|Tiny Epic Galaxies (2015)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [2.15]
|Player Count (recommended)
At this point, the ‘Tiny Epic’ series of games is an honest to goodness branding juggernaut. It’s a range of diminutive containers filled with big games with bigger ideas that span everything from epic fantasy adventures to Old West frontier town management. The mechanics range from tower defence to poker-based area control. These are games that offer a big box experience with small box sensibilities, and usually with a cool twist on the mechanics that make them worth attention even without the gimmick at the core. Today, we’re going to take a look at Tiny Epic Galaxies – a game which offers a rollicking simulator of multiplayer space imperialism that can be over and done with in forty five minutes. It’s probably the most instantly memorable of the Tiny Epic range, and that’s ironic given how its membership of the series seems to be entirely based on a misunderstanding. Galaxies aren’t tiny. They’re just far, far away.
Within this Space Administration Simulator we’re going to take on the role of Imperial Dark Lord of our own Very Far Away Epic Galaxy. Our word is law and our will is absolute but the galaxy is a big place and the logistics of bureaucracy are difficult to line up properly when the nearest mail room might be seven thousand light years away. An urgent memo to realign our strategic synergies in line with corporate rightsizing might be two millennia out of date by the time it arrives on our desk. Our job is to ride the random eddies and whorls of stellar uncertainty and still steer the galaxy towards a satisfying apotheosis at its termination. That’s more difficult than it sounds because TEG has less in common with a game like Twilight Imperium than it does with a game of Yahtzee. Competing factions, coups, internal dissatisfaction and interstellar reorganizations are all neatly abstracted away. They’re hidden behind the options with which you’ll be presented after chucking a handful of dice at your empire and hoping something useful will happen as a result. That’s a strategy that we all know is used to popular effect in the real world – it’s basically the whole philosophy behind Westminster’s handling of the Brexit debacle.
We’re aiming to create a Space Empire that will span the unknown immensities of the infinite, but we begin with only the humblest resources possible. All you have to your name is the resources of a billion stars, the trained and dedicated population necessary to exploit them, and your wits. From such inauspicious beginnings you have to bite and scratch and claw your way to the top whilst making sure none of the other hungry alley-dogs of the universe get in the way. There are planetary systems out there with rare treasures, and you’ve called dibs on every single one of them. You’ll be doing your level best from behind your cosmic spreadsheet to climb every mountain, ford every river, kill every Bothan, and subjugate every indigenous population until no-one else is standing. You’re bound by the Prime Directive, but in this case that directive is ‘Everything the light touches is our kingdom’. In other words, if anyone can see it then it’s yours. You just need to convince everyone else that’s the case.
Your command console is the driving force for your expansionist desires – if you’re going to progress from a Type II to a Type III civilization, you’re going to need to invest some serious work in upgrading your scientific and logistical infrastructure. That’s done from your player mat. Every player begins with a power level of one, and this permits access to two interstellar starships and four dice per turn. You also begin with two units of energy, and a unit of the more nebulous ‘culture’. These are the economic levers of your empire, and you’ll spend a lot of your time hauling on them to futile effect as you try to arrange events in your favour.
Core to the competition are the most mouth-watering jewels in the observable universe – the planetary systems that serve as the backdrop for the cold war being waged between interstellar entities. Each of these has a special power that can be added to your empire if you can compel them to join through diplomatic nuance or simple economic bribery. Your ships are the agents of your influence here and when they fully dominate a planet you pick that planet up and slip it under your player mat. Their distinctiveness is added to your own. You always have access to the special powers of visible planets on a situational basis. If you want to eventually add sole exploitation rights and its victory points to your total though you’re going to have to send a ship into orbit and gradually progress its agenda – often in competition with everyone else.
To accomplish anything in the game, you grab a handful of dice and chuck them on the table. Each die face permits you to perform a particular kind of action on your turn. One lets you move a ship, either from your galaxy to a planet, or from the surface of a planet to the orbit of another. Only ships in orbit can extract meaningful resources and progress imperial agendas, but while they’re in orbit you’re not getting to make use of special planet powers. There is a considerable investment of time and effort that goes into convincing a planet it’s better off with you than going alone. It needs to be courted. It needs to be wooed.
