I just finished reading my original review of Tyrants of the Underdark. I don’t normally go back and read my old work as sometimes it can be difficult. But this time it was a necessity In order to re-examine my feelings on this game and how they’ve changed over the past five years. It’s been awhile.
This title is receiving a re-release, resurrected from the ashes of the Forgotten Realms for a new age. Hence the purpose of this inquiry.
I had a lot of expectations for this game when it first landed. Gale Force Nine was in their prime having just released the underrated Homeland: The Game and riding off the previous success of Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem and Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
This lead to a somewhat mellow impression. I expected a bit more jive and expression. Tyrants of the Underdark, unlike those previous seminal works, is not concerned with attitude.
But this wasn’t really a GF9 game and it wasn’t crafted by their in-house developers. It was a Wizards of the Coast title similar in production and format to the trio of designer’s prior accomplishment, Lords of Waterdeep. These two companies just happened to partner for production and I just happened to not be wowed.
While I wasn’t overly impressed, it is a very pleasing affair. It’s a smooth exercise, flowing effortlessly turn to turn with the deckbuilding feeding into incremental gains in the area-control board play. It seems like non-traditional deckbuilding is a current design trend, but Tyrants felt far more interesting conceptually back in 2016 in comparison to the recent fad.
The teach is simple and the complexities arrive in just crumb-sized portions late in the game when you’re able to afford the most expensive of cards. Really, almost all of the interesting stuff happens with cards.
One of the most intriguing is the promotion strategy, effectively trashing cards out of your deck for points. After a few plays I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was inherently stronger than the more conspicuous tactical maneuvering taking place in plain sight. If true, this is a problem because if multiple people are adopting such a strategy you may find yourself unable to nab the needed cards. That’s the real hindrance of the Ascension-style deckbuilding market where you purchase from a public row.
I’ve played several games since those early days, including sessions with the two expansion half-decks. I still personally gravitate towards snatching up those promote cards but this strategy can be curbed by aggressively smothering such a player’s board presence. It can be difficult to bounce back and contend with decks that are more agile in troop manipulation when you’ve dedicated your build to off-board administration. This simply relies on experienced play where participants are able to gauge how well each other are doing and suss out those embracing deceptive tactics.
But promotion isn’t some wild effect that tickles the brain. It’s just “Chapel” from Dominion, but for points. Sure, it’s subtle and interesting but it doesn’t send an electrical charge through my bones. That’s really this design on the whole.
Take the simple card structure. Most cards let you accumulate points to either place your own troops, remove opponent’s, or buy new cards. Another sub-set lets you place or remove spies – neat little bag snatchers that allow you to deploy outside your normal restrictions. Combine these abilities with promote and that’s basically the entirety of the game’s scope.
Yet there are additional powers laced thinly into the cardboard. Some cards allow for bonuses if you play another of the same suit. It can be difficult to plan for this given the chaotic market, but when the stars align it feels nice and warm to get a meaningful bonus. There are also cards that interact solely with white neutral Drow that start upon the board. These are very useful early in the arc of play but diminish near the tail-end.
Another solid yet not quite explosive element is how the deck is built each game. You take two 40 card half-decks and combine them together to form the market. This allows for some content variety each session, but it also forces you to adapt in subtle ways to the shifting pool of cards. The type and scope of abilities are roughly equal, although there is definite personality found in each of the sets. There’s enough vibrancy here to care and become invested, but your jaw is never going to drop and your pants won’t be set aflame.
Continuing the theme of understated yet alluring is the board play. Killing an enemy troop and placing one of yours is meaningful, but it doesn’t feel extraordinary or impressive. You’re not piling up plastic in Yggdrasil and beating your chest as wind and spittle weave through your beard.
But this is a significant source of end game scoring and a legitimate strategic vector. Even more important are the site control markers, large tokens which reward bonus resources and victory points if you grab a hold of the significant underdark cities spread throughout the cavernous world. Control of these strongholds will often vacillate between players resulting in a war of attrition that feels petty and inconsequential.
This tit-for-tat trading of troops is the least interesting quality of play, providing a striking example of the game’s lack of dynamism. It reminds me somewhat of the Quartermaster General games, a card driven war game series that is full of this limp form of attritional conflict.
Thankfully, this back-and-forth swapping of territory is often alleviated by the arc of play and your developing deck. As more options are availed your turns become more significant and the board opens up.
As you can surmise, I still don’t adore Tyrants of the Underdark, but I have settled into a very cordial appreciation for its existence. Its suave combination of deckbuilding and area control was unique when it originally released. It functions in the same space of extreme competence that recent hit Dune Imperium occupies. It’s the kind of game that’s difficult to deny when someone else desires to play, even if it won’t leave me restless in bed when the night begins to turn.
