Base Game Review
Play Time (Box): 30mins
Play Time (Goof): 30 – 60mins
Producer: Gamelyn Games
Designer: Scott Almes
I love a good cooperative game. Arkham Horror TCG, Pandemic, Robinson Crusoe, Zombicide: Black Plague, Burgle Bros. and the list goes on. I’ve reviewed so many brilliant cooperative games and count them as amongst my favourite games of any kind. With a cooperative game you get really rich flavour, a sense of teamwork, and when something goes horribly wrong you can console each other and work together to bounce back (in most cases).
I play cooperative games with tons of different people – people new to the hobby, hardcore gamers, roleplayers, and the family including my much younger siblings. Cooperative games are great because with the larger harder ones you can dig deep and plot victory, with thematic ones you go on an adventure together, and with kids you don’t really need to do the “hey how about we play on a team” thing where the younger kids don’t get their own character or don’t get to fully participate (as much as they can) because everyone is on the same team. The trick is finding the right cooperative game for the party you’ve got.
Tiny Epic Defenders. It’s a co-op. But what sort of co-op?
I first played Tiny Epic Defenders with my friends over at Tabletop Wonderland and we had a bit of fun with it. At this point I felt the game was okay, but I’d never choose to play it over something else. If I was going to play something with hardcore gamers I’d choose something meatier like Zombicide: Black Plague, and for the lighter crowd something like Castle Panic.
Then Charlotte and I had a few goes and she was done with it. It didn’t hit any of the chords she liked in a game – in her words there’s a “lack of excitement and sense of agency”.
But then I played with my Dad, as well as Joshie and Molly from TGR Junior and I found the target audience. A lot of the issues I have with the game (which I’ll get to in a moment) are still present, but it’s more forgivable when you’re playing with family. We’ve had our fun with Castle Panic but something in Tiny Epic Defenders hit more at home for this dynamic. If anything I think Tiny Epic Defenders is proof my younger siblings are ready for the next step in their gaming lives. Something a bit deeper with more complex concepts. But we’re still not going to be tackling Gloomhaven with them anytime soon.
What makes this so great for the gaming family setting is the simplicity of the goal. Fire is bad, keep the fire low on the marker. The fire represents the threat level in the area, but strictly from a mechanical point of view it’s simple enough to understand, and as Tiny Epic Defenders is a cooperative game it’s easy to help them along with some of the bits they may not immediately grasp. Joshie and Molly loved taking on the bad guys and getting some cool artefacts. And because the overall strategy is easier to grasp than, say, Tiny Epic Galaxies; they were able to actively contribute to ideas and plans.
Tiny Epic Defenders is far better at higher player counts. In fact I’d argue two players isn’t particularly fun (pretty sure once I’m done with this review I have no intention to play it at two players ever again). With more players you get more power combinations, more strategic placements, more uses of the region abilities, more chances to get artefacts, and more strategy for fighting the Epic Foe. At two players, sometimes we only get one or two artefacts and our meeples look a little sad. Also, I wish games would stop lying – this game is not a solo game. It says to play single player as though it’s a two player game.
The skill to Tiny Epic Defenders, and while there are a couple different strategic choices in terms of placement etc in the game there really is only one skill element, is in turn order. It’s such a strange yet enjoyable element for card counters like myself. When you start the game you put three enemy cards (randomly from the overall total) into the draw deck on top of the player turn cards. As the rounds go on you add cards into the draw deck which makes perfect card counting impossible (and like… let’s not get all Analysis Paralysis shall we?) until the final few rounds. The enemies gathering and attacking each of your regions as you unravel their plan, who the larger enemies are, and then you’re fighting the final foe while dealing with the information and situations you’ve gathered throughout the course of the game is a fun little memory game. Our plays average 43 minutes but I still feel there’s a lot of game during each session. You’re trying to figure who’s turn will come up next. And abilities which let you check the top card of the deck or manipulate it in any way are as interesting and fun to me as jumping into the fray with a Colossal Sand Wurm.
The Epic Foes are the most enjoyable part of Tiny Epic Defenders. It’s all leading to the final confrontation. With each of the Foes having unique mechanics and interesting elements which change the flow of the game and the way you strategize to defeat them. When you fight the Dragon for instance it soars around the land and is difficult to land hits on while its armies continue their assault. The Kraken remains water bound on the coast, but flings the characters across the land whenever they get a few hits on it. The Giant has to be one of my favourites – in order to do damage to it you need to climb onto its shoulders and beat it to a pulp (presumably by shoving a wand up its nose).
