Come for the explosions. Stay for the... not explosions.
OK. Let's get this out of the way right at the start. There was a lot of dissension in the TE world when Tiny Epic Mechs was released. Many people anticipated a game with mechs bashing each other and HUGE EXPLOSIONS and were quite disappointed when TEM turned out to be more of a tactical game, rather than one where you go barreling in and try to detonate your opponents in the flashiest manner possible. This reminded me of a similar inclination that people have about ancient Roman gladiatorial contests. See, most people have this image from Hollywood that gladiators always fought to the death in the arena, because they were using real weapons and were often slaves, and ancient people were a bit more sanguine about the value of life, as it were. Plus, it makes for good Hollywood drama.
Fact is, gladiators were, quite literally, professional athletes. They were trained and nurtured to be expert performers in said arena and there's no way that their owners/bosses were going to waste all of the money that went into that nurturing and training by having them fight to the death. That's one moment of thrill vs the years of earning potential that these guys had, especially if they became popular. People would demand to see the martial skill of these stars, over and over. Mechs is in a similar vein (Why do I keep using words like 'sanguine' and 'vein' when there isn't blood involved? Trick of the language, yo.) The setting is a futuristic arena where pilots like Tsunami and Rampage are already stars and people want to see them compete. Sure, there's still violence, but it's not permanent violence. It's more about the skill and technique employed, as in ancient Rome (unless you happened to be a wild animal or a barbarian or something else equally expendable to the Latin types.) Think of it more like a boxing match: Yes, you can try to beat your opponent to a bloody pulp but, 9 times out of 10, you're going to win by scoring points for technique, not strength.
The other frustrating aspect for TEM for many people, of course, is the programmed movement. There's rarely as clear a dividing line among games than that between those who can tolerate, or even enjoy, mapping out every step in a turn that can then be so easily disrupted, and those who recoil from it like it's a live blowtorch. Ask any experienced player their opinion of Robo-Rally and you'll see what side of that line they fall on, instantly. What helps is that Mechs doesn't have anywhere near the chaos that RR does. You won't end up spinning in place for two turns or falling off the map and having to start all over. If you end up in a battle and lose, not only do you still score points for any damage you dish out on your opponent, but the price of failure is typically just having to retreat one space and then being able to do whatever you want. When you lose, you go into Ad Hoc mode. You no longer have a program to obey. You can just take advantage of what the circumstances happen to be at that moment. So, sure it's disappointing to lose a fight and see your opponent score a couple more points (despite the scale of the scoreboard, TEM games are often decided pretty narrowly), but you've just had a lot of options opened up that you wouldn't have had in the past. So, the "risk" of programming a move is kind of oddly defined in this game and it isn't as onerous as some make it out to be.
Also, right up front, we have to talk about components because this is the game where the ITEMeeple system really reached the next level, as it were. Sure, your dudes are still regular, old dudes... but now they have power armor! You actually fit your meeple into a suit of armor over twice its size and go stomping around like, yes, an actual mech. (Hence, the name...) This also gives you more weapon slots, so you can traverse the battlefield positively festooned with hardware. This is also a game where that system really helps not just for visual appeal, but for game play. When planning your hidden moves, you don't want to be peering over at your opponent's cards, in obvious anticipation of both leaping onto them and discerning whether you can take them out. Instead, you can just eyeball their mech (Don't you eyeball me, boy!) and see what they're carrying and be able to plan from there. Granted, keeping track of what all of the weapons do is a bit of a task but, after a couple games, you should know enough to suss out your chances effectively. We still have people announce what their weapons do when they buy them, just in case people weren't staring at what's available as soon as it comes out (like you know they are.)
Like many of the TE games, Mechs is a resource-balancing problem between cash (Credits) and juice (Energy.) Why are you gaining money in the midst of an arena combat? Maybe because society has descended to such a mercenary outlook that every move you make HAS to be worth something? Wait. You mean it's like that now? Then, why are you asking?! Most players will be targeting their Collect Resources actions toward whatever the shiniest thing is among the Advanced Weapons, but there are several other choices to consider. First off, Credits are what you use to Power Up and get into your fancy Tony Stark gear. Or you could use Energy for the more mundane action of, y'know, healing, which can turn out to be crucial, so don't overlook it. But, just as importantly, both resources are used for the placing of infrastructure.
