The Vindication of Chicken Little
By this point, Tomas Uhlir’s Under Falling Skies has some minor history to it. Originally the winner of the 9-Card Nanogame Print & Play Design Contest, it was later developed and released by Czech Games Edition during the early weeks of social distancing. At the time I was taking advantage of my newfound loneliness to wrap up a few other solo titles. Put simply, I missed out. Now that CGE has given it a full release, I’m rectifying my omission by shouting the truth from the rooftops:
This is one of the finest solitaire games I have ever played.
Under Falling Skies is also a dice game — and not only one of the best, but also one that finds new ways to make its dice matter.
I’ve written before about the difficulty of making a dice game. Every dice game will feature chance, but not all chance is equal. We often delineate between input and output randomness — the randomness that happens before your decisions or after them, to render it crudely. But while that distinction is useful, it isn’t as simple as saying “randomness that determines what you can do on your turn is good and randomness that resolves an action is bad.” Because sometimes the latter is what makes a game exciting, while sometimes the former can make a game feel analytical without offering the occasional high of gambling. So it isn’t enough for a dice game to feature chance. It needs to feature the right uses of chance in the right dosages. Many of the best dice games, such as Darkest Night or Nemo’s War or Neanderthal, offer ways to stack the odds in your favor or mitigate a poopy roll. Sometimes both. Sometimes via different methods.
But all three of those games use dice as miniature events within a turn. Basically, their rolls are intersections of chance with your decision-making process. Whether you’re taking a stab at a necromancer, sinking the imperialist fleets of Europe, or sending out as many hunting parties as possible, it’s possible to make multiple rolls in a turn. The rolls are important. To say otherwise would be madness. But they’re occurrences within the framework of a regular turn. They exist to bisect the action with moments of uncertainty.
By contrast, Under Falling Skies pitches its rolls as singular events. The roll is your turn. It’s both input and output, both the randomness that informs your decisions and the outcome of them.
With all this hubbub over rolling dice, I realize I haven’t even mentioned what Under Falling Skies is about. This isn’t because it doesn’t matter; it does, and profoundly, even down to the DNA of how the dice resolve. Rather, the setting is shorthand rather than something that demands much explanation. You don’t need a primer to understand your proper role in all of this. Because when an alien mothership appears over a city and begins pouring fighters into the sky, it’s only natural to scramble the jets, fire up the generators, dig a secret base, and attempt to research your way out of trouble.
That’s what your dice are for. Every turn begins with a roll. Five dice, three gray and two white, chucked across the tabletop. Each column of your base can sustain a single die, whether you’re placing it into a generator room to charge up some energy, a fighter bay to shoot down some bogies, a research center, or down in the bedrock to carve out additional warrens for additional facilities. On its own, this decision is already tricky. Because each column can only take one die, you’re forced to make tradeoffs. Research or heat up the anti-aircraft guns? Top off your batteries or manufacture robots for blue dice to automate other tasks?
But that isn’t the only consideration. Whenever you place a die, any invaders in that column descend toward your base. Worse, they move down by that die’s number. This can have dire consequences. If an invader reaches your base, it causes damage. If it stops moving on a mothership spot, the mothership slides closer, putting future fighters in tighter proximity to their target and inching your efforts at resistance closer to ultimate defeat. Sometimes they swap lanes. And other times they stop on an explosion. That’s an opportunity to blow it to bits, provided you launch some fighters of your own. Make sure you’re sending a tough enough squadron or the baddies will survive.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, it behooves us to admire Uhlir’s handling of chance. Each roll is both an opportunity and a liability. You want high numbers to operate your base at peak efficiency. A six will turbocharge your batteries all at once, sprint you along the research track, tunnel through entire swaths of bedrock. But that same six can also present an existential conundrum, especially as the mothership creeps closer and puts its babies within spitting distance of your base from the moment they leave its bay doors. Every turn offers devil’s bargains in miniature. Sometimes it’s best to swallow a hit so you can climb over the next research hump. Sometimes you’ll need to sink dice into sub-prime moves to keep treading water. And, if you’re smart, sometimes you can trick all those enemy invaders into spots where a single jet deployment will shred them all at once. They won’t complain. They have more where that came from. But the breathing room you’ll gain is priceless. Provided you don’t dally so long that you lose the larger war.
If this sounds suspiciously like a lot of input luck with none of the thrills of gambling, you’re only half right. Remember, there were two shades of dice. Gray dice are benign. You’re free to place them and keep working with what remains of that initial roll. White dice are the chaotic ones. Whenever you place one, the rest of your dice are rerolled.
Which, again, can be good or bad. Sometimes a reroll is exactly what you need. Other times, a reroll can scuttle your plans. Not only are you losing the certainty of what you’d rolled before. It’s also possible that the resultant numbers will breed disaster — such as when your final die only fits into a column that will nudge an invader onto a mothership space. Oops.
The point is, that starting roll, along with its one or two rerolls, does a whole lot of heavy lifting. It provides opportunities and dangers in the same breath. Certainty, but only up to a point. Risks, but also the capability to choose when to gamble. That’s a lot of headspace to pack into a game that lasts maybe half an hour.
Of course, half an hour only marks the starting line. The real draw of this published version is that victories and defeats can have lasting consequences. Here, that appears in the form of a four-chapter campaign, which I reckon will last somewhere between eight and sixteen plays. Now, I’m normally wary of campaign games. Even very good campaigns can require a stiff investment. It doesn’t help that too many board game designers labor under the impression that they’re also novelists. The last thing I need in my life is verbose chunks of exposition punctuating my bouts of goblin slaying.
Under Falling Skies sidesteps nearly every complaint. For one thing, its solitaire nature means I’m not required to pack the same four or five bodies into the same space before we can begin setup. Exposition is rendered as pages from a comic book, luxuriantly illustrated but nearly without dialogue. Even better, its actual approach replicates the weighty decisions of a legacy game without making me tear up a single component. The gist is that every play opens with a choice between two dramatically different offerings. Each has its own besieged city, character, and scenario. All of these offer differing powers, but it’s the scenario that’s most impactful, stretching Uhlir’s system in interesting but entirely natural ways. I wouldn’t dare spoil the specifics. Instead, I’ll say that these are a treat to explore, and I appreciate the game’s willingness to generate them semi-randomly rather than forcing me through the same predetermined sequence. Now that I’ve completed my first campaign, I’m eager to start another. To see characters and cities and scenarios I didn’t the first time through, but also to see how those elements combine in new ways.
I can’t think of a higher compliment. Even after a dozen plays, I’m excited to start all over again. That’s because Under Falling Skies is dynamic, both within a single battle and over the course of its longer war. Once, I stumbled into a scenario that was significantly tougher because of its combination of city and scenario. Other times, I came across characters whose contributions swung the tide in my favor. These were only partially scripted. Instead, they appeared because I’d shuffled them in such a way that my choice of fights was double-edged — much like the placement of dice in a base as it shudders beneath wave after wave of enemy invaders.
That’s exactly what makes this thing spark to life. Between its brilliant use of chance and its willingness to throw me into the action and hard decisions of its campaign with nary a pause, Under Falling Skies has entered the ranks of my favorite solo games.
A complimentary copy was provided.