I love a good amount of randomness in games. They add excitement and keep you on your toes. But variety of challenges should come with decisions about how to respond to them – even in games or situations where theme isn’t offering the choice. I’m not sure I’ve explained that well so I’ll give some examples. Think about Firefly: The Game or Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island – when you pull a card which has some kind of event happening it gives you several options to pick from – this is the choice coming through in the theme. By contrast if you think about Pandemic or Ghost Stories and the infections cards or ghosts which come out, you’re making a choice about how to handle the newly revealed threat. This is more of a choice by mechanics. Tiny Epic Defenders is solely a choice by mechanics kind of game (which is totally fine), except the choices often don’t make an impact. Regardless of how well you’re doing, you can lose really quickly and without the chance to react to it, even if you’ve just handled the previous issue really well. Every game we’ve played we’ve gotten to the point where we’re wasting actions because there’s no threats and we’re spread out, knowing where the Dire Enemies are coming in, and we still lose the game because of randomness we couldn’t have foreseen.
Speaking of wasting actions, this has to be my biggest gripe with Tiny Epic Defenders. It’s my Epic Foe in games in general – and if the Gods of Tabletop could grant me one wish it would be to eliminate wasting actions. Doing nothing isn’t fun. And even doing one out of three actions feels like you might as well be an NPC. It makes you feel pretty “Tiny”, when what I want in a game is to feel “Epic”. I haven’t played a single game of Tiny Epic Defenders where in the first couple of rounds we weren’t at full health with 0 threat in every region. I know there’s supposed to be a sense the game is building, but it kills the forward momentum. You’re not sure when you should start feeling the pressure because it was never really there in the early stages. It feels like we should be able to be doing something to prepare at this point. Making decisions about how best to fortify our position or accomplish a secondary goal which could help us in the future. Instead, we’re shrugging our shoulders going “well what now?” Anyone who wants to give this game a miss based purely on this point alone is well within their rights. I know designing games is hard, and designing simple yet fun games is like being a modern day Picasso – but this is legitimately bad game design. And it makes what otherwise would have been a masterpiece into an absolute flop for most gaming occasions.
Pros: ++Unique Epic Foes, +Simple Goal, +Power, Ability, and Artifact Combinations, +Card Counting, +Build Up.
Cons: –Weightless Choices, — Wasting Actions, –Bad at Lower Player Counts.
When I think about what it means to play as a particular character or role in a game, I often think about how it makes me feel. How it shapes my experience of the game I’m playing. If what I’m doing as my character is fundamentally no different to what you’re doing as yours, then what is the point of having a different piece of artwork on my cards? With Tiny Epic Defenders, each character feels really unique. And it actually puts me in an interesting position – because what you’re doing on everyone’s turn is really quite similar. Move to a region, defend and secure it. So why do I like the characters in Tiny Epic Defenders so much?
The powers aren’t so much unique ways to play as they are bonuses. They might impact your decision about how to utilise your actions – I’m in no way arguing otherwise. But the powers don’t feel like they encourage you to do one thing more than someone else. They actually feel like bonuses. “On my turn I’ll get this extra little cool thing” instead of “my character is more geared to playing this way”. And I find I really enjoy it. It brings me into the mind set of “we’re all here to defend the realm, but check out my cool psychic/fighting/raging/flying skills”. When Dad, Joshie, Molly, and I were picking out our characters we each had unique reasons for doing so. Dad went for the Characters which were thematically odd or bizarre, Joshie read the stories and picked the one he felt was coolest, Molly wanted to be an Angel or an Elf, and I wanted to play with an ability I thought would be interesting to use. Each as valid and as engaging as the others.
The various regions and region powers feel really immersive to me. I knew nothing about Aughmoore before I started playing. I’ve never played Tiny Epic Kingdoms before (the thematic prequel to Tiny Epic Defenders), but I was able to get a clear understanding of the variety of this world from various races and characters you can choose. If you spend a moment to think about the world, you can find yourself wanting to explore more of it. It feels quite fleshed out, even for a game on the shorter side.
There’s almost an underlying story in the mechanics of Tiny Epic Defenders. As the enemies as the gate continue to get repelled and the dire enemies start to emerge, it’s fascinating to see who the Epic Foe is and think about the situation which would lead these forces to either be working together or simply be attacking at the same time. It’s unlikely the sand wurm is leading an army, but maybe the enemies are fleeing more into Aughmoore to get away from it and attacking out of panic. I don’t know, but it’s fun to think about.
I’m going to throw this bit into the Theme section of the review over the Gameplay section because it’s more about how this particular design choice makes you feel rather than a mechanic – but I hate the idea you lose health in order to defend. I know from some level of thematic perspective it’s like you’re exerting yourself and you can only take so much before you need to rest. But it feels like I go there, get beat up, and then come back. If I’m playing as an Orc I want the feeling of rushing with bloodlust into battle. If I’m an archer I want the feeling of enemies falling to my arrows. Moving a red flame token down a column doesn’t give me this. And the Defending action of just lowering my health isn’t enough. Fighting the Epic Foe is the only time I feel I’m actually landing a hit. Even swapping the threat token for enemy tokens or standees would have been more satisfying.
