Friday, January 24, 2014

Tiny Epic Kingdoms: First Impressions

At first, the name of the game put me off. While I'm intrigued by the new push towards "micro-games" in game design (as evidenced by my Kickstarter pledge for Coin Age), the words "tiny" and "epic" shoved together seemed to be an oxymoron designed to sell games.

We take this moment to pause & offer our English grammar lesson for the day: an oxymoron is not a particularly clean idiot - it's a figure of speech that is essentially a compressed paradox. (Humorously, the word itself is an oxymoron - it's the combination of the Latin words for "sharp" and "dull".)
Some of my favorite examples:
  • army intelligence
  • crash landing
  • freezer burn
  • devout atheist
And, after chasing that rabbit, we're back to board games. (Don't you feel smarter now?)

Specifically, we're back to Tiny Epic Kingdoms - the new game design by Scott Almes. (He's the guy who designed Kings of Air & Steam and Martian Dice... neither of which I've played. That's not a knock on him.) His objective in designing TEK (the abbreviation we will all agree to use for the rest of the review to avoid the unwieldly actual name of the game) was to create an inexpensive 4X micro-game.

We take this moment to pause & offer our Gaming nomenclature lesson of the day: a 4X game is not four times the game - as if the small game itself grew three sizes that day. (Tip o'the cap to the Grinch.) It's a particular style of game design, maybe best typified by board games like Clash of Cultures, Space Empires: 4X & Runewars... and by computer games like Sid Meier's Civilization and Masters of Orion.
A 4X game has four elements:
  • eXpand (take over territory)
  • eXplore (find stuff)
  • eXploit (use resources to become stronger)
  • eXterminate (kill other dudes on the map)
Another rabbit successfully tracked down. (Now we have a brace of coneys. Seriously. Look it up.)

In order to build up fan support & drum up Kickstarter business/flow, Gamelyn Games released a print-n-play prototype file... and what with the buzz beginning to develop, I figured the worst thing that could happen is that I'd be out 5-6 sheets of paper & some inkjet printer ink. So, I printed it out & my boys and I played it.

And then we played it again.

And then again.

So, with three plays under your belt, Mark, did Scott & Gamelyn Games accomplish what they set out to do?
  • inexpensive? Yes! (The basic price point is $16 shipped... with the "deluxe" version clocking in at $24.)
  • 4X? Yes! (There's a simple tech tree, interesting choices for the harvesting & use of resources, multiple land grabs... it's got all of that 4X-y stuff right out there in the open.)
  • micro-game? Yes! (It plays in 30-45 minutes and the original prototype has just 14 cards & 53 small wooden cubes.)
The more important question, of course, is are we having any fun while we're playing it? The answer to that is an emphatic "Yes!" as well. While it moves along at a nice clip, there are some tricky decisions to be made about attack & defense - and balancing those considerations with increasing your tech (aka "magic abilities") and building the tower. As well, the various factions (only the initial four are included in the print-n-play) offer a great deal of diversity in conjunction with the random territory maps.

What blew me away is how you are forced to juggle four different things in such a small game space:
  • resource management (you must expand to get more resources + you have to forego actions in order to harvest)
  • expansion (you need food to build more units... but spreading out makes you vulnerable to attack)
  • building the tower (you need ore to build the tower... but ore is also useful in attack & defense)
  • magic abilities (you need mana to raise your "tech" level... but mana is even better than ore in combat)
In addition to that juggling act, you have a similar action selection to Eminent Domain... you pick the action (which you carry out) - then the rest of the players choose to do the action as well or harvest resources based on the territories they control. Then, like Puerto Rico, that action is marked and can not be chosen again until all five action markers have been played.

Two of our three games have been decided by a point or less - with players choosing to emphasize different things (building the tower, expanding their forces, delving deeply into magic.) Last night, I lost a three player game 14-14-13 (I was the middle one) on the "who has built more on the tower" tiebreaker. I mention this loss not so you can feel sorry for me but so you can see that the much-desired design ethic "multiple paths to victory" is actually true for TEK. Well, not in my case... but in the words of Maxwell Smart, I "missed it by that much."

For those of you who worry about dice & randomness & chaos ("mass hysteria - cats & dogs, living together"), the dice included in the game are not for rolling off - they are a clever way to indicate your resource investment when going to war. In fact, besides the initial set-up (which territory & faction you get), this is a non-random kind of game.

But wait! That's not all! (I feel like Ron Popeil trying to sell you a Chop-o-matic.) The Kickstarter drive for TEK has blown through all 17 of the original stretch goals - adding upgraded pieces & cards, more territories & region types, and 8 new factions. It's a great deal for $16.

The expected delivery date is September 2014 - which puts it right in the "game lull" between the summer conventions here in the U.S. and Spiele in Germany - the perfect time to have a package drop on your doorstep with a brand spankin' new game to play with family, friends and random strangers who you coax into sitting around the table.

So, click the Kickstarter TEK link below and check it out - you can download the print-n-play files and try it yourself. Or you can just trust me, plunk down some of your hard-earned gaming budget and get in on this deal while you can.

I'm good either way...

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