The Cardboard Hoard: Review of Tiny Towns
Tiny Towns, designed by Peter McPherson and released earlier this month by publisher AEG, is a lightweight strategy game that plays 1-6 players in thirty minutes or less -- although the box claims it plays in 45 minutes. It is, thematically, about using resources to construct different types of buildings in a small town. But, as it is quite abstracted, it is more about placing different colored cubes in polyomino patterns to construct buildings onto a 4x4 grid.
An interesting thing about Tiny Towns is that it has the feel of a few things it is not. It feels like a modern roll-and-write game, but features neither rolling nor writing -- and only in the Town Hall variant is there the card-flipping substitute that shares similar roll-and-write DNA. The game does not have polyomino pieces like so many recent tableau laying games -- Patchwork, Barenpark, Scarabya, among many others -- but feels like a polyomino tableau builder due to the polyomino patterns on the building designs.
Also deceiving is that, despite its large, square box and many wooden bits, it is not a long or heavy game. And yes, while it is light and quick to play, it does feature some brain-burning optimization decisions to be made, especially of the spatial planning variety.
So, Tiny Towns is not a roll-and-write, not a polyomino-laying game, and not as long or heavy as its number of components and box size may suggest. So what is it? It is a light, abstract town-building game that uses wooden cubes as resources to fill in a 4x4 grid, where players can convert patterns of resource cubes into different buildings, represented by colorful custom building pieces. On a player’s turn, they declare what resource cube every player must place that turn. If a player makes a pattern with the resource cubes that matches a building card, that player may replace all those cubes with that building, placing it on any of the spaces that had one of the cubes. The cubes that had made that pattern are then removed. Each building’s corresponding card tells players how that building either scores points, or give a bonus to future placements -- such as by making future cubes of one type wild or by allowing future placements to happen anywhere on the board. There are seven different types of buildings -- cottages, farms, wells, chapels, taverns, theaters, and factories -- as well as an eighth, special type -- monuments -- which, unlike the other buildings, are specific to each player. These monuments are selected by the players secretly at the beginning of the game and may only be built once per player.
While some board games unlock more options throughout the course of game play, potentially causing players to take longer and longer turns, the fact that players’ boards fill up with buildings and cubes actually creates a shrinking decision space that keeps the game moving at a brisk pace. It also ramps up the tension, as players frantically try to finish buildings and free up space, and not get caught with useless cubes littered throughout their town.
Tiny Towns plays very differently depending on player count, due to the nature of how often players get to declare which cubes should be used next. Fortunately, the game works well at all player counts I’ve tried, although I do have personal preferences.
At lower player counts, like 2-4 players, the game works perfectly as written, without using any variants. With two, there are more opportunities for longer-term strategy, as players control 50% of the cubes coming out. At three and four players, with that number dipping to 33% and 25%, respectively, the game becomes that much more chaotic and tactical, but this also rewards players that are paying more attention to their opponents’ boards and what they are playing, as well as ramping up the tension of the game.
In the solo game, you are forced to use the deck of resource cards, which means resource allocation is decided by an offer of three cards from the resource deck, with the deck having an equal distribution of each cube color. This becomes much more of a puzzle, and rewards the ability to remember what has come through the deck each time through, as well as setting the deck up for future times through. The solo experience is a high score chase, with the rule book listing 38 points or more as the “Master Architect” level.
At higher player counts, like with 5-6 players, I’d recommend using the Town Hall variant. This ruleset uses the resource deck like the solo mode, but allows players to get a resource of their choosing every third turn. While you can play the standard game with this many players, it is a bit too chaotic, and this variant removes that concern. Notably, you can play this variant with an unlimited number of players, so long as every player has their own board, cubes, and pieces. In fact, it can also be played online, and both Paul Grogan of Gaming Rules! and Theo Strempel of Geeky Gaymer Guy have done playthrough videos that anyone can play against.
Pros: Plays well, although differently, at all player counts from 1-6. Can theoretically be played with an unlimited number of people, as well as online. Plays quickly, but has a good amount of depth for the time frame. The game comes with a ton of variability, with 25 different building cards and 15 monument cards in the box. Also comes with a scoring pad, making calculating the winner at the end of the game much easier. A cute and colorful theme that is appropriate for all ages, making this a good choice for family game nights. The box has a well designed insert that stores all the components nicely, even if the box is stored vertically.
Cons: Not much in the way of theme. I’m also not personally a fan of anthropomorphic animals, although you could easily play this and not realize there are any, as the theme is that thin. The box size and number of components limit portability. The game is not language independent, due to the scoring conditions on the cards. Due to the quick nature of turns, nobody ever remembers to pass around the turn marker hammer, although I’ll admit that may be a playgroup specific problem and not the game’s fault.
Tiny Towns feels like a game that really offers something for most everyone -- although board gamers looking for thematic gameplay and/or immersive storytelling aspects can safely look elsewhere. The game is a perfect blend of accessible and quick gameplay, with interesting spatial planning decisions that shrink over the course of the game, creating more and more tension as player boards fill up. Heavier gamers can find a nice change-of-pace filler game here, while families will find a solid entry for game night that can play even with a bit of extended family present.
While the year is only halfway through, I am almost certain Tiny Towns will make my best of 2019 games list, and I highly recommend checking it out if the above review make it sounds like something you may be interested in.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Tiny Towns from AEG.