The earth’s resources are becoming exhausted, and despite all the talk about settling among the stars, those plans keep getting held up. It’s time to explore an option a little closer to home: the ocean.
People might not like it at first–a diet of kelp, worse WiFi, and longer drives to see loved ones–but as tunnels are built, infrastructure completed, and new opportunities achieved, life underwater might not be so bad. Under your leadership, your underwater nation will thrive…and might even develop a taste for kelp after all.
How It Works
Underwater Cities is a worker placement network-building game for one to four players. Players are building their own underwater nation. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.
To begin, each player receives a player board with one brown metropolis, two blue metropolises, and one city dome. Each player also receives three discs (to track turn order and points), a personal assistant, and three tiles (to track which actions they’ve claimed on the board.) The special cards are placed on the board, and the Era I cards are shuffled. Each player is dealt six Era I cards, of which they will keep three. Play order is determined.
On each turn, first the player must discard down to three cards if they have more than three. Then, the player must choose an unselected action on the board (marking it with their tile) and play a card from their hand. If the card’s color matches the color of the board action, the player may use both the action and the card in either order; if the card doesn’t match, it is discarded without effect.
Cards come in several types. There are immediate cards, which provide an instant benefit; production cards, which activate in each of the game’s three production phases; permanent cards, which provide an ongoing discount or benefit; action cards, which can be activated once per era for a benefit; and end-of-game scoring cards, which offer another avenue to score points. As long as the card matches the color, it either grants its effect (immediate cards) or joins the player’s tableau (all other types).
Actions on the board either give players resources (like steelplast, kelp, science, or more cards) or allow players to spend their resources to improve their underwater nation, constructing city domes, buildings, and tunnels to grow their network.
At the end of a turn, the player draws a new card. At the end of a round, player order moves around based on the players’ position on the federation track, and a new round begins.
At the end of each era (three to four rounds of three actions each), there is a production phase, when all of a player’s buildings and tunnels produce resources and points. Then, each used action card becomes available again, each connected city dome consumes 1 kelp, and the current era deck is replaced with the cards of the next era deck. Each player draws three cards from this deck and discards down to three.
The game ends after the third production. Players receive points for their brown metropolis (if connected), their end-game scoring cards, and their cities, as well as unused resources. The player with the most points wins.
Darling, It’s Better Down Where It’s Wetter
I don’t typically like to jump on the bandwagon, and I am usually of the persuasion that older, classic Euros are the best. Yet I also can’t ignore that already in 2019 I have played three outstanding games–games that have utterly wowed me and have the potential to stick around in my collection for years to come: New Frontiers, Pulsar 2849, and now Underwater Cities. And Underwater Cities might be my favorite among those three.
Underwater Cities uses some tried-and-true mechanisms but manages to put a fresh spin on them. I had heard the game compared to Terraforming Mars when I first researched it, and there are certainly some similarities in the tableau building. (I’ll return to this comparison later.) After I explained the rules to someone in my group, he said, “So it’s like Agricola,” and I suppose that comparison is apt in that there are one-time-use worker placement spots, you have a personal player board, and you have to feed your cities. But these comparisons fall short because of the unique twist of Underwater Cities: Brass-style hand management.
In Underwater Cities, every action spot requires the player to expend a card, and if the color matches, you get both things–the space’s action and the card’s. So players are trying to do all they can to make their cards match the actions they want to take, or vice versa. The rules recommend to first-time players that of their six-card starting hand, they should save one card of each color so they definitely have something to play with the spot they choose. And at the start of the game, it’s very easy to find something you can and want to do that will match the color of the cards you have.
But as the game progresses, the decisions get more and more interesting because they become more and more meaningful and grueling.
Underwater Cities benefits from the double tension of worker placement and hand management, and the combination is both fresh and exciting. Players constantly have to evaluate which actions they want to take against the likelihood that their opponents will take those spots. At the start of the game, your path isn’t set so much; you can generally find something you need to do. But later, once you’ve committed to a strategy, it becomes more important to hit the actions you need when you need them, meaning it might be worth it to get the board action you want and throw away a card rather than risk someone else taking the spot you want while you wait for the right color to come up.
Which brings us to the tension of the hand management. At the start of each turn, players must discard down to three cards. Each time a player takes an action, they will have just three cards to choose from. If you have two green cards you really want to keep, that means you won’t have either a yellow or a red card should you choose that color action. Players might draw cards that would be great to use later but aren’t of much use at the moment and have to weigh the benefit of holding a card (which takes up a precious spot in their hand) versus getting cards with lesser benefits that are useful immediately.
When I talk about card draw, I know some readers are probably hearing alarms in their heads, thinking that if luck of the draw figures prominently in a long-form strategy game, it’s not worth it. And for players who only enjoy perfect information games, there might be more luck in Underwater Cities than they can stand. For me, the luck of the draw provides the interest for the whole game: you have a strategy that you want to follow, but you try to tailor it and adapt tactically to the cards you have in your hand. And players are rewarded for contingency planning.
