Yes, it's an abstract Western game. No, you won't really understand it, at first. That's fine. It's all worth it.
You remember back in vol. 3, where I mentioned that one of the really attractive aspects of Tiny Epic Quest was how weird it was? Well, allow me to introduce you to the oddest of the Tiny Epic series and one which retains that charm in the same way; not in spite of, but because of its oddity: Tiny Epic Western. This is a game that combines worker placement, 3-card stud poker, 1v1 dice-offs that often represent dudes telling each other to get off their porch, and long-term planning by what are largely a bunch of criminals to bring industry and progress to the Old West. That sounds like a complete mess, doesn't it? But, no, it really works in the quirkiest manner and continues to fascinate me every time I think about it. Yes, indeed, I saved what may be the best for last.
It's easy: You put your guys down on locations to try to gather Influence: Gold and/or Law and/or Force. Once your guys are placed and any duels are fought over who gets to stay in said spaces, you play the poker game in any locations you're placed in. You're trying for the best three card hand of the one card you hold and the two on each side of the location. You play against anyone else in that location and the Rival at the Town Hall, who's like the AI/stand-in if you have no one else to play against. The winner gets more of those resources, which you then spend for buildings which give you new spots to land on in subsequent rounds and also build up your long-term scoring shares of Mining, Railways, and/or Wagons. Six rounds of that and you do final scoring based on buildings and whom has the most of those shares and has therefore brought progress to Our Small Town. ("Be as big as San Francisco in a few years and just as sophisticated!") See? Simple as cattle rustling.
The basest of base mechanics in the game is worker placement. You're not doing especially complex tasks with your dudes (Side note: This time your dudes are actually DUDES! This is the Old West! It's even more dudish than being on a dude ranch! We've been right all along! They're dudes!!) because aside from an initial pickup of resources in some spots, what you're mostly doing is setting them up to play the poker game at each location, which is where the real benefits will often be gained. Indeed, placing them at the Sheriff's Office is often solely about adjusting the value or suit of your card to win the poker game at other locations. It doesn't give you anything immediate, but it does set you up for greater rewards in the following phase. Howevah, you only have two dudes to place each round, unless you took the special measures in the previous round to wake up your third dude from his drunken stupor (How do I know he's drunk? Because he's lying down. In the Old West. And hasn't been shot yet.) So, you have to suss out your approach in each round fairly quickly, based on what buildings are available, but you can pretty easily change tack in each round; again, largely based on what buildings are available, which will not only give you those long-term markers, but straight up VPs for the final scoring.
In general, it's not bad to just keep piling up Influence. You'll be using those to make a purchase AND you can use them to win duels, if either you or an opponent chooses to throw down. This is where I stop to reassure people that major changes on one throw of the dice, which is a regular complaint on BGG, is actually not as horrible as it sounds. Remember the Warhammer rule: if using dice, just try to hedge the odds as much in your favor as you can. When you're defending in a duel, you spend Law to get a reroll. When picking a fight, you use Force. So, if you're earlier in the turn order next round and, thus, placing earlier, it's not a bad idea to build up a healthy dose of Law to give yourself more chances at a winning result. Similarly, if you're going to be behind in the turn order, pump up that Force so you have the ability to divebomb your opponents and get the immediate bonus you want and be where you want when the cards come into play. Plus, you get to roll dice shaped like bullets. (Once again, Gamelyn's skill with stylistic components given limited space and weight restrictions shines through.)
But the poker is where a lot of the magic lies, as any player will tell you. You can drop on a spot for an immediate gain of one of a kind of Influence, but the real efficiency is in playing the card game for up to four. It's poker, albeit with three card hands, and because so many of those hands could come out "equal" (straights, etc.), Gamelyn gave the suits a value, as well. So, even if someone matches your 1-2-3 straight, if you have Hats to their Horseshoes, you're going to win the pot. And doesn't "Hats to your Horseshoes" sound like a quintessential Western phrase? I have no idea what it might mean, but it sounds like I just remembered it from a previous life. Or it's a stupid flashback from the first season of Westworld... Gamelyn being Gamelyn, there's also a handy guide on the back of each player card if you're not familiar with poker. When you're dealt two to pick from at the start, you just keep the other one, too, and flip it over so you can know your straights from your flushes.