Now, here's where we reveal the secret of our arena combat game (shhhh): It's actually an area control game, too. You can score gales of points by going head-to-head with your opponents. But you need the right gear to do that, which often costs both resources to obtain. The other complication of constantly butting heads is that you take damage. That needs to be healed with those Power Up actions, which otherwise don't do anything else if you're already in power armor and also demands Energy. If you get knocked out, you lose the fancy duds and any gear that requires them. So, the best way to score points outside of bashing each other (remember: points, not explosions) is to drop infrastructure around the map: Mines and Turrets. Those also cost resources (Credit and Energy, respectively) but will a) do damage to the opponents that move into those sectors and b) score you a ton of points in the scoring rounds (2, 4, and 6.) This is where some complaints about TEM have arisen, because those people that spend time laying down infrastructure instead of constantly crashing into their opponents tend to win, because when those even-numbered rounds roll around, they shoot ahead on the scoring table.
But here's the thing: Let's look at WWE. Is it more exciting to see Drew McIntire and Braun Strowman throw down in an everyday match or in a Steel Cage Match you've been looking forward to for weeks? Obviously, the latter. Same thing here. You're laying the groundwork to try to maneuver your opponent into a confrontation of your choosing so that when you do crash in with your Railgun and Lightning Coil, it's a memorable moment that's set up to (hopefully) produce a KO that will send your opponent back to their Base Zone sector and earn you extra points. (And the crowd goes wild!) Meanwhile, there's potentially action out there on the floor even when people don't encounter each other because there are Mines and Turrets to deal with. That's the depth of this game. If it was just about people loading up weapons and slamming into each other the whole time, it would get played out pretty quick. There are fighting games like that, but most of them live on expansions and, thus, regular additions to the roster. This is a self-contained, Tiny Epic game. There may be one expansion at some point, but I wouldn't count on it. The best part about that is that it really doesn't need one since, as usual, the depth is already there to make it last without any additions. And I haven't even talked about the Mighty Mech...
Again, Gamelyn's production values kind of shine through here. Not only do we get battle armor for our dudes, but we get an even bigger suit that gets you points just for being in the thing. It's cool to be the player stomping around in the big, white monster and there are certainly upsides to it. I will confess, though, that my strategy in most of my games has been to avoid it and let other people try to beat each other up for the big suit. It costs a lot of resources to properly outfit it and, since you can't heal while you're inside and tend to be the person that everyone wants to knock off, there's a certain degree of self-targeting there that I'd usually avoid. But, again, free points and as noted above, games are often quite close, so those points could end up being the difference.
The pilots are a decent variety of subtle advantages, some of them more obvious than others.
- Given that the last person to use a weapon is the default winner of a fight, Maverick with Weapons Expert is a favorite. Being able to use a weapon twice is a serious edge by itself, but even better with something like the EMP Mace that could end the fight right there.
- Wasp's Scare Tactics to immediately reconstruct her infrastructure is awesome, provided you have the resources to maintain it. She's the one pilot I've used for an entire game without going into power armor, as a result of exercising that ability repeatedly.
- Tank's Tough as Steel is an appropriate counter to that issue, though, and works for free.
- Similarly, Rampage's Supply Drop lets you cheat on resource collection, which can be huge.
- Kitty's Gyroscope can enable you to get out of a corner you may have inadvertently painted yourself into. I always suggest her for new players.
- Tsunami's Impulse Command is similar, but costs twice as much for the ability to Ad Hoc your way into whatever you want.
- Both Diamond's Self-Repair and Magma's Power Shield are healing abilities, which can be really useful, but are also narrower than the rest, since you have to take damage in the first place and either pay Energy or use a Power Up to heal, respectively. You'll have games where you'll appreciate both of those, but not as often as the others.
- Similarly, Ghost's Cyborg ability sounds very cool and, if you manage to get a decent weapon early on in the game, it is cool. But I've found that you spend more time focusing on resource collection to actualize it than may be wise.
- In contrast to Kitty, Lotus' Shadow Step, while it seems like the ultimate escape, is also very narrow in application and doesn't allow you to do anything when you land. I'd suggest her for more experienced players who will understand the timing of when best to execute it.
