(Edit: This is one of my Top 5 Games Played of all Time, as of February 2019 anyway. Check out the other games as well!)
I’ve read a bunch of R.A. Salvatore’s “Drizzt Do’Urden” books set in the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms setting.
I think I’ve read 40, but there are probably 40 more (Editor – That’s probably an exaggeration) and I’ve always enjoyed the world-building Salvatore has done with the series, almost even more than the characters.
Drizzt is a Drow (Dark Elf), a former denizen of the underworld that’s fittingly called “The Underdark.” He’s an outcast from Drow society because it is pretty much a cesspool of evil scheming and betrayal and they worship the evil spider-goddess Lolth.
Since Drizzt has his own game, why not play a game where you get to be a conniving betrayer who’s looking out for your family’s interest and trying to bring down the other noble houses among the Drow?
Now you can, with Tyrants of the Underdark (2016), the deck-building area control game designed by Peter Lee, Rodney Thompson, Andrew Veen with art by apparently nobody (I think it just spontaneously appeared on the cards in some miraculous event that should probably be canonized) and published by Gale Force 9 and Wizards of the Coast.
(Literally, the art credit on Boardgame Geek is “N/A”)
(Edit 3/9/18) – Steve Ellis did the wonderful box cover, as noted (by him) in the comments below. Thanks, Steve!
Tyrants of the Underdark is a game for 2-4 players where you will be building a deck of cards from a Market of cards, as well as spreading out throughout the caverns of the Underdark, taking control of areas for (can you guess? I’ll wait…..yes, very good!) Victory Points at the end of the game. Some areas actually get you points every turn that you have Total Control of them too.
So how does it work?
To quote every rule book in existence, apparently, start by placing “the board at the center of the table”.
(Really, do we need to be told that? I thought I might wear it on my head)
White neutral units are put out in the designated areas (wherever there are crossed swords on the circle), and then each player chooses a black starting area to place one of their units in.
Then each player takes their starting deck of 10 cards, shuffles it up, and draws 5.
A Market Deck is created by joining two 40-card factions together, and there are four factions included in the base game: Drow, Dragons, Demons, Elementals (not Delementals?). This gives the game some variety as you can mix and match as much as you like, with each faction having its own concentration (Demons like devouring cards but give you great abilities for that penalty)
On your turn, you play your cards, amassing Influence and Power as given to you on the cards you play (for the Starters, Soldiers provide you Power and Nobles provide you Influence).
You use Power to place Troops on the board in areas where you have “Presence” (meaning you have a Troop/Spy either in that area or next to it). One Power lets you place a Troop, three Power lets you assassinate somebody else’s Troop (or a neutral Troop), again where you have Presence.
You get to keep that Troop in your Trophy Hall and each one will get you one VP at the end of the game.
Influence will let you buy more powerful cards from the Market Board. The cost of a card is in the top right corner of the card. You can buy as many cards as you can afford, placing the card(s) in your discard pile.
These cards can do a lot of great things, either giving you more Influence/Power, letting you assassinate/deploy Troops without needing Power to do it, or doing other fun things like placing Spies.
These will be available to you next time you have to shuffle your deck.
Some cards, as shown above, allow (or force) you to “Promote” cards from your deck.
This means that you put the card in your Inner Circle and it will be worth more points at the end of the game than it would be worth just in your deck (in the above picture, on the bottom right of the cards, the points for being in your deck are on the left and the points for your Inner Circle are on the right).
The thing about this is, much like the Valley of the Kings deckbuilding games, once you promote it, the card is out of the game and can’t be used anymore.
Other cards let you put Spies anywhere on the board (you don’t have to have Presence). Spies give you Presence in the area where they are, which then later allows you to place/assassinate Troops there.
It also negates Total Control of the area.
All areas give you points at the end of the game if you have control of them (and more points if you have Total Control), but some give you Influence when you have control and points as soon as you end your turn with Total Control (which means that not only are you the only faction with Troops there, but you must have a Troop in every circle of the area and there can’t be any opposing Spies there).
