In Underwater Cities, which takes about 30-45 minutes per player, players represent the most powerful brains in the world, brains nominated due to the overpopulation of Earth to establish the best and most livable underwater areas possible.
The main principle of the game is card placement. Three colored cards are placed along the edge of the main board into 3 x 5 slots, which are also colored. Ideally players can place cards into slots of the same color. Then they can take both actions and advantages: the action depicted in the slot on the main board and also the advantage of the card. Actions and advantages can allow players to intake raw materials; to build and upgrade city domes, tunnels and production buildings such as farms, desalination devices and laboratories in their personal underwater area; to move their marker on the initiative track (which is important for player order in the next turn); to activate the player's "A-cards"; and to collect cards, both special ones and basic ones that allow for better decision possibilities during gameplay.
All of the nearly 220 cards - whether special or basic - are divided into four types according to the way and time of use. Underwater areas are planned to be double-sided, giving players many opportunities to achieve VPs and finally win.
As I play it, it reminds me of several city building simulation games and elements of board games like Through the Ages. It's a fantastic mash up of all the genres I love and games I enjoy to play.
Underwater Cities is a worker placement style game. There is resource management, city and network building and a splash of engine building too. It also has a solo variant which is a plus for me. I like how all the actions you take can be planned and chained together to create bigger and better benefits.
This game is really thematic, which again is important for me. For example, when choosing an action slot on the board, you must also play a card from your hand. If you play a card that matches the colour of the action slot on the board, you get to use the card too. If it doesn't, the card is discarded.
The rules say this is because you sent someone to do a job which wasn't their area of expertise. So they did it (which is you gaining the benefits from the action slot on the board). But they don't go above and beyond, like an expert in the field might. So, you don't get any extra benefits (which would be the cards you played).
The way the network of your city functions also maintains the thematic element. You can build farms, labs or desalination plants on spaces without a city. Alas, you can't gain anything from them during production because there is no city for workers to live in yet.
Will you focus on a particular building type for huge production benefits? Or will you balance each city for bonus points at the end of the game?
I really like the instructions for Underwater Cities. They start off strong with a short introduction to the story of the game and what you’ll be doing. This is followed by double page spreads of the components and set up. Everything is labelled very clearly and it’s easy to follow.
I know, it sounds daft, but so many rule books get it wrong. There were a few places that things read almost like they hadn’t been translated very well. Sometimes information wasn’t where I thought it would be. But these occurrences were few and far between.
Overall the rules are great. There's lots of visual references, headers and labels to help you find what you’re looking for quickly and to guide you through your first game.
The set up feels fairly simple for a medium/heavy weight game too. The most complicated bit is separating all the different tokens. If you have a few spare clear baggies to hand that can be fixed in no time.
Separate the 3 era decks, place markers on the score and era tracks and populate the board with Specialists and you’re ready for player set up.
Each player gets a small selection of resources, a starting city and some Metrolois tiles. These offer bonuses when connected with your city. You might need to read the player order section more than once to get it straight in your head, but it’s actually pretty simple and a great feature for levelling and gaining extra points or resources.
Where to even start! There is so much to take in on your first game. As always, I would advise to just start doing stuff and see what happens. It might take a couple of games to get into the flow of combining actions and maximising opportunities. Trust me when I say that it’s well worth it.
Essentially, players take it in turns to combine cards and action slots on the board, to build and expand their cities or gain resources or extra cards. If the card you play matches the colour of the action slot on the board you’ve chosen, you get to reap the benefits of both the slot and the card.
This creates yet another layer of consideration. There may be times when you may have to sacrifice a good card in order to use a space on the board you don’t have a matching coloured card for.
It can feel quite restrictive at times, as production phases only happen 3 times in the game: at the end of each era, and eras are 3 or 4 rounds long. There are 2 sides to the board though, so if you’re playing with more players, there are extra slots to gain resources from.
Once you get to know the game you’ll find there are strategies to help you grow your city between production phases and make the most out of production when it comes. But if you’re hoping to amass tons of stuff and build the biggest city the ocean has ever seen, you may be a little disappointed to begin with.
There’s not a lot of player interaction in Underwater Cities, which for me personally, is fine. There are so many decisions being made on your own player board, I think it would be way too much to have to consider what everyone else was up to - aside form whether they have just taken that slot on the board you had your eye on for your next turn!
The fact there isn’t a lot of player interaction makes this a perfect candidate for solo play. I’ve only played it once on my own but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not having to worry about your analysis paralysis is refreshing - because there will be a lot of that when you play Underwater Cities.
The ‘opponent’ moves and occupies spaces from right to left each round. This means you can plan and strategise around the slots you know will be unavailable.
As well as a double sided game board, you get a double sided player board too. You’ll use the more advanced side in a solo game, and it’s great fun. It gives players surcharges for some spaces and production multipliers for others; so it will be more expensive to build sometimes but you’ll get great bonuses in production if you do.
Each player board is unique on both sides too. So there’s a lot of replayability with the different combinations you could end up with on your player board and the metropolis tiles you get.
There are also a lot of cards, which you probably won’t use all of in a single game, neither will you use all the special cards. So plenty of surprises in there each time you pick this up.
Look and Feel
I think you can already guess I give the artwork on this game a big thumbs up. The resource tokens are a bit odd, and the 3’s are kind of awkward. But the buildings and tunnels look great as they start to take shape on your board.
The box is beautiful. The cards are great. Although, I was a little disappointed that the “purple” cities are actually more red than purple. Not because it was confusing, just because I like purple!
The player boards are actually just paper, which was also a bit disappointing. You do get a lot of tokens and components in the box, plus the level of gameplay is very good.
Underwater Cities is a solid game that I enjoy more each time I pick it up. There are so many options and strategies to take. It’s a shame it only goes up to 4 players but actually, I think 4 or more players is a tough game. The number of slots is limited and the more people vying for the same spots makes the game even more restrictive.
Overall, the quality and value for money is a bit hit and miss. The player boards are going to deteriorate pretty quickly without careful handling, there’s no insert and not enough baggies. But the box has a great rolled texture when you pick it up and the rest of the components are great. I think I’ll forgive the player boards and lack of any sort of insert for this reason, and because it’s such a good game to play regardless.