I’m not sure there’s a title that makes my eyelids droop more than Tiny Towns. The back of the box only deepens my fatigue. Colorful cubes, check. Little woodcut buildings, cute. A blank 4×4 grid for each player, groan. Pastoral scenes of golden farms and thatched granaries and unkempt almshouses — credit where it’s due, there’s a cure for insomnia here.
But as Socrates said, “Don’t judge a scroll by the gross animal veins in its parchment.” So too it is with Tiny Towns. Although this isn’t the sort of game that gets my heart pounding, it’s no soporific.
There are three broad ways to play Tiny Towns, but the gist is the same in each. You want to build (tiny) buildings on your (tiny) town plot, so you place (tiny) resources into those (tiny) squares, and hope you’ve shown enough foresight to leave (tiny) openings where you can slot new buildings or resources in the future.
And it’s both incredibly simple and pleasantly brain-burny. In one mode players switch off being the “master builder,” which basically means they take turns declaring which resource will be placed that turn. In the second mode the burden of choosing is offloaded to a deck of resource cards. In the third you’re picking from three resource cards at a time, but also playing solo for a high score. That’s where the differences end, because every mode sees you taking that resource and placing it into an open spot. If a bunch of adjacent resources match the design on a building card, you sweep them all up and plop that building into one of the spaces where your resources were arranged.
Oh, and this is all done simultaneously, with no significant downtime other than harassing whichever of your friends is taking too long deciding where to stash their glass. Like I said, it’s as simple as pastoral living, or at least some romanticized version of it.
Fortunately, this process is tougher than it sounds. At first it’s an easy thing to hammer together a building, even one of the bigger ones. Before long, however, space becomes severely limited. A single misplaced cube might block off an entire quadrant, while an errant building fails to line up its bonuses with what you’re building nearby. Soon you’re making trade-offs or struggling to mitigate your previous shortsightedness.
Speaking of which, we should talk about the buildings, since they’re the beating heart of this thing. Crucially, each game of Tiny Towns is played with seven public buildings, and other than the lowly cottage you’re never guaranteed the same options. There are two dozen of these public buildings, yet the game remains balanced because you’re always provided one of each type — farming, religious, entertainment, and so forth. Within those broad archetypes, there’s some clever variety. Take commercial buildings, for example. Where one play features a Bakery, which earns points by being situated directly next to farming or industrial building, the next might utilize a Theater, pulling in points for every unique building type in its row or column, or a Tailor, worth extra if it’s in the middle of town.
And every match has six of these types, with four cards apiece, meaning that every combination presents a fresh challenge. One game will have you surrounding a Granary with Cottages with Wells, while the next might reward those who use a Trading Post to quickly build more Feast Halls than your neighbor. Each challenge is surprisingly different, despite revolving around the same basic premise that you’re gradually painting yourself into a corner with the same paint that’s scoring you heaps of points.
“Aha!” you might be saying. “If this is done simultaneously, with everyone using the same resource and same selection of buildings, what’s to prevent everyone from taking exactly the same move?”
Good question, Geoff. And beyond the simplest answer, that people are not automatons but women and men with agency both moral and tetrahedral, Tiny Towns answers this query with one more type of card — and it’s simultaneously one of the game’s best ideas and one of its most precarious balancing acts.
Monuments are a brilliant idea. Each player receives their own, in secret, and is allowed to either build it or not. These are far wilder than their basic brethren, both in terms of their construction and what they provide when finished. The Obelisk of the Crescent lets you place all future buildings anywhere, rather than only where their constituent resources were. Barrett Castle eats as much as two additional cottages but provides extra points if fed by nearby farms. The Starloom awards bonus points if you finish your town early, effectively removing the sting of finding yourself in that corner with paint on your shoes. There are loads to choose from, and all bend the rules in their own way.
Not that they necessarily bend the rules in ways that always feel fair. I’m loathe to complain about balance, especially in a game that feels so defiantly symmetrical at every other point. But that symmetry exacerbates even the slightest advantage, especially in a puzzle as exacting as this one, and it’s frustrating to feel hemmed in by a tough monument rather than liberated with one that might score a tidy heap of points.
Then again, that bare filament of individuality is so essential to ensuring that not everybody pursues exactly the same strategy that I’m tempted to write it off as a minor problem. Most of my plays have been determined by whomever most smartly combines that match’s selection of buildings. If the occasional game should come down to a nice synergy between your monument and what’s out there, well, that’s a small price to pay.
By and large, Tiny Towns defies its plain-Jane presentation with some thinky spatial puzzling, variable scoring, and even a dash of hidden individuality. In one sense it reminds me of a roll-and-write game, with everybody laboring from an identical procession of resources and opportunities. It also suffers from some of that genre’s staidness, sometimes coming across as a punitive slog when a sticky resource choice presents itself or a past decision comes back to bite you. But those moments seem to be the exceptions; most of the time, it’s a serviceable and even interesting heads-down puzzle that rewards forward planning and careful arrangement.
Not my favorite, in other words. But far from a bad time.
A complimentary copy was provided.