The chief question everyone asks when considering an expansion to a game they like is, Is it necessary? That is, is it something that improves the game enough that they will want to include it every time they play?
There aren’t many expansions that fit this bill, mainly because expansions expand primarily by adding either complexity or superfluous parts, kind of like a director’s cut of a movie. I really like the 7 Wonders expansions, for example, because they add interesting wrinkles to the game. I hardly ever use them, though, because it seems like there’s always someone at the table who is not experienced enough with the game to include them. Fun? Yes. Necessary? Not really.
While I would hesitate to call New Discoveries a “necessary” expansion to Underwater Cities, it does offer a lot of things I like, including some quality of life upgrades, to my favorite game from last year. And perhaps best of all, it includes several elements that I will use every time I play, no matter who is at the table.
First, the quality of life upgrades. In my original review of Underwater Cities, I noted some component niggles with the game: thin player boards, very thin production aids, thin chipboard resources. None of these were game breaking, and I wasn’t as annoyed as some people on the Internet, although I did order some third-party upgrades for the coins and resources because I enjoy the game so much. The expansion goes almost overboard in its lavish upgrade of the player boards. The player boards are now triple-layer chipboard: four boards replace the double-sided boards from the base game, and there are four new double-sided boards to take advantage of the expansion content.
The triple-layer boards are outstanding. They look sharp–there is spot gloss and some other fancy printing tricks to make things pop–and they are very functional. They hold the domes, metropolises, buildings, and tunnels in place, even if the table is jostled. I have noticed occasional warping, but even this hasn’t been bad enough to make the boards spin or to make the pieces fall out of their slots, and the warping has been temporary. The upgraded buildings aren’t held in place perfectly–the second building disc is above the cutout–but even these mostly stay put unless the player is especially clumsy. (To eliminate this possibility entirely, I’ve found these O-rings work perfectly to mark upgraded buildings.)
As for the gameplay expansions, while they probably aren’t “necessary,” New Discoveries gets high marks for including things that don’t need to be separated out and are appropriate to include even for new players–which is the next best thing.
The first of these is the quick-start components. One of the criticisms of base Underwater Cities is that it can last a long time. And that’s true. The quick-start rules remove one round of the game, replacing that round with an asymmetrical start. Each player begins the game with different resources and buildings already in play (drafted in reverse turn order), as well as with a new, unique assistant with an action power and a special ability. Most of these abilities are ongoing–for example, the Architect makes cities cheaper to build, and the Manager allows the player to construct buildings on expansion sites–but the Headhunter has a special ability that activates at the beginning of the game, offering a one-time free play of a special card.
Personally, I love the thought that went into the quick start mode. The resources and buildings seem pretty evenly matched–choosing starting resources is never a slam dunk–and while the assistant powers are wildly divergent, they seem decently balanced as well and really impact the flow of the game. (The solitaire game has a new winning threshold–125 points!–which I have yet to reach.) The quick start is something I intend to use in all of my games from this point forward, because it both shortens the game and offers opportunities for engine-building right from the start.
New Discoveries also includes some new cards, and these are a wonderful addition. First, there are a few new special cards for the 1- and 2-cost deck, and these include interesting abilities (like getting a bonus whenever you use an action card). There are also new cards to go in each of the three normal card decks. The new abilities seem on par with the other cards, but they also offer new opportunities, granting bonuses whenever certain spots on the board are used (incentivizing some less-used spaces) or allowing a player to play an off-suit card on a different-colored space or even giving additional access to the special card deck. Again, these abilities are interesting and fun, but they’re no more complex than the regular cards, so they can stay in the deck from game to game. Finally, there are several new 3-cost special cards, and these “goal” cards really spice up the game. There are new cards that give points, but only if you have the most of some criteria (e.g., laboratories), and there are new scoring parameters to shoot for. Again, these are easy to include with every game, and they are a net gain to replayability.