Pros: ++Unique Characters, +Deep World, +Each Game Tells a Story
Cons: –Fighting Isn’t Epic
The positioning of the map and how this changes each time depending on both the placement of each region in addition to each region having two possible abilities keeps the game fresh. Dad pointed out in our last session how it may have been a missed opportunity not to have each of the regions physically link and form a greater board. I’m not going to deduct points for it but I felt it was an interesting idea.
Tiny Epic Defenders has gorgeous artwork. Like seriously gorgeous. I wouldn’t have bought the first edition based purely on how it looked dull. But Tiny Epic Defenders (2nd Edition) is so vibrant. The colours are so bold and you get a real sense of each character just based on the role card you choose. I have actually sought the artwork out to use as a wallpaper for my phone because I like it so much (more games need to offer this by the way. Gets me excited and thinking about your game more often).
I like the use of space on each of the character cards. It gives you information with some artwork on the front. Enough to remind you of your character, and to give you clear rules and options as you play. And on the back is a full portrait with a paragraph of story. Enough for you to clearly fill in the blanks and even throw in the occasional roleplay line if you’re so inclined (which I am). The flavour text is excellent, and an ale of bravery to whoever wrote it.
The biggest draw for someone picking up Tiny Epic Defenders has to be the ITEMeeples. The fact when you get an artefact you then get to put them on your character is a tactile bit of fun. I know when I first pulled Tiny Epic Defenders out of its box to show my family they immediately started picking them up and putting items on them. More games need this level of interaction. I know it seems gimmicky, but it’s a gimmick I can actually get behind. It’s satisfying to see your character with cooler gear as the game progresses. Think about videogame RPGs and how you often go from a noob with a rusty sword up to blades with magical fire burning over them (probably should mention – you should not set your Tiny Epic Defenders game on fire!).
I take good care of my games. Hell I wrote an article about how to get the longest life out of your games (as well as the general life expectancy). But parts of Tiny Epic Defenders is already falling apart. Sure, I’ve played it a lot recently to prepare for this review. And yeah I’ve traveled to and from my hometown which is about a six hour round trip with it half a dozen times these past couple of months. But the cards starting to fray around the edges and one of the Artifacts being damaged because of the fine detail is somewhat disheartening to me. I’ve gotten my value out of it and it’s certainly still playable, but I’ve had bigger games with more pieces last a hell of a lot longer.
You know where the artwork falls down for me? The enemy cards. Not the Dire Enemy or Epic Foe cards, they are really cool and a lot of the times quite intimidating to look at (when you’re immersing yourself in the role of a character. I don’t usually tend to cower from my game components). But the enemy cards which are divided in two like some kind of MTG split card. They don’t immediately make sense to new players. I know I might sound a bit stupid for saying so but literally everyone I’ve played with has gone “wait… what are those cards? Where are the enemies we’re supposed to be fighting?”. The fact is it’s not intuitive, and the cards themselves don’t make me feel like they’re the bad guys I’m supposed to be repelling.
Unlike a certain orange super villain, I have proportionate sized hands with my six foot tall, excessive fat wearing body. And in games such as Tiny Epic Galaxies I find Gamelyn’s obsession with the “tiny” gimmick to be “epic”-ly annoying. I’m really over it Gamelyn – make proper sized versions of your games (please. I’m just trying to seem tough for the readers. Please love me).
There are parts of Tiny Epic Defenders which are actually fine in terms of size. The region maps, the meeples, the character cards. But with Tiny games there’s always something which bothers me. This time round it’s the damn threat level tokens. Bump them in any way and you’ve got to work out which number they were on. Moving them almost becomes a game of operation. And I really don’t want to add a pair of tweezers to my gaming kit.
I feel like I’m becoming the weird guy with a cardboard box obsession – but damn the box for Tiny Epic Defenders is nice. The inside has this cool artwork, the thickness is satisfying to hold and open. I legit thought the lid was a dice tray like Tiny Epic Galaxies when I first opened it because it was just nice to hold.
Pros: ++Gorgeous Artwork, ++ITEMeeples, +Multiple Region Abilities, +Character Card Layout, +Flavour Text, +Nice Box
Cons: –Tiny, –Falling Apart, –Confusing Enemy Cards
I’ll say this ahead of my review of ‘The Dark War’ – if I didn’t get both games at the same time there’s no way I’d have bought the expansion. But the fact I have even scored the base game but started talking about how much I’m looking forward to talking about the expansion should be fairly foreshadowing.
I give Tiny Epic Defenders:
Gamelyn, have you considered making a full sized copy of some of these “tiny” games? Now that would truly be “Epic”.
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