Tiny Epic Quest is like playing D&D with a protractor, but even more fun.
First off, let's just dive back into the early 1980s for a moment and acknowledge that Dungeons and Dragons must clearly be the work of the devil. Why else would a fantasy adventuring game be ranked 666 on BGG? Somebody cue up Iron Maiden, please? Thank you. Way back in the day, in a lot of households, if you were into RPGs and/or fantasy literature (and, seriously, has anyone ever been into one but not the other?), you were occasionally accused of being corrupted by the darkest forces known to religion. Or you were just a nerd who liked swords and sorcery. And probably math. Well, rejoice, because Tiny Epic Quest has all of those covered to some degree. The math part comes in assessing risk and the odds of escaping said risk with a set of dice, at the same time you're trying to keep up with three fairly disparate goals to score points based on killing goblins, fulfilling quests, and learning spells you'll never use. Sound cool? Good!
TEQ is possibly the strangest design of the TE series. It's taking a full fantasy adventure of fightin' stuff, finding magic lootz, and trekking across the Mushroom Kingdom (we will mention the obvious nod to Legend of Zelda once- right here -and then never again) and packing it into a fairly abstract game that is mostly a push-your-luck exercise but which is eased and sometimes perilously heightened by having everyone's rolls at the table impact everyone else. Just like our previous two dives (Kingdoms, Galaxies), when you play Quest, everyone gets involved on your turn. (So impatient!) When you pick a movement type, everyone has the choice to use that movement type. When you roll the dice, everyone can take advantage of some symbols... and possibly everyone can take the impact of others. Are you going to be the one that continues to tread that narrow path, knowing that the floor can tilt suddenly and dump you into the pit and on top of the Gelatinous Cube? (Longtime DMs will know of what I speak: Oozes, slimes, jellies, and anything else viscous were the DMs best friends.) But, no, that's just a metaphor for the dice that make up a significant part of the game (again!) How does one meld an abstract with regular die rolling? With ITEMeeples, of course.
TEQ was the first game to use the ITEMeeple system, where your regular meeples are able to carry fancy artifacts and tools so that they at least look cooler than typical dudes while out adventuring. It's also a system that visualizes the different tactical choices that you're going to have to make with said dudes, in terms of who travels to what corner of the Mushroom Kingdom and how. Some magic items make dudes better at fighting (Bow, Boomerang, Sword), some help with questing (Key, Lantern), some help with spells (Tome, Staff), and others with movement or providing little edges in the game (The Gemstone, for example, can convert power to health.)
The game is five rounds and there will be four methods of travel available, no matter how many players are present. During the Day phase, you travel by various methods (Horse, Raft, Gryphon, Foot, Boat) to the adventure spots and during the Night phase you do the adventuring. Now, there's only five rounds to fit in all this excitement, so you really have to be efficient about where your guys go and what they accomplish. Again, you do get the benefit of the good stuff that your opponents roll, so you won't have to feel like you're alone out here. (It is, after all, dangerous to go alone...) But remember that they're trying to finish the same quests you are and whoever gets home and collapses into bed first (i.e. Rests), gets the prizes, so timing can be really important here.
Similarly to original Kingdoms, TEQ has three main point methods by which to win the game and, also similarly, while you can certainly focus on any of them, you usually can't afford to ignore any of them, either. All of them dole out negative points if you neglect them entirely, but they're also nicely balanced in terms of effort. While you'll get more points, generally, for killing goblins, you also have to expend more effort to do so (i.e. more rolls of the dice), which means that you'll take more risk of being seriously wounded or even killed (Exhausted) while in the Night phase. Also, goblins and gaining spell levels doesn't get you any cool items (you need to quest into Temples for those), but they do increase your max levels of Health and Power, respectively, which is something that will usually benefit you far more than one dude having the Fairy.
Unlike Kingdoms, Quest is a consistent map game. The map will be in a different arrangement, but it will still contain the same locations in every session. The key will be orienting yourself in how to best access those locations, relative to your starting castle. Remember that you're going to have four opportunities to move in every round and you only have three dudes. That means at least one will be moving twice if you don't idle. Why 'at least'? Because there's a Mushroom Grotto that can let you move another dude up to three cards. So, you could end up moving five times in one turn, which is one way to finish a movement quest or two (thus building up your total for the end of the game) and still get to those "practical" places that you want to be in during the Night phase. For that matter, pay attention to ALL of the Grottoes, since they all do something useful that can be used to either fill the resource gaps that you have from the previous round (Gain 2 health or 2 power for every hero outside your castle) or get a jump on the things you want to do this round (finish Temples, punch goblins, learn spells.) Don't be one of those people that moves to "the perfect spot" in the first three moves and just sits there doing nothing, not even healing or gaining power with a dude in your castle, because you didn't maximize your opportunities.
