Tiny Epic Defenders: The Dark War… What Should Have Been

Expansion Review

Base Game: Tiny Epic Defenders

Player/s: 1-4 

Play Time (Box): 30mins

Play Time (Goof): 30 – 60mins

Producer: Gamelyn Games

Designer: Scott Almes

 

I really wanted to get this one sorted as quickly as possible to follow up my review of Tiny Epic Defenders. Which is exactly how I’d recommend The Dark War – if you’re going to buy Tiny Epic Defenders get this expansion at the same time.

This – this is the game.

Look, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler given my comments during the base game review but I really enjoy The Dark War. If I hadn’t received my copy at the exact same time as the base game (due to the Kickstarter) I probably wouldn’t have bought it. I tend not to buy expansions for games I find “okay at best” because there are so many games I’d rather buy instead, or expansions for games I’m super excited about.

I feel sorry for the alternate universe in which I’d never received The Dark War. That version of me really missed out.

 

Gameplay (+4)

Right off the top the added experience system fixes my primary issue with Tiny Epic Defenders. My concern being that wasting actions isn’t fun. In The Dark War those wasted actions become experience points which you can use in a number of ways to keep the game moving and exciting. If you’re worried this would also make the game easier; don’t worry. Mr Almes clearly heard your concerns (scrying into the future) and kicked the challenge up a notch.

Here’s what I love about the Caravans (you’ve got to help them to the Capital City as a part if your win condition). Right from the beginning of the game you have two separate objectives to balance. I didn’t realise how much I needed multiple tasks in a game to keep myself interested. If there’s only one object (such as in the base game), you either do it or you don’t. And since you want to win, you’re going to do it. When you’ve got limited resources to handle multiple tasks things become far more interesting. It means from the very first action you’re having meaningful communication with other players.

The new characters you can choose to play also elevates the gameplay of Tiny Epic Defenders. Some of them have some really cool and interesting ways to interact with skills or the experience system. Some even have multiple abilities. All of these elements keep making me feel like Tiny Epic Defenders was just a tutorial for The Dark War (a tutorial which really should have just come in the box with the expansion).

The Dark War adds a campaign mode where you take down two generals before finally facing off against the epic foe. I was worried the game would very much end up as just repeating the same three games over and over. But while certain elements reset, the Capital City keeps the same amount of damage on it and players get to keep their level, skills and artefacts which they’ve acquired over the round. There’s a new hostile region which gets added and the hostile region from the previous round turns friendly and grants a unique bonus. I love all of this. And wherever I’ve got time (it still takes about three times as long as a single round) this is how I’m going to be playing. Decisions you make an hour ago can continue to have an impact right up until the end. This campaign mode actually makes things far more difficult, as you’ve got to weigh up every decision trying to determine if it’s worth even a single point of damage to the Capital given you’ve got two more rounds before you win.

If I had one criticism of the campaign mode it’s the fact resetting between each round is a little jarring. You take down a general and then there’s this odd emptiness before you get into the next round. What I’d like to have seen is some sort of “post battle shop” or something. Maybe discuss with your team about what artefacts could be sold off or traded in for some other items. Maybe introduce a currency. Make them single use items which could help in a pinch during a round. Give the players something more to do and keep them involved the entire time. As is stands someone generally runs off to put the kettle on while two others reset everything. And when you’re trying to rebuild the turn order deck it usually ends up with the other person scrolling Facebook for a couple minutes. You shouldn’t have to come up with non-related activities in the middle of a game – and in The Dark War you’ve got to do this twice. It’s a small niggle sure, but it took me all of two seconds to come up with a work around. Feels like a pretty easy design flaw to have fixed.

Pros: ++No Wasted Actions, ++Multiple Objectives, +Skills, +Campaign

Cons: –Resetting

 

Theme (+3)

Here’s the thing I love most about the skills – they make diving in for artefacts less necessary. I know this is about as counterintuitive as a mermaid flying but it means artefacts become these legendary grails which you obtain when strategy and time allow. Maybe you get 4 or 5 artefacts between the group over the course of a campaign. But every player can reasonably get 3+ skills.

