It’s inevitable that when most board game fans hear the words “Tile-based game” they will immediately think of the perennially popular Carcassonne, which set a very high benchmark for the genre upon its release 19 years ago. Sub Terra is another tile-based game but you won’t find quaint castles, monasteries and lush green fields here, nor will you see sunlight, so strap on your head torch and lets go spelunking as we are going on an adventure deep underground into a network of dark, unexplored caves.
Sub Terra - The Game
Sub Terra is a co-operative game (designed by Tim Pinder) in-which you will need a range of skills to survive all manner of deadly hazards such as floods, falling rocks and poisonous gas. Doesn’t sound dangerous enough to you? Well you should be afraid… very afraid, because you aren’t alone in the dark and uncharted cave complex of Sub Terra, there are horrors lurking in the dark and they aren’t happy about you intruding in their home. This may sound like enough to be worried about but there is yet another danger to keep in mind, the batteries in your torches are running low and if you fail to find the cave exit in time you will be lost in the darkness forever.
The basic premise of the game is to move your cavers around the cave network, revealing new tiles as you go while avoiding hazards and horrors. You must help your team mates in order to succeed and you must occasionally take risks in order to locate the exit before time runs out. Push your luck too much and your caver may be knocked unconscious leaving you to rely on one of your team mates to reach your location and revive you.
A game of Sub Terra typically takes no more than one hour to finish and can be played by one to six players, it works well at any player count as the actions are quick and easy to perform and the game does not suffer from analysis paralysis. There is no disadvantage to having a lower player count either, solo players are encouraged to play with four to six characters and when playing with two or three players each player chooses two characters each.
There are eight diverse characters to pick from and each has two unique skills, so choose wisely as these skills can make a big difference in an emergency situation as the tension rises closer to the end of the game.
Playing Sub Terra
During the set-up of the game the 64 cave tiles are placed face-down and the exit tile is shuffled into the bottom five tiles of the stack, this means that it will always be one of the last six in the stack. You will need to make sure you are exploring and revealing new cave tiles quickly and making the best possible use of your turns in order to find the exit before running out of time.
Sub Terra has a choice of normal, advanced or expert difficulty which determine the type and number of hazard cards that will be placed in the deck, the choice of difficulty adds to the replay-ability of the game.
To begin the game the starting tile is placed, and all players place their caver pieces (hard hat wearing meeples) onto the starting tile. Each round of the game consists of four phases:
- Action Phase - All players take turns to spend two action points each on the available actions which allow you to move, heal yourself or a team mate or reveal new tiles. A third action point is available to use, however, this comes with a risk, if you decide to use this bonus action point you must roll a six-sided dice at the end of your turn, roll less than four and you lose a health point.
- Horror Phase - There can be up to three horrors in the cave at any time and each of them will move one space towards the nearest caver during each horror phase. If a horror lands on the same space as a caver, the caver immediately loses all health and becomes unconscious.
- Hazard Phase - A card is drawn from the hazard deck and the effect is resolved. If you're unlucky and any of your cavers happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, they may take some damage. If you're lucky enough to get through the hazard phase unscathed you may find that you now have obstacles in your path which will slow your progress or slow down your escape from a horror in hot pursuit. The bottom card in the hazard deck is the "Out of Time" card, once this is played your torch batteries run out and it's time for a mad dash for the exit because it's now necessary for all players to roll the dice at the beginning of each future hazard phase. Roll less than four and your caver is lost in the darkness and devoured by the horrors.
- End Phase - The starting player token is passed to the next player on the left and then play begins again from the action phase.
Your success in Sub Terra is determined by how many cavers successfully make it to the exit before you run out of time. No cavers left behind? You’ve won yourselves a gold award, well done! One caver left behind gets you a silver and two cavers left behind gets you a bronze. Three or more cavers left behind? There are no awards to be had here, this only means defeat, time to reshuffle those tiles and try again!
Sub Terra certainly stands out from the crowd by putting a survival horror twist on the tile-laying game genre. One of the best things about the game is that the high replay value due to the fact that no two cave layouts will ever be the same and even after ‘winning’ the game by successfully exiting the cave there is an incentive to go back and try again to win gold medals and take on the harder difficulties.
The caver boards and the cave tiles are made from high-quality cardboard and despite having made it to my table many times none of the pieces are showing any signs of wear and tear. Sub Terra could make a great gateway game for newcomers to the hobby as there isn’t an overwhelming number of rules to explain before getting started.
The out of time card and the feeling of racing against the clock to find the exit in time creates some real tension and excitement but without feeling too stressful and although the theme and events portrayed in the game are somewhat dark (no pun intended) it is still fun to play.
I highly recommend Sub Terra, especially to anyone who has enjoyed other tile-based games and wants something with a darker theme. Fans of the co-op classic Pandemic who are looking for a new challenge should find plenty to enjoy here too.