The reason for my lack of adoration is primarily centered around the lack of explosiveness. There is a definite arc to play where you’re able to acquire better cards and execute more potent turns. But even the most expensive options in the market simply provide linear benefits to pre-existing effects. So you end up being able to deploy more troops, promote more cards, or slaughter more foes. There’s a little bit of creativity and you could argue I’m underselling the potency of these effects, but overall it’s not a game full of drama. It never goes off the rails, which I suppose is also part of the appeal for some, but a steep hurdle for me.
But enough reverie, what of this new edition?
As a product, I have almost entirely positive commentary.
The box size is drastically reduced. The original was an awkward sort of oblong container.
Yet inside this smaller new edition is additional content. The two expansion half-decks are now standard issue, having the side benefit of correcting the previous card-back mismatch.
The loss is squarely in the tiny miniature shields and spies. Those have been swapped out for colorful yet two-dimensional tokens. The tokens are functional enough on the board, although I do worry that their diminutive size will result in one or more being lost over time. The positive here is a substantially cheaper price than the original release. I don’t find this a terrible proposition all things considered.
But it is humorous to muse on the production.
Imagine this game being a brand new title from an upstart company. Of course it’s on Kickstarter. The board is now double-sided. There are six more decks. Each player has a unique faction power. There are six modules, two exclusive to backers, that add various miniatures and side-boards. It’s an incredible amount of content you can snag for a $115 early bird pledge.
No, Tyrants of the Underdark is not this. It’s elegant. The restraint shown by the design team is impressive. It’s cut down, both physically and mechanically, to a very refined and lean experience that lands right where it’s aiming. With a more mature perspective, it’s refreshing.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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Well written review! I will put your blog on my radar moving forward 🙂
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Thank you, appreciate it!
Is there anything different in the new version? Are all the cards the same? Is there any point in getting the new version if you already have the old version with expansions?
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Just the stuff I mention near the end – no minis, cardbacks now match, box is smaller. Also, they swapped the top row and bottom row on the market board which is a small but nice improvement so the market cards aren’t blocked from view. Oh and also they ditched the cardboard vaults for promotion cards, you just set them aside now.
All cards and content are the same.
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If I picked up the new version, would my plastic pieces from the original fit in the smaller box (if I threw the chipboard tokens away)? Potentially the best of both worlds
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I believe so, not 100% positive but it looks the same size as if the board did not change.
Years ago I bought the original second hand. We played it a few times, and while the game was pretty fun, it wasnt that special.
The problem for me is that the deck building is limited. The market is small and revolves. Promotion strategies are highly dependent on getting multiple promotion cards. Unlike the chapel, you cant just trash your hand two times and end up with a slim deck. You could expedite the process by not buying more cards, but every card is worth points. Other decks suffer similar problems, if you want a ton of spy cards, you might be out of luck if the market has none. If you want to use the malice/conquest/etc bonuses the elemental deck gives you, you might be out of luck. It doesnt help that the base cards remain in your deck, those 10 cards gum up any engine you might attempt. The cohesion between the half-decks isn’t there either. The cards have races like “drow, undead, ghost” but except for one card, that is never used.
But recently Ive been playing with someone new to boardgaming, and he adores the game. Similarly to lords of waterdeep, the game is fairly simple. Turns are dictated by your cards. If you have soldiers, you deploy, if you have money, you buy, no need to think about saving money for a big card or buying multiple small cards, your options are clearly spelled out. This makes the game quick and snappy. The game board meanwhile leaves plenty of player interaction. The cost of killing a unit is high compared to deploying more troops, this limits the amount of killing that happens. But you can still have turns where you wipe someone out. The curse cards arent too painful either, as you can burn them by just discarding a card.
In another world the game might be reworked in the second edition, have the decks interact more, have more control over the market, allow players to exchange nobles and soldiers for priestesses and houseguards. But sadly they just rereleased the game.
Those are good points. I’ve always pushed hard to get promoted/trash cards to manipulate and winnow my deck because of this. It can be a crapshoot.
This is definitely not one of my favorite games, but I do still have a lot of respect for what it accomplishes.
The problem is that for a promote strategy you need to get 2 promote cards in the first cycle if you want to buy every round (which you want since otherwise you waste money and points). If you decide to buy a promotion card when you already have 20 cards it would take 40 turns (and a bit of luck) to get rid of all the starter cards. Thats the problem with the market system, it can make deckbuilding very unreliable. If the market would always display a malice, conquest, guile, ambition and whatever card it would a bit different. Or if there were more base cards you could build a decent basic deck if the market doesnt help you. Maybe allow for easier trashing of obedience cards so you can remove them when you replace them with market equivalents.
I think its a very good basis for a game, but between the desire for an easy game that can lure in dnd players, and a designer that doesnt seem interested in tightening the game up.