There are new green metropolis tiles in New Discoveries. These can be used in one of two ways. First, one side of the four new player boards has a very divergent setup, and each player looks at certain metropolis tiles at the start of the game and decides which to keep. The interesting thing here is that some of the boards do not include a brown metropolis spot, and some of them contain multiple places for green or blue metropolises, possibly doubling their output. The green metropolis tiles have powerful abilities–like building a city or two tunnels for free–so even the player boards that lack a brown metropolis are a fun challenge. I love these new player boards, by the way, especially in the solitaire game, but I would say they are even more advanced than the advanced boards in the base game.
The green metropolises can also be used in a new game mode, the “metropolis race” variant. The metropolis race is one of two new game modes that adds increased interaction among the players. In the metropolis race, one metropolis tile of both blue and green is set out per player, plus one, and the first time a player connects to a metropolis, they get to choose any of the remaining blue tiles. The second time they connect, they can choose any of the remaining green tiles.
While I’m not certain I’d use this variant every game–some experience is helpful to know how much you should push it to go for these–I probably will use it if players already know the basic flow. The reason is 1) it allows you to choose which metropolis might be most helpful, rather than sticking with the one you were dealt, and 2) it increases competition and interaction in the game. I don’t think Underwater Cities is multiplayer solitaire–battling for the worker placement spots ensures it’s not–but the added interaction does keep players from focusing too much on their own player boards. In one game, I had my eye on the available metropolises right from the start, so I rushed to complete my connections just to make sure I got the ones I wanted. The metropolises forced me to play more aggressively than I might normally just to make sure I wasn’t shut out of the opportunities I wanted. I like this.
The other module included with New Discoveries also increases interaction. The museum module can only be used with one set of boards (one side of the four new boards), and each player at the start of the game randomly places discovery tokens on their board. Whenever the player builds on the site marked with a discovery, that player gets a small benefit (revealed on the back side of the token) and assigns it to the museum for a special ability. Each ability can only be claimed once, so like the metropolis race, if you have your eye on something you want, you’ll want to rush for the discovery spots early. The first discovery spot is nothing to sneeze at–just some extra card draws–but the abilities get progressively better. The next area gives free production of resources or points, the third area gives a free special card play (from cards set aside at the beginning of the game), the fourth area offers either another brown metropolis (again, set aside at the start) or doubling the scoring potential of a special card or metropolis, or gaining straight points. The best abilities will naturally be taken first, so the museum board offers another race for points, along with another opportunity for victory. (And if you get tired of the side I just described, the museum board is double sided too!)
The museum board seems like a great way to shake up what may be settled strategies in Underwater Cities, and I liked my play with it. However, because it adds more complexity to the game, it’s the module I’m least likely to use in the future. (That being said, it’s interesting enough that I’m glad I have it.) Also worth noting: neither the museum variant nor the metropolis race can be used in the solitaire game (although the new player boards still allow you to use the green metropolises, even when playing solo), which is a little disappointing, although it makes sense, given the competitive nature of those modes.
The main drawback of the expansion is the cost–which is pretty close to the cost of the base game for what, at first blush, may not like much–some extra cards, a few new tokens, and some new player boards. It’s easy to see where the cost is coming from here, though–the triple-layer player boards! And while these player boards are great, I’m not sure they would have lured me to pay full price for this expansion.
Then again, I did pay an additional $30 for upgraded resources, which in no way affect gameplay.
Okay, so I probably would have bought the expansion, anyway. Be that as it may, I understand why lavish component upgrades are included in an expansion, and I’d rather they be there than jacking up the cost of the base game. But it does make me hesitate before giving this a wholehearted “buy” recommendation.
Then again, I like everything that’s here, and I intend to use a good deal of it every time I play (the new cards, the new boards, the new quick-start mode, and–most of the time–the metropolis race). Everything in the box is designed with the longevity of the game in mind. The new modes–the new boards, metropolis race, quick start, and museum–are well conceived and add more interaction to the game for those who want it and unsettle the conventions for the game, which is necessary to keep a game fresh. While I would have liked more brown metropolis tiles, I am content with what’s in the box, and I’m especially content that you can fit the game and expansion in one box–for now (and just barely). All told, if you like Underwater Cities, you are going to want to get this expansion, even though it might hurt to reach into your water-logged wallet to do it.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Rio Grande Games for providing us with a copy of Underwater Cities: New Discoveries for review.