A lot of the tension of the game is present here. You're dealt two cards to choose from at the start of each round after the cards are dealt to the board, so you'll know which card works best based on which game you'd like to win. However, as noted, anyone can drop a dude(!) on the Sheriff's Office to change the value of their card, by number OR suit and up OR down. Suits and values wrap around, so if you have a 1 of Cattle, you can change that to a 5 of Cattle or a 1 of Hats. You just have to keep in mind what other outs (hands) your opponents might have in the spots you want. Also, you have to keep the Rival in mind. You won't know the Rival's card until the placement phase is over, so even if no one comes to challenge you at the Saloon, you still have to play the game. If you lose, you get nothing (Can't fight Town Hall...) But dueling also plays a role here, since you can always add your card to a duel to win the spot. But you can only do that once and that means your card is also exposed for that round. That means everyone knows what games you're aiming to win and, if they're behind you in turn order, they can then plan around that.
Further on the dueling front, even if you lose a duel on a spot, you're still in the poker game. A lot of people get this rule wrong (We did in our first play.) No matter that you're lying on the floor after a showdown at The Bank, if you have the better hand, you win the pot for that location. That takes even more of the pressure off of the rolling of those bullets and puts more on smart play with cards and positioning. Your opponent might get the two Law he wanted in the resolution, but you'll get two Gold for the lead you caught. That means that if you think you have the winning hand and you need that Gold, dueling is almost irrelevant. Of course, it's almost universally better to win the duel, since you'll potentially get even more Influence, but it does demonstrate that the dice don't have the inordinate impact that some on BGG complain about. Furthermore, winning the game at the Town Hall means you pick first in the purchase phase and the proceed in order of the best hands. So, being at a location and losing a duel but still winning the poker game at the Town Hall means you might purchase a building that you wanted before your opponent, anyway.
But the purchase phase has its own depth of strategy. Each building costs 3-6 Influence and is worth 1-4 VPs and 1-3 shares. Points are obvious, but it's also often important to keep an eye on what shares each building represents, so that you can try to have as much coverage as possible among the three options. All of them are going to score points of some kind at the end, so you'd like to be first in at least one and second in the other two, if possible. This works in tandem with the end of the purchase phase, where the person with the best poker hand at Town Hall gets to advance one of the industry tokens. The farther along the three-slot track each token is, the more it will score for whomever has the most Mining or Wagons or Railroads at the end. So, the poker game not only functions as the key to how you can buy buildings, but also the extra scoring that those buildings might bring to you at the end. Those tokens also function as the round markers for the game, since once they're all distributed on the three slots, you know the game is over. This is where the elegance of the overall design just makes me smile.
But those buildings aren't just scoring markers, since they all provide a new porch for anyone to access during the game. Many of them provide obvious economic benefit that you'd use for a specific purchase, like the Jail. which will let you convert any number of Law to Force + 2, or more situational spots, like the Cattle Farm, which will give you 1 of any kind of Influence for each Cattle suit card in play that round. Others are more oriented around shares and are, thus, more useful in later rounds, like the Collapsed Mine, which makes buildings cheaper to purchase for each Mining symbol on them, or the Train Station, which gives you 1 of any Influence for each Railroad share you already have. Others are less direct, but potentially even more powerful, like the Grand Hotel, where you can pay 2 of one Influence to get 2 each of the other two (so 2 Force for 2 Law and 2 Gold, for example.) Or the Auction House, which lets you pay 1 Influence to draw two building cards and purchase one of them on the spot. Others are focused on dueling, like the Outhouse, which prevents your dude from dueling or being dueled this round, or the Doctor's Office, which lets you stand your wounded dude and place him on a new spot; pretty key for a last minute switch to a different poker game. Keep in mind that you'll generally only be able to use these buildings once per game, because if people purchase buildings in each round (as they should try to do), then the old ones get covered by a new action... unless of course you have access to the Barber Shop, which lets you rearrange a stack of buildings to get another shot at a previous one.
