Santa spoiled me again this year with lots of goodies to occupy my time. Possibly the best board game gift he brought me was #Underwater Cities!
I've played it solo a couple of times and multiplayer online once so possibly consider this more of a preview than a review but "R0land's Rambling Previews" just doesn't roll off the tongue as nicely!
Let's take a look!
The earth is overpopulated and colonizing Mars is always four decades away. In order to survive humanity needs to expand to the only place it has left: Under the sea!
You start off as a single city but over the course of the game you will try to grow to a self-sustaining nation!
Game setup is pretty straightforward. Pick the side of the board appropriate to the number of players.
Put out the era 1 deck:
The special cards (turning over the top card) and the special scoring cards. Only 6 are put out and that's it for the game.:
Seed the start player board. (I only have solo tokens setup in the image.)
Then player setup occurs. Each player picks a colour which gives them 3 cardboard workers of that colour, a special assistant, and a card that explains end of game scoring. Also give them each a player aid.
Decide if you want to play on the standard side of the player boards or the asymetrical sides.
The players then each get 2 blue metropolis, 1 brown metropolis, and their starting city. They get setup on the board as follows. (For the solo game asymetrical boards are used.)
Deal each player 6 cards from the Era 1 deck. The players must discard down to 3 cards.
You're good to go!
At its core Underwater Cities is a worker placement & tableau building game. In some ways it reminds me of #Terraforming Mars but it definitely is it's own thing.
On a given turn the player will simultaneously put a worker on an unoccupied action slot and play a card. If the card matches the colour of the slot then the cards power can be activated along with the action on the slot. The player chooses the order of activation.
There are 3 colours of slots in the game: Green, Red, Yellow. Note that the actions on each side of the board will differ so I'll just do a general overview.
Green slots on the 1 - 2 player side of the board. Here you see the place 2 desalination plants, build a city, move up twice on the federation track, or draw 2 cards and then either perform an upgrade or get a kelp.
On the red side you see build 2 kelp farms or two labratories, build a tunnel and use an action card, get 2 steelplast and a kelp, and acquire a special card.
On the yellow side we have activate an action card and 2 different resources, build 2 tunnels, take two science or upgrade up to 3 structures using science, and build a city and a kelp/deslination/lab structure.
There are a quite a few different cards in the game with many repeats. In a solo game you won't see much of the deck. In my 4 player game we also didn't run through any of the decks although we came close in Era 1.
Generally speaking there are 5 types of cards.
An instant effect (lightning bolt) is a one time bonus This card does not become part of your tableau after you play it unlike the other 4 types.
Permanent effects (the rectangle looking symbol in the upper left corner) give you ongoing bonuses.
Production cards (the gears) give you bonuses during the games three production phases.
Action cards (with the A) can be activated once per era to give you different benefits.
And final end scoring cards (not shown here but they have a stopwatch in the upper left corner) that give you, you guessed it, end game scoring opportunities.
There are 6 end game scoring cards that can give you a lot of points as well as a deck of lower powered special cards that can be acquired by taking an action that allows you to do so.
These cards are special in a couple of ways: They are quite powerful, and they all cost you credits to play them.
So taking a special card is an interesting choice. You might see one you really want but if you can't play it for a while it is going to need to live in your hand only giving you two options when you play your worker instead of 3. So it's better to wait to take a card but what if someone else grabs it first?
Building on Player Boards
When placing items on your board there are some rules that must be followed. Cities can be built in any space that is adjacent to an existing city, tunnels can be built as long as a path can be traced back to the main city using tunnels (so I could connect my metropolis to my main city even though the top city space doesn't have a city in it yet), and buildings can be built anywhere a city is or could be built.
This includes weird things like building a building in a spot without a city or building a city without a tunnel connecting it. Those type of things are NOT connected to the players network and won't generate resources or consume costs.
This leaves some room for strategy where perhaps you have a great card/resource combination but not enough kelp to feed another city before the production phase. Simply build the city disconnected and wait until the next era to connect it up.
Blue metropolis (the tile in the upper right corner) give you one time benefits and potentially benefits during the production phase if connected by a tunnel.
Brown metropolis give you end game scoring.
Everything you put on the board will produce or consume something during the production phase. (More on that later.)
Here you see the round tracker. There are 10 rounds with 3 production phases. One after round 4, one after round 7, and one at the end of the game.
During each round players take turns placing their 3 workers on the action spaces as well as playing cards for those actions. At the end of their turn they draw a card no matter how many cards are in their hand.
At the end of a round the players take their workers back and the turn order is decided by the players spot on the federation tracker which is then reset. (There are various nuances to consider here but I don't feel like I've played enough to express them well.)
A Word on Hand Size
During each round players start their turns by discarding down to 3 cards. You can only have 3 cards at a time normally but you are able to get more than 3 during your turn which gives you options.
Options are really good in this game and being able to activate a card power along with the board action is pretty crucial. So while most games have you discarding at the end of your turn in this game you get to see the board state before you take your turn. Although it is always a good idea to have a general idea of where you want to go and which cards you are going to discard before your turn starts just to keep things moving along.
During the production phase all connected structures will produce goods.
