This is Picklemoose's Blog. A small section of Pixelated Cardboard dedicated to topics outside of digital board game ports. Posts here will be less formal & cover a range of topics.
Tiny Towns is a brand new title from Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) and the first title from designer Peter McPherson. My group has never been one to keep up with anything even relatively new, I’m fairly sure we hadn’t ever played a game in the year it was released. However, Tiny Towns caught me eye. It showed up on my radar thanks to a strong social media push by AEG’s Twitter account. Seeing twenty Tweets a day about how much fun the game is and eventually I’m going to have to head to YouTube for some more information. I guess marketing works, huh?
I don’t play a ton of physical games, but have been playing them for quite a while now. As I found myself tiring of Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride way back when, I assumed I needed to progress towards heavy games, that’s how it’s supposed to work, right? Well, I have come to the realization that super heavy, complicated games with long playtimes just aren’t for me or my usual group.
Rather, I realized my sweet spot was games that were on the lighter side, were simple to teach, but offered depth in the decision making. Castles of Burgundy is the reigning (and probably forever) champion here, with an unparalleled ratio of depth/strategy to rule explanation time (it is a bit heavier than I normally go). Tiny Towns doesn’t touch CoB, but it appeared to be in a similar vein from the videos I watched. It’s a light game without many rules, lending itself to very quick learning times, but all of the reviewers called out how many nerve-racking decisions the game included.
The game begins with seven building cards being placed in a common area, these will remain the entire game and represent the various buildings any player may construct into their individual 4x4 patch of land. One building, the cottage, is present in every game, while the other seven are dealt from a deck of four cards of their types, giving the game a high number of possible combinations to play with. Additionally, each player is dealt two special monument cards face-down, they choose one and return the other to the box.
Each of these building cards has a pattern of cubes on its face, along with a description of what the building does once it is constructed in your town. Players spend the game attempting to match these patterns in their towns, using resource cubes, and trading in those cubes for the matching buildings.
These cubes are acquired on every turn. The active player selects a resource color/type and announces their choice. Every player must grab a resource of that color and place it into an empty tile in their town. So, yes, you are mostly at the mercy of what your opponent’s choose when it comes to building your precious town. Once you have matched the pattern on a building you want to build, you remove the cubes in that pattern and place one of the fun wooden buildings on a space which those cubes had occupied. This is now a dead space on your board, from that point forward you must build around it, attempting to fit as many building as possible into your town, to gain the most points.
Play continues until no players have any valid place to play a new resource. Players count their points, which come from the buildings they built and whoever scores the most wins Tiny Towns.
One of the primary reasons Tiny Towns works so well is the scoring. I love the fact that most of the buildings don’t score any points on their own. As an example, the Cottage scores three points only if it is “fed.” So you can build eight cottages and earn zero points if you don’t feed them.
“How do you feed them” is a good question to ask right now. That comes from another building type, the red farm-y looking things (I am unable to find names for the various types anywhere in the rulebook, so bare with me). There are four different types of these red buildings, one of which is used in a given game. The Farm is the most basic and simply feeds four other buildings which need it. The Orchard feeds everything in its row and column, but nothing else. The Granary feeds all 8 (max) buildings immediately surrounding it. The Greenhouse feeds one entire contiguous group of buildings anywhere in your town.
I love this example because it shines a light on so many different aspects on the game. First, where we started, the buildings play off of each other. These red buildings do nothing on their own, they only exist to feed other buildings so they may produce points. Likewise, the cottages don’t score unless they are fed. Also, the spatial aspect of the game is very apparent in reading those card descriptions. Depending on which red building is in play for your game, your red building/cottage strategy will need to adjust accordingly. The freedom of the Farm is that it feeds four buildings regardless of location, the Greenhouse can feed as many as possible, but require those buildings to be contiguous which takes careful planning and friendly resource selections.
There is so much variety to be had, and this was a discussion of two building types, there are five others in the game. Each type has their own general style, and the four different buildings within the type offers some twists. Not all buildings actually help you score, some provide more options for you during the game, hopefully allowing for more scoring later.
