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Mechanical but Piratical: Tiny Epic Pirates Review

Hot
J Updated April 29, 2021
 
3.0
 
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Mechanical but piratical: Tiny Epic Pirates review

Game Information

Publisher
Designer
Players
1 - 4
There Will Be Games

Wedded much more to mechanics than thematics, Tiny Epic Pirates finds something of a middle ground.

Those of you that are regular readers (all seven of you) may remember that I know things about pirate games (Lilly.) So, when Tiny Epic Pirates was announced (and Kickstartered) last year, I was pretty geeked about it. The Tiny Epic series had already covered plenty of nerd topics (zombies, dinosaurs, weird Pythagorean fantasy) so this was a natural progression. (One expects Tiny Epic Ninjas to emerge sometime soon.) The real question I had in mind was whether it would arc closer to the Black Fleet end of the pirate spectrum or the Merchants & Marauders end. The real answer may be... kinda both? Tiny Epic Pirates is very mechanically driven and basically without the chrome that inhabits other Tiny Epic titles like Tiny Epic Dinosaurs or Tiny Epic Zombies. That said, it still feels more like Merchants & Marauders because of the way a couple of those mechanics are implemented. Does that make for a good game on its own two feet (sails?) or something that just seems derivative? I'm not sure there's a solid answer to that.

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First and foremost, Tiny Epic Pirates is a pick-up-and-deliver game. Full stop. There are elements of "piracy" in that among the actions you can take are attacking merchant ships, plundering the local communities, and attacking other players for their booty. But it's perfectly feasible to win the game doing nothing but the aforementioned plundering and schlepping the stolen goods to whomever is willing to buy them. The object of the game is to bury three treasures, wihch basically means burying the profits of the stuff you've stolen from the nearby towns/islands. What separates it from Black Fleet in that respect is that, like Merchants & Marauders, there's a market that has to be heeded. If someone sells rum or gunpowder, those goods flood the market and drop to the lowest return of gold for everyone. But that also makes everything else more valuable, so a rapidly fluctuating market can be either boon or curse, depending on who got to the buyers first.

The main mechanic that allows you to engage in this commerce is a rondel. Everyone shuffles their potential actions during setup and then turns them over for their own arrangement. If you want to do the next action on your wheel, you can move there without trouble. If you want to skip over to another action, you have to take your crew from their useful posts in the Rigging (makes you go faster) or on the Cannons (makes you kill faster) or in Extort (makes you squeeze money from the locals faster?) and stick them on the wheel, holding that space down until you skip over them again or until storms or the navy or failed attacks jostle them into Repair. There's a certain rhythm to it that takes a couple turns to really get a feel for, but once you do, you can see all of the possibilities and frustrations of the rondel unfold in front of you. As in, you'd like to do a Search action, but that's two spaces away on the wheel, which means you'd have to pull a deckhand from Rigging which means you won't be able to actually sail to the space you wanted to explore in the first place. Or you're lining up an attack on a nearby merchant and skipping two deckhands again on the wheel allows you to drop them right onto Cannons, which is what you need to sink that target. So there is some planning into future turns that becomes extant once you're comfortable with bouncing guys back and forth between assignments and wheel.

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My feelings on combat are kind of mixed. As noted, you can assault merchants and other players, while your encounters with the navy are always an auto-loss for you. But getting to the point where you can even attempt the lowest merchants takes some doing. You can't just run out and start buccaneering from turn one. But the downsides of combat can be fairly minimal. Unlike Merchants & Marauders, where losing means an enormous setback, losing a fight with merchants or other players just means sending another guy to Repair. You'll often be more troubled by the storms around the board that do the same thing. Getting hit by the navy means all of your deckhands end up in Repair, which is irritating if you wanted them for assignments, but you can pull guys from Repair to the wheel in the same way as any other assignment. However, I think the fine line that designer, Scott Almes, was trying to walk here is that Tiny Epic Pirates is potentially a very fast game. Losing all of your guys to Repair can mean you basically skip the next turn to use the Hideout action and redistribute all of your dudes. Losing one turn in this game can easily put you well behind the inexorable progress of your opponents. So, while losing combat isn't a catastrophic result, it can put a dent in your plans.

But the other possible concern with that arrangement is the Legend ranking. You gain levels by defeating sufficiently tough merchants (which get stronger every time one of them is sunk by a player) and by winning fights with other players. In general, it's a good idea to advance on the Legend track, since it means you can move farther, gain another deckhand, and eventually have more dice for combat. But so far, I've not seen anyone go past the second level of the track (Corsair, where you gain another deckhand) and I've seen winners of the game not go past the first. If you hire the right crew or are able to keep dudes in Rigging, the extra movement isn't needed and the size of the board limits the utility of that, anyway (i.e. you generally only need to move three spaces or so.) Of course, not needing to attack other players is a bonus for a lot of gamers who aren't interested in that kind of thing and it does mean that there's more than one path to victory, which is always a positive.