The yellow section lays it all out. A single kelp farm produces one kelp, a single upgraded kelp farm produces a kelp and a victory point, two upgraded kelp farms in one city give you THREE kelp and THREE points.
This is another interesting choice. During end game scoring you get points for building diversity around cities but having specialization gives you more goods. Do you diversify or specialize or perhaps a bit of both?
Once all of the goods have been produced you have to feed your cities. One kelp, one biomatter, or three points will do it. Depending on how much effort you will have to go through to get that kelp sometimes the 3 points are worth it.
You also get to ready your used action cards and the earlier era cards are put away and a new era comes out. You get three of those cards and you are ready to go to the next round unless you just did the final production.
During final production you score your brown metroplis if you connected it, any scoring cards you were able to play, connected cities with diverse buildings, and then turn your resources in to credits and divide by 4.
The player with the most points has built the most successful underwater nation and wins the game!
While I said the game is a lot like Terraforming Mars earlier the gameplay feels very different to me.
I find myself thinking of this as a game about playing with constraints.
You have to work with the cards you get. If they are all green but you were really hoping to take a red action do you take a green action instead to get the card bonus or do you go read anyway and play a card that will have no effect?
The cards you are able to play will help determine your play as well. I managed to get a couple of persistent effect cards that gave me bonuses around tunnels so I built a few more of those than I might have otherwise. Someone else in the game got a TON of stuff around laboratories so he went whole hog on those.
You will have limited resources with limited ways to gather more, especially to start. There are persistent effects and instant cards and other ways to get one or two resources here and there to tide you over until the production phase hits. You might want to take the resource gathering actions to start but later on they seem like a waste when you could be doing something to get points instead. Sometimes though it's your best bet to insert some material in to your engine to keep it running.
And finally, there are limited action spaces. There is ONE space to get special cards on the 4 player side of the board. (There is a token used with 4 players that allows one person per round to spend an extra coin to go to an already taken spot so that helps a bit.) There are only two spaces that will let you do upgrades. And so on.
Spaces are tight so you ALSO want to try to work federation actions in to your actions if you can to not be last all the time.
Having production occur every few rounds makes things very interesting. You can afford to be patient somewhat because things don't kick off every turn and you also have to be frugal because it is so easy to blow through your last set of production resources and end up with turns where you have to take resource gathering spots...if any are available...
For me I really like this mix of tactical and strategic. The tactical element definitely drives the show because of the constraints but I never felt like I couldn't do what I wanted to some degree. That is as long as I had patience and didn't try to do what I wanted RIGHT NOW every time.
The components are fine. Not great, just fine. Card stock is acceptable, yes the player hint boards are thin but I don't toss mine around or anything so it's fine.
One thing about the player hint boards, they might be thin and they might look impenetrable initially but once you learn the game pretty much everything you need to know is on that one piece of paper.
The rulebook is also quite good. It has some repetition which makes it a boring thing to read straight through but amazing when you want to look something up later! Tons of call outs and well thought out examples are in there too.
The workers themselves are just cardboard rectangles but they work surprisingly well with the way the board is setup. It's clear which spot is taken and who has it. I actually prefer this to having a wooden meeple on the board.
The resource chits are good. I share the complaint I saw on No Pun Included regarding the 3 point chits. They are annoying and really only useful every once in a while. I would have rather had 3 more 1 point chits.
The buildings are nondescript plastic short cylinders. You stack two to show an upgraded building. They are...fine again.
The cities themselves are cool. No complaints there!
Components looks pretty neat on the board. I have heard complaints that a table knock and mess up the pieces.
It doesn't have the potential game ending issues terraforming mars could have unless someone REALLY slams the table.
The expansion apparently has triple layer boards with slots in it for the pieces to fit but considering the cost of the expansion I would rather they have just stuck with these boards.
The 4 player game I played went for around 4 hours including teaching time and a short break. This was using Tabletop Simulator so probably a bit slower than doing things in real life.
We have one player who has a fair bit of AP which definitely increases play time. With action spots being in short supply you often need to rethink your turn frequently.
At three players there will be more slots available which should reduce some of that last minute, "Oh crap he took my spot. What do I do now?" thinking.
Solo play time should be ~ 1 hour I would think, setup included. Perhaps less when you get really familiar with the game.
I have played a couple of games solo and I think it's a fine way to play. In many ways it reflects that the game is mostly solitaire until the action spaces are taken in to account.
For solo play another players workers are placed in spots that move one space each round. If you don't move up at all on the federation track then a 4th worker is placed randomly. This is a good reflection on how your action space choices definitely get limited if you are going last.
The solo mode overall is a "beat your previous best" mode but if you want to get in to the brain teasing fun of Underwater Cities I think it's a good way to do it.
Multiplayer is, of course, preferred for me but that's just my bias.
I have enjoyed Underwater Cities quite a bit so far. I'm already planning another solo play through soon and I think my board game group is up for another round as well.
I suspect the play might not be as enjoyable for players who want lot of strategic control. You can certainly play a given strategy for points all game if you want but you likely won't be playing optimally. Being flexible and doing the best with what you have is the order of the day for Underwater Cities.
Overall though I think it's an excellent game which is going to have a long happy life on my shelf!