Carving out its own space, Tiny Epic Dungeons succeeds wildly in a genre that might have seemed impossible for a game of its size.
There are a number of games that "feel" like other games. Indeed, some have mechanics or themes that deliberately borrow from earlier releases. As the argument often goes, you can't copyright the rules of a game. You can copyright the art and name that go with it, but once you come up with a cool idea for rolling dice or placing workers, other people can use that idea, too. But the converse is also true: Just because most dungeon crawlers tend to use the same approach to adventuring in dark corridors and clashing with monsters, it doesn't mean that all of them do. In the same way that Tiny Epic Dinosaurs stands on its own two/four feet, distinct from similar games like Dinosaur Island, Tiny Epic Dungeons does the same. It may feel like Descent or Gloomhaven, but it doesn't necessarily play like them when it comes to surviving the fangs and arrows of the enemies and dividing the loot between the valiant adventurers/murder hobos (as you like it.) Some of that is defined by physical limitations; TED's box is 1/20 the size of Gloomhaven's. But some of it is because it's simply a different approach to a tried-and-true formula.
First off, let's get the obvious compliments out of the way. Scott Almes and Gamelyn Games have managed to get another ridiculously replayable game into one of their 7" x 4" x 1.5" boxes. This time, they even abandoned the typical meeples for actual sculpted miniatures, but everything still fits. The variety in map tiles that are used to construct your adventure is solid and it's still just as much of a table hog as Tiny Epic Pirates or Tiny Epic Quest or any of the rest of the series that somehow take up just as much space as games packed in boxes many multiples of their size. That's all the same as it ever was. But the necessary complexity of a dungeon crawler was assayed in a manner that's a sharp turn away from the relative simplicity of the rest of the series. It's not like there are three basic moves and a half-dozen symbols to understand. On the contrary, there are a huge variety of actions, many of which are unique to the particular character(s) you're playing, and there are literally dozens of icons to interpret and understand while you're playing the game. Once you understand the system and/or have looked at the same cards/heroes a few times, it's pretty easy to follow the general train of thought behind the language that seems like hieroglyphs at first glance. But those first couple games might be a bit of a challenge. However, in keeping with their usual utilitarian approach, the back of every unused character card can double as a Rosetta stone for players and there's a more descriptive PDF that's sitting on Gamelyn's website that I keep handy whenever we're playing, as I've gotten several games in now, but I still run into items that I don't quite remember the uses of. That's a testament not only to the complexity of the icon alphabet, but also the variety that is once again packed into that tiny box.
That efficiency is, like usual, reflected in the game play, as well. This game, similar to the notorious relic, Dungeonquest, is on a very tight clock. If you don't explore quickly, discover the Minions of the dungeon, defeat them, and then find the Boss' lair and defeat it, your torch will run out (Indy!) and you'll be condemned to oblivion. This is not a campaign game where you'll be spending an entire day hacking and slashing your way through the darkness (I attack the darkness!), although there is a "kinda campaign" option with the Stories expansion (I'll get to it.) Like the rest of the TE line, this is a game meant to be played inside of an hour or so, but one which still tells a great story. Part of that story is conveyed by that variety of characters. There are eight in the base set: two Warriors, two Mages, two Clerics, and two Rogues, in standard D&D fantasy style. But adding the Stories expansion, which is worthwhile for this reason alone even if you never try the campaign approach, doubles that number and adds things as exotic as a Psionic and a "Pandakin Brewmaster" (which, yes, is totally a Blizzard ripoff.) But each character, expansion or no, has a different kind of attack and often different secondary abilities, as well. Uliessa, Dwarf Cleric, can heal every time she casts a spell. Sir Lanon, Human Paladin, however, can heal as a free action whenever. Uliessa's heal is more powerful and has greater range because it's a greater cost and more restrictive circumstance to perform that action. All of the characters have that built-in balance, whether it's as complex as Moonblade's Shadow Walk vs Wyn Keleas' Stealth (the former has to make a skill check to slip into stealth (can move past enemies) and damages all enemies in the room she stops in; the latter just has to spend two Focus to go into stealth mode) or as simple as Ethairna's and Gerrund the Blue's main magic attacks, both of which differ solely on range and damage. Those simple and not so simple differences make different characters appeal to different playstyles. Given the extremely tight nature of the game, even those minor differences will manifest into different ways to approach the challenge of the dungeon every time you put a party together. This is, as usual with the TE line, a sign of the depth of the design.
That variety is part of what makes up for the lack of variation in basic monsters. Until you begin revealing the Boss' Minions (ranging from a Dire Serpent to an Ooze to a Troll and more in the base box), you're just going to be swatting down Goblins. These Goblins do have a variety of attacks (Stabby, Boomy, Shooty; there's a theme here), as well as stats like movement and defense, so it's far from completely monochrome. But there is a level of excitement that comes with revealing a Minotaur that isn't generated by running into another Pokey Goblin. (There's also Mixy, Mighty, and Spelly with the two expansions...) But that's what's supposed to happen in these types of games. The mini-bosses are supposed to be different and unusual. It's the same approach that Diablo has used (speaking of Blizzard...), in that sweeping away the hordes of chaff was one thing, but running into an Elite pack could be another order of challenge entirely. And since we mentioned Diablo, we should probably talk about the loot.
The most interesting aspect to the Loot cards in TED was likely borrowed from Diablo: item sets. The presence of sets which grant more power based on the number of items of that set that you equip creates a further compulsion to fight the monsters beyond just tooling up for the final battle. Completing the Bear or Panther or Lion set could end up being key in getting you toward a win. OTOH, you only have so much time to win the game, so dithering around waiting for another Goblin to show up so you can look for another piece of the Phoenix set may be counterproductive. Again, efficiency of action is key to success. All of the individual set items are useful in their own right, so completing a set is far from a necessity to gain real benefit from your gear. It's just another little side quest that provides further replayability the next time you stumble across a piece of the Viper set and decide that you're going to try to put the full package together this time.
