Fully Epic, Too Tiny
Wow. Can we just take a moment to marvel at the fact that Tiny Epic Quest is the fifth entry in this series of small-yet-usually-pretty-good games? From warring kingdoms to defending kingdoms, from outer space to the Wild West. All in a little more than three years. Scott Almes is nothing if not prolific.
Anyway, this is probably the best the Tiny Epic series has ever been. Though that might be because it’s just so dang photogenic.
See those little guys up there? Those are my team’s ITEMeeples™, trademark courtesy of Gamelyn Games, and I will never write their name that way again or may the devil lay claim on my soul. I took their picture every time they picked up a new item. When one journeyed to the fire temple, that was nice. When another healed me at a mushroom grotto, I patted him on the rump and advised him to apply his antifungal ointments. But that time I found a shovel and had one of my guys run around digging stuff up? Yeah, that’s what got me checking my autofocus settings.
Tiny Epic Quest is the series at its most cutesy, and that counts for a lot, especially when it’s also leaning hard on its audience’s nostalgia receptors by incarnating as a wholesale recreation of the Legend of Zelda. Its promise, in a deku nutshell, is that you’ll journey around the countryside, slay goblins, explore temples, and gradually grow into a True Hero.
And if those were items on a checklist, Tiny Epic Quest has definitely checked them off. Traveling across the countryside? Check. Slaying goblins? Check. Temples? Items? Unlocking new heart containers? Mushrooms? Check times four.
The real challenge is whether those things actually combine into something that’s both fun to play and appropriately evocative of its subject matter. In that regard, Tiny Epic Quest mostly pulls it off.
There are two halves to this whole, each with their own merits.
The first is a movement puzzle. Here, the central difficulty revolves around getting where you need to go with only a handful of actions. Each player picks a method of movement — horse for horizontal, raft for vertical, by foot to move a single card in any direction, and so forth — and then everybody gets a chance to shuffle one of their three heroes from place to place.
There are some complicating factors, not the least of which is the sheer scope of the geography. For a game with “tiny” featured so prominently in its title, Tiny Epic Quest certainly has a way of filling up a table. If anything, this is a game that may as well have been blown up a bit, especially its card for tracking magic levels, which is squint-worthy even from a short distance. Regardless, there’s plenty of terrain to traverse, which is further hindered by goblins who either require a halt outright or some energy to sidestep. Better yet, while everybody gets to benefit from whichever movement card you’ve picked, selecting one at the right time might confer very little advantage to a rival, as my wife discovered when she noticed that my castle lay a griffon’s flight from nowhere. Guess which movement card got picked every time my heroes were chilling at home? Yep, that stinking griffon.
The second half of each round occurs during the nighttime, when your heroes get to play a tidy little press-your-luck dice game to see whether they’ve succeeded in their endeavors. Goblin symbols cause wounds, energy might replenish, magic might grow more volatile — becoming both more dangerous and more likely to let you level up your spells — and torches, scrolls, and gob-punches let you wrap things up in temples or goblin battles.
There are some minor choices to make here, usually revolving around whether you’ll spend some energy to defy the dice by pushing deeper into a temple or shrugging off a goblin’s spear-poke. The real highlight is the fact that you can bow out entirely, resting your heroes and staying alive to fight another day, but only on your actual turn. Since wounds are doled out between players whenever the current roller lands more than one, there’s a very real danger to sticking around too long and being forced to retreat empty-handed.
Both of these halves work well for the most part, and even inform the other in not-insignificant ways. Wounds and spent energy persist from a night of adventuring must be replenished during daylight hours, consuming precious moves. Certain locations must be reached in time if you hope to accomplish a quest, while other spots like mushroom grottoes might help you gain an edge in a temple. Items gained from quests stand out as the real highlight here. Not only do they fill a hero’s hands and look oh so precious, they bestow perks like blowing up a goblin portal prematurely, digging up energy pips from movement alone, unlocking the front door of a temple to get a jump on its challenges, and many more. Each player even gets their own personal track of “master” items to unlock, just in case they aren’t having any luck at chasing down quests.
There’s a pleasant feel to swaying between travel and adventure, at least most of the time. Every so often Tiny Epic Quest’s innate fiddliness shows through. Maybe a new quest appears that an opponent is just one turn away from accomplishing. Or someone steals a quest item out from under you thanks to no fault of your own. Or the spell system reminds you that it’s just a way of increasing your maximum energy. No “spells” about it. Just one tiny system amid many others, more about scoring than anything else.
These are minor complaints. The bigger one is that for all its color and ticked boxes, it doesn’t always manage to capture the feel of a sweeping adventure. It’s more about managing a roster of heroes from a zoomed-out remove, sending them to solve problems and hoping the dice will roll your way, then having most of them reset at the start of the next day. You might as well wake up to the euphonious tones of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.”
A lot of this comes down to the limitation of Tiny Epic Quest’s small footprint, which precludes all sorts of options — like, say, a growing threat to overcome, higher-level temples to invade, or a sense of real progression in anything other than points. As I intimated earlier, Tiny Epic Quest may be leaning a little too hard on its tiny and not enough on its epic.
But that’s also a relatively minor complaint on my end, since I’d rather enjoy what Tiny Epic Quest is than bemoan what it isn’t.
Because Quest is an excellent addition to the Tiny Epic line, perhaps even the best so far. It even lacks the infuriating half-baked problem of my previous favorite, Tiny Epic Western, which was about careful planning and hedged bets right up until it was about a single die-roll and slapping the table until your palm ached. This time, Scott Almes displays the wisdom to let us massage the outcomes just enough that a failed adventure usually means we pushed our heroes a few rolls too far. Come morning, make sure to stock up on energy and hearts. Preparation. That’s what Boy Scouts and successful adventurers have in common.
And barring that, it’s cute as hell. That’s got to count for something.