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Subject: Jerk Elves - A review of Tyrants of the Underdark rss

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Scott Sexton
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Elevator Pitch - Ascension + Area Control + Points Salad + D&D = Tyrants of the Underdark

Overview - Do yourself a favor and watch the Norris' game play video to get a feeling for how the game is played (great video you two!). Tyrants of the Underdark doesn't do anything particularly new, but it does significantly refine and improve on its spiritual predecessors. Many gamers have probably never played, much less heard of Princes of the Dragon Throne, which in many ways is every bit the mechanical parent of this game as Ascension is. Princes is, I believe, the first deck building game that added a significant area control element. In fact, one may even argue that Princes is an area control game with a side of deck building. The deck building engine here is lifted directly from Ascension in that you have an evolving market of 6 cards and 2 basic cards (one for influence and one for power). The cards themselves also feel very Ascension like in how they combo with one another and how they incorporate the culling mechanic.

What makes Tyrants interesting for me is that it builds upon Princes & Ascension in very positive ways. Princes can get mean, but largely it feels bloodless. Its a shoving match not a knife fight. The deck building also feels a bit underutilized in Princes. It is a side element of the game with most of the emphasis put on the area control. The cards in Princes also are rather basic. Most give you tweaks to your resources or ability to deploy your units, and only rarely have special powers. Tyrants ramps up the special powers to 11. Every card has its own unique flavor and powers and one can easily be overwhelmed when considering the sheer diversity of options presented on the cards. Ascension on the other hand has always had an awkward relationship with the strength/power resource in my mind, even to the point of things feeling anti-thematic. Star Realms tried to fix this by letting you use the strength resource to directly attack your opponent. Tyrants one ups Ascension and Star Realms by make Strength a resource tided directly to how a player manipulates the board state. You can use strength to add troops to the board, kill enemies, and remove spies from the board. These are all highly thematic uses of the resource and the diverse use of the resources allows you to always have option with your strength (it never gets wasted).

Some folks may tout the culling mechanic (promotion) as an improvement over Ascension. In truth, the promotion mechanic is a blending of the cull mechanic and the "entomb" mechanic from Valley of the Kings, where you can remove cards from your deck to build rummy like melds to score points. The promotion mechanic works better here then culling in Ascension/Star Realms (because of the points scoring aspect IMHO) BUT I don't quite enjoy it as much as Valley of the Kings. In Valley of the Kings, putting a card in your Tomb is usually a much more difficult decision, and you may find yourself choosing not to entomb if you fear you'll degrade your deck's efficiency. Maybe I've not played Tyrants enough, but it never feels to me like promoting cards degrades your deck. No card's powers felt so awesome that I couldn't get along just fine without the card in my deck. You'll always want to take that promotion action in Tyrants when available, even if you don't have any starter cards left to cull.

What do I like about Tyrants?

1- All the fun card play of Ascension, with a huge improvement in how the strength resource is used. Strength/Power in Ascension feels boring by comparison to how it is used in Tyrants. The way that strength/power is incorporated into manipulating the board is ingenious and extremely fun. The area control elements of the game are every bit as satisfying as Princes of the Dragon Throne. You'll have fun watching your troops spread out across the board and be thrilled by the visceral sense of attrition as you mow down your opponents' troops.

2- The deck building is fun. The cards available for purchase are diverse and almost all are worth adding to just about any deck (even if they don't go with your deck's focus perfectly). Buying cards is always fun when you have cool new shiny power cards to toy around with.

3- The card art is fantastic! Yes, D&D has decades worth of art to draw from, but somehow, despite having enough artists to make a dozen different games, the art remains consistent in style and quality. Yes, much of the art is recycled from prior projects, but when it looks this good, who cares? Upper Deck should take note, this is what game art should look like when you are using a beloved IP.

4- The game seems to be well suited for expansions. I could imagine new half-decks that could easily be added to the 4 market decks you start with. These would be pretty easy to produce and sell too. I'm also hopeful that we could have new maps too, designed perhaps for different player counts. I hope this isn't the last we've seen from this game series.

What do I not like about Tyrants?

1- The game board's art design is AWFUL. Gale Force 9 should have looked at the Lords of Waterdeep game board and made an Underdark version. I'd gladly pay $20 - $30 bucks for a nice new board for this game. Right now, its just darkness with the occasional dimly lit picture to reprsent some of the locations on the board. The board art looks like a mess and frankly spits in the face of consumers who spend the hefty $75 MSRP. A good board would have made this game SOOOOO much more immersive. I'm shocked that GF9 doesn't seem to "get" how important a good board art is for "dudes on the map" style games. Blood Rage, Chaos in the Old World, A Game of Thrones, even Lords of Waterdeep, a HUGE part of the attraction to these games is in how awesome the game looks on the table. Imagine how cool it would have been to have a sepia colored map of the Underdark with smears of dried blood, grime, and ichor flecked across it. This is easily the biggest missed opportunity that GF9 blew. I think that if they had done a better job on the game board, you'd hear a lot fewer complaints about the game's price tag.

2- The card stock is poor. These are thin cards with black borders on both sides. It only takes a single game to show significant wear on the cards unless you sleeve them. I can only guess that GF9 assumes that players are going to know to sleeve the cards because this is a deck building game. Its not a big deal to me (because I'm a sleever) but consider yourself warned.

Conclusion - I simply adore Tyrants of the Underdark. The only real draw back is the BS game board. Seriously GF9, you should be ashamed that this made it through to production. This isn't as bad as the garbage art you see from Upper Deck, but then again, Upper Deck doesn't charge $75 for their deck builders either. Game board aside, I LOVE how the game uses the Ascension style mechanisms and integrates the strength/power resource as a way of manipulating the board. It is incredibly fun to play a solid area control game driven by a deck building mechanism.

Moral of the Game - Some elves can be real jerks.
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Salman Qaisar
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scottatlaw wrote:

2- The card stock is poor. These are thin cards with black borders on both sides. It only takes a single game to show significant wear on the cards unless you sleeve them. I can only guess that GF9 assumes that players are going to know to sleeve the cards because this is a deck building game.

If so, why the hell did they design an insert that does not fit sleeved cards?!

The project management of this game is an absolute shambles.
They have wrecked all the hard work of the designers.
It's like they don't want the game to sell or do well!

Sal.
Btw great review!
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Anon Y. Mous
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Zalman wrote:
If so, why the hell did they design an insert that does not fit sleeved cards?!


Insert? You mean the thing you just throw away and replace with plastic bags?
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