I like to beat around the bush as much as Moses, but let’s not delay the pain: some games are simply not worthy. This is fine. I assure you, we’re all going to be okay.
Terror Below can hide underground all it wants, but its lumpy exterior and malodorous excretions are clear as the Nevada sky.
Sure, Tremors the board game sounds nifty. I latched onto the bait as well. But this is pick-up and deliver done wrong. There’s a facade of spice – you’re given asymmetric abilities, kitted out with some explosives, and the W.O.R.M.s (an acronym baked in the same oven as T.I.M.E Stories) tunnel about the map and beg for carnage. But it’s all just that, a facade. You step into the fun-house and are greeted with Ben Stein reading Shakespeare in a most grievous attack on your energy reserves.
One of the main issues is down-time. You will sit around, possibly spraining your thumbs from over-twiddling, and finally will get a turn. Then you move a few spaces and pick up some garbage – er, rubble – and maybe grab an egg. Hey, the bits are cool and that plastic egg looks totally rad.
Some turns will be worse and there will be almost nothing available on the board. Regardless, your actions are not particularly satisfying and do not impart any sense of adventure. You don’t feel like Kevin Bacon running around in tight jeans and driving a pickup.
The most promising element are those deadly W.O.R.M.s. There is a neat mechanism in that the tempo of attacks is player driven. When you discard to gain action points each round, you place your card underneath a terror slot at the bottom of the board. Each of the killer entities has a trigger which causes them to launch their assault as soon as a certain number of cards are played to their row.
This is engaging because it feels like you have a bit of control. Many action cards even move the worm target spaces around the board so you can angle them away from your area or push them towards an opponent. The problem is that other players will adjust their position as well and you’re never quite sure when they will ultimately trigger.
Fighting is slightly exciting, although only if you’ve amassed a few weapon cards from delivering eggs to the police station or turning in rubble tokens. But even then it’s mostly just discard a card and deal a die roll of damage to the beast. If you kill a W.O.R.M. (sorry, contractually obligated to use the acronym) you get a point and maybe more if a bounty card is available in the offer that correlates.
The weapons themselves are mostly mundane. Since they’re typically one-shot devices, the game is devoid of any sense of technical progression. You don’t upgrade your vehicle or characters, you don’t kit out a weapons system or establish a nice suite of armaments, and the work you do put into preparing for conflict is spent in a hurry.
Because weapons are flimsy, combat is quick, and the consequences of death somewhat avoidable, there’s no real narrative meat to anything going on. You’re not going to sit back and regale upon a previous session where you shot up a W.O.R.M. before delivering the 4th purple egg to the motel and earned three victory points. There’s no interesting description to the action and your possible maneuvers are finite. There are a few entertaining emergent moments such as gunning down a massive terror with the potato gun, but they’re spread thin across multiple plays and blend into the overall malaise.
One of the issues with the conflict loop is that creature attacks place more resources on the map. This is how eggs and rubble get strewn about for players to grab. Since the beasts attack after your turn triggering such an event can often seed material on the board just as you finish acting. Often, this means you’re granting opportunity for your opponents as opposed to yourself.
What this means is that players will typically avoid triggering a worm attack as long as possible, incentivized by the mechanisms to feed the doldrums of an empty board. As a result, conflict and spawning comes in waves with little pinatas bursting across the map and quickly gobbled up. Then more thumb twiddling.
Of further aggravation is the game’s level of randomness. It’s not overly offensive due to the hour long time commitment and silly nature of play, but it occasionally works to emphasize the softer parts of the design. Getting shut out of the interesting elements – which are not altogether plentiful – is frustrating not from a competitive level but on a more fundamental playful one.
“Oh you stole my egg because you lucked into a card? Neat-o…”
I can’t personally envision ever choosing this over the bevy of quality pick-up and deliver designs. Western Legends is more interactive and thrilling. Merchant of Venus is more refined and joyful. Xia is richer and harnesses chaos productively. Wasteland Express is a higher velocity and more satisfying.
Terror Below’s biggest sin is boredom. It’s a cumberworld. The only crowd I can see really getting juiced up are those who attend the annual Tremors convention, or maybe someone who really values lovely bits and oddly shaped boards.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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