Board Game Gumbo: Spice it up with Tiny Towns
My wife is a teacher, so gaming during the school year can be pretty limited. If we want a game to hit the table, it has to fit a few criteria: (a) playable in under an hour (Dice Hate Me’s famous “One Hour Wonders” are particularly attractive to us); (b) interesting mechanically; and (c) plays well at two.
We’ve had a bunch of games rotate through our Thursday night date night / weekend gaming catalog. But I am always scouring the internet and game group plays for more choices, as usually my wife burns out after six or ten or twelve plays of a game.
That’s why I got excited when AEG sent me a review copy of Tiny Towns. First, and this is a blanket shill, the designer Peter McPherson, will be on Gumbo Live! in a few weeks. (Tuesday night, April 30th to be exact.) Second, I asked Peter to be on the show because I had spied a few early plays of the game on social media, and figured it would be right up my wife’s alley. Finally, the production quality when I opened up the box screamed something that would look good on the table and be enticing to my wife.
Does your game group like spatial puzzle games? Do they get their juices flowing when you lay a town building game on the table? Well then, spice up your game night with Tiny Towns.
Tiny Towns is a 2019 release from AEG for one to six players, designed by Peter McPherson, with fun art from Gong Studios and Matt Paquette. Players take on the roles of little countryside mayors who compete to create a tiny little town on their four by four player board. Players will take turns calling out the building materials that will be used each turn by all players, and then try to complete one of the seven available buildings or their personal monument. They will take a negative hit for any empty spaces at the end of the game, but the mayor who scores the most amount of VPs is declared the winner.
AEG’s recent releases have had impressive production value, and Tiny Towns is no exception. The box contains a smorgasbord of wooden pieces in bright colors, each one a model for a different type of building. There are seven (eight if you count the monument variant) different types of buildings represented in the game, everything from churches to taverns. The pieces are easy to distinguish, and even the plain little grey discs are thematic in that they stand for little but necessary additions to your town like wells and fountains.
Up to six players can play, and each player gets a nice thick piece of cardboard with a four by four grid on one side. Each building is first represented by a tarot sized reference card, which shows four things: (a) the type of building (represented by its color); (b) the type of construction materials needed; (c) the pattern of those materials that need to be placed; and (d) the special ability players get for building the building. The tarot cards are large, colorful, and some have really cute art of woodland animals representing your town folk. (Minor complaint – more woodland creatures art would have been a plus.)
Each building type has four different variants, but only one of each building type / color is used during a game. The eighth building type may be my favorite part of the game: there is an optional rule that will be discussed below for players to build “monuments”, which are represented by tall purple rook type pieces. In short, this is a great production with chunky and plentiful wooden pieces, multiple types of buildings within each category, and plain but sturdy player boards.
Tiny Towns presents an interesting spatial puzzle for players. Each round, players will take turns acting as the “Master Builder”, calling out one of the five resources available in the game, each represented by a differently colored cube. That call forces all players to take one of those resources from the supply, and place it on the board. That’s right -- players basically spend the entire game placing other players’ choices of resources on their player board.
If a player has a pattern of resources on the four by four grid that matches one of the buildings on the tableau, then that player can replace all of those resources with the one building. But placing that building has consequences.
Some of the buildings generate victory points, some generate special abilities, and some support other buildings. (For instance, cottages score points but only if they are fed by farms, which usually do not score points on their own.) The designer has a cool variant, too, where each player has a secret “monument” (with whimsical names on about half of them) that is known only to the player. Each monument is different, and either scores big points or has cool abilities that can really change up a player’s strategy.
As the resources populate the board, players face delicious decisions. Trade in the resources for a certain building? But where on the board? (Buildings take the spot of only one of the resources, and the rest of the resources are put back into the supply.) Does this decision leave room for more buildings to be built? Does it match the bonus powers on the cards? Players have to keep an eye out for what other players are building, or else risk going all around the table placing resources that are completely unhelpful to their grid until it is their turn again.
Players will continue placing resources, trading them in for a building, and focusing on the next building to build until they have no more legal moves. It is always interesting to watch the players realize that a board that is filling up quickly will have plenty of room once one of the larger buildings takes the place of four or five resources. Once all players have run out of legal moves, the game ends. Note: one of the advantages to being the last person to fill up the board is that once all other players finish, the last person can essentially call out all the resources for a few turns until the game board is filled up without worrying about resources that do not match the goal.
I also recommend one more variant that is mentioned in the rules. Instead of players having to play every resource that is called out by each player each round, the designer suggests a “cavern” rule. Each player has a “cavern” where you can “bury” two resources during the game. In other words, twice per game, players can choose to refuse to play a resource on the board if it will mess up the grid in the short term or their long term strategy on building certain buildings.