The game continues in that fashion with players taking their turns until one of the following situations occur: the Market Deck runs out or a player has placed their last Troop on the board. Play continues until everybody has had a turn in the final round.
VP are totaled up for Troops killed, areas controlled, cards in your deck/Inner Circle, and VP chips that you have earned during the game.
The player with the most VP wins!
Is Tyrants of the Underdark a match for a Spider-God or is it a low-level minion?
Before I get into how much I love this game, I have to comment on the components, as they are easily the worst part of the game.
The cards are cheap and flimsy, showing wear almost as soon as you touch them. I sleeved them before my first play.
The troops being just little shields is kind of drab and disappointing, though I suppose I can understand it because if they were bigger, the board would get very crowded.
The colour scheme, while fitting the dank and dark nature of the subject matter, does have issues too. The player colours are black, purple, orange and red. The orange and red are fine, but the black and purple start to kind of blend together when you’re not in the best light.
The board, the artwork on the cards, the colours of the Market Board, all of them just scream “I’m boring! But play me anyway!”.
It’s all very muted and not the most attractive, though the artwork itself is actually quite good (that N/A is a wonderful artist).
The player aids are actually one of the highlights, as it’s nice to have a place for everything. You have your deck, your discard pile, Turn Order guide with costs, your Inner Circle, Trophy Hall for Troops you’ve assassinated and Barracks for your unplaced Troops. They’re well-constructed but do suffer from the same colour scheme issues.
So the components are not the best, how is the rest?
Tyrants of the Underdark is now one of my favourite games.
The deck-building aspect of the game is great. Yes, it’s been done before, but I really like how it combines a lot of different aspects of different deck-building games. There’s the Promote ability of some cards, taking them out of the game but giving you more points. There’s the variable market (which I know some people hate).
I love how there are four factions (now six counting the expansion, which I will review at a later date) that you can mix and match. This gives a lot of replayability that doesn’t even count how the board itself works.
The board, while not pretty, is really well laid out. The areas where you place your Troops, how you have to slowly expand into the paths from one area to another (unless you use Spies to just suddenly drop Troops somewhere across the board, which is also fun), all of it adds up to some intricate game play.
The best part about the game is that there are multiple avenues to victory. You can go on a murder spree down in the tunnels and try to get a bunch of points that way.
You can use a Promotion strategy and try to get a lot of high-point cards in your deck and then Promote them for higher points.
You can go for area control, controlling most of the board and getting points that way.
It’s a veritable smorgasbord of possibilities, though you can’t totally ignore anything. You have to do some area control, for example, even if you Promote. You just have to concentrate on one aspect.
The game also scales well for the player count.
In 2-player games, you will only be using the center of the board, between the two dotted lines. Three-player games will also use one of the sides (your choice). It’s only in 4-player games that you will use the whole board.
This makes each game tight with players having to deal with each other rather than sitting in their own area of the board.
The cards are well-designed with interesting effects, and quite thematic. The Demons devour cards to give you great power. Sometimes you have to devour your own cards, which does cost you points but lets you do some really effective things.
Sometimes they give you Insane Outcasts, which are -1 points at the end of the game if they’re in your deck. These cards make good devouring fodder, though, if they happen to be in the same hand as a Demon that requires that.
Tyrants of the Underdark is easily in my Top 5 games that I’ve played. It’s so good, so fun. There’s plenty of player interaction, and it is definitely cutthroat in case you want to avoid that.
You will be fighting other players for dominance. You may be handing out Insane Outcasts like candy at Halloween (did anybody go as a Drow this year?). You will definitely be wanting to deny them the control that they need to score points.
This is not multiplayer solitaire.
I highly recommend this game. Get past the drab colours and cheap components. There is a wonderful game hidden under all of that.
(Number of Plays: 3)