Area control games can be tricky to execute in interesting ways. Slapping cards onto another location, or stacking powerful numbers are often the way it's done. I can't deny that it's a tried and tested execution... It works, but it's safe. When I think of my preferred area control styling , I'm thrown back to video games and the concept of sheer numbers to dominate an area. It's more tactical, as it doesn't result in a particular unit being valued more than others.
Tiny Epic Tactics, designed by Scott Almes and published by Gamelyn Games, threw me straight back into nostalgia with its competitive and area control play style. It's for 1-4 players and can take 30 minutes up to two hours to play (dependent on the variant of play chosen). This game was sent to us by Gamelyn Games to review, and it filled a gap in our shelves perfectly for how it plays and it's diverse scope for play modes. Here's what we thought...
Overview of How To Play
Tiny Epic Tactics has five game modes for you to get your teeth sunk into. The game takes place on a map and involves the use of the six boxes in the forms of hills. Height advantage, being in water or atop peaks, and being in cover all have effects on characters too, so the terrain has a big impact on play. Traversing the terrain is also important, but can be sped up using portals attached to the boxes to quickly manoeuvre to more advantageous positions.
Character cards show a character's stats and associated counts. Rogues and warriors can both use bows and melee attacks, however they work better with one than the other. Wizards use mana to cast spells or can use melee attacks, and beasts have access to melee only. All attacks other than melee require a reduction in a count (mana or ammo respective of the attack), and all attacks include dice rolls. Melee attacks roll to check for knock back, ammo based attacks check for arrows spent, and magic attacks check for power of the attack.
Each class has a clear role in battle, however all characters have unique abilities which may make them more advantageous in different contexts. Players get three actions per turn, and can use the actions with any character. They may move, melee, ranged attack or magic attack. Characters can conduct these, respective of their class, but may not use them twice in a turn.
In competitive play, there are three different control points indicated by flag symbols. These are the targets for individual players and gain them points, however you can take out opponents. Players also have access to tactics cards which give them conditions that enable buffs. These work on an IF, THEN premise. Players may hold two at any time and may pick one up at the end of a round.
In either competitive mode, you need to control the areas on the map to gain points, or to eliminate the competition. Doing either gains you points, and points win you the game. As soon as a control point is activated, each round anyone controls it it increases its corresponding flag. Whoever controls it when it reaches the final part of the control card gains that flag.
Solo and cooperative modes work very similarly, with solo having you take on one set of enemies, and coop having two. The set up for players is identical for competitive play, with characters being placed in specific map locations. Enemies are then placed on control zones by drawing them randomly and placing them in the respective locations. Enemy character activations alternate between player turns, and only one enemy will activate. This is determined by an enemy deck (solo mode only), and also indicated what buff they will gain. They then check for attacks, and if there is none available, they move and check again.
The objective for players is to venture into dungeons and control crystals. This is done through using the portals associated to the block hills. If entered, with no characters on said hill, the hill is flipped to show the dungeon. Now the character must traverse it to acquire the crystal - collecting all six wins you the game.
The obstacles in this game mode are the enemy characters, and time. Every turn, you're one tick closer to game over. You either win the game in seven turns (11 for coop), or gain more time. This is done through capturing enemy units and is essential for any chance of winning. However, enemies do not stay captured. The enemy sets work from character cards much like the players, but they work from the solo card side. This generally buffs them and removes their mana/ammo count, so they don't need to restock or check for wasted ammo.
How It Feels to Play
Tiny Epic Tactics is reminiscent of tactical video games. Classes, grid movement, skills... it tugs on the nostalgia, hard. We were video gamers before we hit the board, and we know our way around turn based strategy quite well. So is this close enough to hit the nail on the head? Definitely. The game feels thorough enough to make the tactics worth while, but streamlined enough to not need the many intricacies a video game does automatically.