Just like Galaxies, TEQ has a bit of binary conflict in terms of resources. You take a bigger risk by gaining Power instead of healing, since tapping out on Health means you get dumped back to your castle and don't get any of the rewards you were hoping to achieve in the Night phase (if you haven't already completed them, like killing a goblin.) Howevah, Power is really important. Most people just use it to get through Temples faster. But you know what you often get for doing Temples faster? The legendary items on your player card. You can turn the Sword into Orcrist if you have a decent amount of Power. And who needs a staff of the magi? Pfffft! Plane shift?! Who cares? You can almost guarantee yourself three spell jumps a turn with the TEQ legendary Staff! But only if you have enough Power to keep it going. (Why was telekinesis two charges? I could throw down a wall of fire for one charge!) And the Shield... Well, yeah, you can protect yourself from Bitter Goblin Face with the shield, but where's the fun in that? (No, seriously, the Shield's not a bad call, especially if you're really trying to jump three magic levels a turn without the Staff.) But you have to go through the two Temples for each item consecutively and every player color does the order differently so, again, plan your routes carefully.
A brief guide to magic items
I've already talked about the legendary items, which are all incredibly useful, but let's look at the Temple goodies and see what you should really be aiming for. (That's a Bow joke.)
- Bow: The Bow is probably easily the best weapon, if not the best item in the game. You can be doing a Temple or sitting at a spell Obelisk and still be pinging a goblin in the next territory when punches come up on the dice. The utility is insane.
- Boomerang: This is decent, since you'll be dealing damage every time you take damage, which means you can usually finish killing goblins faster, but you're still taking damage (bad) and you have to be on the Portal, which means it's not the Bow.
- Bomb: This is completely random (deliver a punch for every power symbol on the dice, one time.) It's too much of a crapshoot to really be worthwhile. At least you got the quest. (Why do they all start with 'B'? And are valued in reverse alphabetical order? It's like playing records backwards-! 666!)
- Cane: Always moving on foot, which means any direction, can be used as an easy reset to prepare you for a future movement card. It's even better when there's a Grotto that's one spot away, since you can take advantage of that and then move in the manner that you wanted to.
- Fairy: Moving up to three cards to a Grotto is really useful, since the Grottoes almost always do cool things. Plus, it can put you into a radically different position like, say, along the coast but past those angry goblins trying to steal your Power.
- Flute: Diagonal movement can be great, but it can also be very confining in certain corners of the map or when surrounded by goblins that you have to pay Power to move past. But having the extra option is never a bad thing.
- Lantern: You'll never be able to count the number of times where you roll one Scroll or Torch and needed two. Being able to get that second symbol for one Power, especially early in the game, is a godsend.
- Tome: An edge in the learnin' is always a good thing (see: Staff.) This is a bit more of a gamble, since you have to be at the appropriate Obelisk to take advantage of it, but it reduces risk, which is key in a push-your-luck game.
- Key: Speaking of keys, this one is great. Anything that reduces your time delving through Temples (yes, I just suggested you should shorten your time experiencing the latter half of D&D) is another good thing. Combine this with the Lantern and you are the god of Temples...
- Gemstone: TEQ is another resource-balancing game, remember? This allows you to manipulate those resources in one direction. If you're comfortable with more risk than your opponents, get this and practice the blood magic.
- Shovel: Like the Bomb, it's a random roll. Unlike the Bomb, you get to use it when you move anywhere on the map. Put this on the guy who's on Grotto duty and it will occasionally pay off.
- Potion: Like the Bomb, this only happens once per turn and it's another random roll. Meh. At least you got the quest.
Are there downsides? Well, maybe. First off, there's one that's undeniable: This game is a table hog! It's a Tiny Epic game and yet it takes up more space than any number of games I own that fit in boxes four times as large. Again, that's kind of a credit to Gamelyn's ability to pack stuff into a box, but it's also kind of funny when I tell people at the FLGS that they're going to have to spread out to play a TE game. Secondly, there are a lot of decisions to be made, which is great... but it sometimes feels like those decisions are beyond your control. You only have five rounds to do all this stuff and, like in most adventure games, you want a certain degree of freedom to go off and, well, adventure! But time is against you and sometimes you feel like you have to default to a certain path in order to compete. The most obvious one is usually pounding goblins, which loses its shine after a few games. Also, the game stresses having a mix of travel and Temple quests available, but travel quests are completely superfluous in the first round, since they're always finished in the Day phase where neither Power nor Health have been lost. Finishing one to no reward just to keep an important Temple quest from being discarded feels bad, man.
Also also, this is a challenging game. There are a lot of wheels turning and it takes a couple plays to really get the hang of it. That's the same situation for the solo rules. This game is probably tied with TE Defenders as the best solo game of the series, because it plays exactly the same as the regular game, with only the learning magic rules softened a bit. But it still has to be played with maximum efficiency in mind to "win" in solo mode, often even on the easiest level (Peasant.) Efficiency is cool and all, but there's a limit. Finally, the fact that learning "spells" means nothing but VP (and extra Power) has always rubbed me a little raw. This is a fantasy adventure game, yo, even if an abstracted one. A half-assed survey of requests on BGG would seem to indicate this is the TE game that fans are most eager to see an expansion for. Having one that incorporated some chrome for the "spells" would be most welcome.
All of that said, TEQ remains one of my favorites of the series, mostly because it's just so weird. Everyone I've introduced it to went through the same emotions as I did. They were expecting one thing ("Questing! In Zeldaland!"), got another ("Wait. Are we doing... math?"), and then still ended up liking it ("Hey. Let's play that weird one with the goblins. And mushrooms. Or goblin mushrooms.") Next up is a turn away from the fantasy and into horror, but still fighting green things... Zombies!