Reviewed by Andrea “Liga” Ligabue
UNDERWATER CITIES (Rio Grande Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 90-120 minutes; $69.95)
The earth is overpopulated. The colonization of Mars is four decades away. Only one avenue is open for human expansion: the world under the sea. Beginning as a single city, you will expand your network, connecting it with the coastal metropolises, trying to build a nation that is self-sustaining. This is your task. This is your destiny. The world’s hopes lie in your Underwater Cities.
Vladimir Suchy is once again designing a game related to cities, population expansion and ecology. This time we are under the sea in a not so far future where resources are lacking. The game develops along three eras where players are involved in building a net of connected cities with surrounding structures offering food, research and money.
There are five different resources in the game: kelp, stealplast, credits, science and biomater. Credits are used for almost everything. Kelp is food used to build new cities and feed the population, stealplast is used in construction of cities and underwater tunnels, research is used to upgrade tunnels and structures and biomater is a special resource used to build symbiotic cities or as a substitute for kelp or stealplast.
Players take turns choosing actions; after 3 turns the round ends and a new round begins. The first era lasts for 4 rounds, the second and third eras just for three. After the final round of an era, there is a production phase. After the production phase of the third era, there is the final score and the game ends. The wise use of cards and resources is the main path to the final victory. During the game there are scoring possibilities in the end of each era and a final scoring phase so it is important to build your scoring engine.
Each player has a personal board displaying slots for cities and structures and starts the game with a single city in the bottom-right corner. City sites need to be connected by tunnels and, around each city, there are spaces for 3 structures plus a special building site available (thanks to a special card). Each player also puts on his personal board a brown and two blue metropolis tiles in the designated slots. If connected, these will offer players instant awards or bonus victory points at the end of the game.
The core of the game is, of course, what happens in a turn. You always start your turn with 3 cards, choose a free action slot and put one of your action tiles on it, play a card, resolve the effects of the card and the action slot and than draw a new card. Action tiles are removed from the board at the end of each round.
In a 3-4 player game, there are 15 colored action slots and a free one. Action slots, like action cards, can be green, orange or red. Every action slot can host only one action tile so every slot can be used only once each round. If the color of the card you played matches the color of the slot you chose, you also get to perform the card’s effect. If the color does not match, you just take the action and discard the card with no effect. This simple rule is the real outstanding idea of this game: sometimes you have to choose a not so optimal action slot to be able to play a good card; sometimes you really need an action but you don’t have the card. Which action, which card, which combo to use is a tough choice and something I really love.
Sometimes it is good to wait for the right card before choosing an action but other players can steal it from you. For this reason, it’s not only what to do but when to do it that is important. To build cities and structures, you need to gather resources. In the production phase, your structure will give you resources you can use in the next era.
By using action slots, you can gather resources, build cities, build structures, build tunnels, buy special cards (more later) and activate action cards (more later). Cards offer many opportunities. There are instant cards, production cards activated in each production phase, action cards, special cards, permanent effect cards and scoring cards activated just at the end of the game.
Action cards can be activated once every era by choosing an action slot with the A. You can have no more than 4 action cards so building your action card engine is a critical component of your winning strategy. Special cards can be acquired choosing the S action slot. In every game, there are 6 random special cards with scoring opportunities that cost 3 credits and a deck of common special cards, costing 1 or 2 credits.
Structures are also important. During the production phase, structures around a connected city (a city you can reach from your starting city using tunnels) will produce. Structures can be base or advanced. Every advanced structure will offer a production bonus and if you have 2 or more advanced structures of the same kind in a city, an extra production bonus. So it could be wise to have 2 of the 3 structure slots around a city occupied with the same structure. Conversely, at game’s end, you will score points according to how many different structures are around every one of your cities and more is best.
Turn order is important and there are action slots and cards offering you “federation points” used to move your pawn on the federation track. The order in this track determines the order in the next round.
Which action to choose, which card to play, going for instant cards or building an engine of action cards, going for many simple structures or trying to upgrade, building different structures or racing for the bonus related to 2 or more of the same kind, Underwater Cities is full of tactical and strategic opportunities and decisions. Every game is different because strategy is related to the cards you are playing, special cards revealed and many other factors. In the advanced rules, you will also have 3 special “government contract cards” offering victory points to the first player getting the displayed condition.
Underwater Cities is an almost perfect mix of mechanisms with a card driven engine that closely resembles Terraforming Mars (featured in the Summer 2017 Gamers Alliance Report). I think it is a wonderfully balanced game where you have to develop your strategy but where other players can ruin your plans choosing action slots you are looking for. These qualities make Underwater Cities one of the greatest releases of the year. – – – – Andrea “Liga” Ligabue
Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.
Other Summer 2019 GA Report articles