A look at Tyrants of the Underdark, a hidden gem mash-up game that is a mix of a deck-building card game and a folk on a map board game.
This Dungeons & Dragons themed game combines two popular styles of gaming to create something new and wonderful.
Disclosure: Gale Force Nine was awesome enough to provide me with a review copy of this game. Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
What you get with Tyrants of the Underdark from Gale Force Nine:
Tyrants of the Underdark was designed by Peter Lee, Rodney Thompson, Andrew Veen. It features artwork from Steve Ellis. In North America it is was published in 2016 by Gale Force Nine under licence from Wizards of the Coast. This mash-up of deck-building and board game plays two to four players with games taking about an hour to an hour and a half depending on the player count.
For a look at what you get inside the box, be sure to check out our Tyrants of the Underdark unboxing video on YouTube.
The first thing I have to note about this game is the annoyingly sized box it comes in. It’s a long thick box that doesn’t fit well on most game shelves. It doesn’t match the size of any other game box in my collection. While this has no impact on the game itself, I did find it rather annoying.
Inside this larger than needed box, you will find a moulded plastic box insert holding all of the components. On top of this are the rules which are twenty-two pages long including a single page FAQ and seven pages of Dungeons & Dragons Drow fluff, leaving fourteen pages of actual game rules. These rules are very clear, easy to read, and include lots of examples and images of actual game components.
Under the rules, you will find a single cardboard punchboard with a number of victory point tokens, some city control markers and a first player marker. These are nice and thick and well cut.
The main game board is large. It’s a single sided, four-panel, mounted board designed for function over form. Personally, I would have liked to see something more thematic, featuring more Dungeons & Dragons Underdark artwork. There is also a second smaller board for placing the cards on during play.
The game includes individual player boards for each player which have a place to put each player’s draw and discard pile, as well as a short turn summary and indicators on where to place other game components during play. Finally, each player has a large round Inner Circle token where they place cards that they have “promoted” during play.
I was pleased to see a nice thick pad of scoring sheets in the bottom of the box. The number of items included on the sheet is a good indication that this game is a step above most deck-builders in complexity and scoring opportunities.
Next, we get to the cards. There is one large pack of cards that contains all of the standard cards such as the players starting cards (Nobles and Soldiers), the standard cards that can only be bought, etc. Then there are four other packs of cards sorted into what the game calls Half Decks. During setup, you will choose two of these half decks to play with.
The card quality here is excellent both in form of physical quality and design. Here’s where we get to see some of that great D&D artwork. Cards also include a small amount of flavour text, adding to the overall theme of the game. While I would have preferred if the text we a bit larger that’s only due to my ageing eyesight, for the average player it should be fine.
Finally, we get to the miniatures. For each player, you will find five small spy miniatures and a number of shields. In addition, there are a number of neutral grey shields. Now when I say miniatures, I’m not talking like miniature figures you can use when playing D&D, these are more like small replacements for just using cubes or meeples. I doubt many people have bothered to paint these Tyrants of the Underdark miniatures.
The gameplay in Tyrants of the Underdark is a mix of Folk on a Map boardgaming and Deck-Building.
To start a game of Tyrants of the Underdark you first put out the board and populate it with neutral units. The board shows a number of squares representing Underdark locations connected by pathways. Each location can hold a set number of units represented by circles. Some of these circles have a crossed swords icon within them and that’s where neutral units are placed. City control markers are also placed on the nine Drow cities on the map.
The board is divided into three regions and the number of regions in play is based on the number of players. Once the board is seeded with neutral units each player will pick one Underdark location and place one of their units in that location.
Each player starts with an identical set of ten cards, three Soldiers and Seven Nobles. They will shuffle and draw half of these cards.
The card market is created by picking any two half decks (as noted above the base game comes with four) and shuffling them together. From this combined deck six cards are drawn and placed on the market board along with the standard cards that can always be bought.
Each turn, players will play their hand of cards in any order they choose. The initial cards players start their decks with provide one of two resources: Influence or Power.
Influence is used to buy new cards from the market. Purchased cards are placed directly into a player’s discard pile.
Power is used to interact with the board. One point of power will let a player place a new troop on the board, while three power can be spent to banish an opponent’s spy or to assassinate a troop. Assassinated troops are taken from the board and placed into the assassinating player’s trophy area and are worth points at the end of the game. If at any point a player has majority control of one of the Drow cities they take the control token which is worth additional Influence points. Filling every spot on a city gives a player total control, which allows them to flip the control marker making it now worth victory points for every turn they are able to hold the city. Additionally, at the end of the game, each Underdark location they control will give players points with additional points awarded for complete control.
Cards purchased from the market will often provide influence, power, or both. Many of the cards will also have additional abilities. These include the ability to place spies, remove already placed spies to gain some benefit, assassinate troops, move troops, displace troops (replacing an opponent’s troop with one of your own), manipulate the card market, and more.
One particular ability, the ability to promote cards, is worth calling out. This is an ability that allows players to remove cards from their decks and place them onto their inner circle board. At the end of the game, every card you have collected will be worth points, but cards in your inner circle will be worth significantly more.
Play continues until one of the players is out of units to place, or the market deck runs out (we’ve yet to have that second end condition happen).
As mentioned already, players get points for the cards they have collected, areas they control on the map (with bonus points for total control), victory tokens they have collected for controlling cities and for each enemy troop they have in their trophy hall.
