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Tiniest Epics, vol. 1: It's good to be the king

J Updated
Tiniest Epics, vol. 1: It's good to be the king

Game Information

Publisher
Designer
There Will Be Games

Beginning a new series of deep dives, we start at the top with the first of the TE series: Tiny Epic Kingdoms.

Gamelyn's Tiny Epic series is kind of a marvel in games development. Designer Scott Almes and developer Michael Coe have established a system that has any number of impressive aspects; from the depth of game play, to replayability, to variety of styles, to cost, and, yes, size. The fact that you can get so much game out of each of their titles, while they all focus on completely different genres and several different themes is a testament to a solid design process. Said process is detailed enough that it includes respecting a weight limit for each title so that it fits into the shipping budget. If it doesn't meet the limit, they have to go back to the drawing board and redesign components! That's a comprehensive approach to design and function. So, I thought I'd go in depth on the series and try to take a look at what each title achieves and, perhaps, doesn't quite manage, beginning with the first release: 2014's Tiny Epic Kingdoms. (Note: I'll only be covering the 2nd edition and will be including the Heroes' Call expansion, since I think it completes the game.)

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TEK is a DoaM/area control game. Given the usual panoply of cards, dice, dudes, and special powers that are involved in most DoaMs, it's also somewhat abstracted, so it can fit in the box. The original three ways to trigger the endgame in TEK are: research your highest level of magic (5th); build the Tower to its highest point (6th); and/or get 7 of your dudes out on the map. 5-6-7. Almost like it was planned that way. Heroes' Call added a fourth, where the end of game is triggered when one player retires a third hero. Each of those original approaches requires one of the three main resources: Mana, Ore, and Food, respectively, so it can initially seem like it's just a matter of occupying the appropriate regions (Forest, Mountains, Plains, respectively; all nicely color-coded to match their resources), building up your stockpiles, and declaring yourself king. But other players will be competing for those same regions and, with an innovative combat system that requires both combatants to bid what they're willing to pay from those resources for their war, you'll often find that there's a serious strategic choice to be made as to how you use those precious materials. Depending on what random map cards (territories) you deal out, you could have access to Ruins, Tundra, or Peaks that give you ways to get any of the three resources, as well.

Kingdoms uses a "follow" mechanic, somewhat similar to its sister game, Tiny Epic Galaxies, as the basis for its play. When the current player takes an action, all other players have the option to follow and perform the same action or, instead, collect resources. Early stages of the game often see the most following, as they're frequently dominated by Research (mana) and Build (ore) actions that serve some benefit to everyone, regardless of strategy. But as the game develops, it becomes just as viable to branch off and simply collect what you can get before someone steals your turf. You just have to gauge how far behind on any given track you want to be if you decide not to "keep up with the Aughmoores". Kingdoms shows its depth in the way that you can certainly focus on a particular approach as the path to victory, but you can't ignore the other two, as they'll all play into each other to some degree. The choice of faction also has a significant impact on this decision.

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But the other main choice is moving around the map; either Patrolling on one card or Questing to another card. Encountering the opposition means there will be war which, in the end, is what ruling a kingdom is all about, right? (Unless you're the Halflings.) TEK's territories are a significant factor in its replayability, as they present a different frame of reference for every game, as regions of different kind and number will appear, which will alter how different players (and factions) approach the game. This is a departure, of course, from games with static maps like Rising Sun or Cry Havoc and I think has just as much impact as other games with random map setups like TI4, as it will always be possible to gain regular resources from every starting territory, but the ability to secure those regions will often be determined not only by what terrain you have access to, but the path to those important regions, occasionally dictated by normally-impassable water features and Crags.

Each territory is divided into 5 regions which are adjoining 2 or 3 impassable areas of Crags and/or water, so each card will provide at least 4 resources if you're able to occupy everything present. The complications arise with the "special" regions, like capital cities which give no resources, Ruins which require two Patrol/Quest actions to leave, and Tundra which must be left on the next Patrol/Quest action taken by the player. Those complications will obviously change through the middle and the end of game, as it becomes more difficult to automatically leave Tundra without starting a war, even though no wars can be fought there (which functions as kind of a defensive bulwark for a turn or two), and things move closer to the point where cities actually have value (2 VP at the end of game.) On top of that, Peaks are excellent for their ability to provide Silver, which works as a wild resource, but you have to keep in mind that Silver can't be Traded and has no value for the war cost, so there are a couple decisions to be made just in picking your starting territory, which will become much easier with experience.