When evaluating the hardware, there are two things to keep in mind. One is cost and the other is what type of weapon you're picking up. TEM's rock-paper-scissors system that allows you to perform better attacks if responding with the right weapon to your opponent's previous one (Ranged counters Melee counters Area counters Ranged) is part of the necessary strategizing when both anticipating a fight and actually participating in one. Among the Basic weapons, a lot of people opt for the Pulse Pistol, which almost always does max damage, or the Energy Sword, since it slows down your opponent's resource collection. They also both cost 1 of each resource, meaning you're not impairing one more than the other while trying to build/buy other things. However, the Riot Shield is brilliant in the early game, since it counters ALL attacks and can heal you, while the Grenade Launcher is great to hold on to for later in the game when you want to clean up the board during a scoring round.
Among the Advanced gear, all of them can be useful, but some moreso than others. In Melee weapons, I'm fond of the Warhammer(!) (score an additional VP when you do damage) and the EMP Mace (exhaust an opponent's weapon.) Again, scores can often be very tight. Getting an extra point every time you take a swing at someone, on top of the damage done, is excellent. The Mace can often end a fight on the spot, since it will leave your opponent with nothing to attack with. The highlights of the Ranged weapons are the Laser Blaster, which rewards you for regular Turret placement and is cheap to obtain at 2 Credits and 1 Energy, and the Crossbolt, which lets you reactivate a weapon in a fight (and is also cheap, at the same price as the Blaster.) But the Area weapons are often where things shine for me, based largely on timing and the careful approach to a fight. The Flamethrower can do massive damage, based on the location of the fight. The Particle Phaser can steal key resources from your opponent in the fight, which may spoil their later plans, win or lose. And the Auto Turret can reap huge benefit by placing free Turrets around you. Be aware, though, that the Area weapons are all quite expensive and exclusively cost Energy, so you may have to plan your way into them, resource-wise. The detailing on all of these weapons is pretty remarkable, as well. Given the cost of the game, you typically don't expect to see minis of this quality, but it's easy to tell the Vorpal Slicer from the Shock Knuckles across the board.
So, where are the glitches in the machine? Well, we've covered a couple of them in some detail. This is not a Rock'em, Sock'em Robots game and if you come into it with that mindset, you are likely going to be disappointed. OTOH, if you're willing to appreciate the game for what it is, I think you'll be intrigued by it, at the least. There's also an interesting contrast in visual appeal. The floor tiles of the arena are pretty plain; just a blueprint-like diagram and the necessary symbology. Similarly, when you get past the mechs and the weapons, the Mines and Turrets are basic shapes: a disc and a + sign column, respectively. However, the overall visual appeal, with the power armor suits sprouting exotic guns and the multi-colored infrastructure bits spread across the board, is excellent. The big picture is eye-catching, even if some of the more basic stuff is, well... basic. There's been a fair amount of criticism of the combat system for its simplicity, as well, but I tend to look at that similarly to the visual contrast. Yes, at base level, whoever has the most weapons and the rock-paper-scissors nature of their interaction is simple. But when viewed as part of the overall strategy (i.e. How can I engage at the right time and deliver the most points?), it makes sense. Getting more complicated would've bogged a lot of people down into analysis paralysis. Using programmed movement is already a struggle for some. Throwing curveballs in combat might've been a bridge too far.
One last note involves the "deluxe" version of the game. In all of the Tiny Epic series, there are mini-expansions that usually just involve more characters/races/pilots/whatever. However, a couple of them add some extra rules for a different playing experience. Mechs is one of those, as it came with two mini-expansions and one of them, Spotlight, is something I would encourage everyone to use after a couple games, as it really provides some interesting choices. As noted, you often use non-scoring rounds to set up for scoring in the subsequent round. But Spotlight encourages combat in those rounds (1, 3, 5), not only for additional resources, but a significant point gain in rounds 2, 4, and 6. It not only sets the stage (ahem) for a more combat-heavy game, but also makes the choice of whether to engage in that combat more appealing in rounds where you'd otherwise often be dropping infrastructure.
In the end, TEM is a game that was less than some were expecting but, as usual, contains a lot more than I think some of those people give it credit for. If you're willing to engage the system (Systems engage!) for what it is, there's actually a serious amount of depth and excitement to be found here. Plus, dudes in power armor.
Next time, we finish up in the Old West and the most intriguing TE game of them all.