Let’s put this into the context of popular culture – Thor’s Hammer, King Arthur’s Excalibur, Sora’s Keyblade, Arthas’ Frostmourne, Frodo’s Ring – the skills these characters possess are more than their artefacts. But the artefacts are the bits which stand out. The Dark War has turned Tiny Epic Defenders into a comparative experience. You feel the artefacts are special, but if you only have one you don’t feel like a useless one armed, blind goblin with leprosy.

The skills system also plays in beautifully with the subtle overarching story you’re telling. The generals you’re fighting, how they came to work for The Epic Foe, what tactics they’re using to try and destroy the realm (such as repeatedly attacking the coast, or maybe the hostile area is really important this round, or the Dire Enemies they’ve convinced to take you down). I wrote about my obsession with piecing the various mechanics together into a story during the base game review. The Dark War brings this element out even further.

 

The characters in Tiny Epic Defenders have always been interesting to me. The mess of races – those most games would identify as monsters or enemies are instead allies and friends. But The Dark War takes this event further. I mean you can be a badass Lionkin or Insectiod Psion, Rather than be three different types of elves or humans, you get to have completely unique identities. Even when I think about a game as diverse and character crazy of Zombicide: Black Plague – sometimes you still feel like you’re a slightly different cut of the generic job to everyone else (excluding the honestly batshit crazy amount of Kickstarter characters which my copy of Green Hoard came with). In The Dark War, I can be a freaking Pigfolk!

 

Pros: ++Skills, +New Characters

Cons: None.

 

Production (-3)

I know I sound like a pissed Dwarf talking again about how the tiny tokens make me want to wrestle an Orc. But if you stop and think about how many times I’ve been mad about the tiny aspect of Gamelyn’s games, you start to realise how drastically this gimmick impacts on every aspect of my enjoyment. Tiny isn’t fun. I don’t go “well 51st State is good and everything but if only it could fit in my pocket”. I’m never sulking over my copy of Star Wars Rebellion going “it would be so much better if only the components were half the size”. This tiny business is a gimmick which serves no practical purpose and it needs to end.

I know there’s an argument for me having already deducted points for the base game being tiny (and prepare the “hypocrite” remark for my comment coming up on the artwork) but in The Dark War, you have even more tiny things to keep a track of. Which amplifies the issue further. Therefore I am deducting it more points. Because the expansion negatively contributes to this element. But you know what? This is why I’m clear about where the points are added and subtracted from in my reviews, so you can readjust the scores if you disagree or maybe don’t mind something as much as I clearly do (and Gamelyn, I CLEARLY do).

In The Dark War, my massive issue with this tiny shit is the experience trackers. And even the health tracker on the generals (which I’ll admit is the same as the Epic Foes but now the card itself is even smaller). When you’re not focused on your experience tracker every second of every round, it can be hard to tell exactly which part of the tracker the experience token is on. The whole point of gaming symbology, reference cards, and trackers is to be able to clearly identify the information immediately. If I can’t do that – it’s pretty freaking pointless.

The new artwork and everything is beautiful. I don’t feel you get points for it in an expansion review if it’s in keeping with the base game unless you do something really above where you were already. And Tiny Epic Defenders already had beautiful artwork. The unique regions added in the expansion are really nice to look at.

The cardboard cut-out pieces were painful to put together. This being the caravans, ancient tree, and chimera. They really do make the game pop a bit more, although I think the chimera could have been better designed because it just looks a bit odd to me. The 3D pieces give The Dark War this kind of old school dark popup book feel. There’s something about it which really appeals to me. I think I’d have liked a little more of these components (and a big thanks to Josh for Tabletop Wonderland who not only put all my pieces together, but managed to undo all the ones I’d done wrong in the first place).

Pros: +3D Components

Cons: –Tiny, –Useless Trackers

 

Conclusion

I actually don’t think The Dark War should be an expansion. This should be the bloody game. Make the box bigger and include this as standard and you’ve made something truly epic.

I sometimes feel The Dark War is the adults’ version of Tiny Epic Defenders (like… there’s no nudity or swearing. Different sort of adult). I feel like Tiny Epic Defenders is for a much younger audience. Almost like instead of an expansion they should be two separate games. I will never play without the expansion again.

Tiny Epic Defenders: The Dark War modifies the base game by:

+4

Basically, The Dark War modifies Tiny Epic Defenders by adding the game.

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