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  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You Might Like

  • Excellent theme which is thoughtfully applied
  • Looks great
  • A real thinker!

Might Not Like

  • Flimsy player board
  • Can be slow to gain resources
  • Doesn't scale very well for more payers

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Underwater Cities – Solo Review

underwater cities

Ever wanted to move to an underwater realm? Jealous of Ariel from The Little Mermaid while growing up, and didn’t understand why she’d want to move to the land? Yeah, me too. That’s what initially attracted me to Underwater Cities!

What is it?

Underwater Cities is a worker placement, hand management game where you’re attempting to build up a network of cities in your underwater realm. The game consists of three eras, with a production round at the end of each. The eras are made up of three or four rounds, with a round being three turns per player. On your turn, you will choose a card from your hand, and play that to put your player marker on one open player slot on the board to take the action shown for that slot. If your card colour matches the slot, you also get to use that card’s power. Then you draw a card, and it’s the end of your turn.

The slots range from drawing more resources to constructing a city/building, with others allowing you to advance on the federation track (which gives you bonuses), gain more cards, or upgrade buildings. Cards come in various forms- instant effects, permanent effects (such as discounts on a building type), abilities (usable once per era, with the relevant slot or card effect), and end game bonuses. While you always draw one card at the end of your turn, several cards and slots let you draw more, and the hand limit is three, so you must be pretty selective about what colours and effects you keep!

In general, you will be aiming to build up your network of cities and buildings (farms, desalination plants, and laboratories), connecting them via tunnels to enable workers to move in and the buildings to start producing resources. This is where the engine building aspect comes in- the more connected buildings you have, the more your network will produce in the production phase, and the more you can build in the next era.

Winning in solo mode is a matter of having 7 connected cities on your board as well as 100 points at the end of the game!


The set-up for Underwater Cities is pretty simple, and the solo mode set-up is very similar to 2 player. The number of players determines which side of the main board to use, as well as how many symbiotic cities are available (unlimited for solo). Resources are put within easy reach, specialists (which often give more powerful effects but must be paid for!) are dealt onto the main board, and the three era decks shuffled thoroughly.

The player randomly chooses a player board, using the more complex side for solo mode, randomly places coastal metropolises on their board, places a starting city and gains some resources. Each player also gets an info card, which comes in very handy throughout (especially in the production phase), an assistant, and a card to remind them of end game scoring conditions.


The gameplay itself is also pretty simple, with turns as described above, but there can be a lot to consider at times. Personally, I’d put it roughly on par with Lost Ruins of Arnak or Wingspan, though I know many people consider it to be slightly more complex. There are diverse ways to score points; even with what buildings you choose you have to balance resource production, bonuses for multiple buildings of the same type during production and some end game scoring cards, and the general score bonus for having cities with different building types. I’d categorise it under the “easy to learn, hard to master” category, which is probably my favourite type of game, rewarding repeat plays.

The player boards have two sides, one more complex than the other with surcharges and bonuses for some build areas, but you will always use the more complex side for solo mode. The randomness aspect from the shuffled decks and which 3 credit specialists are available means you cannot always rely on the same tactic game to game and may have to adapt your strategy depending on what cards come out- again, enhancing the replayability. Underwater Cities implements the theme fairly well, in my opinion, with potential to expand on this in the future. You need to have your cities connected by tunnels for people to move in, and while you can construct things before connecting them, buildings won’t produce resources unless there are people nearby to work in them. You get bonuses from sending experts in a particular field to do a task in that field (i.e. card colours matching slot colours), although this could be made more obvious with the cards/slots themselves, and must feed all of your cities at the end of each era.

I would enjoy some additional aspect related to the theme- perhaps you have a chance to discover relics while constructing your buildings, or there could be variable player powers to allow specialisation, à la Terraforming Mars’ corporations, however the base game is thematic and complex enough to keep me happy for a while, and I know there is an expansion, though I haven’t tried it.

Bot/Automa Management

The solo opponent is super easy to manage and is basically just blocking you from certain actions. Each round, you just move their markers around one space clockwise, and add a fourth marker if you didn’t progress on the federation track. This final marker’s position is determined by drawing a card and using the card number to find a position, counting around from the right-most green space. I’ve been considering using the same system as for the additional marker (using card numbers) to make it more random and more like playing against a real opponent who isn’t going to be moving that predictably around the board. This doesn’t improve my chances of winning, of course, but would potentially make it feel more similar to multiplayer. I have yet to test this though, given my struggle to beat it even with the predictability!

The Winning Consideration

Underwater Cities in solo mode is a hard game to win. I much prefer the target to win over solely the beat your own score system, and it’s difficult enough that the winning condition is what I’m aiming for, rather than being comfortable enough with it to be trying to improve my score. Personally, I like to win solo games 20-40% of the time, depending on the duration of the game.