Other dice let you progress a ship around the orbit track of a planet – each of these faces you roll will permit you to advance a ship of the right type towards the end. Once it gets there, you claim the planet and everyone else is evicted from it back to their own galaxies in a move disturbingly reminiscent of British xenophobia in the post-Brexit era. ‘I don’t care how long you’ve been orbiting here, mate – piss off, we’re full’
Other dice allow you to harvest culture from any culture-based system you’re orbiting, or energy from any energy based system. Your own galaxy counts as an energy producing system, so any ships sitting at home generate you a cool unit of energy every time you do this. Culture is only available from other planets, which – yeah, makes sense. Once you start broadcasting episodes of ‘Pimp my Shed’ and ‘Celebrity Executions’ out into the wider universe you probably lose the right to consider yourself a net contributor to galactic culture. Wherever you get it, you’re going to need energy and culture in spades because they’re ridiculously useful and are used up more quickly than communications directors in the Trump Whitehouse.
The sixth kind of dice permits us to perform a ‘colony’ action – to begin with we have only one of these actions available and it permits us to upgrade our galaxy’s power level for a value of culture or energy equal to the power level we’re looking to reach. As we conquer systems we’ll get their powers made available too but to begin with you’ll be looking to level up your civilization to get access to more dice, more ships, and passive victory points that don’t need any effort to obtain. A single upgrade will take you up to five dice and that pays for itself in days, mate. At level three you get a third ship, at four you get a sixth dice. At five you get four ships with which to dominate the universe, and at power level six you get a ridiculous handful of seven dice you get to throw at your problems until they go away. That’s costly though – to get a level six empire is going to cost you twenty energy or culture and that doesn’t come easy.
Energy and culture is hard to build for one main reason – you’ll be constantly cascading it out of your wallet to pay for your wars of foreign adventure. You get a free re-roll of any of your dice every turn, but every other re-roll needs you to pay for it. You can roll as many dice as you like as part of that, but each time will cost you another unit of energy. If you absolutely need a move ship option you can reroll the dice in angry frustration until they cut off your electricity. Or if you don’t fancy throwing bad money after bad you can pay the punitively expensive exchange rate of the dice converter. That allows you to spend two inactive dice to turn another inactive die to a face of your choice. Sometimes it’s better to give up entirely on achieving anything and just hope the next round goes a little better. Sometimes. But still – it’s only one energy and maybe this time you’ll roll what you need? Maybe? It’s easy to fall into that mind-set but it’s the same one that leaves gamblers in Vegas staring in mute incomprehension at the smoking wreckage where their life stood mere minutes ago.
All of this would be simple enough were it not for the other players looking to achieve galactic domination, because they’re all up to the same things. They’re flying their ships to the planets you just this minute bagsied. Does nobody respect the bagsy system in this terrible universe? Clearly not because they’re going to do everything in their power to accelerate their progress beyond yours and pull you back as hard as they can. They can do this, too – many of the planetary powers available to people in the game are hilariously mean spirited. Some let you steal energy from other players, or regress enemy ships on their orbit track. Some give you the illusion of collegiate collaboration – ‘hey, everyone gets to advance a ship one space this turn! Aren’t I the best? Oh, but I get to advance my ship twice and look that lets me steal the planet away from under you PISS OFF WE’RE FULL’. True, most of the player actions give you personal benefit rather than spiteful aggression but even those can be used to screw over your opponents.
The planet power of Gort is perhaps my favourite in that regard – it lets you move a ship from one colony track to the equal point on the colony track of another planet. You might cheerfully race someone to the end of a particularly lucrative colony track to force everyone else to scramble and prioritise all their resources towards catching up. And then you just bow out, grab your ship and move it somewhere without competition. Sometimes too they’ve only been doing it to deny you a free run at a resource they thought you really wanted. You might have had three other people all racing around this track to stop you getting a critical power but by the time you depart they’ve already invested too much to simply give up on it. The end result is they’re left looking at a gleeful auctioneer because they committed heavily to something they didn’t even want, and somehow they’re still stuck in a goddamn bidding war where nobody will back down.
It’s all really nice but there’s one thing that takes this ‘fun enough’ system and dials it up into genuine greatness. I mentioned above you can spend energy for re-rolls, but it’s the spending of culture that adds the greatest tension to the game. Whenever anyone takes an action, you can spend a point of culture to follow them. They say ‘I’m going to use this die to execute a colony action’ and you say ‘Good idea, I’ll do that too!’. It’s not even as simple as you copy their action – you copy the die, so your action might be entirely different. They might move a ship to the colony track while you move it to a planet to execute its special power. They might trigger a colonised planetary power while you upgrade your galaxy. Anyone can do it provided they have some culture in their empire, and while they can only follow an action once per die they can theoretically follow every single action you take if it’s in their best interest and they have the culture to fund it.
