Matt Carlson: Review of Tiny Epic Kingdoms

  • Primary Designer: Scott Almes
  • Publisher: Gamelyn Games
  • Ages: 13+
  • Players: 2-5
  • Time: 30 mins
  • Games Played: a few dozen with review copy provided by Gamelyn Games

Game designers have an eternal quest to create the best possible civilization-building (4X – explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) boardgame in the smallest amount of time. Tiny Epic Kingdoms is yet another approach. As befits the name, this attempts focuses on the simple and fast gameplay at the cost of complexity and depth. I have found the game to be a perfect match for younger, more aggressive players (an average male teenager, for example.) However, warfare via blind bidding, and very weak technology trees make the game a poor fit for gamers looking to enjoy diversifying their options.

Tiny Epic Kingdoms box

Initially a Kickstarter release with a low price point, the project was quickly funded. Many, many stretch goals later, and the Tiny Epic Kingdoms project put Gamelyn Games on the map. Several flavors of “Tiny Epic” games later, it is unsurprisingly time to Kickstart an expansion along with a new second edition, (<Ad>Kickstarter ending soon! Act fast! and all that… </Ad>) but is the game worth it for you?

Object of the Game
The game ending has several different triggers, after which points for each player are added up. Players gain points for building a central tower, researching racial magic, and placing their troops onto the board. Note that triggering one of the game ending conditions does not guarantee a victory.

Gameplay
Each player starts with a race card and a territory card. The race card lists a player’s racial powers and is also used to track resources. A territory card displays five usable territories that can be any of five different types. Players begin the game with a single meeple on their card on a territory of their choice. All the territories in play form a combined world for players to conquer and exploit.

The heart of the game is a role-selection mechanism. A player selects one of six options, and then all players may also use that option or pass to collect resources matching the territories they control. One everyone has acted, the second player may now choose a new action after which players can also use that action or collect resources. A player may not select a previously used action until five of the six actions have been chosen. A central card displaying the actions serves as an excellent marker of used actions, with tokens on the card removed after five of the six options are chosen. SIgnificantly, the current selecting player may not choose to pass in order to collect resources. There are three types of resources, each are generated from a different type of territory. Plains provide food, mountains provide ore, and forests provide mana (magical power.)

The Actions
The six actions available are Patrol (move your meeples around), Quest (move your meeples to a new map card), Build (spend ore for points), Research (spend mana to gain points and new racial powers), Expand (spend food to place new meeples), and Trade (exchange any amount of one resource for the same number of another type.)

Patrol and Quest are nearly identical. Patrol moves a meeple between adjacent territories (on a specific map card) and Quest moves a meeple from an edge territory on one card to an edge territory on another card. Adjacency is important, as territories can be broken up by impassible terrain forcing a meeple to take several steps to move around a barrier on a map card. If a player moves into a territory occupied by their opponent, a war is initiated (more on that later.)

Tiny epic kingdoms - territory cards

Build and Research are also similar. Building requires increasing amounts of ore in order to “construct” a central tower that simply provides points. Research requires increasing amounts of mana to increase, but each new level achieved provides a player with new racial powers. For example, moving from magic level three to level four will cost four mana. The two strategies are somewhat balanced because building a tower has the potential to score more points than those provided by magic research.

To Expand, a player pays food equal to their currently placed in order to add a single new meeple to the board. Similar to building, a new meeple costs an amount of food equal to the number of a player’s meeples already on the board. To Trade, a player removes any amount of one resource and then adds that amount a different resource.

Warfare
The most important consequence of moving one’s meeples (Patrol or Quest) is if a player moves one of their meeples into a territory occupied by an opponent (No region can contain more than two meeples so a region with two meeples can’t be attacked.) The two involved players take a twelve sided die and secretly choose a number between zero (indicated by a flag) and 11. The players then simultaneously reveal their number and the higher number wins (returning the opponent meeple back off the board.) Ties are in favor of the defender. Both players must then pay the value of their bid by spending resources. Each mana counts as two and ores are worth one each. Food has a value of zero and can’t be spent in a war. If, however, both players choose to display the flag side, neither players owes any resources and they form an “alliance” on that territory with both meeples remaining in play. The two players may both receive resources from that territory. (City territories do not provide resources but are worth 2 points at the end of the game, shared if it has two occupants.)

Game Ending
The game ends on the round in which one player manages to: place all their meeples (7) on the board, or build the highest level (6) of the tower, research their highest level (5) of magic. Players gain one point per meeple on the board, points for controlling capital cities, one point per level of magic research (with the top level, 5, always providing bonus points for certain conditions), and points for building the tower. If fully built, the tower is quite valuable. Level 5 is worth 7 points while the top level (6) worth a whopping 10 points. While the player who triggers the end game will typically score well, it isn’t a foregone conclusion that they will win.

