There used to be two other regulars at my table, greenhorn. The one to my left is the sheriff’s deputy in these parts, and I’d suggest you listen to what he has to say. The other guy? Well, he got caught cheatin’ and has the luxury of being buzzard bait…
In the pioneering days of the American West, few things were as glamorous as movies and TV make them out to be. Life was hard, unforgiving, and above all, unpredictable. It took a certain kind of person to head out into an unknown future, be it was a railroad worker or miner looking for a paycheck, a homesteader seeking to make a new life for themselves, or someone who simply wanted to be left alone.
There were a few commonalities no matter which dusty settlement you rolled through, though. One such reality was that if your town had a saloon or hall of any kind, you’d find gamblers. Games catering to high risk and high reward reflected the nature of life in these parts, and from Dodge to Deadwood, card games were one of the most widely spoken languages. Many games were played, but the most popular two were faro and poker. Be it outlaw or lawman, business mogul or ranch hand, the lure of these games stoked people’s overall fevered dreams of fame and fortune on the frontier.
And that’s precisely the environment we’re headed into today. So come on in greenhorn and sit a spell, as we dive into Tiny Epic Western: the biggest little town in the Old West.
Tiny Epic Western is the next iteration of the continuing ‘Tiny Epic’ series of small box games by Gamelyn Games and designer Scott Almes. In this light worker placement game, 2-4 players square off and take aim at the rights to a dusty flea-bitten western town. You stroll into to this town as a Boss looking to take control of it. At the beginning of the game, each player receives one such Boss card, bestowing them a unique power to use in their exploits. Every Boss behaves slightly differently, and it’s quite fitting to say that if you play your cards right, their powers can be incredibly useful in your efforts to securing the town. Powers like these:
Of course, every good Boss needs a crew. In this game, that comes in the form of your posse, which is (usually) a pair of workers. They’re the ones who are going to be doing your bidding around TEW Town – literally. In this game, the town consists of six locations: the Town Hall, Sheriff’s Office, and four player tiles that serve as respective HQs, such as the Saloon or Courthouse.
Additionally, every location with the exception of Town Hall starts each round with a randomly assigned Building card attached to it. Building cards represent the parts of the town you and your posse control when you…erm…let’s go with “purchase” them. They provide the bulk of your VP at the end of the game, showing off who truly runs this town. In addition, when you purchase a Building, its ability becomes available at your location’s Building space in subsequent rounds.
Over the course of six rounds, players take turns placing their two workers on spaces and gaining the benefits in normal worker placement fashion. Some spaces provide an immediate benefit, such as gaining you one of the game’s three resources (Law, Force, or Money) or the use of a Building space if you pay the owner, while others offer a ‘double-down’ style space for higher windfall at the risk of not getting anything at all. It’s a gamble, but that’s the way things are in these parts.
If simple worker placement were the only mechanic at work in this game, however, it would make for a pretty uneventful western throw-down. What particularly sets Tiny Epic Western apart from others in the Tiny Epic line – and many worker placement games for that matter – is that this isn’t just a micro-sized allusion to an existing genre. TEW Town may be small, but it offers a pair of notable extra features that help this game carve out its own space in the 30 minute game category.
The first trick up its sleeve is that placing workers only makes up half of the actual gameplay. The other half relies on a variation of good ol’ fashioned poker. Wyatt and the boys would be proud.
Cards in this game come in values of 1-5 in four differently ranked suits. At the beginning of each round, one card is randomly placed face-up between each of the town’s locations. You then receive a hand of two cards. You must choose one to keep and discard the other.
After everyone has placed their posse for the round, players use poker to determine who reaps the rewards of their turf wars. Everyone reveals their hand, and at each location where you have a unit, players compare to see who has the best 3-card hand using their card and the two on either side of the location, plus any modifying spaces you used over at the Sheriff’s Office.
Look, it pays to be deputized. Just saying.
