Lords of Underdeep
Lords of Waterdeep was pretty great, wasn’t it? Designed from the ground up to hit that sweet spot that would appeal to both newcomers to the worker placement genre and cardboard veterans alike, it saw widespread success for good reason. Anyone who said they didn’t like it was almost assuredly a walking diaper. A used walking diaper.
Tyrants of the Underdark is looking to replicate that success. It’s even set in the same place, at least broadly — Skullport, the shady locale from the Lords of Waterdeep expansion, registers as a tiny blip in Underdark’s sprawling, uh, Underdark. This time, however, the target is deck-building games. And not just any deck-building game, but the chimera sort that splits your time between shuffling your cards and waging war on a map.
I’m an ignoramus maximus when it comes to Dungeons & Dragons. So when I tell you that in Tyrants of the Underdark you’re the head of a household of Drow — that’s Dark Elves if you’re racist and don’t know the acceptable nomenclature — and that you want to scheme, connive, and plot in order to take control of the Underdark, you can rest easy that you now know everything I know. Yes, “scheme,” “connive,” and “plot” mean very different things, at least if you’re Drow. Keep up.
There are a lot of ways to go about this. Too many, really, making the game’s scoring sheets look a little silly, especially since Tyrants so desperately craves broad appeal. Thankfully, it winds up being relatively simple in practice: recruit powerful dudes and monsters to your cause and then conquer as many important sites as possible.
Let’s break that into halves, starting with the powerful dudes and monsters bit. See, like most deck-building games, you start out with a few basic cards, just a handful of soldiers and nobles, and as you play you’ll spend influence to add better and brighter hirelings to your deck. These come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, though usually with sharp ends like swords or teeth. So while you start with a few paltry dudes hitting the table each turn, by the end of the game you’re using Myconids (mushroom people, I guess?) to gum up your opponent’s deck with worthless refugees, using a giant Orcus to resurrect your fallen soldiers, and hammering the board with dragons.
Even better, Underdark takes a page from another innovative deck-building game, Valley of the Kings, by letting you “promote” cards to your household’s inner circle. This removes them from your deck permanently, but means they’ll be worth more points at the end of the game. Every chance to promote a card now represents a tricky choice. Should you promote a wimpy card to winnow your deck and ensure you don’t draw it again, or promote something huge — say, a Demogorgon — for a fat stack of points?
Of course, nothing in your deck stands on its own, and that’s where the map of the Underdark comes in. While you’re collecting and promoting cards, there’s a war on, represented by little banners that gradually spread across the map and lock down various sites of unpronounceable heritage, like Ss’zuraass’nee or Buiyrandyn or Araumycos, which my group always refers to as “that three-point place.” The point is, many cards directly impact the progress of this war, whether by providing power, the game’s second resource, to let you recruit guys or assassinate enemies, or permitting even more outlandish actions. My personal favorite is subversion, which lets you replace an enemy piece with your own banner.
At first glance, this war can feel a little tit for tat. You kill off a subterranean city’s neutral defenders and move in; your opponent comes along, kills your guys, and places his own; you retaliate and retake control. Back and forth you go, squabbling over corridors and bridges.
If this were all Underdark had to offer, it would be enough. Sufficient. The game would work. Thankfully, there’s actually a bit of nuance to the proceedings, especially when it comes to spies. While your regular guys are limited by “presence,” which forces you to spread out rather than just bouncing all over the place, spies can go anywhere, thus providing a point of entry for your warriors. Even cooler, lots of cards let you remove your spies to gain a little bonus that turn. So while you’re fighting a regular war, there’s also a bit of subterfuge going on, letting you take down an enemy from afar, or send spies to make them paranoid, or use them up for extra resources. There are always ways to undermine your opponent, and it’s very cool when you find that chink in their armor that unravels their grip on a particular region.
This works best when there are more than two players, because one of the best things about Tyrants of the Underdark is that there are so many ways to bring down a winning player. Infesting their most valuable city with spies, flooding their deck with worthless outcasts, going on an assassination spree along a critical front — even the simple act of positioning a couple guys on their frontier and watching as they overreact can mean gaining an edge elsewhere. In a fully stocked game of four, it’s entirely possible for there to be a dozen little fronts, feints, and squabbles ongoing at any given time.
The resulting hybrid smoothly blends clever deck-building with a simple — but not too simple — area control game. It’s a whole Baator of a lot of fun.
Yes, I just looked up what passes for “hell” in D&D. Save me.
Look, here’s the deal. I wasn’t expecting much from Tyrants of the Underdark. There’s even a portion in the rulebook that tries to explain the “theme” of the game, how your cards are agents in your employ and when they’re in your discard pile they’re resting and when they’re played they’re out doing their job. The whole thing is such a stretch, so labored, that I didn’t think the game itself could be elegantly assembled.
And yet it is. It might not be quite as slick as Lords of Waterdeep, and it would have made a much bigger splash had it appeared a couple years ago, but even so, Tyrants of the Underdark is the sort of thing that absolutely excels at bringing together veterans and newcomers.