Tiny Epic Kingdoms playing

Thoughts on the Game
As I already mentioned, Tiny Epic Kingdoms is a perfect game for tweens who enjoy a bit of aggression in their games. The game plays very fast, 15-20 minutes – although I’ve finished a speed game in less than 10. Players love to get their unique race card (providing thematic flavor via the race’s magic abilities and the racial pictures.) The warfare options allow for aggressive players while the option for alliances gives more peace loving gamers another option. Given a bit more time, several games can be played in a row – giving new players the chance to learn the rules and possibly inflict some payback for any snubs during the previous game. Finally, the game comes in a tiny box I can bring almost anywhere, and the price point is quite reasonable.

While I can enjoy the game in short bursts, there are clearly two areas where it falls flat in scratching my itch for a 4X game. The first is the blind-bidding in the combat.The second the lackluster racial powers.

Attacking (and thus even defending) in war is quite expensive. Not only are players spending hard earned resources in the fight, a losing player suffers the indignity of lost resources and also has to remove their precious meeple from the board. This makes losing a double-whammy and can quickly tip the scale of the game. To make matters worse, if the loser spends too much of their resources they become yet another target for the other players to attack. Thankfully, the attacker also becomes a target for repercussions for the same reason.

While the (non-kickstarter version) game comes with thirteen different racial powers, I found their differences to be underwhelming. Each race has four levels of powers with a fifth level that simply provides one or more extra points if conditions are met. (+1 point for the highest built level, +1 point for each allied player, etc..) The lower level powers are quite minimal, but do tend to become more powerful as one progresses. Depending on the game (number of players, play styles, etc…) the races are not balanced, but for a quick light game it may not matter to everyone. (My beginning players were drawn to specific races simply for their “cool” factor and not their winning potential. One player was adamant in playing the Shapshifter faction. Their powers completely change every level, so don’t provide any long-term planning opportunities.) So the races do mange to provide a bit of theme to the game, even if they don’t significantly diversify players’ options.
At first, the blind bidding seemed to be a game-breaker. In my intial games (most were played with beginner/younger gamers), players were so afraid of losing combat a huge number of alliances formed. I tend to prefer this style of play but it ended up placing quite a premium on those focused on fast production of resources.

After a few plays, people started to warm up to the idea of combat but tended to throw large number of resources at the war in order to avoid the pain of a loss. This opened them up for an easy attack – possibly on the very same turn! Eventually, I realized when playing with more experienced and more strategic players the costs of war became more reasonable. This also slowed the pace of the game, as players couldn’t simply race their way up the various point opportunities and needed to keep some resources on hand as a deterrent to attacks.

Slowing the pace of the game managed to improve the racial power options. Since players no longer rocketed up the magic or building tracks, there was more time to use each races’ special abilities. A slower game also prevented overwhelming “pick on the leader” situations. It is easy to abuse one particular player through a series of attacks, so it is one of those games where it pays to not look like you are too far ahead of everyone else.
Conclusions
Despite my concerns, the game still sees regular plays and some of the other players have gone off and purchased their own copies. (Or in the case of most of my opponents – saved their allowance or asked for it for their birthday.) Clearly it is a hit with the right audience.

I initially really wanted to enjoy the game since I love me a good 4X style game. Unfortunately, in my first few plays I became more and more convinced it was somewhat broken. (The other players had a great time, though.) However, the more I played the more I realized that some of my misgivings were more a matter of the play style of my group. It eventually improved and I began to derive more enjoyment from the game. For me, it shines best with players who take fewer risks and build up their kingdom and resources a bit slower in order to prevent sudden attacks.

The upcoming second edition (see the kickstarter “ad” in my first paragraph) adds a few changes to improve the game, such as the option for losers in war to retreat as a small cost. There is also an expansion on offer, of the “more is more” theory of game design. It approximately doubles the available races, and adds in a few twists in the form of tower actually on terrain and the inclusion of heros.

It is a great game for a specific set of players, and a possible filler candidate for others (who aren’t adverse to a bit of blind bidding.) Hopefully you now know in which camp you reside.

 

Comments from the Opinionated Gamers

Mark Jackson: I think Matt’s review covers the Tiny Epic Kingdoms well – and he is correct that the issues I’ve seen with the game are more about play style than they are the basic design.

Chris W. (About 5 Plays):  Tiny Epic Kingdoms features a lot of game for the price point and size of the box.  Is this going to replace the bigger, bolder entries into the civilization-building genre?  Absolutely not.  But Tiny Epic Kingdoms offers some interesting decisions with approachable rules and fast game play, and I think it is worth trying.  I personally got a bit tired of it after a few plays, but perhaps the expansion will help.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it.  Matt C., Mark Jackson, Chris W.
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…
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About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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