This is easily the best idea at the core of Tiny Epic Galaxies and it has an effect on gameplay that is as distorting as the pull of a black hole. In a standard Yahtzee style game you’re looking to roll the symbols you want, banking them against future randomness in the hope the investment pays off at the end. In TEG you’re doing that whilst also being mindful of the fact that someone with enough culture can simply duplicate your turn in its entirety and potentially get more out of it. If you have one ship orbiting a culture world, you’ll get one point of culture for the appropriate die face. Someone else might be orbiting three culture worlds, and for the cost of one culture they get three back. That’s so viciously, karmically unfair that you might very well deny yourself the resource you want out of spite. The exact value a die face has depends on what it does for the relative standing of each player around the table, and some are inevitably going to benefit other people more than the person that rolled them. It’s not even as simple as thinking ‘What minimises the benefit for the table while maximising the benefit for me’, if you can even call that kind of thinking simple. You don’t know if someone is going to follow you until they do, and as such you can end up overthinking things. You might end up denying yourself opportunities that you really need because you’re convinced everyone is out to get you even when they had no intention of following the action at all. Very few games give you genuine wealth dynamics that extend from and leave the table. Simply sitting on a stockpile of culture by itself can influence the game in a powerful way. That’s evocative of what real wealth does – you often don’t even have to spend it to get what you want. Combine that with a range of planetary powers that permit a kind of socialist redistribution of energy and culture and you have the makings of a game that can, at its best, transcend its relatively simple mechanics. It incorporates an economic game of ever shifting complexity with retribution and recrimination built into its core. The macroeconomic subsystems in TEG are completely invisible and entirely social and that’s very exciting and chillingly effective. You can leverage cultural intimidation as a weapon that your opponents will use to beat themselves bloody.
And on top of all of this, there’s even a tremendously robust solo game in here. Each player mat comes with a rogue galaxy of differing configuration that will offer scaling challenge to even the most experienced TEG player. Normally the solo modes available in games with high player interaction are at best unsatisfying, but that’s not the case here. I wouldn’t make any claims that playing TEG solo is as good as playing it with people, but it’s certainly very worthwhile if you find yourself with a spare half hour and the box to hand. It’s obviously not possible to incorporate the propagandic power of immense wealth into a procedural game algorithm but you get a very good flavour of everything else. It’s thinner fare than the game proper, but still very nourishing.
I won’t go so far as to say Tiny Epic Galaxies is sublime, because for all its elegance and invisible complexity it’s also not entirely successful in how it models the economics of randomness in a way that is fun. The dice convertor is punishingly expensive, and the cost of rerolls is high – especially at early stages of the game where your engine is at its weakest. That puts a lot of pressure on the outcome of the dice and the tools for mitigating early stage disadvantage are weak at best. Coupled to this is the low cost of following, which simultaneously helps compensate for poor dice rolls and makes the cost of them much greater. You don’t actually have to activate any die you roll, and in some cases it’s going to be better that you don’t so as to deny other players its use. Being incentivised to deny yourself opportunities out of self-preservation is not a game system that we at Meeple Like Us find particularly entertaining. It’s especially a problem here where following actions can aggressively snowball. It’s entirely possible, although not very likely unless someone works hard to set it up, for one person to copy every useful action of every other player around the table. All you need for that is an inability to feel shame and for following culture actions to earn you more than you spend. Lucky dice rolls and effective placement of resources can result in one player easily shooting ahead of all the others from the start of action onwards. Players will self-correct this problem through their choice or not of action activation, but that comes at the expense of fun because the tools for prohibiting it come at personal cost. You stop it happening by avoiding doing it yourself regardless of how much it hurts you to do so. This is a manifestation of a problem with the levers at the heart of the game – it’s too costly to compensate for bad rolls, and too easy for other players to take advantage of them.
Now, this is a reasonably significant issue but it’s also highly situational – it’s an exception to the playing experience rather than the rule, but it’s the primary reason why we can’t elevate Tiny Epic Galaxies to an even higher rating. When everything meshes together, TEG is a very satisfying experience. However, the machinery in here does tend to creak and grind a little and it can be very off-putting when that happens. The more stresses you put on the machinery with higher player counts and increased competition, the more it’ll shake and shudder. The more you push it to the limits, the less likely it will thank you for it.
Tiny Epic Galaxies is a genuinely great game with some underlying structural flaws that rob it of true excellence. They’re minor, but significant, and it’s important you’re aware of them before you commit to adding it to your library. For those that can live with the relatively small problems of the occasionally squeaky cog that works away at your last nerve you’ll have little reason to regret your acquisition.