Tiny Tokens Empire takes two genres, Match-3 and Turn Based Strategy, that have absolutely nothing to do with one another, and merges them in a package that actually makes sense. It's a real shame that this inspired melding of concepts is hampered by some truly sub par controls, and a depth on the civilization side that is hinted at, but never explored or realized.
Inspired by history (or at least that what the background story would have us believe), TTE takes place around 200 BC, when the 5 great empires of the Mediterranean Basin see-sawed between all out war and incredible periods of chaos. The leaders of Carthage, Egypt, Greece, Persia, and Rome got together in the neutral city of Syracuse, a province of Sicily, and apparently sat down to settle their difference with a board game that used tiny tokens.
Threadbare story aside, gameplay boils down to a simplified version of 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate). You always start with a capital city and a basic army, normally composed of a scout, a standard soldier unit and a hero/general type. From there, you explore the countryside, taking on barbarians, fighting mythical beasts, and eventually conquering your opponent civilizations. All of this takes place over a 2d map of the Mediterranean. It's cute, with soft colors and some great drawings of the different mythical beasts scattered about. Armies move about as either a representation of your hero/general, or a flag displaying the empire they are affiliated with.
Cities are displayed on the map as well, with their token representation growing as you upgrade from tiny town to bustling capital. Building additional cities is as simple as conquering a territory, waiting a turn, and building a small town, which in turn gets upgraded to better, bigger cities with more building and troop options. Money is collected at the beginning of your turn, with each city you own adding to your total.
The campaigns try to liven things up by assigning you different tasks, like creating 3 cities and holding them for 20 turns, or finding specific treasures and returning them to a province. Each civilization has a set of four campaigns, highlighting certain historical rivalries between both empires and their generals. The presentation is cute, with little story vignettes playing out across text dialog boxes, and often times little side quests are added in to allow for shifts in field of play, very often forcing you into conflict when you had no reason to engage in it previously.
Conflict is resolved through Match 3 game mechanics. Each unit of your army, depending on what kind of unit they are, is assigned a different token. Matching tokens on the board fills a meter on the corresponding unit. Multiple matches means more meter is filled, and matches later in combos finds multiplied on for even faster fills. When a units meter is filled, instead of using your turn to match tiles, you can take an attack action, and those units attack your opponents. Each unit also has a set number of health points; when those are depleted, that unit is dead and no longer able to participate.
It's in these back and forth matches where TTE really finds its footing. Depending on the variation in tokens that your army accommodates, there may be times when you find yourself performing matches that don't necessarily help your army, but instead prevent your opponent from being able to fill up their own meters. This strategy really comes to the forefront when fighting mythical beasts. These creatures, like the Cerberus or Griffon, have a variety of attacks at their disposal, and unlike standard units, whom can be killed off, none of these attacks go away until the beast itself is killed.
Once you and your opponent have access to some of the higher level units (like catapults and lesser versions of the great beasts), unit selection becomes extremely important. Stacking to many of the same token units together can lead to quick victories, but if the board turns on you, you may be left with long stretches of inaction, forcing you into the game of keep away I described above, where you are playing only to keep your foe from making any moves themselves.
Where this whole thing falls apart is in the controls. Developer BIP Media originally released this game on mobile devices, where, even though I haven't played them, I imagine touch controls allow for quick and precise moves, especially when it comes to the Match 3 games. In mapping the controls to the Dual Shock 3, the developer completely ignores the directional pad, opting instead to put all movement, both on the map and in the match 3 games, on the analog sticks.
Where most control schemes can be adjusted to within a manner of hours through dogged repetition, the analog movement is a constant pain. Analog sticks are designed for all manner of wide ranging movements, but when it comes to precision and short, quick movements requiring multiple presses, like the movements required of a match 3 game, they are the perfect combination of imprecise and sluggish. This is especially apparent when having to flick the stick multiple times to move around the game board, and often resulted in multiple inputs being recognized when I had only moved a single space. Allowing the same movements on the d-pad would have been a far superior experience, resulting in actual joy rather then a constant stream of mumbled curses.
Moving past the controls, repeated plays reveal that there is no real difference between the 5 civilizations. Yes they all look different, but aside from the cosmetic aspects, and some small bonuses assigned to the hero units, you are essentially playing the same team over and over again. Even where most 4X games have similarities between their races, like basic unit composition (everyone has a scout, a fighter type, and a healing/repair unit mostly), there are enough differences, either in racial bonuses or other effects, to make every race feel unique. Outside of the campaign, where the empires are given personalities through the vignettes, there is no solid, unique aspect to any of the available choices.
TTE offers a limited local and online multiplayer, allowing you to choose a 5 unit team and battle another person in a Match 3 game. Local is the best bet here, as there was a pretty much infinite wait for online opponents when I tried to test it out.
Overall, the idea behind Tiny Token Empires is a good one. For those looking for a different way to exercise their Match 3 muscles, or even explore the world of 4X gameplay in a real simple, easy to understand manner, there are worse ways to do it. Given the aggravating controls though, I would simply try to find another way to play it. It's not game breaking by any stretch, but it is certainly enough to make the time spent with these tiny empires more enjoyable to forget.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!