Building a kingdom. It’s great fun, right? You start with very little – just a settlement, maybe, and a bit of food. Then you build and gather more resources and expand and conquer and you’ll find your civilization is on the rise. Suddenly, with a clash of cultures, you’ve got yourself a fairly eminent domain. Once you’ve eclipsed your enemies, you can raise your iron scepter over your throne to declare dominion.
Most games in this vein, however – the ones that truly let you conquer and expand and all those 4x sorts of things, are enormous games that take hours to play and have rulebooks the size of your grandmother’s encyclopedia collection.
Tiny Epic Kingdoms attempts to reduce the glory and excitement of building a kingdom into a streamlined 30-minute game. It certainly is tiny… but is it truly Epic?
How It Plays
The goal in Tiny Epic Kingdoms is to expand your kingdom, enhance your magic powers, control the lands, and of course help build a tower of some sort, probably from which to rule your kingdom.
Of course, by all that I mean “score the most points.”
At the start of the game, each player takes on the role of one of over a dozen fantasy races (ranging from elves to undead to changelings to centaurs). You’ll begin with no powers, a few scant resources, and 2 of your meeples in 1 region of the tiny tiny board.
The board is simply made up of 1 territory for each player (each territory divided into a few regions).
Players take turns choosing an Action from a central board. There are 6 possible actions. However, when an action is taken, it is marked with a shield, and can’t be taken again until the actions have been filled up and the shields are cleared away.
When a player chooses an action, they must either take that action or do nothing. Then, each other player gets the opportunity to take the chosen action, OR collect resources.
When you collect resources, you take 1 resource for each region you control – the regions produce specific resources, although Ruins produce any of the 3 resources.
The 6 actions are:
- Patrol – move 1 meeple to an adjacent region in the same territory
- Quest – move 1 meeple on an edge region to an edge region on any other territory
- Research – spend Magic resources to go up another Magic level, earning points and special abilities
- Build – spend Ore resources to build the next level of the Tower, earning points
- Expand – place a meeple on the board, then spend food resources equal to the number of meeples now on the board
- Trade – exchange one resource type for an equal number of another resource type
Combat occurs whenever two meeples from different players share the same region. Each player secretly chooses a number on a 12-sided die ranging from “11” to “Surrender” – both players will have to pay the number of resources they indicate, but the player who chooses the highest value wins the battle, removing the other player’s meeple from the board. However, if both players choose the White flag, they make peace and co-exist in the same region.
Each race has a number of special abilities that can be unlocked by researching Magic levels.
The game ends when one player either reaches the highest tower level, maxes out their magic, or gets all their meeples on the board.
Points are awarded based on the level of Tower built, Magic level, race-specific points if their 5th magic level is reached, and the number of meeples on the board (not including those in Ruins), and number of castle regions controlled.
Whoever has the most points wins the game.
Tiny or Epic?
There are big games that feel small, small games that are actually big, and big games that are actually quite huge. Tiny Epic Kingdoms is a small game that pretends to be a big game, but really it’s a small game.
When I play a so-called “4X” or similar civilization building game, I expect to start small and spend a lot of time and effort growing various areas of my kingdom. I expected there to be some combat, or at least some tense standoffs as we build defensive fleets and hope the other players don’t all decide to attack. At the end of it all, I expect to see a sprawling, and – yes I’ll say it – epic kingdom before me even if I didn’t ultimately claim the victory.
None of that really happens in Tiny Epic Kingdoms, so I can’t really look at it as a 4X game, even though it is billed that way.
That’s okay, and that doesn’t necessarily make TEK a bad game. And it’s not a bad game. It does in some sense capture the feel of building up a civilization, and it does succeed in wrapping the experience into a tiny, 30-minute-or-less package.
The game moves quickly, and as soon as players are familiar with the rules, turns are snappy and quick. The short play time doesn’t really mean you only get to do a couple things; you’ll do plenty of actions within the game’s sphere.
But you’ll enjoy it a lot more if you think of it as a small area-control game, or maybe a tight resource management game, sort of. Getting your meeples on the board so you can collect a lot of resources quickly is key to the game, and your own territory is far too limited to satisfy your desire for world conquest. That pushes you onto the other player’s boards and threatens the world with conflict.
The nice thing is, I’ve noticed it is possible to do well even if you get attacked and destroyed. I remember one game in particular that I was on the wrong end of several attacks. I ended up just white-flagging it so I didn’t have to spend any resources – sure, I lost a meeple, but the other players spent a lot of their resources to make sure I didn’t win. In the end I tied in points, past the first tiebreaker, and then lost the next tie breaker.
I do have to mention that Combat is one of the weaker aspects of the game. The secret attack-value selection is supposed to create tension, I think – it’s similar to the combat dials from Rex/Dune – but there is no element of uncertainty or surprise. Resources are public information and nothing else adds to combat (which, incidentally, maxes out at 11 anyways), so upsets are extremely unlikely. There is just no reason to spend fewer resources than you need to win, because losing is (obviously) bad and the element of bluffing or outguessing your opponent doesn’t have enough weight – there’s no balancing factor due to the short length of the game, and there’s no hidden information. This also discourages entering combat in the first place unless you know you can win, because you’re going to have to spend a lot of resources. If you attack – even if you win – you are likely setting up a third, uninvolved player to take the lead.
This all simply leads to the combat mechanism feeling gimmicky, but it’s not a particularly exciting gimmick, either. It would have made much more sense in this game to go with something more Smallworld-esque; that is, you pay a set amount of resources to win a combat. At the very least, if resources were a secret that would put some more guesswork into the combat system.
Well, okay, at least it’s relatively quick, and it doesn’t happen extremely often.
