Tyrants of the Underdark Review
Since 2010s Castle RavenloftWizards of the Coast has consistently released high quality board games from the Dungeons & Dragons franchise. Most of them were just the kind of fun adventure or conquest games you associate with a license. But the range also includes some deeper strategy games, including 2016’s Tyrants of the Underdark (look on amazon).
Players represent the noble houses of the dark elves, who spread their evil influence through the dark caverns of the underworld. To do this, they create their own deck of cards by purchasing new ones from the open choice, a mechanic known as deck building. The game is now back in a stunning new edition that includes the Aberrations & Undead expansion, giving you even more maps to play with.
What’s in the box
The original edition came with miniature plastic shields that represented your powers on a board. Here they are replaced by cardboard disks. It’s a minor loss that makes the game a little less visually impressive, but much more compact and accessible.
The board on which tokens are placed is simple yet functional, showing a series of interconnected areas with lines and circles. All purple, black and white, which is themed but can make it difficult to distinguish. There are also four game boards and a market board for storing stacks of cards.
Beneath the playing field are a number of cards, also with purple backs and over-decorated with the word “Minion”. However, the game stands out with the front of the card, which has all the information laid out clearly around some classic Dungeons & Dragons art. Due to the game’s long history, there are plenty of fantastic art for all the people and monsters featured in the game, and the back catalog is being used to the fullest to bring the action to life.
Rules and how to play
On your turn, you draw and play five cards from your deck. Most of them provide either influence, which you can use to buy more cards to add to your deck, or power, an abstraction of military prowess. One power can be spent to place a token in a space adjacent to an existing token. Three of a kind will allow you to destroy an adjacent enemy token either from the opposing player or from one of the white “neutral” tokens scattered around the board at the beginning. It is a compact and accessible framework.
Your goal with this is to have the most troops in key locations that will earn you points at the end of the game. Some of them are major cities that will give you extra influence or even points once you take control. Needless to say, they are difficult to acquire and are hotly contested. You’ll be pulling your soldiers from the starting point, balancing location control with spread speed, forcing your opponents into choke points. There is a real tension waiting to see how the map changes before your turn comes.
The secret to the success of Tyrants of the Underdark is that location points are only one possible source of points. You can also score points by knocking out enemy tokens and the effect of some cards. Indeed, the cards themselves are also worth points when the game ends. Instead of destroying cards from your deck like most deck builders do, here you “advance” them, which pulls them out of your deck and sets them aside, giving them extra points in the final tally.
Together, these simple concepts provide a dizzying array of methods for approaching the game. On the one hand, you can go for total conquest by stuffing your deck with military cards and hoping to crush your opponents before their strategies take effect. Running out of tokens ends the game, making this a viable tactic. On the other hand, you can increase your influence to get more and more powerful cards, using boosts and points to make up for your weak presence on the map.
There is a real tension waiting to see how the map changes before your turn comes.
In practice, your choice is determined by the random choice cards available for purchase on your turn, leaving you to dabble in the various shenanigans of the game. It’s a powerful recipe to keep you thinking on the go, upping the ante as each new card appears, while still allowing you to decide how to shape your strategy. No two games will play the same way, and your potential path to victory will be different each time. At the same time, a random hand can sometimes leave you without a suitable choice or deliver a killer combo to your opponent.
Many cards expand on the basic formula for influence and power. And that’s a good job too, as every now and then pushing an enemy unit and then adding your own only to see the enemy repeat the moves can get a little tiring. The most common are those that bring spies into the mix, units that can be placed anywhere on the board and then sacrificed for a powerful bonus.
Dungeons & Dragons game
But this is a Dungeons & Dragons game, and the cards represent the breadth of the game’s world-building. Each game has two half decks of source cards that players can purchase: the rules assume you start with Dark Elves and Dragons. They fit in with the core mechanics of the game: the former tend to provide influence and opportunities to advance your cards, while the latter have more brute force. They range from weak underlings to powerful drow matriarchs and ancient snakes, and are a lot of fun to add to your deck and play.
These are just two of the possible ways to build a market. Other semi-decks include Demons, which you can empower by sacrificing your cards, and Elementals, whose Focus keyword allows you to stack linked cards for great bonuses. The two semi-decks from the Aberrations & Undead expansion featured here are less differentiated, but still a lot of fun to play with. And each one is full of iconic monsters from the RPG bestiary to hire and serve your cause.
No two games will play the same way.
Where could I buy
Tyrants of the Underdark has a MSRP of $74.99 and is available from several retailers.