The player with the most points wins.
Tyrants of the Underdark is one of the best Deck-Building games I’ve played
I have to admit I’m very late to the game as far as Tyrants of the Underdark is concerned. As I mentioned when I shared my initial thoughts on Tyrants of the Underdark, this was a game I dismissed after first seeing it at Origins Game Fair the year it came out. When I first saw the game it looked like a D&D version of Risk or some other folk on a map-style game.
This was actually one of those games that I had heard about so often that I decided, after far too long, that I had to find out what the buzz was about myself. So on our most recent trip to Origins, I approached Gale Force Nine about getting a review copy and they agreed. Getting the game home I’m sorry to say that even after unboxing the game I still didn’t find myself excited to play it. It wasn’t until I sat down and played the game that I was completely won over.
After just one play I was convinced that this was one of the best deck-building games I’ve ever played. Since then, I’ve played the game many times and my thoughts haven’t changed. Tyrants of the Underdark is a fantastic deck-builder. It’s more than that though, it’s also a really solid area majority game. With this Dungeons & Dragons themed game the designers have managed to take two very different styles of games and mash them together, and somehow make something more than the individual parts.
Some of the things that make Tyrants of the Underdark stick out include:
The concept of half decks to keep the market interesting. By including four different half decks, only two of which you use each game, the game comes with six different possible market decks right out of the box. In addition, there is an expansion pack with two more decks which ups that to fifteen different possible decks. Each of the decks has its own unique twist and each feels different than the rest when used in play.
The promotion system. This mechanic is very similar to the Chambering mechanic in Tanto Cuore which I thought was the best part of that Japanese Maid-themed Deck-Builder. What I enjoy the most about this mechanic is the decision of when to decide to promote a card. By promoting a card it will be worth more points at the end of the game, but then you no longer have that card in your deck anymore. This is much more interesting than the deck culling in other deck-builders where you mainly use the mechanic to just get rid of your low powered cards.
How spies work. Every player in Tyrants of the Underdark starts with five spy miniatures but no way to use them. Once you’ve played once you will quickly learn that all of the cards that manipulate spies do two things. First, they all will let you place a spy in any location. This, on its own, is powerful because you can only place units in areas you have a presence in and spies count as a presence. Second, each card with a spy ability will have a second action that goes off if you remove a spy from the board. The secondary abilities tend to be very powerful, often generating a lot of power or influence or letting you supplant or assassinate multiple troops. What this means in play is that every spy action is a two-step process, first using a card to build your spy network, and then using another card (or the same card once you cycle through your deck) to put that spy network to use.
That leads me to the other thing I really enjoy about Tyrants of the Underdark and that’s how well the mechanics are tied to the theme. I am always impressed by how this card-driven folk on a map game can make me feel like I’m controlling a Drow family. While some of this comes from the artwork and flavour text more of it comes from the actual gameplay. The entire promotion system is very much in fitting with Drow society, as is the agonizing decision of when to promote a particular card. The use of spies to spread control and the feeling of building and using a spy network is right on point in regards to the theme. Assassinations, supplanting troops, all of this fits the Dungeons & Dragons Drow theme perfectly.
Despite all of this praise, the game isn’t perfect. My main complaint with Tyrants of the Underdark is the aesthetic. For one everything is just too dark and the same looking. The player colours are hard to tell apart, the player boards are only separated by a bar of colour. The entire thing is rather drab. The board itself is my biggest complaint in this regard. It’s what kept me from playing this game for so long, as it just didn’t look at all interesting to me. The board is just a dark purply blue picture with a bunch of white boxes and lines on it. I get that it’s the Underdark and things should be dark, but I think they could have done more to make it pop.
The other issues we’ve found while playing Tyrants of the Underdark are issues you will find in all deck-building games. The randomness of the market can mean that some players are presented with better options than others. Also, higher cost cards tend to be significantly better than the lower-priced cards and it’s often the case that players are best off just buying the highest cost card they can afford. Now, this particular problem is offset a bit by the way certain cards combo together and does vary depending on which half decks are used.
Overall, my biggest complaint about Tyrants of the Underdark is that I didn’t dive into this game when I first saw it at Origins in 2016 and that it took me this long to discover this great game.
Tyrants of the Underdark is not only one of the best deck-building games I’ve played and one of the top area majority games I own, it’s also one of the best board games in my collection. I have enjoyed every single game I’ve played of Tyrants of the Underdark and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. While I do think the game could use a visual update, I have no complaints at all about the gameplay which is surprisingly thematic and actually gives you the feeling of running a Drow household.
If you are a deck building fan and you don’t own Tyrants of the Underdark yet you really need to pick this one up. I can pretty much guarantee you will be like me and regret not checking it out sooner. If you like folk on a map area majority games you should check this one out. It’s a unique take on the genre, one that is very different from the most card or dice-driven wargames. If you are a D&D fan looking for a surprisingly thematic board game experience that lets you take on the role of the leader of a Drow household, check this game out. Heck even if you are none of these things, you still should give Tyrants of the Underdark a shot. It’s an extremely solid game, one of the best in my collection.
Anyone who’s been following along for some time should know that I’m a big fan of deck building games in general. Other favourites of mine include Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure and Core Worlds. I would love to know what your favourite deck-builder is. Tell us in the comments below.