Tiny Towns is a Peter McPherson design from way back in 2019. It’s a polyomino builder where you place cubes in a grid. The aim is to make shapes that then convert into little buildings. It’s a very comforting activity, stylistically and mechanically. There’s a serenity in these types of experiences, doing your own thing and constructing a village – or a tiny town rather – in peace. That is, until your neighbor starts violating HOA laws and dicks you over.
There’s an inviting nature to Tiny Towns. It has cute animals inhabiting the domiciles of your property. It’s bright and cheery. Mechanically, it offers an extremely simple ruleset that nearly anyone can fall into. I’ve played this with my eight-year-old and I’ve played it with cutthroat hooligans who’d slit another’s throat for the Presidency of Bombay (that’s a John Company reference). It succeeds, to varying degrees of course, but it does succeed.
This style of game has really taken off in recent years. There’s this grand mishmash of polyomino designs, roll & writes, and tile placement games all swirling around in a conjoined appeal to pleasantry. Games like Isle of Cats, Welcome To, and Karuba. The individual genres are distinct, and I have no agenda in being reductive. I’m not your mom telling you Raining Blood and Angel of Death sound exactly the same.
My reason for grouping these is the desire to identify the movement. As games have matured, they’ve grown from the narrow range of mass market titles that often favor confrontation and explicit competition – think Risk, Monopoly, Stratego, even the volatility of Candyland where you push forward, neck and neck in a sugar-filled horse race. There is still a general vibe akin to a run in this expanding new style of lighter weight design, but it’s more chill. There’s a sense of peace in that you can marvel at what you’ve created at the conclusion of Cascadia. No one’s come along and stomped out your sandcastle, even if you didn’t build it quite as gnarly as your neighbor.
The popularity of these style of games is a direct indicator of evolution. The desire for these types of experiences was always there, it was merely a market segment that was underserved during the initial explosion of board games in the post-German Euro movement of the 90s. Following its genesis, the hobby has fallen into two broad eras. That of the rise of Ameritrash, propelled by the juggernaut that was Fantasy Flight Games in the early aughts, and the system-focused modern Euro that began with the Princes of Florence.
This wonderful past-time feels less distinct now. We have the undulation of crowdfunding and its influence on the space, the furtive explosion and contraction of escape room games, an obsession with campaign and legacy formats, a groundswell of titles competing for largest box, a new wave of IP-focused releases, and of course the ascension of lighter, less confrontational designs. Print ‘n play roll & writes have carved out their own sub-genre on Kickstarter. Dexterity games are getting more inventive and wilder. And we’re seeing settings and themes that address serious topics such as oil spills, global warming, and the horrors of war. Don’t worry, heavier contemporary Euros can still be found – you may have heard of Ark Nova – and of course the plastic-fueled dice chucker is still spry.
What I think about in relation to my experience playing Tiny Towns is in how diverse this hobby has become. We’ve moved on from defaulting to male pronouns, or at least most of us have, and there has never been a more accurate depiction of various peoples across the spate of popular releases. Tiny Towns inspires my reflection on growth, maturation, and achievement for the hobby as a whole.
Most reading this will not be surprised, but I’m a devotee to conflict. I’m much more comfortable playing Ankh than Calico. But there’s a sharp edge to Tiny Towns which leaves an impression.
The main mechanism is the revolution of player turns where each participant calls out a particular type of resource, a color of cube. On my turn, for instance, I voice “red”. Then everyone must take a red cube from the middle of the table and place it in one of their plots on a personal board.
I call red because I’m trying to build a tavern, one of the available building recipes randomly chosen for this session. But Ben doesn’t want to build a tavern. He’s been trying to complete a trading post and has no available space where red smoothly fits into his mental blueprint for the village. He must place the little bastard cube anyway. This will stuff up his strategy, forcing him to adapt or possibly build inefficiently. Sometimes people get stuck, unable to build anything in certain spaces. It’s vicious and neat.
It gets more mired with monuments, unique buildings dealt out to players face-down. These are personal recipes you will want to construct for major scoring potential. But they’re more difficult to build and often don’t fall into the patterns of called resources that form a cadence around the table.
An astute player can recognize this vector of interaction and take agency to screw other players over. Say Jen sighs when blue is called as she really wants yellow. You can make use of blue, even if ideally you’d want to place a green cube. If you perceive Jen to be doing well, maybe you call blue anyway on your turn. If engaged in this way, Tiny Towns can occasionally feel like a throwdown in a construction yard.
It’s interesting that this sits between the realms of conflict and multiplayer solitaire designs, bridging the gap between two worlds, two distinct branches of popular design. There’s a dual semblance of modernity here that is enticing to think about and pick apart.
But those not desiring this friction aren’t left in the lurch. You can utilize a more welcoming randomized doling of resources via cards. I wouldn’t choose to play TIny Towns this way, but I’m a Machiavellian clown. You do as you see fit. It’s also worth noting that you can play in the standard mode and entirely avoid screwing with your co-builders. In some regard, the ability to partake in cutthroat play is optional, mirroring the experience of Carcassonne in how you can toggle between bitter pugilism and carefree lollygagging. Just like that classic Euro, Tiny Towns feels more confrontational at lower player counts as well. With larger groups, the thwarting is more incidental and forgivable.
I’ve enjoyed Tiny Towns in a low-key sense. It burns most brightly out of the gate, offering cognitive reward for sifting through building combos and executing clever strategy. The repetitive nature of pattern construction can wear over time, which may require deference to one of the available expansions on the market. That stinging bite of finding avenues of conflict in a genre not typically known for it is appealing, and it’s certainly proven rewarding across a series of plays.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
If you enjoy what I’m doing and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi or supporting my Patreon.
Nice review Charlie.I enjoyed how you touch so many different topics, thanks!
LikeLiked by 1 person
One trend you didn’t mention in your historical survey was the post-Pandemic proliferation of outright cooperative games. “Nuts, it’s another co-op” is my frequent reaction to news of a new game.
It’s funny you mention Carcassonne and the different ways people play it. At my house, it’s a tense contest of sneaking farmers into other people’s fields and stealing cities. But a friend of mine plays it completely cooperatively with his family – working together to make the longest roads and the biggest cities.
I can’t think of too many games that can support such different play styles, so it’s interesting to hear about another one.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yes, Carc has that unique quality and it’s very rare.
You’re right, there has been a boom of cooperative designs. The pandemic may have accelerated that, but the trend seemed to exist prior.