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The thing nagging at the back of my mind is that, unlike almost every other game in the Tiny Epic series, Tiny Epic Pirates feels limited. It feels like it's just a smaller, more basic version of Merchants & Marauders. The rest of the games, even if they can be drawn into some obvious parallels, such as Tiny Epic Dinosaurs to Dinosaur Island, still feel like they have their own identity and like there's more story to explore within them. I'm not getting that sense from Pirates. Mechanically, it's a solid game. There are interesting choices to make, even in the basic combat system (e.g. Do you spread your crew choices out so that you cover more of the possible results of the dice or do you focus on a couple results so you get multiple hits from each die?), which affects the crew that you recruit. Further in that vein, the extra actions that each crewmember adds to your tableau are also considerations for putting together some really fun combo turns. But I find it odd when a pirate game can be compared to Black Fleet and one realizes that the game in question has even less chrome than Black Fleet does.

There are no cards to be drawn that change the game. There are no "variable player powers" beyond what you can piece together with crew and the minor variations in captain extra actions. There's nothing there that lends itself to the idea of story. It's all very... mechanical. That doesn't make it a bad game. In fact, it's a quite solid game and I had at least one participant say that he liked it better because it didn't have all of the random story elements that Merchants & Marauders brings to the table. I can completely understand that. I just find it weird that a game about one of the most romantic and fabled (as in "fictionalized") periods of history doesn't really try to tell you a story or make any one particular session stand out from the rest. In that respect, it actually belies what I said above to some degree. It's not a smaller version of Merchants & Marauders. It's definitely its own game. But it feels more constrained, which is not an experience I'm accustomed to with the Tiny Epic series. The Curse of Amdiak expansion alleviates that lack of chrome somewhat, in that it adds another kind of resource to the game, enlarges the board by 25%, and provides crew with abilities that are much more elaborate than the base game. It also adds another victory condition, so adding the expansion will increase the game length but, again, Tiny Epic Pirates is already a pretty swift experience, so that shouldn't really be an issue for most people.

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In the end, I have to say that I enjoy Tiny Epic Pirates. I'm just not dying to get it to the table when I have two excellent pirate games already sitting on the shelf that do parts, if not all, of what this one does. It's a sound design. If you can accept that piracy was also about raiding the land, as much as running down ships at sea, it's a solid pirate game. But I think this one is a lot closer to the also quite mechanical Tiny Epic Galaxies than the other more flavorful releases in the Tiny Epic line.


Editor reviews

1 reviews

Rating 
 
3.0
Tiny Epic Pirates
A sound design, but, unlike almost every other game in the Tiny Epic series, Tiny Epic Pirates feels limited.
J
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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dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #322688 29 Apr 2021 11:11
Great review. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I didn’t care for M&M, but I like both TEP and Black Fleet. Black Fleet has much better theming, but I find TEP more mechanically compelling. BF is more of a family game, although the powers on the cards push it out of the realm of something I could play with my non-gamer family.

I think the sweet spot for me would be TEP with more compelling crew cards — something more than just “get a bonus action.” Those are just pure optimization fiddliness, and runs counter to the great salty sea dog names they give the captains and crew.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #322691 29 Apr 2021 11:51
Thanks. I agree that the crew could do with a little more chrome, which is why I highlighted the difference in crew abilities with Curse of Amdiak. But that opens up a pretty huge can of worms in terms of balance (To make interesting abilities, does that mean that drawing the right crew member gives someone a significant advantage?) and game length (Do more interesting abilities slow the game down in terms of both play and decision making?) I think the system works well for what they were trying to make: a 45 minute pirate game. Some of my personal difficulty may come from multiple excursions into M&M and coming to this with expectations created by them.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #322695 29 Apr 2021 13:47
Here's an issue: These games are no longer "Tiny" (and have never been "Epic.") One look at the photo tells me one of the original strengths of the "Tiny Epic" line was the small-box, small-footprint aspect. Now the whole idea of "Tiny Epic" is just a brand designed to get eyeballs while Gamelyn shove whatever euro mechanic they can in there, with the requisite nerd-culture coat of paint (pirates, cowboys, Zelda, zombies, etc.)

Ever since Gamelyn took some modest success (TEKingdoms, TEDefenders) and attempted to franchise it into anything people would pay $25 for, there really hasn't been a great game in the series. They always make lots of KS kash because people see a low price point, and they always get dumped on eBay or sold for $20 at MM because there's no compelling gameplay to be found. Just another in a series of "gotta catch em all" collector fodder.

And I have this funny image of poor Scott Almes chained to a desk, forced to crank out this shovelware day & night while the Gamelyn knight stands behind him cracking a whip and laughing maniacally while counting Kickstarter Kash receipts.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #322703 29 Apr 2021 15:03
Hm. I agree that "tiny" is something of a misnomer, given the table space that they often take up and that's been true since Quest. The only really "tiny" ones were Galaxies and Kingdoms. But I can't agree at all that they're just churning out trash with a label on them. Tiny Epic Tactics was a genuinely remarkable physical design achievement and has an excellent level of variety for a brawler game. Tiny Epic Zombies has more actual zombie flavor than almost any other zombie game I've ever played. Tiny Epic Mechs rewards genuinely thoughtful play in ways that most people will never discover. Tiny Epic Western is one of the stranger games I own and that oddness will always give it a place on the shelf.