Beyond the baseline luck, though, there are ways to improve your luck. One way is through special cards, which are far better than standard cards but 1) cost an action to draw, and 2) cost money to play (and still have to match the color when played). These cards allow players to have more control over their options by choosing a powerful card to play at just the right time
(and knowing its color). It is costly to acquire and then play these cards, but the results can be amazing.
Another way Underwater Cities mitigates luck of the draw is to allow players to draw more cards. There are spaces on the board that allow extra card draws, some cards give card draws as benefits, and players can add abilities to their tableaus that give them more options. It’s easy to blame a losing game on luck of the draw, but at least in my experience, better players tend to be luckier–they know when it’s worth it to throw an off-color card or to choose an action that offers more card choices. It’s more important to choose the right actions than to always perform a card’s action.
The hand management and worker placement are at the core of how players accomplish things in the game, and they provide the tense decisions, but what makes the game truly special is its tableau building. Immediate cards are one-shots that are discarded after use; every other card type, as long as it matches the color of the action chosen, goes into the player’s tableau. A lot of these actions are fairly standard for tableau building games, offering discounts or special bonuses if a certain thing happens. There are even cards that give players bonuses if their played card doesn’t match the slot of the action they took. These cards help direct players toward paths they might want to pursue, and they also serve to differentiate one player’s game from another’s. Rather than offering asymmetrical player powers, Underwater Cities allows players’ strategies to unfold organically from the cards, and because every card in each deck is unique, tableaus will naturally develop in different and interesting ways.
One of the tableau card types is worth special mention: action cards. Action cards do nothing when played, but they serve as an action that players can activate either through certain spaces on the board or through some cards in later eras. Action cards refresh only during the production phase, so players can generally use them once per era (although some cards modify this). Action cards allow players back-door ways to accomplish their goals or get resources. The interesting thing about them is that players can have only four of them in their tableau, so they have to be choosy about which ones they will keep. But even more than this, when a player adds a fifth action card, they have to discard one, and if that discarded action hasn’t been used yet in this era, the card performs its action once on its way out. This is another ripe decision space for players. Are all the card action spaces on the board occupied but you need to perform one of your actions? You can if you play another action card (you just won’t get to use it again). Because actions are so tight in the game–there’s so much to accomplish and not enough time to accomplish everything–it’s tempting to throw away even nice action cards for the prospect of getting to use their benefits immediately. Timing is important.
From what I’ve said so far, it’s obvious that action spots on the board are often hotly contested, which makes turn order important. In Underwater Cities, turn order is decided by the federation track. Players move up the federation track by cards, bonuses, and a few actions, and the higher they move, the more benefits they receive and the more likely they are to go first in the following round. I like the federation track because it gives players one more place to compete. With personal player boards and no direct conflict, Underwater Cities could easily become a solitary affair. But because of the competition inherent in worker placement and the federation track, players have to keep an eye on what everyone is doing to play well.
Another point of interaction is the special scoring cards. In addition to the powerful special cards that are better versions of what’s in the era card decks, six special cards are placed on the board at the start of the game, which give players end-game scoring opportunities. However, they only score if the player has played them into their tableau, and doing so costs a whopping three credits–something that can be hard to come by in between production rounds. There is also only one of each card available. These can offer a load of points to players who capitalize on them, so it can be tempting to take them early–they can direct a strategy, and you want to make sure no one else takes the card you want first! But the earlier you take it, the longer the card will occupy a slot in your hand that could be used for something else. There’s a tense game of chicken here as players test out waiting or not, but the “special card” action space (there’s only one) becomes more and more contested as the game goes on.
My favorite features of Underwater Cities are the marriage of worker placement and hand management and the compelling tableau building. But these only work because the rest of the game is so competently designed that the management and placement decisions feel important. Players are building up networks of cities and tunnels and production buildings, and they have to manage several competing goals. Expanding into more cities seems like a no-brainer…except that then you need more kelp to feed the cities. You produce more and better stuff when you have two upgraded production buildings in the same city, so that seems wise…except that you are rewarded with more end-game points if you diversify the buildings in each city. Reaching metropolises early using tunnels is great…except that if you expand to them faster than you build city domes, those tunnels won’t provide income. You want to build city domes, as those are what will score you points at the end of the game…but if you construct buildings, you’ll get more resources during the production phases.
These decisions get even juicier when you play on the advanced side of the board. On the advanced side, certain spots are incentivized by offering bonuses when you build there, or offering greater production capacity or additional opportunities to score points. Some spots cost more to place in. The resource management in Underwater Cities is already tense–especially a round or two after a production phase–so players are constantly weighing what they’re able to do, what is beneficial to them, and what spots on the board they might be able to use, in addition to the tension of matching cards and action spots.
