You've probably heard of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the deep role-playing game by Wizards of the Coast. However, you may not have heard about Tyrants of the Underdark. While most D&D games see you playing heroes battling monsters and saving the day, Tyrants of the Underdark does something a little different.
In this game, you're playing as Drow (Dark Elves) and you're certainly not the heroes of this story. You're a power-hungry leader looking to take control of as much mysterious underground territory as possible. You're definitely not looking to make friends with the other Drow factions either.
Playing the Game
At its core, Tyrants of the Underdark is a deck-building game. However, like games such as Clank! there is another layer of gameplay to this game. Many of the cards you'll find yourself using will grant you a resource called 'power'. This grants the ability to place units on areas of the board representing territories and tunnels.
You can grasp control of such non-pronounceable places such as "Ss'zuraass'nee" and "Menzoberranzan". However, as you slowly expand your web of influence across the board, you're increasingly likely to find yourself clashing with the other players over pieces of territory.
Each area of the board only has space for a certain number of your units. As you can imagine, these can fill up rather quickly. This brings you to the second use for your power, and that is to eliminate nearby enemy units in order to free-up territories for yourself. In Tyrants of the Underdark, you will be battling back and forth over the territories with your friends, with every turn giving you the enticing chance to burn their troops to ash with a Red Dragon or chase them away with your Drow Bounty Hunter.
Gaining territory is very important, as you'll get points at the end of the game for each territory you control. The REALLY important territories will grant you victory points every single turn you control them. However, this isn't the only way to score points. You're also going to score for every enemy troop you've killed along the way, for the cards in your deck, and perhaps most-interestingly for the cards in your illustrious 'inner circle'.
I mentioned earlier that 'power' is the resource which allows you to take control of the board. The other resource in this game is called 'influence'. This allows you to purchase new cards for your deck from the market board. These cards vary from enormous dragons to deadly fire elementals, and lots of choices in between.
Some of these cards have the ability to 'promote' other cards. This means that you can remove the card from your deck and set it aside in your 'inner circle' area. As a result, you'll never be able to play this card again. However, it will score considerably more points than if you keep it in your deck. Other cards allow you to place your sneaky spies anywhere on the board. Not only do these allow you to move your troops to that location from then onwards, but it can also be used to block scoring for your opponents.
While the cards available to you do provide you with a lot of options, the turns themselves play out relatively simply. On your turn you'll:
- Play your five cards.
- Spend your power to affect the board and your influence to buy new cards.
- At the end of your turn you will draw back five new cards ready for your next turn.
However, the choices available do give a lot of depth. You need to decide which territories to take and when. You also need to decide whether it's better to promote a card or keep it in your deck. Impressively, each decision you make in this game feel like an important one.
Positives and Negatives
The player interaction in this game is at a brilliant level. You're constantly vying for control of territories, but the attacks never feel mean-spirited or personal (especially since they're happening so often, and every player always has a chance for a comeback). This is a game which will reward you for knowing what's happening on the board around you and reacting to it.
The replay-ability of Tyrants of the Underdark is also fantastic. The main deck you'll purchase cards from is created by shuffling together two faction 'half-decks' (in the base game these are Drow, Dragons, Elementals, and Demons). This gives you six combinations of decks to try in the game. In each one you'll find different interesting combos between the cards. In addition, there is a small expansion called Aberrations and Undead, which provides two additional factions to push the replay-ability of this game even further.
While we're on the subject of the cards, in a lot of deck-building games there are hundreds of different cards, but they all do small variations on basically the same thing. What I like about Tyrants of the Underdark is that so many of the cards feel both unique and really fun to use. Whether you're using the combos on your swarm of Elementals to draw a bunch of cards, or using massive demons to sacrifice your own cards for the greater good it always manages to feel cool.
Tyrants of the Underdark scales exceptionally well within its 2-4 player count, as sections of the board are cut off depending on how many players you have. This helps keep the board tight and the battles exciting no matter how many opponents there are.
The aesthetics are where some people might find disappointment. The main board looks a bit lacklustre and monochromatic. Meanwhile, the pieces representing your troops aren't the cool miniatures they could be, but instead are coloured shields. However, one thing D&D has always had is gorgeous artwork, and that's certainly true for this game. There are so many unique pieces of card art (by Steve Ellis) to marvel at on the cards.
Final Thoughts on Tyrants of the Underdark
Tyrants of the Underdark is up there with my favourite deck-building games of all time. It feels a little more refined than Clank!, has more player interaction than Dominion, and the turns feel more exciting than in Marvel Legendary.
It takes some of the best aspects of deck-building and area control, and combines them into a game which flows perfectly and never outstays its welcome.