If you win the location, you receive the depicted resources (and even more if you took the ‘double-down’ space). Then, everyone compares their hand with Town Hall to determine the order that players get to purchase Buildings. Because the location cards are known ahead of time, there is definitely strategy involved when determining where you want to place your dudes. You often may have to decide which is more important to you: winning the poker hand or going after locations offering you the Buildings or resources you want.
The other particularly entertaining aspect to Tiny Epic Western is that unlike most worker placement games, an occupied action space doesn’t mean it’s off limits. Most locations only have three spaces, and so sooner or later, you’re bound to be looking for a fight. Well, this game is happy to oblige. If you decide to place your worker on an already occupied space, you and that player have a duel.
Dueling is simple. First, each player rolls a die. The person with the lower total is the loser and has the choice to pay resources to re-roll and / or reveal their poker card to add it to their total. If the other player is now losing they then have the option to do the same. In the end, whoever wins claims that action space while the loser becomes wounded and loses its benefits. Of course, since you just had a shootout – in town no less – the winner becomes the Wanted player, which provides a bonus resource at the end of a round and is worth VP at the end of the game.
What? This is the Old West. It’s one surefire way to get your name out there.
The remarkable thing about the duels isn’t that players can avoid being locked out of action spaces by playing a game of chance over who gets it, but rather that even if you do lose it’s not terribly punishing. A wounded player can still win resources from poker hands, and they’re still able to buy Buildings. This keeps the semi-random nature of the duel from being detrimental to your odds of winning the game while providing a creative way to engage players with each other. It also ensures that while there’s a luck involved in terms of your dice roll or how the cards are dealt that Tiny Epic Western isn’t a totally luck-based affair.
Once the purchase order for Buildings is determined, each player has a chance to buy a Building at any location where they have a posse member by spending the requisite resources and placing it above the Building action space on their HQ location, overlapping any existing Buildings there. This offers a clever bit of decision-making throughout the game as you try to decide which Buildings you want to acquire for their VP, which you may want for their abilities at your location, and the order you want to go about doing so, all while trying to take into account what your enemies may be going after.
Alternatively, you can forgo buying a Building to call in reinforcements in the form of a third posse member for the following turn, ensuring that if you can’t buy something you aren’t out in the cold completely.
Lastly, the winner at Town Hall also chooses to advance one of the game’s three Industry stock markers. In addition to VP and abilities, each Building contains a number of icons for one or more of the Industries. At the end of the game, the players with the most icons on Buildings they own for each Industry receives bonus points.
After a half dozen rounds, the game is over, and you see who’ll be running TEW Town and who should be moseying along.
In typical Tiny Epic fashion, playthroughs are quite short, with the game only lasting for as many rounds as there are chambers in your holstered six-shooter. With only a handful of action spaces to choose from and a pair of workers to do your bidding, rounds are quick, short, and to the point – as any good showdown in the Old West should be. Tiny Epic games typically try to pack a lot of material into a small box, and that remains true here too. For Tiny Epic fans, this one certainly delivers, although it may not appeal to those who don’t want to consider poker hands or facing combat over action spaces.
Unlike its predecessors, however, this one isn’t just a miniaturized homage to specific game genres. From coveting specialized Building cards to fighting over action spaces, there is a lot to consider in this thirty minute lead-filled land grab. The game deftly weaves worker placement mechanics with a poker aspect in a way that’s as equally original as it is thematic. The poker card match-ups feel are seamlessly integrated while also feeling almost like a game within a game. There’s simply no bluffing this one: Tiny Epic Western is the most fleshed out game in the series yet. It’s fully capable of standing on its own as a well designed Filler Game and has everything you could possibly need for a quick skirmish in a dusty old border down, short of some ragtime music and cake-filled boots.
But hey, maybe that’s a stretch goal.
If you think what you have what it takes to survive the Old West, you can find out for sure (plus a whole lot more) by saddling up and riding on down to the game’s Kickstarter right now.
Safe travels, cowboy.
This project has earned the Seal of the Republic