Reviewed by Herb Levy
TYRANTS OF THE UNDERDARK (Gale Force Nine, 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 60-75 minutes; $75)
The world of Dungeons & Dragons gets new visitors as players immerse themselves into the world of the Underdark. While competing for control, players, as leaders of different “drow” (dark elf) houses, struggle against each other through use of power and influence amply demonstrating that they are Tyrants of the Underdark.
Tyrants of the Underdark, by the design team of Peter Lee, Rodney Thompson and Andrew Veen, comes in a large box to hold all the first rate components. The large board is an overview of the Underdark with sites (in black and white) to occupy, places for troops (the white, neutral, troop markers begin on the board and are placed in all spaces marked with an X) and routes that link it all (a veritable road map of the region).
Four drow houses are represented in the game (Drow, Dragons, Elemental and Demons), each with their own deck of 40 cards. Two of these decks are combined in a game to make the “Market” deck and placed on the separate Market game board which will display six cards available for purchase as well as having reserved spots for the separate decks of Priestess of Lolth and House Guards. All players choose a set of shields (red, orange, blue or black) with a matching play mat and Inner Circle board and begin with a starter hand of 7 Noble and 3 Soldier cards. These 10 cards are shuffled and a hand of five cards is drawn. Now, beginning with the first player (randomly chosen), each player places one of his shields in a “starting site” (any site in the black boxes) that has not been claimed by another player.
Two resources power the play of the game: Power and Influence. Cards played from your hand will give you some of these resources and/or the ability to do some specific actions. If you have enough, you can do a bunch of actions, generally determined by a player’s “presence”
Basically, presence means that a player must already have a unit either at a particular location or adjacent to it in order to do an action. For example, spending 1 Power will allow you to deploy a troop onto the board adjacent to one you already have there. Spend 3 Power and you can assassinate an enemy troop in an area where you have a presence. You might prefer to use 3 Power to remove an enemy spy from the board instead. (More on spies later.) Influence can swell the ranks of your forces. Influence allows you to “recruit” (purchase) cards. Spend Influence in the amount equal to (or greater than) the value on the top right card corner from the marketplace to add – and strengthen – your deck. In typical deck-building fashion, these cards go straight into your discard pile. When your draw deck is fully depleted, your discard pile gets shuffled and becomes your new draw deck. Most of the cards in the Market will be a sharp improvement over your basic deck granting you more Power or Influence when played or allowing you to take special actions. If you don’t have enough Influence to get the cards you want, you can always pick up the less expensive Priestess of Lolth or House Guards which will provide additional Influence or Power when they are recycled.
Dominance is important here as well and comes in two varieties: Control (which means you have more units in a site than any other player) and Total Control (achieved when ALL troop spaces are occupied by YOUR forces only). Several locations on the board (the larger ones) come with “Site Control Markers”. The player with Control at these specific sites gets immediate possession of its Marker and the reward that comes with it. Should you have TOTAL control, that marker flips to its other side with a greater reward for the player. (However, unlike some other games, ties are NOT friendly. If the situation changes and another player has an equal amount of presence at a site, that marker gets returned to the board.) Control can be difficult and Total Control even more so because of spies.
Some cards allow you to place a spy and you may do so (at the cost of 3 Power) at ANY site on the board. (Presence is NOT required!) This prevents a player from gaining Total Control of an area (and stops him or her from reaping those valuable bonuses) until that spy is removed. Assassinated troops are removed from the board and placed into players’ “Trophy Halls”. Spies, however, get returned to the player who placed them. Another concept not often seen is the idea of “Promotion”.
All cards have two Victory Point values: one just for being part of a player’s deck and a second, higher, value should the card be “promoted”. Some cards allow you to “promote” a played card that round which means removing it from your deck and “elevating it” by placing it on your Inner Circle board. This card will no longer be recycled into your deck to reappear; this card is out of play. However, when the game ends, that card is worth the significantly higher second value when scoring.
Play continues until one player has deployed all of his troops OR the 80 card Market deck runs out. In each case, the round is completed. Then we score,
Players earn Victory Points for every site they Control (with a bonus of 2 VPs for each site under their Total Control) plus 1 VP for each troop in their Trophy Hall. To Victory Points earned during the game via site control Markers and/or card play, the Victory Point values of cards in their decks and those promoted onto their Inner Circle boards are added. The players with the highest total wins. Tied? Then all tied players share victory!
Tyrants of the Underdark combines two familiar game mechanisms (area control and deck-building) into one satisfying brew played against a Dungeons & Dragons background. The presence of those white non-aligned units gives players something else to attack (rather than each other) which helps give players time to build up their forces before going head to head with the other players. (That these white units do nothing but “get in the way” prevents the game from accelerating too quickly.) For those unfamiliar with the Underdark realm, fear not. No knowledge of the realm is required or necessary (but if you are curious, a large addendum is found at the back of the rulebook.) In fact, the designers could have easily set the game in a completely unrelated fantasy world without the game suffering one bit. (Although, it must be said, designers Lee and Thompson did well with their previous D&D design: Lords of Waterdeep.)
With only two of the four decks being used in any game, there are plenty of possible configurations to keep the game play interesting. Those who enjoy creating card game “engines” will find this game serves them well. And the use of “promotion” is a nice change. The usual decision is to “trash” bad cards to remove them the deck but here, it’s the GOOD cards that get removed, albeit for a significant infusion of Victory Points. Deciding when to “promote” and when to keep cards in play can be the difference between victory and defeat,
Underdark is certainly the theme here with the emphasis on dark. The use of color is almost oppressively dark with black, purple and deep blue being the dominant color palette. While the art is quite good and certainly does convey an “otherworldly” impression, color could have been better used on a more practical level. Unless you have extremely good lighting, the black and dark blue armies are almost indistinguishable from each other, a real concern in a game where area control is a key component. (The red and orange armies are better but not that much better!) It might have been a good idea to have completely different shapes for each set of pieces to avoid this altogether. Another missed opportunity is in the card designs. Let’s talk ease of play. Each game, you are blending two decks of cards. When the game is over and you begin to separate the decks, a different colored border for each family of cards (in addition to the small icons found on them) would have made the task that much easier.
Tyrants of the Underdark follows the path blazed by Lords of Waterdeep: a combination of tried and true game mechanisms into a new package. Area control and deckbuilding work well together and the game scales well (although two or four would be the numbers of choice to prevent one player from being ganged up on by the other two). Tyrants of the Underdark is certainly a solid and professional level design, definitely a worthy choice for players seeking to explore their “dark side”. – – – – – – – Herb Levy
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