Weekly Spotlight: Tyrants of the Underdark

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Forget this hero crap! Time to root for the bad guys! Equip your daggers, don your cloaks, and ready your poisons: this game is all about letting out your darker side. Welcome to Tyrants of the Underdark, one of my other Origins 2016 top picks. In this D&D IP you get to control a house of nefarious Drow lords vying for control of the subterranean world. But you aren’t just mindless thugs; you’ve got some class. So round up your minions and conspirators, and let’s do some bad.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Underdark, that’s fine, it’s not a requisite for enjoyment. The game easily conveys to the players the sorts of strategies you’ll be employing: guile, conquest, malice, ambition, and obedience. Some are better in a straight fight, while others use trickery and moving targets to confound your foes. You can gain relative status by promoting your followers to your inner circle, or simply assassinating your opponent’s troops. But as fun as it might be to play the villain, the most interesting thing about Tyrants is how these aspects are conveyed through the game mechanics.

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The game itself is a hybrid, balancing two core mechanics: deck-building and territory control. And in Tyrant’s case, each mechanic’s strength works to smooth over or mitigate the weaknesses of the other. As an example, the stability of your troop placement on the board works to settle the sometimes chaotic or swingy draw of the cards prevalent in most deck-builders. The need for slow and steady slog to expand your domain in territory control games is spiced up by inclusion of bursty card chains. It could be described that you’re playing a game on two different fronts, but the real beauty of the game is that it doesn’t feel that way. The board and deck intuitively compliment one another, making it simple for even first-time players to pick up the dual nature of the game.

It was in this diversity of strategy that I found real fun of the game resides. Each card added to your deck not only strengthens and diversifies the power of your future choices, it also removes those options from your opponents. Each troop placement or assassination on the board does the same. And as an added diversifying bonus, the game comes with 4 different decks, each with its own variation of available strategies. Each game is played by combining two of these decks to form the pool of cards to eventually choose from. Which means there are 6 different pool combinations to start with! This ups the replay value of the game a considerable amount.

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With so many different strategies, however, the game uses a normalized point system to quantify how well you’re doing, and eventually to win the game. The trouble is, it’s difficult to get a relative rating to these scores as the game is being played. It’s not until the end of the game when all the points from the board, your deck, and your achievements are tallied that a victor emerges. This means that despite feeling like you’ve got a decent and well-executed strategy, you might discover at the end that your neighbor trounced you in points. In some ways, this prevents the “dogpiling on the leader” problem that most territory control games suffer from. But when the point of a game is to win, it’s sometimes awkward to not know who’s winning until the game’s already over. Oh, and be forewarned: it’s not a small amount of points to count. Literally every choice made through the course of the game gains you points, and there are plenty of choices made.

And these choices add up, trust me. Not just in points, but in also in seconds. In 4-player games, downtime can be dull, leaving players languishing in wait for their turn. This speeds up with fewer players, and the board even scales with the reduced number of players by economically drawing smaller playable boundaries. While the game’s more fluid and tight in games with fewer players, larger player games, depending on the group, have the opportunity to engage in alliances with other players– however shaky or farcical they might be (you are bad guys after all). Just know, if you bore easily between turns you may want to stick to 2-3 players.

The real dagger is the game’s price point. It rings in at a hefty $75 SRP, which looking at the components, art, and size of the game feels a bit over priced. Nothing about the game is shoddy, but neither is anything top quality. A bit more aggravating is that while the game comes with a custom insert to neatly hold the components, the mold doesn’t allow for space to sleeve the cards. And with the less-than-highest quality and frequency these cards are shuffled you are going to want to sleeve them. It’s an admittedly minor and personal nitpick, but it’s a difficult grievance to swallow when it comes attached to a premium dollar value. Normally I wouldn’t advise folks to seek out deep discount sales for a game, but I will in this case. It’s not worth the asking price, but it’s more than fun enough to pick up if you can find a good deal online. 

Game Specs

  • Setup time: ~10 minutes
  • Play time: ~30 minutes per player
  • Cleanup time: ~3 minutes per player
  • Number of players: 2-4
  • Table Footprint: 9 sq ft. (2 ft. min. each side)
  • Core Mechanics:
    • Deck Building
    • Territory Control

You may like if you also like:

  • D&D Villains
  • Games that provide many options and paths to victory
  • Games with high replay value
  • Games that can be learned/taught relatively quickly

You may not like if you prefer:

  • Cooperative or team games
  • Games with a clear path to victory
  • 4+ player games with low downtime between turns

 

All images from Wizards of the Coast

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