Caught in a Black Hole- Tiny Epic Galaxies: Beyond the Black Review

Tiny Epic Galaxies: Beyond the Black

Designed by: Scott Almes

1 – 5 Players

Playtime: 1/2 Hour – 1 Hour

While this might be content I’d normally tackle in a Budget Board Gamer episode, I felt it more prudent to discuss it now, as my backlog is a bit extensive and I felt the need to voice my opinions on this one.

Tiny Epic Galaxies is a game I have yet to discuss, but I must say that I do find it quite enjoyable and engaging both from multiplayer and solo perspectives. The follow mechanic is a stand-out idea that encourages more thought-provoking strategies. Every game feels tight, with players within a couple of points of one another by the end. And while not “tiny”, a rather big game comes in an impressively compact package.

Enter Beyond the Black, a Kickstarter campaign that passed me by before I realized it was there. Luckily, here at Games on Tape we can rely on most games eventually finding its way to our doorstep, with Tim having backed the game a while ago and me borrowing a copy from someone I game with often. Needless to say, it isn’t too hard to find these days on store shelves, in a box basically identical to the original.

Within, players will find four Star Trek-ish ships and a points tracker in each color, a score track board, an unexplored space board, five spaceport boards, 30 pilot cards, 12 planet cards, eight secret goal cards, and a rulebook.

While the new components were the first things to catch my eye, it didn’t take me long to notice the thin nature of the rulebook, composed of barely seven pages. The explanation is easily grasped and succinct, clearly striving to add a handful of new options without derailing the original game, one of the best things an expansion can aim to do.

Once I reached the bottom of the box, I noticed, coincidentally, that the modified rules for solo mode could be found in the bottom well. In fact, this is the only place you can find it, an oversight in my opinion, especially for someone who likes to keep all his rulebooks as PDF’s generally. A small nitpick, yes, but I’d rather have had this as a part of the rules, especially considering how short it is already.

The new player components are the same nice, wooden pieces that you’ve already been playing with for some time now. If you enjoy how those feel, you’ll have no issue with these. Similarly, the card quality and art is just as good, if not better.

I find myself being drawn to having roles to play off of when experiencing a board game, so I was immediately excited by the wide selection of pilots this game presents, from the four-armed alien Bookworm to the serious and confident Monk to… Tim Shaffer? Yes, if you got your copy via the Kickstarter, there will be a handful of familiar faces, including the titular Gamelyn Games mascot, appearing as promos. I’ve never been a fan of celebrities invading the games I play (I’m having flashbacks to the countless Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day promos that were all the craze at the start of the decade), and these feel particularly out of place, but to each their own.

Perhaps the most surprising and perplexing for me was the sealed stack of circular cards, labeled simply as unexplored space. While a neat idea to help distinguish them and allow them to fit on the appropriate mat, the shape and slickness make these a slight pain to shuffle, and are the least interesting to look at, with many of the images feeling mundane and typical when standing next to the portraits of planets and the grimaces and grins of the crew members you’ve recruited.

So, what does all this amount to? What does Beyond the Black truly add to the Tiny Epic Galaxy experience?

… A whole lot of nothing.

I hate that I have to say that, but it’s true. This expansion, for all its polish and style, acts as nothing more but a brief distraction until you return to playing the game the way it was originally meant to be played.

Beyond the Black looks to add two new actions that players can take on their turn; hire a pilot and fly to unexplored space, but before I get into those, I need to explain how exploration badges work for the sake of explaining balancing.

Exploration badges appear at the bottom of every pilot and exploration card. At the end of the game, on top of all normal, points, players can get points for having the most of each of the four symbols, two points if they have the most and one if they have the second most. A nice idea, certainly, but something that’s incredibly hard to tell, from a competitive perspective, how you are faring as opposed to everyone else. In the base game, you have x number of points, they have y number of points. It’s easy to recognize and calculate, thus allowing the games to be closer and more competitive. Here, half the exploration cards will remain unrevealed until the end of the game, and it simply doesn’t feel interesting or witty; it feels like someone collected the most triangles by random happenstance, so they get two points. … Hooray?