I'm going into a certain level of detail on the mechanics because there is so much packed into this game that I feel like ignoring them just to talk about the game's "feel" or other esoteric aspects would lead to a situation where some people assume that this is just a smaller version of Descent. It's not. I think that's a key mistake that a lot of initial players made that led to the BGG forum being dominated by people complaining about the game's difficulty. It is a difficult game. Again, it's extremely tight. Efficiency of action is key. Small mistakes can end up causing much trouble later on. But it doesn't need patches. It doesn't need house rules. It does need a thorough read of the rules presented, as many of the people complaining about it were simply playing it wrong; especially those who made assumptions about how the game "should be" played, rather than playing it as written. One example is movement. Many people assumed that if there was an enemy in the same room with you, you couldn't leave. That's not the case and nowhere in the rules does it say that, but many people assumed that there was at least a distinct penalty for walking out on a Goblin, like taking a wound, because (and this was frequently a direct quote) "that's the way [X dungeon crawler] is played." But that's that game, not this one. There isn't a penalty for leaving the room because the game itself isn't an endurance test. It's an efficiency test. It's not presenting a question of how long you can last. It's instead asking how quickly can you do the right thing. That's what happens when you design a dungeon crawler that's intended to be played in an hour.
Those differences exist on a material level, as well. As noted, they've packed a ton of stuff into their tiny box, but there are some limitations. Laying a collection of thin cards on the table isn't as aesthetically pleasing as the sturdy cardboard of things like Gloomhaven, but it's also not a failing. However, going the miniatures route, in place of the meeples of the TE line to date, was absolutely the right choice because it partially makes up for the "lesser" production value of the rest of the dungeon. You're not a meeple standing in for Nili Songheart. You are Nili Songheart, Halfling Bard. Your figure says so. Also, it's interesting to note that Gamelyn is forging ahead with their Aughmoore world, as many of the characters present in TED also appear in titles like Tiny Epic Tactics and Heroes of Land, Air and Sea. One material limitation that directly impacts gameplay is the number of dice included, which is capped at three for the players, plus one Enemy die. Again, this is a contrast to others in the genre, which often took the Games Workshop route of tossing fistfuls of dice, especially when the characters got tooled up with a Grinding Axe or some such thing. In TED, you will never be rolling more than three dice because that's what the system accommodates and that's what would fit in the box. But you can add plenty of modifiers to those dice, which is where things like the right magic items allows the system to compete with those larger games.
One significant advancement on those larger games is the way the boss fight is handled. One of the failings of Descent, 1st Ed., for example, is that it was possible for the heroes to simply tool up as much as possible before entering the last room of the dungeon and then proceed to one-shot the boss; neutering what was supposed to be the exciting and climactic final battle. TED solves this in two ways: firstly by putting such a tight clock on Act 1, where you're looking for the Minions and the Boss' lair and, secondly, by requiring you to lure the boss out of his lair in Act 2 and run it around the dungeon before you can even take away all of its health. This not only enforces the idea of that climactic battle, but also emphasizes the teamwork needed to reach victory. Instead of sending in the Berzerker with his Sword of Fire and 20 dice worth of damage while everyone else stands outside and applauds, the entire party has to engage the big monster (and some have to also continue to monitor the neverending Goblins) or risk not escaping its clutches. This is, of course, a co-op and, in that respect, it lowers the alpha dog tendency of most co-ops and many vs 1s, where one player is important and everyone else is just helping out or playing blocking dummies.
It also continues to engage one of the essential conceits of the genre, in that the question of whether to spread out to explore faster or stick together to protect each other and kill things faster is extremely prominent. You simply must explore quickly or the torch will fade and you'll lose. But you'll also require healing at some point, which is better done on the run, as it were, rather than taking a whole turn to rest up. But sometimes you must Rest. So, again, figuring out your party composition, whether you travel together or separately, and balancing the actions you want to take with those you need to take is all part of the play of this game. The difficulty level assumes that some plays will be a process of you figuring out those essential details. The fact that you can't run right through and win in your first game doesn't mean the game wasn't tuned correctly.
As with many of the mini expansions, Potions and Perils is a give-or-take. It adds another room to the dungeon pool and a new type of Goblin. It also adds Potions, which are a risk for all characters as soon as one is revealed, but a reward for one character which may be really useful. It also adds a couple more Minions and Bosses for those who are into maximum variety. Similarly, the Stories expansion provides a way to both add more texture to your regular games with Quests, which are tasks to be completed in addition to the basic challenge of explore, equip, and exterminate. But it also provides the Tiny Epic Dungeon, wherein the players will explore a three-level labyrinth with multiple Bosses, which creates a much longer game and more closely resembles some of TED's larger brethren. I think both expansions are worth it just for the greater variety of the basic elements (Loot, Minions, Bosses), which can be used regardless of whether the extra trappings (potions, quests, epic dungeon) are engaged or not.
In the end, I think Gamelyn has hit one out of the park again. The prevailing test of most dungeon crawlers is whether you can get a certain number of plays out of them before they become stale or you begin repeating prior adventures. I think TED passes that test which is remarkable, again, given the overall size of the game. So far, the company and designer, Scott Almes, have met the challenge of every type and genre of game that they've explored. This was probably the sternest challenge to date and they conquered it with style. I'm rarely a fan of solo board gaming, but I've really enjoyed my ventures into the dungeon alone and even moreso with other players. In contrast to Tiny Epic Pirates, I'm actively thinking about playing Dungeons on a regular basis and not just when I know that a certain playing group is coming over that might enjoy it. This is a success, down to the deepest level.