Call me the board game Nostradamus. Back in December I got to demo Tiny Towns at PAX Unplugged and I predicted that it would be a hit. Now…well I don’t have sales numbers but it seems like there are a lot of people talking about it, and for good reason! Tiny Towns is that kind of instantly-enjoyable game you know will have widespread appeal.
At least that’s what I intuited after that first play. But if I left my analysis there this wouldn’t be The Thoughtful Gamer. There’s not much benefit to throwing out evaluative thoughts without explaining why. What it is about Tiny Towns that makes it so charming to play? How does it stand out from other family fare? Let’s dig in.
When talking about Tiny Towns you have to talk about the building. It’s the cornerstone of not only this design but the entire Euro design ethos. If you’re going to epitomize the difference between Euro and American design, the former builds and the latter destroys. Tiny Towns turns its building into a puzzle. Instead of spending some currency to build something, you’re forming shapes on your own 4×4 grid. Once you have the proper shape of a building with the proper materials, you collapse those materials down into the building. It’s like Tetris except you’re constructing the pieces bit by bit and then turning them into something else. So not like Tetris at all, but you get the point.
The puzzle of it is surprisingly difficult–at least for me, who has committed fatal errors in at least half of his games–for two primary reasons. First, the playing space is cramped, and you’re going to quickly realize that you definitely need to start building from the outside in lest you find yourself in a situation where you have multiple dead spaces with no building potential. Second, you don’t get full control over what materials you can use. Instead, that duty rotates turn by turn to each player. If I really want to use brick to finish my cathedral, then everyone else is stuck with brick too!
You can play with a variant that determines the material chosen each round semi-randomly with a deck of cards, but I’ve found that to be less compelling because you can’t “hate draft” a material that you know will harm an opponent and because you’re guaranteed to get each material in almost equal proportion, killing any strategies that don’t rely on an even distribution. But it works well for a softer, gentler game.
That said, this game needs teeth to play best. Any softening threatens to collapse the whole structure, like that one chip in a plate of nachos that looks perfect and has everything on it, but has been so burdened with non-newtonian fluids that it can no longer support its own weight.
Take, for example, the monument cards, which the rulebook suggests eschewing at first. You should not do this. The monuments might be the most important part of the game. Each player is given one of these unique, often more complex, structures, which they keep secret until built. The monuments can be very powerful with a point upside greater than anything available in the general supply. They need to be this powerful to encourage people to use them. Otherwise Tiny Towns can become a rote game of doing what others are doing.
Think about it. If the first two materials called lean towards a certain building, you’ll need a compelling reason not to copy one of the people who initiated that. Absent other incentives there rarely is. If you go down another route (by trying for a different first building that shares those materials but not others) you’re going to encounter trouble when the people who are mimicking each other return to pick materials. They’re mutually reinforcing each other while you’re struggling to cope with material selection ill-suited for your strategy.
This is destroyed as soon as someone starts to build their monument, as they deviate from the groupthink in pursuit of a strategic edge. Now everyone’s out of sync even if they’re still going for the same general strategy, and being able to predict what materials people will choose becomes an important skill to have.
Like other great family games, Tiny Towns is deep enough to house more complex strategic thought without losing any accessibility to those who want to play very casually. The first level of understanding Tiny Towns is to figure out how to spatially organize your buildings and not get stuck in a situation where you can’t fit the shapes you want. From there it blooms. Soon you’ll be watching the other players, trying to understand their strategies and using that information to help your own play. You’ll be utilizing your monument effectively and leaving yourself with multiple outs in case unexpected materials are called. You’ll take a minute at the beginning of the game to understand all of the buildings, how they may interact, and what materials are shared between them.
Tiny Towns has that pre-game Dominion-esque feel because there are four different buildings for each shape–every one with a different power and different material costs. They all follow general themes (one will feed, one will allow material flexibility, etc), but there’s enough variation in the specific interactions and the material costs to make each game feel like a new opportunity. After 20-30 plays that might start to dim, but expansions are in the works.
Above all, beyond the cute art and the wooden building figures and the ease of play, Tiny Towns taps into the urge that video games figured out very early: the desire to get a high score. Many board games use a final point tally to determine victory, but there’s typically enough separation between your actions and the final tally that they’re truly a representative of skill against some opponents rather than something to be pursued for their own sake. When I play a game of Through the Ages or Agricola, for instance, I know generally what a good score can be, but I’m more focused on executing solid strategies and maneuvering around my opponents.
Tiny Towns strips away nearly everything but the basic action and scoring points. Do this: get 2 points. Do these two things in a certain way: get 3 points each. It’s a tasty snack of a game where you can reasonably see and plan for an endgame from the very beginning. Sure, the point cap will be somewhat dependent on which buildings are in the rotation, but you see your blank board, you see the ways to get points, and you can feel that great game within your grasp–that one time everything will align perfectly.
Most of the time you’ll start to feel the crunch about halfway through. The materials aren’t what you expected and the plan you thought you had needs to be changed dramatically to utilize the useless cubes you threw into the corner earlier in the game. Sometimes you’ll blunder partway through and spend most of the game understanding that your one mistake is blocking you in a number of different, annoying ways. Tiny Towns tends to snowball a bit, as the people who are most efficient stay in the game longer, and get to choose their materials towards the end of the game more frequently as others drop out.
When I spoke with Peter, he mentioned that the idea for Tiny Towns came to him more or less pre-formed and the final game is essentially what he first prototyped. This is a remarkable achievement for a first time designer and he should be applauded. He came up with an idea, it was fun, and he ran with it. I suspect other designers pray at night for lightning to strike like this. But when you look a bit deeper, Tiny Towns is fun because it taps into that snack-size, personal optimization urge I suspect most of us have. Combine that with wide appeal, both intellectually and visually, and you have a winner.
Review copy provided by publisher
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+Balances strategy and tactics
+Good amount of hate-drafting and indirect interaction
-Some snowballing, which isn’t ideal for a family game
-Some might not like “follow the leader” strategies
Length: 30 Minutes
Learning Curve: 2/5
Brain Burn: 2/5