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The defining statistic of the game may be that "war cost", which is the amount that both players involved in a war decide that the fight is worth to them. It's a simple but elegant bidding mechanic, where you pick a number between 1 and 11 on a 12-sided die and then compare it with the opponent. Whoever picks highest, wins, with defenders winning ties. But then both players must pay the bid that they've made with mana and/or ore. That is the "war cost." If you're not fussed about losing a region, you can just offer the white flag on your die and pay nothing, keeping all of our resources for your other plans (except for the retreat cost, but we'll get to that.) But if you can Research your way into faction abilities that lower that cost and/or build War Towers to also lighten the load, you've partially cracked the code on TEK. Not paying the full freight in war is the TEK version of "limiting your exposure". The more often you can do that, the easier it will be to both retain and gain more land, while still being able to keep up with everyone else's science and infrastructure spending.

It's important to keep the alliance angle in mind, though, which comes from both players choosing the white flag. Just like in games like CE, there are times when negotiating is better than fighting. Sharing a crucial region and both gaining resources from it may be key in avoiding a bloody tit-for-tat scenario. It also means that no one has to pay the retreating cost (food) or lose a dude. Furthermore, those alliances can be extended to multiple regions if the players desire, making it easier to compete with a stronger opponent. As with all DoaM games, however, there can only be one at the end. One of the most devastating betrayals you can make is to be allied with the same player in multiple regions and then go to war with them in another when you know they can't pay the cost, as you'll win in all of the allied regions. Keep your enemies closer and all that. Does that sound like a lot to keep track? Just wait...

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Research

The magic abilities of the particular factions are what define their differences. At the beginning, all meeples are equal. Every faction has their resources capped at 9. Every faction gets to count Mana as 2, Ore as 1, and Food as 0 for paying the war cost. It's when you start the Research path that things begin to change.

The differences are wide-ranging. Some of them are connected to movement, like the Merfolk ability to Patrol across water, which later gives them a resource for doing so, along with a further option to always Patrol instead of following an action. Or the Birdfolk ability to move 2 dudes when Questing, retreat into the Crags, and pay less Food to retreat from a lost war. Or the Lizardfolk ability to Patrol to non-adjacent regions, later gaining a resource of the type they move into, or even switch places with an opposing dude when Questing. Some abilities are oriented around the crucial war cost, like the Centaurs' discount when defending in the Plains or the Constructs forcing opponents to pay more when fighting in the Mountains or the Insectoids' discount for having more population than the enemy or the Orcs getting a discount just for being, well, orcs.

Some of them are fused with more esoteric themes, like the Humans' obsession with trade (getting bonus resources, a discount on war cost for paying with only one resource, and gaining VP for having 4 or more resources of each type at game end) or the Halflings' commitment to peace and alliances (taking resources, gaining resources, giving resources for making alliances at different levels of Research.) Some are oriented around resources, like the Dwarves' obsession with Building (which they share with the Gnomes) and Ore, while the Elves are focused on all the possible uses of Mana in the game. Some are tied to types of regions, like the Treants to forests and the Yeti to mountains. And some are simply tied to their own identity, as the Minotaurs are focused on neutralizing or destroying War Towers and the Valkyries are interested in showing opponents the true costs of war in all its forms.

The variety of abilities is genuinely impressive, even when they and their themes occasionally overlap, like the desire of the Lion Kin, Imps, and Goblins to Expand as much as possible, although the first is tied to gaining Food, the second is tied to tricking opponents out of their regions, and the last are most eager to engage in war to reap the benefits of their swarming across the landscape. Speaking of war, other than the Orcs, few races benefit as much as the Undead and the Death Knights, with the former gaining resources from the losses of other players, while the latter literally collect the dead. The possible playstyles of the various factions should be broad enough to encompass almost anyone who sits down to play the game.

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Build

Prior to Heroes' Call, there was a concern among regular players that the Build route was the most viable. You gain more points for bringing the Tower to the top level than for any other activity in the game. If you were fortunate enough to have a dual Mountain region, it wasn't too far beyond the realm of imagination that you could turtle up and simply grind out Ore to win the game, especially if playing a faction like the Dwarves. However, with the expansion, the Build order requires you to place a War Tower token in a region. The upside is that they contribute -1 war cost to any battle fought in that region and you can conduct a war with one even without a dude present. The restraint is that you can't place more than one per region and they can be destroyed by your opponents, which also knocks you down a level on the Tower card.

