Tyrants of the Underdark is the followup to Wizard of the Coast’s 2012 smash hit Lords of Waterdeep. It features the same crack design team and a similar approach of smooth and accessible play with some depth. Couple that with the fantastic setting and you have a mix that should prove delicious.
Instead of venturing through the City of Splendors, Tyrants takes us to the subterranean caverns of the Drow. Each player leads a Drow house and wields a collection of minions represented by a deck of cards. Your army of sycophants will grow as you purchase additional cards to your cadre. This Ascension-style deckbuildling mechanism provides for half of the design as you’re plucking warriors and assassins from the public exhibit and tuning your collection to a particular strategy.
The most interesting aspect of this portion of the game lies in the Promote ability. This effect allows you to cull cards from your deck and place them in your Inner Sanctum. The benefit here is twofold: first, you thin your deck to keep your more powerful minions hitting the table more rapidly, and second you earn substantial amounts of victory points for end game scoring. Yeah, imagine Chapel in Dominion trashing cards and racking up Duchies that don’t clog your engine.
The downside to the deckbuilding structure is that you are at the whims of fate when acquiring these cards from the offer. If those extremely important Promote options are bought up before you are able to get them, you will find yourself at a distinct disadvantage. This isn’t a huge problem in the design, but it’s something to be aware of and tailor your strategy towards.
The more interesting portion of the game lies in the area control board-play. You are occupying spaces on this sprawling map to control cities for temporary benefit as well as long term scoring. There are choke points which delay your push and thorough planning needs to be put into place in order to properly advance. It’s more about conflict and less about fiddling with your own engine.
And conflict is really where the game finds its best moments. You can kill other player’s troops and toss down spies that don’t require open spaces on the map. You can even deploy a spy all the way across the board rather than branch out from your existing network. These devious backstabbers prevent players from gaining full control of a city and also allow you to gain a new foothold for expansion.
There’s a lot of good to be found here but unfortunately it’s undermined by the MSRP. While the modern board game is certainly not cheap, this price tag seems a little overzealous considering the included components. This is something you need to be comfortable with as the artwork and diminutive shield miniatures are not going to hit you with the same awe as the fire giant in Blood Rage.
It also must be stated that while Tyrants of the Underdark is a good game that brings a solid amount of fun, I can’t help but point out how plain Jane it all is. There’s not really anything here that will blow your mind or have you take a step back from the table in wonder. We’ve seen all these mechanisms before–even the stellar Promote was featured previously in Valley of the Kings and Don’t Turn Your Back.
The flipside to this criticism is of course the fact that what we do have here will appeal to a wide range of gamers. The mechanisms are familiar and simple. You can dive right in after a five minute explanation and be off and running, actually playing rather than studying.
This design never fails; it simply hasn’t unlocked its glorious potential. It can’t be denied the game is a smooth operator and certainly works. This gives hope that it will gain a level of distinction and personality perhaps with an expansion. Its older brother Lords of Waterdeep had the same issues in that the bland base game was spiced up with the Corruption mechanism and alternate boards presented in Scoundrels of Skullport.
If Tyrants of the Underdark doesn’t take that next step we’ll have to make do. The blend of integrated board play with deckbuilding does provide a solid experience and a dose of fun, but it leaves me hungry for more.
Do you enjoy exploring Dungeons and Dragons through board games? Are you a fan of the Drow? Let us know in the comments below!
All images courtesy of Gale Force Nine/Wizards of the Coast