Lords of Waterdeep (reviewed here) was Sarah’s (my wife…I know I talk about her a lot, but she is my primary gaming test subject partner) introduction to not only worker placement games, but also to the realm of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Well, that and the countless times our kids watched my DVD of the Saturday morning D&D cartoon.
Regardless, she LOVES Lords of Waterdeep. She loves the gameplay, the art, the quests, and even the setting. She truly embraced the game and it is still in her top 10 today. She also likes deck building games. She started, like most of us, on Dominion, but has moved on to more complex deck builders, like Trains and Valley of the Kings.
When I heard of Tyrants of the Underdark, a game designed by two of the designers of Lords of Waterdeep, and found out that the gameplay was a combination of a deck builder and area control using a board, I KNEW we had to play this game.
Tyrants of the Underdark is a hybrid deck building and area control game for two to four players. It plays in about 30 minutes per player. It takes place in the Underdark, a giant underground realm set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting of the D&D roleplaying game. Players are the leaders of rival Drow houses (think Dark Elves with a MEAN streak). The object of the game, like 91.5% of all deck building games, is to collect the most victory points (VPs) by the end of the game through board control, spy networks, assassination, and manipulation.
The components for Tyrants were a mixed bag.
The Card Art – The card art is FANTASTIC. We do not play the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, so I will be the first to admit these could be copied directly from other D&D source materials. That being said, I know what the Drow are and I thought the card art really brought to life the Drow and what they represent. This also applies to the illustrations of the other denizens of the Underdark. Except the Insane Outcasts; their eyes are just…wrong.
The troop and spy plastic pieces – they are very functional, easy to differentiate, and work well on the board.
The cardboard market deck, House playmats and other tokens – they are sturdy and functional. We liked the art on the market board. We also liked that the playmats had the Turn Order printed on them as well as the thematic touches.
The 28-page rulebook – It’s well written, has great examples, is well organized, and contains seven pages of background on the Underdark and the locations used on the board.
We were not overly enthused by:
The board – It’s functional in terms of the area control layout utilized on the board, but we were underwhelmed by the art, especially in comparison to the card art. It has several different dark colors that give the impression of a dark place, but the detail is lacking, especially when compared to the cards or to the detailed board that came with Lords of Waterdeep. In addition, most of the locations are only a box, with only the tactically important sites receiving an actual illustration.
We were severely disappointed in:
The card stock – After two plays, our cards had marks on them from being shuffled. This is seriously disappointing as a deck building game requires cards to be shuffled repeatedly. I will most likely have to sleeve my cards after a couple more plays.
How to Play:
Below is a high level summary of the game; however, feel free to download a pdf of the official rules here.
There are a variable number of rounds in the game and the game ends when one of two end-game conditions are met (see below).
Each round is made up of a turn being completed by every player. Each turn is made up of the following steps, which can be done in any order and as many times as you can until you end your turn:
- Play a card from your hand – cards provide power, influence and/or other abilities. Cards are placed on the table in front of you, the resources are added to your resource pool, and any actions can be taken.
- Expend resources from your resource pool – power and influence come from cards that are played from your hand, but can also be provided by control markers earned by having control (the majority of troops in an area) or total control (your troops are the only troops at a location and they are on EVERY space in that location) of a location. You can spend power from your resource pool to place your troops on the board, assassinate enemy troops, or return enemy spies. You can spend influence to purchase cards from the market. Purchased cards go directly to your discard pile.
Once you declare your turn is over:
- If a card that you played allows you to promote a card, you choose one of the cards that was PLAYED, remove it from your deck, and place it in your inner circle. This will increase the VP value of the card at the end of the game at the cost of removing that card from your deck during the game.
- If you control a site with a control marker, you then gain those VPs, if applicable
- All cards played as well as any unplayed cards from your hand are placed in the discard pile
- Draw five new cards
After every player has completed his turn, a new round begins. This continues until either:
- A player deploys his last troop
- The 80 card market deck is empty
Note: the round is still completed when the end game condition is triggered so that every player has the same number of turns.
VPs are awarded for controlling sites on the main board, troops you killed during the game, cards in your deck, cards in your inner circle, and from VP tokens collected during the game. The winner is the player with the most VPs.
We REALLY enjoyed Tyrants of the Underdark. We played it again immediately after completing our first game. That rarely happens in our household!
The deck building is entertaining. Cards have two resources, belong to one of five aspects (Ambition, Conquest, Malice, Guile, and Obedience), potentially have special abilities, and are worth two different values at the end of the game, depending on if the card is promoted to the inner circle during play. The decision of when/if to promote a card is a constant pressure. It reminds me of the tomb mechanic from Valley of Kings, another deckbuilder we love.