Tiny Towns starts like a game of Dominion. You must observe the cards in play for that game and formulate a strategy you think will optimally combine the available buildings and achieve victory. You must also carefully consider the spatial aspect of fitting your buildings on the board which presents itself as a Tetris-like puzzle. You need to be able to see where you plan to place the building once you complete the resources, and begin planning around that. With the limited real estate, you will often begin attempting to build new buildings which won’t be able to be completed until another one is finished and its cubes removed, which can get dicey quite quickly.
If the game was just that, it’d probably still be fun, but since you are at the mercy of the resources your opponents choose, your plans are certain to get derailed quickly which elevates this one to a chaotic new level.
What I’m trying to say is that you’ll need a good plan, that plan will get derailed, and you’ll need to be able to be highly tactical so as not to lose control of your town and suffer a humiliating defeat.
It is entirely possible to end up with negative points in Tiny Towns, which is kind of bonkers for such a pleasant looking, light game with almost no real direct confrontation*. This happens for two reasons: 1) so many buildings need combos to score and 2) you lose one point for each space in your town without a building at the end of the game. The latter is where the Tetris aspect really comes into play, you have to be really smart about cube and building placement to try to fit as many buildings as possible, all while dealing with Karen’s terrible choice in resources. You could have big plans to link together a few things, only to wind up not being able to put the key building in the right spot, so all of those potential points are lost and your empty lots pile up and you wind up scoring negative three points. Ouch.
*As the game nears its end, you might find yourself out of luck for building anything useful, so you could easily try to thwart your opponent’s plans by sticking them with resources they clearly don’t want. This is the maximum level of confrontation offered in Tiny Towns, but is generally reserved for last-ditch, endgame efforts. You will be far too busy trying to build your own goals to make this a normal strategy.
The game offers a solo mode which uses a deck of resource cards to determine which resource you play each turn. You have three face-up at all times, and choose one of those three each turn. Four specific building cards are removed from the deck as they wouldn’t work well solo, but otherwise the game plays exactly the same. There is a scoring chart to let you know how you did, with 38 or more being the ultimate goal. I tried the solo mode to help learn the game and it was surprisingly fun. I do enjoy a good solo run through of something like Legendary, but I’d never been a big fan of solo Euro-style games, but the puzzle remains in solo mode and the game still shines.
That resource deck can also be used in non-solo games as a variant which takes the resource choice out of the hands of the players and into the hands of the deck. It doesn’t have you simply drawing from the deck and using that resource, rather you do that twice and on every third turn each player gets a free choice. This provides a mix of randomness and control, especially at higher player counts.
The game plays all the way up to six, with the maximum player count being a hot mess. Not necessarily in a bad way, although I’m sure some will be turned off by it. The two player game is very much a head-to-head duel, with more opportunity to actively disrupt your opponent through resource choice, but also way less randomness which shifts the weight more towards your chosen strategy and spatial skills rather than your ability to react to unwanted resources and turn those into points anyway. Three and four players will still leave you scratching your head at where to place this unwanted resource, but you still have enough of a say to try to get your plans off the ground. Up at five or six players the randomness is chaotic. The game essentially becomes a “make a best of a bad situation” ordeal because the chances of getting the exact resources you want are slim.
I really like what AEG has put together here, packaging and component wise. The resources and buildings are all nice wooden pieces, each building type is unique and looks great. The factory type fits resource cubes on top for various reasons, which is a cool visual. The town boards are solid, thick cardboard with nice, simple graphics. The cards are sturdy, and I love that the building cards are oversized (the resource cards are standard size). The rulebook is thorough with details on every card in the game. The game comes with baggies for all of the wooden pieces and a functional insert. Overall, this is a really high quality package you are getting in Tiny Towns.
I have been very impressed with the amount of hair-pulling decisions each game packs for me and whomever I am playing with. Getting the wrong resource at the wrong time is gut-wrenching in this game, and being forced to come up with backup plans on the fly adds a surprising crunch to the game.
The game has proven to be easy to explain, it will take longer for players to read the building cards upfront than it does to explain the rules.
Downsides? The theme is fairly bland, as is the name, which might present a barrier to entry issue getting it to the table. At higher counts, you could get incredibly unlucky and have your town ruined with a bad turn around the table. Of course, it’s on you to adapt, but that’s always easier said than done.
I think Tiny Towns will continue to be a hit to anybody I introduce it to, it can be picked up in just a few minutes and offers some fun decisions with each game.