So Tiny Epic Kingdoms is certainly not epic. What it is, is streamlined, fast-playing, and easy to learn. Your decisions are simple, but you have them, and it’s all you can do to eke out an advantage against the other players. Every action you take can be taken by the other players, although they have the option of going around another way. Because it’s so streamlined, the interest – and the tension – is in keeping up with everyone and always looking for that advantage, for the way to gain an upper hand as you position and reposition, build, and research. You’ll watch your opponent like a hawk, waiting for them to stumble, reaching silently into their territory and daring them to fight you. You’ll certainly be kept busy the whole time, and if you make a mistake it may just be your undoing.
It’s a pretty decent game, but I wouldn’t call it a great game.
There is a weird concoction here, an odd mix of ingredients that don’t necessarily blend. You’ve got two great tastes that neither taste good or bad together: parts of this game feel rather restricted, while other parts feel totally free and open.
4X games, almost by nature, are open-ended. Players are generally free to do what they see fit to make their kingdom work – whether that is by pursuing science, or economics, or war, that’s up to them. In the best civilization games, any of these strategies can result in victory. In many hardcore Eurogames, restriction is the backbone of gameplay; you can never really do all that you want, but you hope to do what you can as efficiently as possible.
In Tiny Epic Kingdoms, these two schools of design are at odds. The game seems to want you to feel free to pursue your strategy of choice; with a multitude of racial powers and a variety of actions to choose from, it at first seems like anything is possible.
Yet the action-selection mechanism seems pointlessly restrictive while lacking any kind of hook. There’s no benefit to choosing one action over the other – which suggests openness and freedom of choice – but actions are restricted by limiting how often they can be chosen. It doesn’t feel like it matters all that much who chooses what – sure, you hope no one chooses Research till you get the mana you need, but there’s not much tension in there since that action will come around again shortly. There’s a restriction, but instead of causing tension, it just sort of… evens everything out over time. It also prevents players from hardlining a particular action – say, building the tower, or growing your armies quickly. Instead of the openness of building a kingdom as you see fit, you just, kinda, do everything. It makes it hard to branch into unique strategies. It does a great job of streamlining rounds, but it isn’t interesting. Even race powers don’t alleviate this, since you barely have time to get them into play before the game is over. They don’t make much of a splash, which is too bad.
The end result is a vanilla experience – there’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing particularly exciting about it either. The game just paces along and you’ll expand and research and build, but where is the cool factor, the climactic moment of victory, or the tense standoff? It’s almost a multiplayer solitaire game; you’re just trying to build a more efficient empire and stay unnoticed, without really having any tools to gain an advantage. There’s not much room for risk-taking.
Which brings me to the thing I like the least about this game – the tie breakers. I know games often need tie-breakers. It’s almost inevitable in a point-based game that two players might end up with the same score, and it’s good to have an official ruling on what to do with that situation.
But in Tiny Epic Kingdoms, you’ll tie. Frequently. The pool of points is too small – you’ll end up with 12-14 points, which makes ties extremely likely. Yet the tiebreakers are skewed towards specific strategies. The Tower is the first tiebreaker, then Meeples on the board, and finally Magic. Because ties are likely, you are then forced to pursue these three things in this order. This is yet another meaningless restriction on what purports to be a 4X game – the sort of game you’d expect to be able to explore a variety of paths to victory. It bothers me, because there are other ways to implement tiebreakers that seem so obvious. How about the player with the most number of resources, which suggests they played more efficiently? After that, how about the player with the highest level in the thing that ended the game? Both of these options would leave strategic options open. The tiebreakers as they are, feel cheap.
You could argue that players should pay more attention to what the others are doing, and avoid ending the game when they’re not ahead. It is possible to see all the points. Which is unfortunate – it lends to AP-prone players trying to count up every point to see if they’re ahead. You also have to know the racial powers, which can provide bonuses. I don’t want to play TEK like that – the whole point is it’s quick and streamlined, and counting up everyone’s points all the time seems detrimental to the experience. Plus, because everything is so even-keeled, it’s pretty hard to make a push on something to pull ahead. The other players will just keep scoring points right along with you.
The only real way to make a big difference is to win a combat – but since you can’t end the game on that note, you’re likely just handing the victory to another player who will gain the benefit of your spent resources and your opponent’s lost meeple.
I don’t mean to rag on this game – if I’m spending more time on the downsides, it’s not because I had a really bad experience with the game. It’s just that digging into a game’s shortcomings usually takes more words than talking about what works. It’s a fine game, it works, and it’s so quick the flaws I mentioned don’t have a lot of time to drag the game down.
It’s just vanilla. It works, but it’s not exciting. It claims to be epic, but it’s just not epic.
It is Tiny, though. The components fit neatly in a box that fits in your pocket. The board takes up very little space and all of your stats are easily trackable on a few small cards, and there still is a whole lot of variety in the lands and territories and racial powers, so at least there’s that.
I only wish the designers had really owned the Tiny theme. We’ve got plenty of generic fantasy games, so theme-wise this falls right into a blurry pile. This could have been a game of fairies and brownies and such creatures battling it out in someone’s back yard or something like that – actually, thematically miniature little arenas. It feels like a missed opportunity, and a unique theme like that would elevate the game’s status a few steps in my book. Oh well.
So what do we have here? We’ve got a very streamlined, balanced game that is quick to learn and quick to play. It’s not a 4X but it’s perhaps as close to a filler-4X as you can get. It doesn’t do anything particularly exciting, and there are a few mechanical issues I’m not a fan of, but it keeps the pace up. You’ll have a tiny kingdom on the table in no time, even if it’s not all that epic.