The decision of which card to buy can be difficult. The game comes with four “Market Half Decks.” Each of these half decks consists of 40 cards. The half decks are:
- Drow = beginner, low cost
- Dragons = beginner, high cost
- Elemental = advanced, Focus ability, similar to Legendary where playing cards of the same Aspect increase rewards
- Demons = advanced, attack card to slow down opponents and most Devour (trash) cards to play some demons
Two of these four half decks are selected at the beginning of the game and shuffled together to make up the 80 card market deck. Each of the cards has a rarity, indicated by one to four dots, which translates to the number of copies of that card in that deck. Six of these cards are placed face up in the market. You can purchase as many cards as you can afford, and a purchased card is immediately replaced. So if you have six influence, do you buy a two and a four cost card, or do you splurge and buy the six cost card? If a rare card is available, do you buy it even if it does not synergize well with your deck just so your opponents can not buy it? These types of choices are what make deckbuilding fun.
But this game goes beyond just the deckbuilding. Deciding how to spend your power and populate the board with your troops or depopulate the board of enemy troops or spies is another difficult decision. The main mechanic is called Presence. It is a fancy way of saying adjacent. Placing each troop only costs one power; however, you can only place troops in locations that have an open space and already contain one or more of your troops OR if one of your troops is on a route and is adjacent to the location. The only rule that applies to placing troops on a route is adjacency, as routes are only one space.
Honestly, though, I did not play Tyrants so I could solely populate the Underdark with my troops. Assassinating and spying can be more fun and strategically viable. Assassination (which costs three power and you must be adjacent to the target) can eliminate an opponent’s foothold in an area of the board and will grant you one VP per troop assassinated. For example, if an opponent has a single troop in a location and no troops on routes that lead to that location, if you eliminate that troop it will be impossible for that opponent to place a troop at that location because of a lack of Presence.
Of course, that is where spies come in. Spies can be placed by card actions only. They can be placed outside of ANY location on the board and grant you presence. This is a GREAT way to sneak behind enemy lines and establish your own foothold. Of course, you can remove or have your own spy removed for the cost of three power. Spies do NOT grant VPs and are given back to the owner.
The combination of troop deployment, troop assassination, and spies make the area control of Tyrants fun, but chaotic. You are never safe. Spies can pop up anywhere. Cards can assassinate troops for zero power. Some cards even supplant a troop, which allows you to assassinate a troop and replace it with one of your own.
Deciding which locations you want to control and which are not important will be core to your board strategy. Locations have between one and six spaces to place troops (note: at the start of the game, unaligned white troops are placed on the board in designated spaces. They are in the game as a roadblock and to prevent players from immediately controlling most locations.). Some tactically important locations have a site control marker that grant a bonus for controlling them and an enhanced bonus if they are under total control. These locations were often the center of conflict, and that is what made the game so fun for me. The ebb and flow of the board, trying to simultaneously balance the deckbuilding while making sure you are competitive in controlling the board. My wife and I truly enjoyed playing.
But we were not the only people who played. We played games with three and four players. The board has two squiggly lines down it. If two players play, only the part of the board BETWEEN the lines are used. With three players, one of the two lanes separated by the squiggly lines is used, and with four players the entire board is used. This opens up more space at higher player counts so no one starts on top of each other.
We also liked the game’s replay value. The half deck market is a great way to mix up your game, as the card abilities will change how people play the game. Deckbuilding itself will also change how the game is played based on how you build the deck and which cards you can (and cannot) acquire. Finally, how people act and react on the board for controlling and infiltrating locations will change game by game. These three factors lead to an incredible replay value, especially after the half market expansions that have not yet been announced come out… J
As much as we loved the game, it is not perfect. I do not want to harp on the cardstock anymore. It was just bad.
The combination of the randomness of deckbuilding with a lack of being able to counter a player’s action during his turn could frustrate some. No place is EVER safe because there are no instants or cancel actions. An opponent can place a spy, supplant one of your troops, and assassinate your remaining troops at a location, even if all of the routes adjacent to that location are filled to the brim with your troops. And you just get to sit there and watch.
We LOVED Tyrants of the Underdark. To be honest, this is our type of game, especially because it plays well for two and in under an hour. That combined with the interesting decisions, made Tyrants of the Underdark a winner for us!
If you’d like to pick up a copy of Tyrants of the Underdark, you can get it for about $55.
Final Score: 4.5 Stars – A VERY fun hybrid deck building/area control game. It places fast and presents interesting decisions, but it is neither overly complicated nor a brain burner.
- Card stock is just not good
- Expansions have not yet been announced…