Duration and Variation
The game never sits on the table longer than it needs to, and gameplay doesn't stagnate. Play in competitive is fast paced and you'll be making decisions based on others' decisions. Who you target, take out, or avoid will be dependent on the circumstances at the time. We have been in situations where the best move was to abandon a control point and focus on capturing units instead.
Play in solo/coop is longer and more drawn out, but is necessary and game length reflects engagement. This mode gave us far more option in terms of style, however the objectives are more streamlined and directive. You still have the freedom to approach these as you choose, but it requires more adapting to situations.
Freedom to choose how you'll play is there and entirely viable. I preferred taking a single control point by sheer numbers and creating a phalanx. My partner sent one unit in and covered them as best they could. Both worked, and how we adapted within our styles determined our strength during the situation.
I’m Going On An Adventure!
Playing the adventure mode alone is a challenge, but is entirely manageable. You can't split up to take on different dungeons each as well as in cooperative, but can definitely plan an attack accordingly. There's only one set of enemies to contend with so you can manage the areas easier. Whether you rush dungeons or abuse the automata to manipulate their locations, it'll take planning. You'll have to engage the enemies sooner or later, but it's what you do to prepare that'll make the difference. I don't usually do solo games, it's a rare occurrence, but Tiny Epic Tactics sat well with me. I really enjoyed the need to manipulate areas for the best advantages, but also the straight forward routine of play - even with all its intricacies!
Cooperative play is a whole different story for us. We worried about "coaching" and one person driving the team... we found little to no scope for that. Both players are equal in decisions as they know their characters best. Divide and conquer was a natural choice and we spent time tactically deciding who would go where and how they'd tackle the obstacles.
The cooperative adventure gave me a different reaction to the solo mode. Sure, I enjoyed the solo, but I adored the cooperative adventure! It felt like a miniature RPG adventure and was delightfully fun. We blinked and we had been playing for over 90 minutes when it was done. That sort of engagement rarely hits us, we often fall in and out of focus no matter how great the game is. Tiny Epic Tactics' coop adventure really struck a cord with us and we both immediately wanted to play again, despite the time commitment!
The Quality of it All
There's a clear theme in this game. Old school RPG. You have your tropes as far as characters go. The quaint countryside visuals, littered with mountains and towns, feel like you're truly in the middle of a mythical place. A dragon could appear at any time! It doesn't, but it runs its theme well and wears it on its sleeve. You're never left questioning why you're playing, and are clearly controlling the areas for your kingdom. It's one I was very fond of...
As for the component quality, Gamelyn are renown for producing above and beyond (regardless of theme). So without my rose tinted goggle on, disregarding the theme I love... I'd honestly say they smashed it! The meeple are uniquely identifiable from their counterparts and sturdy. All the tokens for the character tracks make sense and are thematically linked to them too. The cards are robust and easy to follow, with instructions clear and explained well. And those hills! My goodness we were expecting a decent quality as other components were required to stand on them... But these are robust and tremendously sturdy!
As a final thought, my biggest qualms with any game is that the components need to fit back in the box. Tiny Epic games are the biggest culprits for not fitting back in... Until now! Tiny Epic Tactics fits, and fits well. The production value of the game is tremendous and the art is beautiful. Visually, the games a winner without arguments!
Tiny Epic Tactics is a game I thought I'd enjoy, not a game I thought I'd love. It's also a game I thought my partner would tolerate, as the theme is far from her favourite, however she too really enjoyed it. There's no denying the game's rules will scare a few players initially, but that's not the case when playing. It runs a sequence and it makes sense. A reference guide would be handy, but the common sense sequence of things forgives this.
Of the Tiny Epics we've played, this one is top dog as far as it goes for engagement. We set it up, we play without interruption, we undoubtedly play again. The combat is balanced by dice rolls, and the terrain is varied to account for the different elements. If you're after a proper adventure feel without 500 components, or a lighter competitive area control game, this is it. Quality fun!