If it sounds like there are a lot of decisions in the game, it’s because there are. Underwater Cities is packed with them. Yet for all there is to do, I’ve been surprised by how smoothly the teaching explanation has gone each time I’ve played it. Granted, this is a meaty game: you won’t explain everything in five minutes. But fifteen to twenty minutes has been fairly standard, and there haven’t been a lot of rules questions once we begin. Part of this is due to the relatively simple framework–there aren’t a lot of subsystems or rules exceptions. Another part of this is due to the fantastic graphic design and iconography, which is very clear (even to new players). And cards whose icons are not clear all have a text explanation on the bottom, a boon to new players. And completing the ease of explanation is a good rulebook that is clear and full of illustrated examples.
Underwater Cities is not a short game–it takes a while for cities to develop, and watching your strategy unfold is where the enjoyment is found. A common complaint around engine-building games is that they end too soon–you don’t have a chance to run the engine you’ve built very much. That complaint isn’t true of Underwater Cities. In fact, I’ve heard some complain that it runs too long. In my experience, I think the game length is appropriate. The box claims 40 minutes per person, and in my plays, even with new players, we average around 45-50 minutes per person. That sounds long–especially for a four-player game (which I’ve not yet attempted)–but in practice, because there is so much to think about, there isn’t much downtime.
There’s not really much to say against the game. Yes, the game runs long, but again, it usually doesn’t feel long because it is engaging the whole way through. (At the end of a three-player session, one of the players looked up at the clock and didn’t realize nearly 2 1/2 hours had passed.) Yes, there is some luck of the draw in the cards you receive, but again, better players tend to be luckier, and making do with cards you draw (and deciding when to make your own luck) is a good deal of the fun here.
The components are the one spot where criticism sticks for this game, and even here, I don’t fault the game much. The player boards are on cardstock rather than chipboard, but this is no big deal–chipboard has a tendency to warp, and the cardboard mats lay completely flat. The resource and credit chits are on thin cardboard, and while they do feel cheap if I have a chance to stop and think about it, while I’m playing the game, I’m usually more worried about not having enough of them in my stockpile than about how they sound when they clink together. (I did replace the credits with a set of credits I bought for New Frontiers, and I will likely replace the resources someday with an after-market upgrade, but this is more because I love the game than because it is unplayable out of the box.)
Aside from that, the board and iconography is clear, and lest players be led astray by icons, there is explanatory text on each card that needs it. The artwork is evocative and well done, and while some of it is reused on the cards, there are enough unique pieces that the game isn’t constant deja vu. I like the plastic domes, and while I lack the manual dexterity to be completely pleased with the small discs that serve as the production buildings, they aren’t manipulated much and work fine. That being said, if you compare components to components across games with the same MSRP, Underwater Cities does looks a little shabbier, especially against the bling you get if you back a Kickstarter. I’m assuming at least part of this is due to this being Delicious Games’ first release. However, the gameplay is where this title shines, and I expect to be playing it for a while to come, making concerns about the price moot. I’d rather spend a little more to get an outstanding game than quibble over what’s in the box. And this is an outstanding game. But do know that in this case, you are paying more for the gameplay than for baubles.
I’ve played the game with one, two, and three players, and I’ve enjoyed it at all counts. Having played it at these counts, I wouldn’t shy away from the four-player game, although I might be choosier in the company. (Although analysis paralysis has been less of a concern than I thought, even given my sometimes deliberate group.) The main board is double-sided, which adequately tightens the two-player game, and the solitaire game introduces neutral workers that occupy spaces and are simple to manage. (And the Federation track still matters in a solitaire game: if you don’t move up at all, another neutral worker takes a slot on the board randomly–and usually it will appear just where you don’t want it.) I was initially worried that the solitaire game wouldn’t be as engaging as Terraforming Mars (which I think is the best strategy solitaire game out there), namely because of the lack of asymmetrical corporations. And while I do think Terraforming Mars is a better solitaire game, I hands-down prefer Underwater Cities at larger player counts. Even with personal player boards, it feels like there is more (and more appropriate) interaction under the water than on Mars–there are no take-that opportunities in Underwater Cities, and the worker placement and federation track keep players more focused on other players’ turns. I also find that because of the limited actions and scarce resources of Underwater Cities, even when I’m not as engaged in other players’ turns, I find my own puzzle more engaging under the sea. I can only plan using a few cards, and I have to make contingency plans in a way that I don’t (as often) in Terraforming Mars. In that game, I’m usually impatient for it to come around to my turn again. I’m much less so in Underwater Cities, even though individual turns are around the same length.
Underwater Cities took me by surprise. I was initially scared of long play times and analysis paralysis, but the game is captivating in its decisions, in its trade-offs, in its combos, and in its opportunities for clever play. It is tense and interactive, and despite the long playtime, in my estimation it justifies every minute it’s on the table. It’s true that the components could be improved, and some players will be turned off by the marriage of luck and strategy in a long game like this. But if you like staying true to the course amid the slings and arrows of (less than) outrageous fortune, and if you like managing resources and tableaus, and if you wish your run-of-the-mill worker placement games had a little more comboing goodness found in the best engine builders and card games, Underwater Cities is just the game you are looking for.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Rio Grande Games for providing us with a copy of Underwater Cities for review.