With that change, the Build path became much more interesting and much more about genuine area control. Now, instead of just dumping Ore on the Tower, you have to consider the resource value of each on offer. Mana counts for 2 in war, making it twice as valuable as Ore, while Food is not only how you Expand, but also how you enable dudes to retreat. With Ore, you not only have to consider its standard value in war (1), but also how it can contribute to your overall war effort, since having War Towers in the right spots can make it easier to defend a key spot in territories like, say, a capital city near the end of the game (cities are a flat 2 VP.) Being able to Patrol or Quest out of territories and still be able to defend them for when you want to move back and gather resources (War Towers can't do this alone) is a huge advantage in a game where your available pieces are strictly limited. And, again, having -1 war cost simply for having one present in the region is a significant advantage, especially if you can combine it with any other faction bonuses you may already have. There is no hidden information in TEK, so everyone can assess just how viable a close encounter will be if they choose to engage.

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Expand

This is how you get more dudes on your map. As with all DoaM games, the truly key resource is said dudes. Except for a couple factions, Food really only has two uses: bringing in more dudes and retreating from a lost war. The cost of both is similar. If you have 4 dudes, it will cost you 4 Food to retreat. If you want to bring in a 5th dude, you pay 5 Food. Depending on how dynamic your game is on the combat front, you can find yourself hurting for the "least" valuable resource far more often than the other two. Keep in mind that retreating is a perfectly viable option for two reasons: 1. You often don't want to lose guys, not only because you don't want to pay the cost again, but because paying for that retreat leaves you more options on the map. That dude is still there to Patrol or Quest, rather than taking a whole action to bring him back (which often means waiting for someone to play the Expand action or hoping it wasn't already played), and moving into an empty region means you can Expand there, too. 2. Retreating into a region you already occupy means that it can't be attacked. The strict limit of two dudes per region means that any time you have that situation, the aggressive expansion plans of your enemies are foiled in that spot.

Retreating becomes especially pertinent when it concerns heroes. Each of the heroes is unique and, if you're unable/unwilling to retreat, you lose that particular hero and have to draw a new one the next time you Expand. If you have a hero who works well with your particular faction and/or playstyle, then its worthwhile to consider preserving it. All of those strategic choices make the question of how to spend Food just as important as the balance between war cost and Research/Build with the other two resources. It's the depth of decision-making in the small package that really makes TEK shine for me, even in the crowded DoaM field.

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Heroes

It's easy to look at the heroes in TEK as just more chrome since, unlike the War Towers, they don't fill what was perhaps a flaw in the original ruleset. They just give more options within that ruleset and, of course, create more in the way of replayability. However, they also often stick with the main premise of the game which is making strategic choices about the use of resources. If they require Mana, Ore, or Food to level up, those are resources that could be spent elsewhere. However, just like Research, that's also a direct investment in the capabilities of your faction, so it's as much a form of longer-term planning as anything else. Those heroes that require you to level up when they win a war are in a different situation, in that if you really enjoy the use of their abilities, you may want to actually avoid combat with them in order to keep from moving up and/or retiring. That also becomes a consideration for your opponents, who may be willing to risk more engagement with that hero meeple in order to force you to consider how much you want to lose the war that gets created. That's texture, which is something that I look for in every game I play.

Some hero abilities are obvious. The Knight, for example, is just a straight up reduction in war cost, first when attacking and then when in either situation. But, again, both of its leveling costs are the victory requirements (i.e. you win a war with him, you level up), so it may be a tool that needs to be properly targeted. Others dovetail nicely with some factions, like how the Explorer's ability to gain resources from new regions matches the Lizardfolk's abilities, further accentuating their traveling tendencies. Similar to the Undead, the Necromancer allows you to Expand more cheaply in his region whenever anyone loses a dude in war. Some have territorial bonuses of varying types, like the Engineer, who collects more Ore in the Mountains but also can let you automatically build there. Others have deleterious effects on the opponent, like the Queen's ability to wipe out their Food when losing a war. In fact, a number of heroes have abilities that come into play when losing war, which means that, for those players that want to retain them, it places a bit more pressure on the need to stockpile Food in order to enable that hero to retreat and not end up back in the discard pile. In most cases, you want to try to retain them to retirement, as 3 VP is 3 VP. In a game usually decided by point totals in the 'teens, that's significant.