When I read the rule, I worried that utilizing the cavern would make the game too easy. But I’ve played multiple times with and without the cavern rule, and my worries were for naught. The real fun in this game is not only the crunchy decisions as to where the pieces should be played, but also the absolutely comboliciousness that comes when you can pull off a particular difficult set up of resources to score the building you need or place your monument. Your mileage may vary.
BUT IS IT FUN?
Before I give you my thoughts, here’s a caveat. I have played Tiny Towns at two players and four players only. Unfortunately, I had to leave our Brew & Board Games night early last week because of broadcasting duties and did not get to play a larger count game as I had planned to do. But, based on my plays, I do not think my thoughts will change with any 4+ player count games for the reasons discussed below. (If I get a chance to play this week, I’ll update my thoughts later.)
Tiny Towns fires on a number of cylinders that calls to me and my wife. My wife commented to me after the first game that she enjoyed the spatial aspects of the puzzle, even if her score was not equal to her enthusiasm. Her affection was not a surprise to me at all; in fact, I kind of expected it. We both like spatial puzzle games like Qwirkle or New York: 1901 or any of Uwe Rosenberg’s recent polyomino games.
The first time we played Tiny Towns together, we were admittedly floundering around in terms of resource and building placement. I could see as the game progressed that she was really concentrating hard on fitting the buildings in the market to the design she had laid out with her resources. I think we were both so focused on building our respective monuments that we lost sight of the rest of the connectivity in the game. Needless to say, we got better and better at this as each game progressed.
I also love the scalability of the game. Since all players are essentially playing at the same time – there might be a slight wait when one player is agonizing over a decision where to put a particular resource or whether to cash in for a certain building – the game plays equally well at two or four players. Even when players are eliminated as they complete their grid and have no more legal moves, it does not feel like true player elimination. The end of the game comes quickly enough. Since it takes a little bit of time to score each player on the handy score sheets provided by the publisher in the box, the player who finishes first will find there is just enough time to score her tableau.
My wife and I enjoyed the game so much that we made it a point to try each and every building included in the game, some multiple times. That speaks to the replayability of Tiny Towns. Each building type is represented by four different variants, and that does not even consider the big stack of monuments that are included and how they each interact with the buildings. We home brewed a variant that required that we draw two monuments but they had to be two we had never played before, just to try out some of the various combos and strategies. As you can see, there are a lot of plays in the box, because each combination of building types syncs up differently with the various monuments, so the game constantly refreshes itself. But, there’s even room for expansion if the designer has a few ideas up his sleeve.
A frequent question I’ve seen online is whether there is enough player interaction in Tiny Towns. My wife is not a big fan of “take that” games, but she doesn't mind a little bit of player interaction. Typically, euros like this are “multi-player” solitaire (think Karuba, for instance, where the only interaction comes with trying to figure out when to make a run at a temple or when to hang back and grab some more gems based on the relative position of the other players’ adventurers on their “map”). Tiny Towns disguises the solitaire nature of the game very well with one clever trick. Instead of randomly flipping over resources (which is a variant we have never tried, using an included deck of resource cards), players take turns calling out the resources that will be played on the player boards that turn.
I can smell the roux thickening up on the juicy decisions that this twist suggests in your mind. The game basically tests and teases you at the same time. Are you agile enough to see what resources you need that others may call out on their turns, while you call a resource on your turn that only you need? That kind of quick thought processing did not happen for us on the first or second game, but within a few games, we were keeping tabs on each other’s boards in that fashion. (In a multiplayer game, the best I could do was watch the person to the left and right of me.)
So there’s a lot to like about Tiny Towns. I guess one could quibble that some of the buildings resemble each other, so sometimes we grabbed the wrong one during play. One could also argue that some of the monuments seem much more powerful than others. That would imply that there could have been a touch more development. A stronger complaint might be in the aforementioned limited player interaction. To some gamers, “hate drafting” resources will not scratch enough of the player interaction itch. But, those are minor complaints. Really, this is a very good presentation of a type of game that is right in my wheelhouse.
One final warning: if it isn’t plainly obvious from the game play overview or the chatter, you better like Tetris-type puzzle mechanisms if you are going to enjoy your time with Tiny Towns. The heart of the game is essentially placing resources and buildings more efficiently than your opponents as well as spotting the synergies between the buildings available on the board and how they relate to your own monument. Does answering those kinds of questions speak to you? If not, then shake the dust off your sandals and this is probably not your kind of game. But if your heart skips a beat anytime a new town building game comes out, and you’d love to own a replayable game that has some surprising depth in a tiny little twenty-to-forty minute package, then you should check out Tiny Towns.
Just don’t get mad at me if that thirty minute play time becomes nearly two hours when you say thrice, “let’s do that again.”