Hiring a pilot from a selection equal to the number of planets present is as simple as getting two dice of the same face and, instead of using them for their regular abilities, spending both to recruit a pilot that can fly the ship associated with those symbols. Some pilots can only pilot certain ships, but each give their own special abilities that only affect the ship they control, allowing you to collect extra resources, steal from others, colonize more efficiently, and more. Additionally, you can spend three of the same face to recruit any pilot for any ship type. Each pilot you obtain is worth a victory point, regardless if you replace them later in the game.

While these abilities can be fun and useful to have, a number of issues quickly surface, turning this seemingly useful option into more of a distraction. Firstly, players are required to spend two actions worth of dice to obtain a point and a passive buff when often you could better use those symbols to colonize or prepare your galaxy for the rounds to come. Yes, the pilots can be useful, but seeing as they only affect the one ship, their use is very limited. You’ll find yourself using a ship’s ability once only to leave it there because you have better actions available that actually move you towards victory. Because at the end of the day, pilots get you one point a pop for two actions. From a game-end perspective, you sacrifice a lot to get them with very little pay-off.

It’s not even like these pilots are all that balanced either; looking over the 30 cards, there are some pilots that provide better versions of abilities for the same cost, and sometimes with more flexibility.

Take the Kingpin vs the Agent; while the Kingpin lets a player take a free planet action when its ship successfully colonizes a planet, the Agent simply needs to enter a planet’s colony track to get the same effect, allowing for you to get the effect more immediately and plan around it as opposed to hoping you don’t get beat to the end of a colony track. On top of this, while the Kingpin can pilot two different types of ships, the Agent can commandeer any of the four, making it an easy card to scoop up. Oh, and the Kingpin only has one exploration badge while the Agent has three, making the Agent the most competitive not just in terms of abilities, but end-game points too.

Not convinced? Well, let’s look at the Marshall vs the Duchess. The Marshall, when colonizing a plent, gets 1 free resource of that planet type, whereas the Duchess gets 2 for doing the same thing. Also, the Marshall is limited to manning only one type of ship, whereas the Duchess can pilot two types, and each come with only one exploration badge. One card is LITERALLY better than the other in every given way.

On top of this, there are some cards that have crazy abilities. The Overseer can colonize with either economy or politics regardless of the planet, the Lightspeeder can launch with any die face, and the Peace Keeper prevents anyone else from moving their ship on the colony track past it. These can be pretty insane abilities, so much so that they feel unfair next to others. I mean, get the Peace Keeper out early enough on a colony track, and no one else can take it from you. That’s ridiculous, but most of these cards are not that powerful, not by a longshot.

All of this is indicated on a player’s spaceport board, which means the expansion is already doubling the amount of tablespace you need to play. And when you do get a pilot, you need to choose one of your current ships, replace it with the appropriate ship, and then use the old ship to indicate on the pilot card which ship the pilot is using by covering that symbol. But once you have three or four, you start to forget which ship goes to which pilot, meaning you’re constantly checking over your cards and where your ships are positioned, making each turn drag.

That’s not even to speak to how much text is on every pilot card. Most have three or four lines of text in small print, meaning players will spend an extensive amount of their turn reading over the descriptions of not just every planet action, but every pilot ability as well.

When we first pulled this out, one of the players had never played Tiny Epic Galaxies before, so we started with a game only using the base components, a close match that lasted about 35 minutes. After introducing the expansion, however, the game dragged to a dreadful two hours. TWO HOURS. Now, this likely isn’t the most fair example, as everyone was new to the game, and thus had to both understand the game and constantly remind ourselves of the pilots and what they did, but regardless of that I think it’s fair to say that this expansion certainly extends the playtime of the game by a bit due to doubling the amount of information on the table.

So we have a ton of pilots that cost two actions, provide one point, and have effects that affect that ship in question, and while some are powerful, they are few and far between and cost the same as just about any other ship, meaning you either get lucky with the selection provided or you never take pilots, simple as that. I wanted to like this idea so much, but it just doesn’t gel well with the game format, not to mention it becomes a chore to use. Off to a less-than-great start.

The unexplored space though… in my opinion, it’s infinitely worse. How this works is that rather than flying a ship to a planet in some way with a launch, players can send their ship to unexplored space.

What I can briefly note as a positive is that this space provides culture, allowing for a permanent location that consistently provides a much-needed resource, something the base game lacks.