Another thing to keep in mind with all of these is also not just their function or the cost to buy them, but also their longer-term impact. The Outhouse may seem pretty mundane and its cost (3, one of each Influence) and VP total (1) may reflect that. But it also brings 3 Railroad shares, so if you're aiming to get the endgame bonus for Railroads, it might be something that you'd want to invest in. Conversely, the Central Bank, which lets you buy a building on the spot and replace it with a new one and is worth 4 VPs at the end of the game, is also only worth 1 Mining share, so while it's really tempting, it may or may not be worth it in the last round (it's still almost always worth it if you have the resources to spend.)
And before you think this is totally an abstract Euro... variable player powers to the rescue! There are a dozen different Boss roles to choose from, with a variety of approaches, short-term and long-term, just like the game itself. Take the Scout, for instance. She chooses from three poker cards at the start of each round, hut only if her total Influence is 5 or less. You do want to keep spending, so it shouldn't be that difficult to make that power pay off. Or there's the more direct application of the Gunslinger, who always has +1 power in duels. There's strategic application, like the Cowgirl, who gets +1 Influence of any kind in the resolution phase for each standing dude on a porch slot. And there's predicted tactical application, like the Apothecary, who gets +1 Influence for each wounded dude on the board, including other players'. If you know your group is, uh, confrontational, he might not be a bad pick. The straight-up best pick, though, may be the Rancher, who can pay 1 Influence at the start of the placement phase to use his third dude; something you normally have to either sit on an otherwise-empty space on the Sheriff's office for in the previous round or not purchase a building in the previous round. We've considering giving him the Trenloe the Strong status (i.e. outlawing him. From play. Not, like, in the game where everyone's an outlaw. Even the Lawman. Objective history of people like Wyatt Earp is helpful here.) OTOH, the two weakest seem to the Gambler, who gets to pick from three cards like the Scout only if he's playing his third dude that round, and the Banker, who gets 2 Influence before resolution for every 2 buildings he has, but a max of 2. That's useless through the first two rounds and only decent in the next four. Like most TE games, Western does operate on narrow margins, so any resource or point gain is generally a good one, but I still think there are better picks.
As noted, the components are excellent. You not only get meeples wearing Stetsons, but the player cards have Influence trackers that look like ammo belts; the Influence tokens themselves are in the shape of an actual gold coin, sheriff's star, and an ammo cylinder, respectively. I've already mentioned the dice, but I have to drop a note for the cards, as well. Not only are they all "aged" to look like they've been seeing the inside of a saloon or some saddlebags for ages, but they also have backs that resemble standard playing cards, but with the four suits of TEW worked into them. Furthermore, Gamelyn was thoughtful enough to make the backs of the building and poker cards a different color, so it's easier to tell them apart for sorting and just to add overall character to the game. Like usual, all of the rules are condensed in easy-to-recognize symbology on the players boards and cards (Exclamation points for immediate abilities; dollar signs for things that happen in the purchase phase; etc.) Although I will say that the interpreation of "wild" Influence symbology (X X is two of the same, 2X is two different kinds) is the opposite of what I would've suggested. Plus, the Wanted card that you gain for being the most recent duel winner that comes with the "deluxe" version is plastic, windowed card that is perfectly scaled to fit over the faces on all of the player boards. It's a neat, technical art touch that's just indicative of smart, smart design.
What are the scorpions in your boots? Well, it's strange. It's a weird game and, in some ways similar to Tiny Epic Mechs, it's often not what people expect. Most people picking up a "Western" game expect something like Western Legends or Great Western Trail, not an abstract. But it fits right in with the same approach used in the rest of the TE series and gives you a full game with a lot of flavor in a package small enough to fit in a coat pocket and at a price far less than those other two (which is the general theme of the whole series.) It's not loaded with chrome and certainly falls far short of the possibilities in that respect that you'd find with Mechs or Defenders or Zombies. But the overall elegance of the design and its well-laid parameters are both marks very much in its favor, IMO. Whereas in some other games of the series, you can look back and understand exactly how and why a game proceeded as it did, there's still an air of mystery that tends to follow games of TEW and that's what makes it so intriguing to so many players. When I hosted three Tiny Epic games at last year's U-Con convention in Ypsilanti, I picked Kingdoms, Western, and Mechs. Two people showed up and a third joined the last game, which was Mechs. When I asked my original two players what was their favorite of the three, without hesitation, both said: "Western!" TEW is tiny, epic, weird, but it works.