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What are the possible flaws? Well, despite Gamelyn's deserved reputation for solo play in the TE series, the rules for TEK in that respect are a little weak. That's not a concern to me, since I'm not really a fan of solo gaming, but it can be for others. In that vein, TEK is definitely improved with more players. Given the "follow" system, more players trying to enact different agendae often makes for a more dynamic game. I wouldn't say that I won't play the game with three, but I'm definitely more eager with four and five. With fewer players, it's often easier for one player to fall behind, especially if they get tangled up with more aggressive factions early on. I had a game of three with a couple new players where one player's Humans got beaten down by my marauding Treants and he had trouble reestablishing himself before the Ooze beat both of us.

Tiny Epic Kingdoms is a solid DoaM that I'm happy to play as a one-off or repeatedly on the same day. That's a quality in a game that speaks to me of depth, since there always seems to be more to explore. But because it's based on a simple set of rules, it doesn't drain the mental capacity of its players to keep going. It's not a "filler" game, because it requires some thought, but it's also not an evening-long game that will squeeze out time to do anything else. Again, that's a lot of game in one (well, two with Heroes' Call) tiny box and it's a quality of depth that I hope to explore more as we move along in this series. TEK remains somewhere in my top two of the series (alongside Tiny Epic Western) and, having not yet played all 30(!) factions, remains something I plan on questing through for some time to come. Next, spaceflight beckons.

There Will Be Games

Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.

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Articles by Marc

Marc Reichardt
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Marc

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drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #308689 30 Mar 2020 13:01
This is a nice write-up for an under appreciated game.
I Kickstarted it.
I received it.
I played it.
I enjoyed.
I sold it.

Why? Despite the merits, it had one colossal fail that I could not over-look. The character illustrations. The maps and meeples were fine. The characters however, were not. Ineptly drawn and colored, I was unable to see past them.

I've done it since with other games, but TEK was a first. I sold it because it was ugly.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #308690 30 Mar 2020 14:20
Huh. I've had that reaction to some games where I didn't like the look of something and that contributed to my overall disenchantment (It's like food presentation. Part of what makes it appealing is how nice it looks when it's put in front of you.) But I've never dumped something off that I really liked because I thought the art was poor. I'm not a huge fan of FFG's Wiz-War art style, but I'm OK with it because the game is excellent.

I thought Gamelyn's approach was a little OTT in terms of its manga style (i.e. most of the humanoids seem to have oversized eyes) but nothing seriously put me off. In fact, part of the reason I added that pic of the backs of some of the player cards was to display the art that I thought was pretty nice. It's toony and highly fantasized, but I'm OK with that.

But, you like what you like.
boothwah's Avatar
boothwah replied the topic: #308693 30 Mar 2020 16:43
I always think of Castles of Burgundy when we get to talking aesthetics. The game couldn't be more visually drab. Matches the subject matter. But, I like the game, despite how visually milquetoast it is.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #308697 30 Mar 2020 16:56
Someone made a similar comment in a blog post on BGG about games that they knew were good games, but they simply didn't enjoy playing. One of them was Agricola, which is completely dreary in both theme (subsistence farming), mechanics (no deviation except for occupation cards), and artwork (subsistence farming!)

One of the criticisms that can be leveled against Kingdoms is that it's too abstract for what people normally expect out of a DoaM and part of that is visual presentation. Other than the repetitive scenery on the territory cards, the faction cards are pretty much it. Otherwise, it's wooden meeples and some d12s. But I always felt that the variation in faction abilities and the real tension of region acquisition made up for what it may lack in visual appeal. Has to be said that Gamelyn really upped their, uh, game in visuals with their later releases, though.
WadeMonnig's Avatar
WadeMonnig replied the topic: #308700 30 Mar 2020 17:01
Great article Marc! In regards to the art, I always felt it was "Draw an easily identifiable version of these standard trope fantasy characters." Everyone sees it, everyone instantly recognizes it, it has cross over potential for non-fantasy addicts. "Oh, look, Polar Bears in armor like that one movie that I can't recall it's name" (Golden Compass for the rest of us lol).
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #308702 30 Mar 2020 17:33
Thanks! Standard (identifiable) tropes is a good point, too. In that respect, I kind of enjoyed the fact that they drifted away from the D&D perspective on Dark Elves living under the ground and went for a more "Mirkwood" approach, too.

I've actually never seen The Golden Compass, so I kind of shrugged at the Polar Kin as just another arctic race alongside the Arctic Elementals and the Frost Giants. They mostly reminded me of the Coke commercials from some years back.