That being said, when you land there, you must draw an unexplored space card. When drawing from the top of the deck, if a green card, players may either keep it or place it on the table and draw again. Players can continue to do this until they find a card they like, three cards are already available on the table, or you draw a red card. Alternatively, players can take a face-up card from the table without replacing it rather than trying their luck.

Green cards provide either one or two resources, and will sometimes rarely give one point. Red cards, on the other hand, force players to lose two resources, give two resources to other players, or trap that player’s ships temporarily until they complete a planet track through an asteroid field or black hole.

In other words, the best reward a player can get is two random resources, something that your normal actions can often provide more consistently, and there’s a good chance that you’ll screw yourself and even help your opponents by doing so. After checking, there are 11 red cards out of the 30 unexplored space cards, meaning you have slightly more than a ⅓ chance of screwing yourself in the process. Meanwhile, there are ten cards that provide two resources, six cards that give one resource, and three cards that simply give you a point.

And yes, it can be argued that this is made up for in exploration badges, with the negative effects and lesser positive effects giving you more, but here’s the thing; those aren’t guaranteed points, far from it. You have no idea how many badges of each type players have until the game has finished, meaning there’s no planning involved, no strategy, just dumb luck.

It’s also worth noting that, in the games I have played, players have always taken the top card of the deck rather than fishing for more. And why not? Why would you risk drawing into a bad card if you haven’t already when the odds are against you in most situations?

The unexplored space mechanic adds a press-your-luck element that doesn’t work in such a deductive and strategic game, simply cluttered the tablespace with a ton of extra components.

And when it all comes down to it, players who get hung up on these two new actions will lose. In the first game I played of this, one of the players simply played as he always did, and smoked everyone else by a landslide, even after the badges. While most of us had six or ten points due to our exploration expeditions or recruitment phases, this individual fully upgraded their galaxy and sat on a handful of planets, boosting him to 21 points easily with no competition to fight when colonizing.

A lot of you may be wondering how solo is then, that maybe with less components to manage, less cards cluttering the table, and a more focused game, that all this might come together into a great experience. And while the pilots do get a little more traction, this is only because the AI will likely meander. The expansion comes with five new AI opponents (on the backs of the spaceport boards) which include the new mechanics, and the rules in the bottom of the box briefly explain how they obtain pilots.

What really kills this as an option, though, is how now every time the AI upgrades itself, it gets a random exploration card for itself, basically getting a free action. Through this, the AI can quickly accumulate enough exploration badges to get a free eight points at the end of every game, and while some may find this addition to make the game more challenging, I find it annoying and obnoxious. Not that it gives the AI that much of an advantage; I can still beat Medium without much effort, but many of the opponents have abilities that earn them extra Pilots and Exploration cards for free, quickly stacking points against you in a way that feels, to me at least, less interesting or exciting.

Even the new secret goal cards and planet cards feel tacked on and frustrating to use. Some of the secret goal cards are especially difficult to achieve, such as Invincible, which awards you if you have the most red exploration cards at the end of the game. While possible, you’ll lose so many resources in the process you’ll screw yourself out of the win, while also supplying your opponents with great face-up exploration cards if you choose to sift through your options. Meanwhile, the Dwarf and Giant goals requires a player to have no or all of their planets, respectively, to be worth 5 points, by and large limiting what you can and can’t do, especially when the luck of the draw can make these options not terribly viable.

And the new planets are here to add the new mechanics into planetary effects, but half of them provide either resource, depending on what you’re collecting, making them feel a little too generous, regardless of their planetary abilities. Additionally, you’ll be hard-pressed to have more than one or two of them show up in your game, with there being so many planets in the base game already.

Lastly, the score track, while a nice thought, becomes a hassle quickly. Yes, you can track every single point a player gets in real time, but generally you can determine how many points a player has just by looking for their cards, meaning it becomes more obnoxious than helpful.

Simply put, Beyond the Black adds nothing of value to the Tiny Epic Galaxies experience. The ideas are mostly sound and interesting, but it all comes down to the new mechanics not being competitive enough. It’s a shame, really, as I had some incredibly high hopes for this game, even going so far as trying to play with just the pilots, removing the unexplored space and badges. But even if that was a viable way to play, it wouldn’t be worth the $25 price tag.

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