The following is a guest series by Mark Hengst.
We all have our personal favorite games. These are the games that keep making it to our tables, regardless of the latest board game hotness. For some of us, there’s a drive to keep bringing our favorites back in spite of all the temptations from the “Cult of the New”. These older favorites are what the Favorite Game Friday series is all about.
Don’t get me wrong, my personal collection is full of new games from Kickstarter. It often takes an effort for me to break out of the cycle of always playing new games. Still I have an urge for certain games in my collection, to continually play them and to actually become skilled at them through repeated plays.
With that said, let me begin my first Favorite Game Friday with one of my true hidden gem favorites:
Tyrants of the Underdark is a deck building and area control game for 2-4 players that will run you between 1-2 hours of play time once you know what you are doing.
When I was younger, I read many of the Forgotten Realms novels, as well as the D&D source manuals for the Drow and Underdark. Being familiar with the source material, I was immediately drawn to the idea of being one of the great Drow families, scheming and plotting for control of the Underdark. Despite being a licensed game that has the Dungeons and Dragons logo prominently displayed, I was thrilled to discover that there was an equally great game paired with the theme.
At first play, I was captivated by the blending of the deck building mechanics that are coupled with what is a fairly intelligently designed area control game.
Each round, players will draw a hand of cards. These containing cards that give you “influence”, the basic currency for buying more cards, and attack power or “power”, which allows you to attack enemy units, deploy spies, etc.
As with other standard deck building game like Dominion, on a player’s turn, they will lay out their cards and either spend influence to purchase more cards for the future rounds of the game, or they will spend strength and try to either deploy their armies, fight their enemies, or use their spies. After taking all of their actions, all cards are discarded, and a new hand of cards in drawn.
Tyrants of the Underdark features a large board with distinct left, center and right sections. Each section contains paths laid throughout the board that connect all off the different sections to one another. The various locations on the board are broken into a few distinct areas as well. First you have the major cities, each of which has a token on it. These major cities can give players a bonus every round that they have the majority control of the space. If you have “total control” of a city, it provides victory points as well as extra influence, which can be a major game changing factor. You also have named sections of the board, which include black-shaded starting areas and white-shaded areas. Having an area majority in these spaces provides points, while having all of your units in the space provides even more points for the end of the game.
In terms of scaling to various player counts, in a 2-player game, players only use the center portion of the board. In a 3-player game, one player will play on either the left or right side, and in a 4-player game, the entire board is used. I have played the game at 2, 3 and 4 players and it works well at all counts. Naturally the fewer players you have, the more concentrated the “take that” cards will be.
In each game, players will choose two different market decks to use. In the base game, these decks feature factions such as the Drow, Dragons, Elementals and Demons. Each faction works a little differently, may contain different keywords, and allows for a different path for playing the game.
There is also an expansion that adds to the market options, including the Aberrations and Undead factions. Unfortunately, the card-backs for the expansion factions are not the same color as those from the base game. This means you will likely need to sleeve all of your cards to ensure that you don’t have any issues with marked cards.
With all of that out of the way, why is Tyrants of the Underdark one of my favorite games?
It’s simple. There’s a beauty in its unique blend of deck building and area control mechanics. The deck building present here, is on par with some of the best deck building games on the market. The keywords and combos that get added with the different market decks, combine to make each game different. Then you take this solid deck building game and you layer on area control mechanics. The way you use your card points to deploy your troops or fight other troops, while always expanding your influence is very unique. Sometimes when you try and take different game play mechanics and layer them on, one part of the mechanics can suffer. Here, you will genuinely see how the two main mechanics meld together, offering a truly special experience.
While part of the game functions as a standard deck builder, it is really the way you use your power and influence points that sets it apart from other deck building games and makes it fun. There are numerous paths to victory here, and these can be as simple as focusing on one faction, or spending your time deploying troops and maintaining area control.
When it comes to scoring, the importance of the area control CANNOT be understated, and is very important when it comes to end-game scoring. When you use your power points during your turn to deploy your forces, each troop piece on the board becomes the building block to your strategy, as troops have to be directly adjacent to another space or enemy in order to move or assassinate them. The only exception comes with the spy units. Spies can be deployed, via cards directly onto an enemy city, giving you presence in that city. This means that you can directly attack enemy units on this city space and can be the means to some wicked invasions.
Whether you use your power to destroy enemy or neutral forces to free up spaces in a city or you use card effects to supplant enemy troops (kill the enemy and place your piece where they were), moving your forces around the board and claiming real estate will provide you with a large amount of points. One game I chose to focus specifically on the smaller city spaces across the board and ended up crushing my opponents who fought over the major city spaces. There are only 3 major cities, compared to dozens of other named locations.
There is another mechanic that is pretty fascinating in the game. It’s called “promotion”. Most cards have 2 values on them in their lower corner. One shows how many victory points it is worth at the end of the game if it is in your deck or hand, and the other value, typically higher, is for promoted cards.
During your game, you will come across cards that allow you to promote other cards to your inner circle. These cards are effectively out of play until end-game scoring occurs, during which they come back into use. Promoting, not only will they allow you to gain end-game points for cards that you weren’t benefiting from in your deck. It also allows you to cull your deck, making it more likely that you will gain access to your more powerful cards.
To begin end-game scoring, players will look at their deck of cards and total the victory points of the cards in their deck and hands. Then, you examine the cards in the inner circles of the board. After this, you will go to each city and award the listed value of points for control of the space, plus you will gain 2 additional victory points for each space you have total control of. You will finally add up the number of enemy or neutral troops you killed and add that amount to your score. The player with the most points wins the game.
The last game that I played, I won purely via end-game scoring, when it seemed as though I was the clear loser. You see, strategic area control of major cities and named smaller areas provides a lot of end-game points. The points gained from promoting your cards during play, are far more open and obvious. I lost a game when I promoted too many cards and then the game went on for too long and area control defeated me.
The game ends under a couple of conditions, with the most likely being that one player deploys all of their soldiers to the board. This causes the immediate end-of-game and has been the game ending condition in every game I have played. You can also trigger the end if the market deck runs out of cards, but I have yet to see this ever being an issue.
Since playing Tyrants of the Underdark, I have had the chance to play numerous other deck builders, such as Clank! In Space, Dominion, Thunderstone Advance, and numerous Legendary and Legendary Encounter games. As much as I enjoy deck building, it is the addition of other mechanics such as area control or cooperative play that I find most enjoyable. I would love to see even more hybrids for deck building, such as the tower defense mechanics introduced in the Xenoshyft series from CMON.
Since it’s such a fantastic game, it’s unfortunate that Tyrants of the Underdark hasn’t gotten the reception it deserves. I think it more than likely the the cover art and well as the Dungeons and Dragons branding may have hurt Tyrants of the Underdark, as many folks despise licensed games and may view this as another cheap licensed cash grab instead of a quality game.
So what say you good people? Have you had the chance to play Tyrants of the Underdark yet?