game mats and maps, along with some wooden markers, and dice. The boxes themselves are fairly sturdy, and the lids can be used as dice trays during play if needed.
Tiny Epic Kingdoms (TEK) is a fantasy-based 4X game in this format where the players each pick a race in conflict over a generic fantasy world. Note that this review covers the original TEK from the Kickstarter campaign in the Summer of 2014. There is a new edition with upgraded components out, but Gamelyn has taken care to assure players that the rules haven’t changed, even though the rulebook has been edited to provide some clarity in places.
The box contains a handful of territory maps, a tower card that is shared by all players, a turn tracking card detailing the actions available each round, and a metric monkey-load1 of player cards for different races. Players also have a handful of meeples in their respective colors, along with markers for tracking tower progress and resource counts. Each player also has a 12 sided die, which is never rolled and only used to designate a combat value during war. Each player’s components are color coded, but the meeples are all generic shapes, and not in any way race-specific.
click images to enlarge
The player mats are each specific to an individual race such as dwarves, lizardmen, or Valkyries. They all have the same resource track around the edge, but vary in their artwork and the different magic levels, which unlock unique racial abilities.
Territory cards will have 4-5 playable regions on them, of different terrain, along with occasional mountains or water obstacles that inhibit movement between regions. Some terrain cards have water around one or more edges, limiting the ability of players to move from another card onto that one from the side with the water. Terrain includes hills, forests, plains, and ruins. One of the expansions also includes the ability to place a capital city on each map.
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Each player has a single territory card as their home base. There are no extra or ‘neutral’ territory cards on the table at all, so all of the exploring is pretty much done as soon as the cards are handed out. Each player plays a single race, although the Shapeshifters will absorb the abilities of multiple races during the game. Players will track their resources by moving their markers for ore, mana, and food along the numerical track on their cards, and move their magical level up and down with a marker alongside the descriptor of the abilities.
The mechanics are not difficult. There are a variety of actions that can be taken in a single trip around the table. Each player chooses one in their turn order and everyone has the option to execute that action, or gather resources. The actions include adding meeples, moving on the same territory, moving to a different territory, raising different victory levels by spending resources, or swapping resources. Each time a player chooses an action, it is marked off for that round, until all actions are chosen at least once. Then the entire action card is wiped clean and every action is available to be chosen again. Thus the specific sequence of actions is variable, but each may only be chosen once before the action card resets.
The end result is that players have to plan upcoming actions for this round, but with several contingency plans in case someone chooses one before the player is ready for it, or steals the player’s planned action before he can execute it. And if a player ends up stuck, she can always just gather resources.
When gathering resources, the mechanic is pretty simple. Each territory that’s under the player’s control provides one resource: Hills provide ore, forests provide mana, and plains provide food. Ruins allow a player to choose the resource, but the trade-off is that the meeple is “stuck” there for an extra turn while gathering.
There are several different victory conditions, each revolving around a certain type of resource. Ore is used to build the tower. Mana upgrades the magic level. Food puts more meeples on the map. Max out any one of these (tower / magic / meeples) and victory is thine! While the tower level does not grant any inherent bonuses, more meeples on the map equals more resources to be gathered, and increasing the magic level unlocks racial bonuses for the player.
Moving, gathering, and expanding are all pretty straightforward, and building the tower might be tedious, but is nonetheless straightforward.
Battles aren’t particularly difficult, either. When multiple players’ meeples are in the same region on a map, they fight. Players spend resources to commit to the battle and increase their combat values, but everything is designated in secret and revealed simultaneously by using the 12-sided dice, after which all resources are then spent. Players do have the option to offer a truce, and if both players do so, their meeples may continue to coexist in the same spaces until someone breaks the truce.
The mechanics are hardly challenging to understand, and once a player has a single game under your belt, it’s unlikely he’ll even look at the rules again. The race-specific abilities are on the player cards, so there’s no lookup needed for them, and with 20-odd races to choose from, there’s plenty of combinations for replayability.
There’s one glaring problem with the game, though. There’s a significant lack of combat. Sure, there’s always the option to go to war, but it’s painfully obvious in the early stages of the game that going to war is expensive, and anyone in a fight is going to set themselves way behind the noncombatants in the resource chase, which just lets the peacemongers run away with the game. After someone picks a single fight, they’re so resource-constrained that they’ll get hammered in their next fight trying to drag someone else down. In the end, the net effect is that players find themselves expanding into empty spaces while trying to avoid fights and maximize resource-gathering to win the race to either “first complete tower” or “first to magic level five”. No one tries to get all their meeples out because that leads to fights that set everyone back.
In the end, TEK ends up being a 3X game, or 2.5X (since there’s a limit to the expanding). It becomes a puzzle of trying to fit meeples into empty spaces to get ore and mana while generally avoiding the other confrontations, and that makes the game less interesting as a true tabletop 4X that really feels like an empire-builder. I’ve got about 15 games under my belt, and maybe a half-dozen battles, total. I’ve won several of those games, but it felt like I just won a ‘race-to-collect’ rather than building an empire.
In the end, TEK has some smart mechanics that make for a thoughtful in-game series of decisions. But unfortunately, the overall tie-in as a complete game is slightly flat, and leaves players with a limited, preferred path to victory that feels constraining, rather than the wide-open anything-is-possible feeling that many players prefer in a 4X game.
Summary? It’s got the presentation of a 5-star meal in a solid portable package, but once you dig in, it’s more “MRE” than “Cipriani”.
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