Sometimes “Tiny” Ain’t a Compliment
“Tiny” and “Epic” very rarely go together — usually only during my annual checkup. However, Gamelyn Games has been carving out a niche for themselves with the diminutive and monumental, and their previous game, Tiny Epic Kingdoms, was a pleasant little experience perfectly suited for casual fare between the main courses of a game night. Its spiritual sequel, either a solo or cooperative game this time, is better suited for a lonely night on the tundra. If you’ve brought a match, at least you’ll have a way to keep warm.
True, I’m being harsh, because there’s more to Tiny Epic Defenders than just its potential use as kindling. It could, for instance, prop up a mismatched table leg or be given to an orphan you don’t particularly like.
Oh, it also has a few qualities as a game. It’s very small, certainly. And it’s cooperative, making it a very small cooperative game. All the other ingredients are there too: a city besieged by an invading army, commanded by one of many Epic Foes, and defended by a number of noble heroes. As with its predecessor, the variety of cards is what gives the gameplay its flavor. Each of the Epic Foes is slightly different, and the game’s dozen or so heroes each bring a different ability to the table. The Barbarian hurts himself to gain an extra action, the Cleric heals, the Sorcerer uses two of her three actions to deal extra damage to the invaders, and the Necromancer (in a stunning display of change-of-heart) may restore a destroyed region, probably through un-unionized undead labor.
Most of the gameplay consists of running your heroes from region to region, taking hits to prevent the invaders from increasing the “threat” to the location they’re stationed in and then spending your leftover actions to heal the environmental damage done by previous attacks. It’s a game of fighting fires, trying to be everywhere at once as hordes of enemies attack from every direction.
This influx of monsters is handled by the same deck that picks the order your heroes act in, a relatively clever system that strips your fellowship of perfect foresight. Sometimes you’ll receive a healthy spacing between heroes getting their turn and the appearance of monsters, while other times the monsters will swarm a location one card after the other. This can be either interesting or frustrating, depending on whether it sets up a challenge or just wrecks a region without warning or any chance to react. It’s telling, for instance, that many of our games have come down to the order of the draw rather than any significant input on our behalf.
The thing is, despite having all the right ingredients, there simply isn’t much interesting going on in Tiny Epic Defenders. For the most part, it feels like tiny epic bookkeeping on an abacus. Monsters appear and move the flame tokens up, indicating that the kingdom’s regions are being decimated, then you move your heroes over to the beleaguered areas to move the flame tokens back down. Every so often a tougher enemy will appear, and eventually you’ll have to face the Epic Foe, but even these are disappointingly samey. I had hoped the big monsters would alter the rules in some significant way, resulting in a unique experience each time, but other than the minor differences that crop up between each game — the all-too-slight heroic abilities, the occasional artifact, and how you’ve laid out the kingdom — one game feels largely identical to the next.
It’s unfortunate that Tiny Epic Defenders didn’t do more to distinguish itself, resulting in a bland and uninspired experience. Sure, it comes in a tiny box and uses the word “epic” like it’s opposite day, but the fact is that there are so many wonderful and exciting and excellent games out there right this very second. There are better portable games and there are better cooperative games, and while it’s tough to find something that meets both criteria, simply existing in that narrow interstice on the Venn diagram doesn’t make this one good.