Review – Tiny Epic Pirates (Kickstarter Edition)

Tiny Epic Pirates (Kickstarter Edition). Gamelyn Games, 2021. Scott Almes, Designer. Chip Cole et al., Artists.

Tiny Epic Pirates logo

Since 2014, Gamelyn Games’ Tiny Epic series has gone out of its way to prove that you don’t need tons of flashy components and a huge, 10+ pound box to make a solid gameplay experience. In this time, Scott Almes and company have tackled just about every genre, from fantasy to western top sci-fi, and have covered many game mechanics, from programmable actions to worker placement to commodity speculation. Surprisingly, though, up until now, they hadn’t tackled a favorite genre amongst geeks and boardgamers alike: piracy on the high seas. In Tiny Epic Pirates, the genre finally finds a home port in the Tiny Epic series.

What’s Going On Here?

In Tiny Epic Pirates, you play as the captain of a pirate ship. Each player has a captain meeple, and 3-4 deckhand meeples that they assign to take on various tasks. Deckhand give you bonuses to some of your actions, or alternately, allow your captain to skip over an action on the “Action Wheel,” a rondel with randomly assigned action spaces. You use your actions and bonuses to discover booty, attack ships (both NPC merchant ships and other players’ pirate vessels), sell goods at the trading ports, pillage towns, and hire crew members that give you even more bonuses to take these actions.

But beware: the Naval Vessel is out to get you, as are your pirate opponents. The ultimate goal is to bury treasure at three different locations on the map. This task is made easier by hiring the aforementioned crew, as well as by gaining reputation by attacking other ships.

What’s good here?

Once again, Almes packs a lot of game into a tiny box. The 4×4 grid that makes the map is large enough that you’ll find yourself sailing all over the board to sell goods at one location, attack a ship at another, then return to a pirate’s cove to hide from the pursuing navy. The six actions on the action wheel give you a lot to consider, and many of the bonuses from crew members translate to bonus actions that trigger when specific actions are undertaken. For example, a crew member may give you a free attack action if you plunder on a turn, which means that strategically timing your plunder action to coincide with the arrival of a merchant ship is worthwhile. Seriously, the depth that such a small game provides is impressive.

Another great thing about Tiny Epic Pirates is the replayability. As I mentioned above, each player’s rondel’s actions are randomly placed at the beginning of the game, forcing you to change the way you prioritize some actions each game. The map is also randomized each game, as are the “discovery tokens,” or the booty you can find at each location. The crew members come from a randomized deck of cards, meaning your action bonuses will vary from game to game. Even the pirate cove spaces are random, meaning you may start in the corner of the board in one game, and in the center in the next game.

I also love the combat in Tiny Epic Pirates. It’s fairly simple: each player rolls 2-3 dice (based on the level of their infamy) and compares the numbers to numbers on their crew members. For each match, you score a hit. If one die matches 3 crew members, you score three hits. It’s pretty simple, but on top of that, the stakes of losing are pretty low. If you lose a combat, you merely assign one deckhand to the “repair” action, meaning that that deckhand provides no bonus until they are reassigned, AND you get a “sure shot token,” which allows you to change one die to a result of your choice in a future combat. The winner, however, gets to move up on their infamy track, which in turn provides even more bonuses. The rewards of victory outweigh the risks of defeat, so you are encouraged to combat and combat often.

What’s Not So Good?

A problem I ran into during my play was that I had goods that would sell for a lot of gold, but I got attacked by the Navy, and then lost another combat. Because I had to move my deckhands to repair, I was stuck moving at one map tile per turn. This meant that I limped back to port for a few turns to get rid of my goods while Em sailed around, attacking merchants and burying treasure. I pretty much knew I was going to lose from the 4th round, even though we still played many more rounds after that. And while I did start to catch up in the end, I was so far behind the 8 ball, surrounded by rough seas and the navy, that I felt kind of stuck.

Another criticism I have is that the only way to increase infamy is to attack other ships, and the first few times you attack the merchant ships don’t count. I feel like other actions, such as burying treasure or pillaging cities, might have been good ways to increase this track, thematically speaking. In our first play, I had only moved up once on this track, and Em moved up twice. I suspect that at higher player counts, this track will be more dynamic, but it was actually a very small part of our experience, and that was a shame.

What Do I Think?

Overall, I really like Tiny Epic Pirates. If I had to compare it to another game, I would say that it felt like a scaled back version of Gale Force Nine’s Firefly game with its variable crew members, pick-up-and-deliver mechanics, and NPC enemy following you at every turn. And Firefly is certainly a more immersive experience, but it also fills an entire table and takes, like, 1000 hours to set up. Tiny Epic Pirates is Firefly at a fraction of the time-and-space commitment, which means it will certainly get played more often.

8/10 victory points

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