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Mechanical but Piratical: Tiny Epic Pirates Review
Wedded much more to mechanics than thematics, Tiny Epic Pirates finds something of a middle ground.
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.
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.
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.
So I just visited "that other site" and observed the following ratings:
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.
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.)
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.