For shorter games, such as Sprawlopolis, I’m happy with a lower number. For longer games, the time and effort I put in feels like I need a higher win rate as pay off! Underwater Cities falls mid to high range for me, with about 60 minutes playtime, but I think even with more practice the winning rate will be lower than I would normally hope for. The question here then, is by what degree can enjoyment of the game offset the frustration of repeat losses? I feel like I should answer that with “The enjoyment is the only thing that matters!”, but let’s be honest, it is nice to win occasionally, especially playing solo. It did see a lapse in playtime for me because of that- I ended up disliking the feeling of thinking I’d had a particularly good game, only to still be a way off at least one of the winning metrics. I never considered selling it though, as I always knew that the theme and gameplay (and challenge!) would be enough to draw me back sooner or later.

The Inevitable Comparison to Terraforming Mars

Rightly or not, one thing you often see with Underwater Cities is a comparison to Terraforming Mars. I’m not sure how this started, but for me they’re pretty different games and I’m happy to own and play both. While both include collecting/playing cards and building up resources with aspects of engine building, and both are thematically about building in an inhospitable environment, there are a lot of differences too.

Underwater Cities, for example, uses worker placement as the main mechanic, and the building is done individually rather than on a group board. Also in Underwater Cities, the main form of player interaction comes from competing for the worker spaces on the board, whereas in Terraforming Mars it’s for building spaces and (if you use the drafting system) cards, as well as the interaction cards and the overall race to Mars being terraformed, where players can determine how long or short the game is.

Underwater Cities does have a fair degree of variability in the cards that come into play, both in the era decks and the specialists that are available. They do, however, all feel more similar in ability than those in Terraforming Mars and is one aspect I would want to change if I were to make this my ‘ideal’ game. I think this is the main place where I would like additional variability in Underwater Cities.

Components and Aesthetics

The components in the Underwater Cities base game are, in general, fine. The cards and board are much as you’d expect; the resource tokens are cardboard, and the player tokens are plain coloured wood. The city domes and building pieces are quite nice and give a 3D presence on the player boards, however the player boards themselves are just card and could really be more substantial with dual layering to keep the pieces in place- the buildings in particular are not safe from my cat! Aesthetics wise, it’s a colourful game with a heavy reliance on symbology rather than blocks of text. The art is decent but nothing special; I like the style of the player board background, and the cards (where the majority of the art comes in) are fine - I think maybe the style of the cards overall doesn’t really resonate with me, as I can’t see anything really wrong with the art but also am not a huge fan. Potentially the box art led me to have excessively high expectations as well.

I haven’t tested this, but it may be a difficult game for colour blind players, especially those with red-green blindness. While you could remember which section of the board is which colour, the cards don’t have any symbology to show their colour and even the farm vs desalination plant discs would probably be an issue.

Overall Thoughts

Underwater Cities initially attracted me with the theme. I do have a bad habit of seeing a game set underwater and immediately wanting it (blame the ocean science degree!), and it was within the first 5 board games I bought so I can’t say that my decision to purchase it was hugely influenced by knowledge of the gameplay. Having said that, it still has a comfortable place in my collection 3 years later, so maybe impulse based shopping isn’t all that bad? Let’s not follow that line of thought… On the whole, I really enjoy Underwater Cities as a solo game. It’s a good level of complexity and length to give you that absorbing player experience without taking up your whole evening or fully burning your brain! I really enjoy building a network of cities and think they applied the theme well here, allowing you to build out but not produce resources unless people are nearby to run those buildings.

I particularly like the aspects of engine building you get with increasing your resource income as you build up your city network more, and the different types of end game scoring. There’s a solid amount of replayability too- as previously mentioned, I feel it is one that rewards repeat plays, and the large deck size means you can’t rely on certain cards appearing.

I do have some niggling issues with it; the bot movements feel a bit too predictable for me and I would really like a better player board, however nothing that will stop me coming back to this game frequently. I do feel I will eventually start to wish for more variability in what actions you can take and what the cards give you, which is probably the main limiting factor for how often Underwater Cities will reach my table. Furthermore, I can see this becoming a discouraging solo experience if you prefer to win a significant amount of the time, and to reach that stage after 1 or 2 games. Additionally, if you truly hate that feeling (not just in an entertained frustration way!) of ‘I could’ve won if I just had one more go!,’ you may be better off looking elsewhere. These issues don’t bother me personally but are definitely something to consider if you’re considering purchasing Underwater Cities!


Overall: 70

Artwork: 4/5

Complexity: 3/5

Replayability: 3/5

Player Interaction: N/A

Component Quality: 4/5


- Enjoyable theme which is implemented well.

- Simplicity of running the solo opponent allows you to focus on your turns rather than upkeep.

- Game length and complexity is a good balance.


- Flimsy playerboard- prone to pieces moving if knocked (apparently you get a double layered mat in the expansion).

- May not work well for colour blind players.

- Would love a bit more variability or another aspect to the game.


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Zatu Score


  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You might like

  • Excellent theme which is thoughtfully applied
  • Looks great
  • A real thinker!

Might not like

  • Flimsy player board
  • Can be slow to gain resources
  • Doesn't scale very well for more payers

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