Words by David C. Obenour
Tiny Epic Zombies is a one versus all game for a group of survivors working toward varying objectives as a ghoulish zombie lord shambles into their way at every corner. Tiny Epic Zombies is a cooperative game for a group of survivors trying to outwit a mindless horde. Tiny Epic Zombies is a competitive game for a group of survivors each hoping to become the new leader as the zombie lord picks apart at their alliances.
Put simply, Tiny Epic Zombies lives up to its name by being a tiny but epic amount of undead gaming fit neatly into a 7″ x 4.5″ box. Part of a series of games by Gamelyn Games from designer Scott Almes, Tiny Epic Zombies was just released last year but already there has been another in the series with Tiny Epic Mechs, and one more this January with Tiny Epic Tactics, and finally one more scheduled after that with the successfully funded Tiny Epic Dinosaurs.
Off Shelf: Definitely a popular theme, what appealed to you about creating a Zombie board game?
Scott Almes: I’ve always been a big fan of the zombie genre, so I think it was just a matter of time before I made a Tiny Epic zombie game! I love a lot of the movies: from the big ones like Dawn of the Dead, to the hilarious Shaun of the Dead, to even some weird indie ones like Fido. And, I’ve really enjoyed zombie video games like Left4Dead or Dead Rising. In addition to being a fan, I liked the challenge of creating a new zombie game. It is already a crowded field with each designer adding their own twist on the zombie genre. I was eager to add my voice to the genre, too, in the Tiny Epic way – creating an epic zombie game experience in a tiny box.
OS: Can you tell us your personal history with Zombies? Were you a fan of the movies growing up? Did any in particulate resonate with you?
SA: I grew up in Pittsburgh, which is zombie city USA. It’s where George Romero – the godfather of zombie films – when to school and filmed many of his classic movies. The mall where the first Dawn of the Dead movie was filmed was less than 15 minutes from my childhood home. Since the zombie movies – and genre as a whole – had such strong Pittsburgh roots, it was hard not to be a fan early on.
OS: Are there any direct points of inspiration from Zombie popular culture you can point to that found their way into Tiny Epic Zombies?
SA: If I would pick one zombie pop culture element it would be Dawn of the Dead. To me: a bunch of random strangers trapped in a mall having to fight off the undead is the classic recipe for a zombie story. When I went about figuring out what story I wanted Tiny Epic Zombies to tell, I knew it had to be set in the mall. I am fairly certain that was my very first design decision.
OS: Can you talk a little about the mandatory move rule? I thought it was a fun bit of thematic play added to the game.
SA: The mandatory move rule was added to create a good tension throughout the game. I didn’t want players to think “Oh, if I just hang out in this corner I can wait until we have what we need to complete this scenario…” I didn’t want anybody to wait for anything. Not in a zombie game. I wanted the tension to be felt from the very beginning. The fact that the players must move constantly adds that tension, and it keeps the game moving at a brisk pace. It is amazing how such a simple rule – changing a may to a must early in the development process – can have such an impact. It had great thematic and gameplay results.
OS: What do you feel most proud of for what you were able to introduce to the genre with Tiny Epic Zombies?
SA: I am very proud about the modular and varied scenario system. This allows us to keep the rules very easy to get into. I got to keep the turn structure very simple. But, the game is all about those variable scenarios. Each game feels different dependent on your win condition, and I think that’s something pretty fun for a box of any size.
OS: Competitive, Cooperative, 1 vs all competitive and cooperative, and solo, Tiny Epic Zombies has a wide array of ways you can play. Did you always plan on designing a game with so many modes of play? How did that begin to take form?
SA: Originally, the game was designed as a 1 vs all cooperative game. But, as development continued I just kept asking – how could we make this game 10% more epic? It sounds cheesy, but that’s my process goes with Tiny Epic games. We want to pack so much value in this box that our fans would be crazy to pass it up. That’s always the goal! So, for Tiny Epic Zombies, I kept asking what could we do to make this more epic? In this, I took some inspiration from video games which can offer so many different play modes. I set that challenge to create some new play modes and just ran with it!
OS: I find cooperative games with an AI opponents to be rather hit or miss, as it can be tempting as players to rules lawyer your way into an easier or more forgiving game. What were some of your considerations as you created play against an AI opponent?
SA: I agree there are a lot of times in a cooperative game, or a solo game, where the players can feel tempted to twist the rules in their favor. Or even ‘take back a few turns’ to make it easier on themselves. These are two different problems.
For the players that want to ‘rules lawyer’ themselves into a better game state, it’s the designer’s job to make sure that the rules are clear enough that the player is never in that position. A player wants to win, and you want them to be competing seriously, so if the designer puts them in a situation where a rule can be interpreted a few different ways – that’s the designers’ failure. A player should be doing everything in their power to win, and a ‘rules lawyer’ situation isn’t a good one to have in the game. It’s also not fun!
There are also players who feel the need to ‘take back’ a few turns if things don’t go their way. If a player does this – or is very tempted to – it can be because the game was being unfair to them in some way. The event that hindered them may have felt too random, and they could not have planned around it. Even though an AI will be random to some degree, the player must feel like it can be planned around, or predicted in some way.
OS: It’s really impressive how much you and Gamelyn can fit within a Tiny Epic game box. Is it harder to design with these limitations in mind? What do you see as the benefits to a small box game?
SA: I like the constraint of a small box because it challenges us to question what components are actually needed to deliver a fun game experience. For example, if I have a mechanic that requires 80 cards I would ask how could I deliver the same feeling and reward with only 20 cards. That challenge is very fun for me. It’s taking everything down to first principles. So there is a lot of fun challenges from the designer point of view.
From the side of people who buy our games, I hope they see the benefit right away: they are getting a huge amount of gameplay at a great pricepoint. And working each time to satisfy that requirement is very rewarding.
OS: Released just last year, there has already another Tiny Epic game released with Tiny Epic Mechs, and one more coming in January with Tiny Epic Tactics and one more after that with the successfully funded Tiny Epic Dinosaurs. What about the series keeps you excited?
SA: Early on, we decided that each box would be unique. That was a core design principle from the beginning. What I have loved about each game is that it’s somebody’s favorite in the series. Each game has its own fanbase declaring it’s the best in the series. And, that makes me think we’re doing something right. I want the Tiny Epic games to be varied and offer many different experiences. That’s what keeps me exciting – figuring out what new experience we want to offer next!
OS: Do you see any through-lines in the Tiny Epic series or do you think of games in the series?
SA: We have a rough timeline for when all the Tiny Epic games take place in this big shared world, but each game certainly stands on it’s own. You may see some hints in some games to some of the others in the series, so be sure to look out for some easter eggs!
OS: Can you talk at all about what’s next for the series?
SA: Not yet! I can say we are always working on the next 2-3 in the series and have a long backlog of Tiny Epic games we are excited to make. At the moment, the next one planned in a genre I have been excited about visiting for a long, long time, but it has taken a long time to get the gameplay just right!