I think almost all of them are genuinely good games that function within their intended sphere in the same way that Pirates does. Are they as good as the larger games that they sometimes emulate? That's in the eye of the beholder. I don't think Pirates is as good as M&M but, like I said, one of my regulars said he liked it more precisely because it didn't have the chrome that M&M brings. I don't bring out Tiny Epic games on game night as the main event, but they're not filler games, either. I tend to bring them out as part of a plan to play two or three different ones which are easy to teach and don't take long to set up and are still a solid experience for a much lower price point than most of their comparables on the market.

Are any of them other than Western and Kingdoms all-time favorites? No. But I've gotten more than my money's worth out of all of them and, given that their "tiny" label does apply to the shelf space they take up (the entire series takes up less than the base game of Cthulhu Wars...), I think the "gotta catch'em all" criticism is completely baseless.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #322705 29 Apr 2021 15:49

Jackwraith wrote: But I can't agree at all that they're just churning out trash with a label on them. Tiny Epic Tactics was a genuinely remarkable physical design achievement and has an excellent level of variety for a brawler game. Tiny Epic Zombies has more actual zombie flavor than almost any other zombie game I've ever played. Tiny Epic Mechs rewards genuinely thoughtful play in ways that most people will never discover. Tiny Epic Western is one of the stranger games I own and that oddness will always give it a place on the shelf.

...I think the "gotta catch'em all" criticism is completely baseless.

So I just visited "that other site" and observed the following ratings:

TETactics = 7.0 (960 ratings)
TEZombies = 7.0 (3800 ratings)
TEMechs = 6.9 (1700 ratings)
TEWestern = 6.7 (3700 ratings)

And I just glanced at the TEZombies ratings and read this as the current 3rd rating down (6.0):
"Feels dull. I've realized how much these Tiny Epic games are just cranked out without much passion or reason for existence."

And that's exactly what I'm talking about: A lot of people buy them, and a lot of people then find them mediocre at best.

Thus the "gotta catch'em all" criticism is not completely baseless. It's a function of Gamelyn branding them in a way that moves units & results in people familiar with the brand purchasing shovelware just because "well, I bought the last one, so..." and then the remorse sets in. If these were marketed on their own without the Tiny Epic moniker they wouldn't sell half (a third? a fifth?) as well.

(And srsly, if Tiny Epic games can't succeed critically with the BGG "everything is awesome!" crowd, then that says a lot right there.)
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #322709 29 Apr 2021 16:22
That's a fair perspective, but I'm not sure how much it reflects on Gamelyn, as opposed to reflecting on the audience and its susceptibility to consumerist trends. I mean, I think you and I are both discerning consumers. If you or I picked up one part of a series and found it to be lackluster, would you or I pick up the next part just because we'd bought the first? "A fool and his money are soon parted" tends to indict the fool more than what they've spent their money on, right?

FWIW, I think BGG's audience has reached the size where it's difficult to assign any particular stance to it. Is the drift of mass media consumption a measure of quality? Tiger King was the absolute rage at the beginning of the pandemic. Here we are a year later and most don't remember it existed. I thought it was crap within the first five minutes and only watched another half hour before walking away for good. Does that make my opinion a better marker of its actual quality? Again, eye of the beholder and all that.

I tend to appreciate Almes' designs based on the space that I think he (and Gamelyn) intend them to inhabit. They're not really aiming for groundbreaking stuff, although I don't think he gets enough credit for some of the simple mechanics (like Kingdoms' combat system) that are emblematic of the series. Like I was saying in this review, the rondel system isn't mindblowing and I can see where it would turn some people off because it takes a bit to get a handle on it. Many, many players these days don't have that kind of patience, in the same way that most didn't have the patience to learn Western's intricacies or thought that Mechs was lame because it was a boxing game in a battlesuit's body. But it is kind of a slick system if you understand that the intent was to create a game that finished in under an hour and still gave you plenty of choices to make, which is kind of the hallmark of the series as a whole. Are they the level of choices that you'd be making in something like Pax Pamir? No. But I don't think that was their intent, either.

If you're saying they should aim higher, that's fair. I think they could, but that would often be outside the scope of what (I think) is the line's intent. Is the series theme getting tired? (Next: Tiny Epic Kitchen Utensils, in the vein of Food Chain Magnate!) Could be. Tiny Epic Dungeons is next and it will be interesting to see just how much replayability a dungeon crawler of that size will have. But I don't think any of them were intended to be transformative, in the same way that I think Almes is a good designer, but perhaps not at the level of someone like Knizia or Wehrle because that's not what he's trying to be. No one suggests John Company as a game to be pulled out with the family of non-gamerz. But TE Galaxies or Defenders or Dinosaurs? Yeah. That could be a thing and that might be why you and much of BGG's audience finds them underwhelming. Or it could be that part of the consumerist urge means that people aren't spending long enough with any one game to learn its character and are, instead, tossing it in Ebay to fund the next Kickstarter explosion. Dunno.